Spying on Wood Ducks

There is a vernal pond situated in a low spot in the woods behind my house. In the 15 years that I’ve lived here, annual winter snowmelt and spring rains have always replenished it with a fresh supply of sparkling clear water. And every year a pair of wood ducks arrives in early April to set up housekeeping and raise their young. That is, every year except last year.

The previous winter provided little in the way of snowfall and last spring launched a dry spell that turned into a record drought lasting most of the rest of the year. The pond was little more than a mud hole early on and eventually dried up altogether, leaving only a caked depression in the woods. There were no spring peepers, wood frogs, salamanders, or wood ducks that year.

This year’s late winter snowstorm and ample spring rains have revitalized the little pond once again and a pair of wood ducks arrived on Saturday, April 1st. The next afternoon, wood frogs began to chirp their burpy-sounding love calls and once the evening temperatures start to warm up, a chorus of spring peepers will soon complete the ensemble.

The tiny wood duck is one of the most striking North American waterfowl species and they are common in the Finger Lakes Region. The gaudy-looking drake, with his multi-colored iridescent plumage, outlined in white, almost looks like he was hand-painted by an overzealous artist. The female’s colors, except for her distinctive white eye patches, are more subdued but beautiful nonetheless. Both sexes possess a helmet-shaped head crest that is always carried in a relaxed position.

Unlike most waterfowl, wood ducks perch and nest in trees and are capable fliers in the woods. Their webbed feet are equipped with strong claws for gripping bark and perching on branches. They have a preference for wooded swamps, marshes, streams, beaver ponds, and small vernal ponds where they nest in natural tree cavities or those hollowed out by woodpeckers. After hatching, fuzzy ducklings jump and freefall to the ground from heights sometimes approaching 50 feet. Wood ducks typically produce two broods per year.

Wood ducks are timid and will flush and fly off at the slightest provocation, whistling softly as they disappear into the woods. Their flight pattern is much like that of the ruffed grouse, with the ability to dodge and weave between tree trunks and limbs as they depart.

Story and photo by John Adamski

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