Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Anas querquedula – garganey

Anas querquedula

Anas querquedula L., L., (L.)
Family: Anatidae

The garganey is a small secretive duck which lives around shallow water where it feeds by dabbling amongst vegetation. It is a scarce but annual migrant visitor to Northern Ireland and breeds in some years.

In brief

  • Garganeys are scarce migrants, mostly in spring. They can turn up in any area of fresh water, but most are seen in the eastern part of Northern Ireland
  • They prefer marshes with wet ditches and sheltered, shallow water with plenty of vegetation
  • April to early June is the best time to encounter a garganey, when they are passing through on spring migration
  • It is a rare breeding bird, and is declining across its European range
  • The main threat to the garganey is loss of its wetland habitats through drainage or other land use change.

Species description
The garganey is a small duck, adept at hiding away in dense vegetation. Once seen, the males are very distinctive, with a dark purple-brown head and striking white flash over each eye. Their breasts are dark brown but the rest of their wings and body is pale grey, with a black and white wing bar which is obvious when they fly. The females are a more demure streaked brown, but they too have a distinctive head pattern of dark and pale stripes, with a small pale patch at the base of the beak.

Life cycle
The garganey is the only species of duck which is a summer visitor to Britain and Ireland. Most other ducks prefer to come here for the winter. They winter in west Africa before arriving on their breeding grounds in April or May. Britain and Ireland is at the extreme west of their range and the numbers reaching here vary each year. Most of those found in Northern Ireland are birds which have strayed a little too far west, and they only stay a few days. Those that do stay to breed, choose a clump of thick grass or rushes close to a sheltered area of shallow water. They line a shallow cup with leaves, grass and down before laying eight or nine light brown eggs. The chicks hatch out after about three weeks of incubation. The garganey feeds by dabbling — skimming the surface of the water with its beak, or dipping its head beneath the surface in search of any plant or animal material it can find.

Similar species
Garganeys are similar in size and shape to the teal, which is a more common resident dabbling duck. The male’s head stripe makes him unmistakable, but the females require care to tell them apart. Female garganeys are a little larger than teal with a longer, more elegant beak. The striped head pattern and pale patch behind the beak is also unique to the female garganey. In flight, teal have a green and white wing bar, while the garganey’s is black and white. Another useful hint is that garganey rarely ‘ upend ’, whereas teal regularly feed this way.

How to see this species
The best time to see a garganey in Northern Ireland is between late April and early June when they can occur on spring migration. There are usually several records each year and some sites seem to be quite regular spots for this bird. Favoured sites include:

  • Lough Neagh/Beg
  • Belfast Lough RSPB Reserve
  • Quoile Pondage NNR, County Down.

Current status
The number of spring and summer records seems to be increasing, and it is now not unusual for ten or more reports to be received each year. This is despite a significant decline in its numbers across much of Eastern Europe, which is the core part of its range. Breeding in Northern Ireland has been proved only four times, but may have taken place much more often as birds are quite often recorded in the summer months in suitable habitat. Their secretive nature ensures that females and chicks could be easily overlooked.

The garganey is not a quarry species, and is specially protected under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • The garganey is Amber listed in both UK and Irish Birds of Conservation Concern lists because it is such a rare breeding bird in both Britain and Ireland.

It is also listed as a Species of European Conservation Concern, in recognition of an ongoing decline in numbers in its eastern European breeding population.

Threats/Causes of decline
In the past, much garganey habitat has been lost through the drainage of wetlands and marshes for agriculture or development. While many wetlands are now protected, some remain vulnerable to land use change and this remains a threat to this species.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Some sites for this species are designated as ASSIs. Some are also managed by nature conservation organisations such as RSPB
  • Wetland habitats are covered by management prescriptions under the Countryside Management Scheme operated by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
  • Several Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans provide actions relevant to the conservation of garganey habitat.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • The wintering and breeding status of the garganey will be surveyed and monitored and appropriate conservation action undertaken if required.

What you can do

  • Register records of any garganeys you have seen on Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association, Flightline. Tel: 028 9146 7408
  • Farmers and landowners are encouraged to apply for participation in the Countryside Management Scheme and to manage wetlands according to Countryside Management Scheme prescriptions.

Further information

RSPB fact sheet

BTO fact sheet

NI Habitat Action Plans

Designated areas

Kear, J. (2005). Ducks, geese and swans. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database