Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Aythya ferina – pochard

Aythya ferina

Aythya ferina (L.)
Family: Anatidae

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.

In brief

  • As a breeding bird the pochard is mainly restricted to the Lough Neagh area
  • It is more common and widespread in winter, and Lough Neagh is by far the most important site
  • It is generally found on fresh water, preferring larger lakes with shallow water
  • The pochard is Amber listed in both UK and Irish Birds of Conservation Concern because of the internationally important wintering population in Northern Ireland
  • Threats to the species include poor water quality affecting the pochard’s food supply.

Species description
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.

Life cycle
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.

Similar species
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.

Current status
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?

  • It is an Amber-listed species in the Ireland and UK Birds of Conservation Concern lists for the following reasons:
    • Rare breeding bird in Ireland
    • Internationally important numbers wintering in both Ireland and UK.

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

Current action

  • The most important wintering and breeding site for pochard (Lough Neagh) has been designated as an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA);
  • Most key sites are surveyed each winter by a combination of conservation bodies and volunteer counters as part of the nationally co-ordinated Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS).
  • The Eutrophic Standing Waters Habitat Action Plan provides a range of actions relevant to the conservation of pochard habitat.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Pochard numbers at the most important sites will continue to be monitored through WeBS surveys, and appropriate conservation action undertaken, if required.

What you can do

  • Volunteer as a Wetland Bird Survey counter by contacting EHS or RSPB
  • Report incidents of illegal shooting to PSNI or EHS
  • Avoid disturbance to wintering duck flocks.

Further information

RSPB Fact Sheet

BTO Fact Sheet

Wetland Bird Survey

EHS report on Lough Neagh diving ducks

Eutrophic standing waters Habitat Action Plan:

Designated areas

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.