Photographing wood ducks.
“Patience is a virtue.”
“All good things come to him that waits.”
“The patience of Job.”
I am very familiar with these old maxims, and their advice is good, but I still think that having to wait for 58 years is a bit much. For what did I have to wait 58 years? Therein lies the tale I’m about to tell you.
It was in the spring of 1945. I had just purchased my first Alpa 35mm through-the-lens camera. Because of Art Wilkins and the photographs he had taken of my fox pelts, I had purchased a Kodak 35mm camera the year before. Within just a few months I knew that this camera, with a fixed lens, would never do the job for me. Wildlife photography usually requires the longest lenses possible and that’s why I had chosen an Alpa 35mm camera with a 500mm lens. And it was because of Art Wilkins that I was now sitting along the bank of the Delaware River on May 19th getting a crick in my neck from staring up at a cavity about sixty feet above the ground in a huge sycamore tree.
Art and I were good friends and we trapped together for muskrats in the winter. His home was on the Delaware’s riverbank and the sycamore was in his backyard. For the past couple of years, Art had watched a female wood duck fly in and out of the cavity where she had her nest. The male would sometimes perch on a nearby tree limb while the female slipped into the cavity to lay an egg. At other times, while the female flew into the hollow, the male would just fly right on by. Art could usually tell when the female started to incubate the eggs because, when she did so, the male stopped coming in. The incubation period for wood ducks is 28 to 30 days and the female usually keeps the young in the nest for at least one more days to make sure that all the eggs that are going to hatch have a chance to do so.
Knowing the above, we had calculated from the last day that Art had seen the male, that TODAY was the day the little wood ducks should leave the nest. You would think that a sixty foot fall would kill the young ducklings, but folks who have witnessed it have stated that they just bounce when hitting the ground, evidently none the worse for their drop to the ground. You noticed I said “folks who have witnessed it,” because I didn’t. The only thing I did get that morning was the crick in my neck about which I already told you. Either the ducks had left the day before, or perhaps they left the following day, but I saw absolutely no sign of a duck that morning. And that morning was the only time I could spare. I was working on the family farm back in 1946 and really didn’t have the time to be watching for ducks.
In 1970, I had a ¾ acre pond built on the property on which I now live. To encourage the wood ducks to use my pond, I put up eight wooden nest boxes for them. Some have rotted apart over the years and I have added additional boxes. Today I have ten boxes up with two more in need of repair. Over the years, the ducks have used five boxes at the most and usually just three. Although nest boxes are needed by the wood ducks, what really attracts them to my pond is the bucket of corn that I have put out, or had put out, every day since the pond was built. Even in the winter, when the wood ducks have gone, I throw corn out on the ice because the mallards come in year round. No critter, including us humans, can pass up a free meal.
Writing this column has made me curious. Over the course of the last 34 years, or approximately 12,410 days, I have put out a lot of corn for those ducks. On average, I feed about eight quarts per day and I just went out and weighed that amount of corn; it weighs a little over twelve pounds. That’s 148,720 pounds of corn, or 75 tons, over a 34 year period, or roughly two tons per year. I’m paying nine dollars a hundred pounds for shelled corn now so it cost me roughly a dollar a day or $12,410 to feed those ducks over the years. Has it been worth it? You bet it has! I’m just thrilled to see the ducks circling over the pond. I love watching them set their wings and splash down. The prismatic iridescent beauty of the wood ducks is beyond my ability to describe. I have been rewarded with photography that is beyond calculation. They are my version of Chartres’ stained glass windows floating on my pond.
