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Aythya ferina (L.)
The pochard is a diving duck which occurs all year round, although it is more common as a winter visitor. In winter, they are frequently found in large numbers, often in mixed flocks with tufted ducks and other diving ducks.
Like most duck species, male and female pochards have very different plumages. Males have a striking chestnut-red head and neck, black on the breast and undertail, and pale grey on the back and sides. Females are plain brown, with a paler face and sides. Their bills are dark but with a large band of pale grey across the top. Both show a distinctly sloping forehead in silhouette. In late summer, males moult into ‘eclipse’ plumage, which is a duller version of their normal colouration. Pochard are slightly larger than their relative, the tufted duck, with which they often gather together in large flocks.
Pochard nest amongst thick cover or emergent vegetation along the lake shore, usually laying between 8-10 eggs in May or June. The young hatch after about 25 days and are immediately able to swim and dive. After about 50 days they are able to fly. In late September, large numbers begin to arrive in Northern Ireland from north eastern-Europe. Pochard feed largely at night on both plant and animal food which they obtain by diving, although on Lough Neagh their preferred food is the larvae of Chironomids — the famous Lough Neagh non-biting midges.
Male pochard are very distinctive, and only likely to be confused with other diving ducks in poor light or at long distance. Female pochards require more care although the long bill and sloping head profile helps to distinguish it from tufted duck and other species even at distance.
How to see this species
The largest concentrations of pochard occur at Lough Neagh between September and April. The greatest numbers are along the southern shores, and both Lough Neagh Discovery Centre (Oxford Island) and Portmore Lough RSPB Reserve provide good vantage points. Elsewhere, many of the larger lakes in Counties Fermanagh, Down and Armagh hold smaller numbers of pochard, particularly the Craigavon Lakes and the Quoile Pondage National Nature Reserve.
There is a small but important breeding population around Lough Neagh, which has been estimated as between 30 and 50 pairs. In winter, Lough Neagh is still the best site for pochard in the UK, with up to 7,000 birds. However, pochard have shown a similar dramatic decline at Lough Neagh to the goldeneye and tufted duck. As recently as 2000/01 numbers were more than three times the current level! Upper Lough Erne, where numbers have increased recently, is the next best site with over 500 birds in winter.
The pochard is a quarry species but is specially protected during the shooting close season from to 1 February to 31 August under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985.
Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?
Threats/Causes of decline
Reasons for the decline in wintering birds at Lough Neagh are still unclear, although there are suggestions that climate changes are enabling pochard and other waterfowl to remain closer to their breeding grounds in Europe with the result that fewer migrate to Ireland. Poor water quality affecting their food supplies is another possible reason for their decline on Lough Neagh.
Conservation of this species
What you can do
RSPB Fact Sheet
Eutrophic standing waters Habitat Action Plan:
Crowe, O. (2005). Ireland’s Wetlands and their Waterbirds: Status and Distribution. Birdwatch Ireland.
Kear, J. (2005). Ducks, geese and swans. Oxford University Press.
Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.