Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone – The Duck Test

Alone, I walk the wooded path along the edge of the pond. A light rain is falling, and I am pondering if the piles of wood chips next to the short, whittled stump are new, or if they overwintered under the snow. They look fresh, but being stored under ice tends to preserve freshness. I am about to kneel and administer a sniff test to the chips when a loud voice pulls me away.

Apparently my step towards the stump crossed a line with a dozen mallards who are now announcing their displeasure with a cacophony of alarm calls, and flying from their resting place along the shore to the safety of the still-frozen center of the pond. As if surprised to find the water hard, no sooner do they touch down, all but two take off again, this time for the cover of trees hanging over the far bank, where they disappear into the shadows.

As I amble on, the remaining hen takes a moment to groom,  then both of hen and drake begin the awkward walk back towards their original corner along the ice-free shore. Stopping abruptly after a few feet, the drake cocks his metallic green head to one side. His mate follows suit. I, too, orient my eyes skyward. A bald eagle is banking a circle directly overhead.DSC_0378.jpgThese ducks have good reason to be wary, and they hop, flap run, flap, hop, flap, fly to their safe space, revealing exactly why the move was imperative. While the center of the ice might give them a sense of security from me, to a bald eagle, a duck sitting in the middle of the ice is, well… a sitting duck. The metaphor is mortally accurate.

I suspect the knowledge that a giant eagle flying overhead means danger, is something carried in their DNA, passed down through countless of generations of delicious ancestors, but there is little doubt these ducks have seen a cousin caught off guard and lifted away to the top of a nearby spruce. One need only walk a short distance into the woods at the end of the peninsula to find enough scattered duck feathers to costume Elton John’s next farewell tour.

Continuing my circuitous route around the ponds, I soon flush the same group of ducks a second time—this time to join a group of fifty or sixty others in the delta. I turn my attention to the next pond where a couple dozen common goldeneyes laze about, preening, stretching wings, socializing, the drakes flaunting their handsome tuxedos and dark green iridescent heads with stark white cheek patch and brilliant eye from which their name is derived.

Three merganser hens huddle at the edge of the flock like awkward outcasts at the junior high dance who are both desperate for attention and terrified they might get it.

Unlike the boisterous mallards who beat a raucous retreat every time I get too near, the goldeneyes never move very fast, never sound a loud alarm. Ever aware of me, they coyly slip a little one way, drift a tad the other, always keeping me safely at bay. In contrast to their demure behavior, a pair of kingfishers chatter in from the delta, and land on in a snag along the far bank. Kingfishers do nothing quietly.

One of the fun and challenging exercises in writing about birds is finding original ways to describe their calls or songs. The task is especially taxing when a birdsong comes prepackaged with an easily understood and commonly accepted mnemonic. Any freshman bird watcher can tell you that white-throated sparrows sing “Oh sweet Canada,” and black-capped chickadees call their own name: “chickadee-dee-dee.” These descriptions are so well-known and unimpeachable, what writer would dare attempt improvement?

But with the possible exception of a rooster calling cock-a-doodle-doo in the morning, there may be no more ubiquitous and recognized bird call than the one I hear, yet again, coming from the the small stream on the other side of the pond. No ornithologist is needed to identify this bird. Their voice is so well known, that in my previous mentions of them, I never even bothered describing them. I didn’t have to, because you already know what it sounds like. I am speaking, of course, of the call of the mallard—a duck so typifying of the family that for many people, duck means mallard. Ask any four-year-old what a duck says, and they will tell you: “Quack!”

It doesn’t matter that many ducks don’t quack. The female goldeneyes, for instance, have a call that sounds more like a classic pig grunt, and her impressive male counterpart has a voice reminiscent of certain wood frogs who, incidentally, neither croak nor ribbit. None of this matters to the laity, of course, because we all learned when we were three that ducks quack.

Nevertheless, the ducks I am hearing now are clearly quacking, and I slip around the end of the pond and through the trees to catch a look at them hiding in little stream flowing through last year’s brown, wilted grass. To many folks, the abundance of mallards in every North American neighborhood park with a pond has rendered them rather pedestrian, but to me, the glinting of dawn light on the emerald head feathers of a mallard drake, is as breathtaking an avian spectacle as any other.

Quietly, I crouch between the trees, peering between clumps of grass as one by one, mallards drift into my field of view. When a particularly striking drake appears, I trade binoculars for camera, but the click of the shutter draws unwanted attention, and the tranquil moment is over.

In the midst of all the foot-splashing, wing-whooshing, and quacking, a single voice cuts through. Unlike a mallard, this call is almost ravenesque—hoarse and staccato, yet without being raspy. I stand up just as an American wigeon hen takes wing, following a dozen mallards downstream.

Turning upstream, I see a wigeon drake still swimming contentedly with a couple male mallards who have yet to buy into the hype surrounding my presence. His molt into full breeding plumage is underway, but not complete—his white cap, bright on his forehead is still speckled on top, his green eye patch is yet to form. His black-tipped pale blue beak glows against the copper reflections in the water.DSC_0441.jpgSoon, they too follow the flock downstream, though without all the hullabaloo of the hens. In general, I find drakes to be far less boisterous than hens, perhaps because hens are in the habit of alerting ducklings who might be oblivious to the dangers a man with a camera presents—a responsibility not shared with the drakes.

From my left, I hear wings, and turn to see three more wigeons coming my way—one drake and two hens. Backdropped by lichen-draped Sitka spruce, the scene is perfectly rainforest, perfectly Southeast Alaska, in all ways perfect.DSC_0463.jpgMany a witty fellow has said that “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” To those clever folk, I might respond, what if it looks like a duck, but sounds like a raven, swims like a duck but sounds like a pig, or perhaps, looks like a frog, but sounds like a duck?

Since, fortunately, there are no clever folk here to answer me this morning, I reserve my questions, and alone, walk on through a perfect morning.

What do you think?