Possible breeding of Blue-winged Teal in Yorkshire


Tophill Low NR had something of purple patch in autumn 2023, as commented on by BirdGuides back in its Review of the Week on 18 December 2023. This was largely in reference to the confiding Black-throated Thrush which straddled either side of the New Year, but also referred to earlier notable records of Barred Warbler and a hat-trick of North American wildfowl – Ring-necked Duck and American Wigeon in October and two Blue-winged Teal which appeared on the evening of 23 August.

Both teal were immatures. One had dark reddish eyes (only appearing reddish when viewed at close range and in good light), while the other had black eyes, leading us to believe that they consisted of a male and a female. The duo frequented the shallow south marshes and occasionally the silt lagoons that operate as part of the Yorkshire Water treatment works process.

As usual, some commentators suggested a cage door had been left open, whereas others referenced what had been a productive autumn for transatlantic vagrants. No images suggested collection rings or feather damage and they remained part of the suite of interest into October 2023, when curiosity of sightings waned and they slipped into obscurity.

They were last seen on 25 November. The entire valley was severely flooded during the winter but the reserve was checked most days and likely areas elsewhere were covered multiple times; it was assumed they had migrated or moved elsewhere.

The two Blue-winged Teal pictured on the day of their unexpected return to Tophill Low in early April (Lee Johnson).


Spring surprise return

With breeding season 2024 in full swing, observers on 4 April 2024 were stunned to look across the reserve's north lagoon and observe a pair of Blue-winged Teal engaged in apparent nesting behaviour. While it cannot be definitively said they were the same birds, it would seem highly likely that one of the autumn pair was a male and, after wintering somewhere else, the birds had returned. The female was seen repeatedly making landfall on a spit which was covered by Juncus and Reed Sweet-grass, and disappearing for periods of time.

A flurry of lucky observers managed images of the birds while being sworn to secrecy by reserve staff. The location was problematic for ourselves as reserve managers, both because of its high footfall location and that it was due to undergo bank repairs during the coming summer. As visitors walked the exposed path, the drake would often alarm call to bring the female out from cover.

We have been unable to find reference to a wild breeding attempt either of vagrants or escapees in the UK, so it would appear we had a first. We found some documented cases of mixed pairings with Northern Shoveler, including some producing hybrid young, but never pure pairs. A drake in breeding plumage would pull in many year listers at the least – and a pair could potentially attract unwanted levels of interest from the wrong sorts. BirdGuides kindly agreed to refrain from broadcasting the birds' presence.

The birds disappeared for two months between early April and early June. Did they attempt to breed somewhere out of view? (Lee Johnson).


Flurry of activity

After receiving advice, we sought to treat them as 'pseudo-Schedule 1' birds and Yorkshire Water colleagues agreed to postpone work. As it happened, the sudden flurry of activity was over within 24 hours. News was suppressed in case they did reappear, but alas they did not. We strongly suspect that they did go on to attempt to nest in the River Hull valley somewhere and we were waiting for the confirmation to come officially or on the back channel from local contacts.  

Then, on 2 June, the pair reappeared again on the north lagoon. A hope that they may linger and possibly rekindle a nesting attempt was again dashed as they flew later in the morning. They are yet to return, but as we're into July, we have lifted the embargo on news and images being circulated.

The pair returned again in early June, which is when this photo was taken (Graeme Brook).

So, did a pair of Blue-winged Teal attempt to breed in East Yorkshire this year? In our view, it's a likely yes. There certainly was a free-flying, presumably wild pair with confirmed breeding behaviour. Success seems unlikely based on evidence this year, with no juveniles seen. However, with luck they may try again next season – and provide evidence of a first nesting attempt for Britain.  

Written by: Richard Hampshire & Lee Johnson

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