Over the years, I have tried to photograph the baby wood ducks jumping out of the nest boxes. My biggest problem is that I’m usually gone on a trip somewhere at about the time the ducklings hatch. About five years ago, my wife and I were ready to leave on an extended trip and had the car and trailer loaded to go early in the morning. I carried the corn down to the pond and noticed a female wood sitting on the top of a box, her head bent down near the opening, calling. I realized that she was trying to call the young from the box. I threw the corn in the pond, dashed up and told my wife that we couldn’t leave right then as I wanted to try for the ducks. Grabbing a camera and a blind, I set it up. Of course the duck had flown off when she first saw me come down to the pond. Noting the new blind as she flew over the area, she just would not come back. I sat in the blind until noon with no luck, and then admitted defeat, packed up my gear and left on our trip.
This year, 2004, we had no trip planned and I was determined to try for the ducks again. Three boxes were being used, but I did not want to disturb the ducks to see when the ducklings hatched. However, a duck always flew out of one of the boxes when I threw the corn in the water. I knew that some ducklings from other boxes were already out because I had seen them. The females do not keep their ducklings on my pond as there is not enough emergent vegetation for them to hide in, the deer have eaten it. So as soon as the ducklings are out of the box, the females take them down to a nearby swamp where cover is plentiful.
When the duck flew out of the box one Saturday morning, I got my camera and got into my permanent blind. After about an hour, a female wood duck flew up on the box and craned her neck down to the hole. When she did, I saw what appeared to be a duckling’s head pop into view and then disappear. I was elated! Perhaps this time I was finally going to get the ducklings coming out.
The day was hot, and sitting in the metal blind, I was sweltering. I took off my shirt, I took off my shoes and socks, I rolled up the legs of my jeans above the knee– and still the sweat poured off. At 11:30 the ducklings still hadn’t come out. I called my wife on our two-way radio and asked that she eat her lunch and then come take my place while I ate and had my nap, and that’s what we did. At 1:30 I was back in the blind until supper time when my wife again kept watch while I ate. Then it was in the blind again for me until dark. Nothing. When I got my gear up to the house I popped the cassette out of my camera and put it in my video deck. I just had to see what I thought I had seen in the morning. I really had seen something, but it was another female duck’s bill and not ducklings. The brooding female was defending her nest against the other hen, trying to dump an egg in the box. In the more than twelve hours my wife and I had been in the blind, we had gotten video of other woodies, mallards and geese, but not ducklings.
Right then and there I vowed that each morning I’d wear my hip boots when I fed the ducks, and when the female flew out, I’d open the box to see if her eggs had hatched. This I did, day after day, for over two weeks until one morning when I went down to feed the ducks their daily allotment of corn, the female did not fly out of the box when the corn hit the water. I looked inside, No ducklings, just eggs. I told my wife that I thought the duck had abandoned the nest; the eggs must have been infertile.
The next morning when I threw the corn in the water, the hen jumped out and swam away. She had never done that before, she had always flown out and away. I hadn’t worn my hip boots that day because I was sure the nest had been abandoned, but it hadn’t been. Getting my boots, I waded out, lifted the lid on the box and peered in — on a boxful of black fluffy ducklings.
Five minutes later I had my camera set up in my blind and ten minutes after that the hen flew into the box, only to reappear about five minutes later. This time, however, she sat in the opening and extended her neck as high as possible to allow her to see behind the box.
She looked and she listened. She was in no hurry; she wanted to be sure that no danger lurked nearby. Then she flew down to the water and gave a short “come out” call I had never heard before.
Like popcorn spilling out of the popper hopper, the little balls of fluff clambered up the inside of the box and, without even saying “Geronimo,” barreled out into the water below. The female kept calling until she had all thirteen ducklings out of the box. As soon as the ducklings hit the water, they started to feed on tiny water insects, and one climbed up on its mother’s back. When, in response to her calling, the female heard no answering call from the box, she gathered her brood together and convoyed them across the pond, climbed up over the bank and they were gone to the nearby swamp.
It has taken me 58 years and over $12,000 to get video footage and photos of a sight I had never seen, that most folks will never see. Now I want to get my video footage out so I can share it with the whole world. These pictures are to give you folks a sneak preview of one of my greatest personal moments witnessing nature.
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III