In February, when the hunter’s guns are cleaned and returned to the gun case, ducks grace my fields. Of course there is more to it than that. By this time of winter it seems that rain water has run out of places to go. The earth is saturated, the river banks are full, (In some places, spilling over.), and being that we are near ground zero–mere feet above sea level–our fields fill up to create a small lake. So, until the tides return and allow the trapped runoff to exit our dikes; it is duck paradise.
For me, they are a bright spot within the gloom of so much rain. Typically, I see them from a distance as they pond hop from one ephemeral pool to the next. Today, however, I walked out under the cover of darkness and crawled into a thicket of shore pine and canary grass.
Initially, my goal was to take some photographs for this post. Settling in, literally kneeling in the water as my legs cramped, I waited for the birds to return. At first, most kept to the open water fringes of the hay fields and avoided the forest edge where I was hiding. In the growing light, I could see Northern Shoveler, Mallard, and American Widgeon. A few widgeon, like those pictured above, ventured out in the open water and within range of my lens. It’s fascinating how the different species of ducks behave in this habitat. I never realized how much they specialize in their feeding.
Specifically, the widgeons tend to peruse the shallows in an active criss-cross pattern. Their necks arched with head and bill pointed downward as they scan the water. When something catches their eye, they plunge their heads underwater and pop back up just as quickly. Whereas the mallards and shovelers dabble for a longer period of time, their rear ends exposed like a fishing bobber. Later on, flocks of Northern Pintail landed near the green grass and mostly stuck to that depth. Seemingly, preferring the terra firma, fresh grass, or exposed earthworms.
Surprisingly, all these waterfowl spoke in a very different voice. Only the Mallard says, Quack! The widgeon has a short whistle, which it peeps repeatedly as it fusses about with its neighbors. Mallards also like to quack in succession. Kind of nag nag nag tone to their call. There were too few shovelers to distinguish from, yet I think the Northern Pintail makes a soft, curt whistle that sounds like pert . . . pert.
I wonder if ducks are bi or trilingual? There was such a constant chatter. Do they understand only their own kind, or is it all Duck talk with differences in dialect. On the simplest level, I guess they waddle and paddle around saying Hi, food, or fly! Yet perhaps there is more content like, Hey, get off my webbed foot! That’s my worm! Or, You look lovely this morning. The grey sky really brings out your eyes.
I don’t know, but now I understand more about the alighted wings that spring forth and return to my fields, I find value in the small specs darting across the temporal lake, and I appreciate the seasonal standing water. A farm is very much a living thing. Year round it opens its doors. No, I can’t charge these U-pickers. Their value is priceless and buried deeply. No tool, tractor, or implement can dig up the reward. Only curiosity, patience, and a willingness to get your feet wet will suffice.
You can have gander at all these sounds and images on YouTube: