Wood Duck Wonders

9 Jan

Wood ducks have always captured my imagination out there.

They’re weird little creatures from the hen’s white eyeliner and mournful cry to the drake’s fantastic colors so easily hidden to the human eye until they explode off the water.

And, they frequent water that holds trout. For an angler they’re often a fulfilling side show to an evening chasing trout.

They nest in trees, and as their populations declined decades ago from the dwindling number of hollow hardwoods in the North Country, they became a cause célèbre for the outdoors set.

Before long the countryside was littered with little boxes nailed to trees for the specific purpose of fooling a hen woodie into mistaking the box for a hollow tree. We’d staple a piece of hardware cloth inside below the fake hole in the tree to help the chicks climb out and we felt good about helping the species.

But there are still hollow trees, and you can count on a woodie hen to find them.

Once, I came home from a trying day at the office to be greeted at the door by a beaming wife who couldn’t wait to tell me about the excitement of the day: A clutch of wood ducks hatched right in our front yard!

From a hole some 30 feet up the tree, they came one at a time plummeting to the ground, bouncing up in the air like fuzzy ping pong balls as they hit. Each was then met by the hen who hurried them into the shrubs by the porch where she would call some more until another came hurtling down to join the flock.

Really? Oh, yes, she assured me. She had the details flat: “There were 12 chicks, and when the 12th one joined the parade, the hen marched them right across the street to the neighbor’s swimming pool where they had their inaugural swim! The whole thing took more than an hour for all the ducklings to get up the courage to make that suicidal leap!”

Last seen, she told me, the wood duck family was marching up the street to the city land that held the water tower and not much else.

I was shocked. Not so much by the vivid recounting of this magnificent outdoor experience enjoyed by my wife and young daughter. No, my real shock came that all the time that was going on I and my full camera bag were 6 blocks away with nothing better to do than edit copy on one of the slower news days of the year.

It was a sore point for some days following that, but Susie has always been supportive of my being out there, and one oversight shouldn’t diminish her many other fine qualities. At least that what she tells me even 30 years later whenever I bring it up…

But there have been other wood duck sightings in which I did participate. Like the spider web event.

It had snowed lightly the night before I found myself floating the Owasco Inlet in Upstate New York. As was my custom, Susie would drop off her car at my take-out point, then we’d drive upstream and I’d launch my little boat, decoys, etc. at the bridge. She’d transfer the truck back to the take-out point and go home.

Not every guy’s wife will do that kind of thing at 4 a.m. on a Sunday; at least that’s what Susie says even after 30 years or every time I bring up missing the great front-yard wood duck hatch.

Any way, that morning, I drifted down to an ox bow bend where I had a farmer’s permission to set up decoys and shoot from his bank. It didn’t always produce great hunting, but that little spot provided some fantastic late-season memories.

That morning was a nice, quiet seat in the outdoors. About 10 a.m. I decided I’d had enough quiet, and picked up to go home. Going home would take me through the black-water swamp that marks the beginning of the south end of Owasco Lake. No matter what the season, it’s dark in there, and in the winter there is usually a pretty well-defined undercut bank in places.

As I was rowing and drifting down the river, I noticed about 25 yards ahead of me a beautiful spider web completely etched in the snow from the previous night. While the snow had all melted out in the open, I thought, here it was left untouched by the warmth of the sun. I decided to row over and get a better look.

As I approached it, it started to move away from me! That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a spider web, but a drake woodie with his top knot all spread out, and its white streaks of feather resembling a garden spider’s nest!

And then there was the disappearing hen event.

I was fishing Fish Creek in Montcalm County, Michigan in the early 1970s. I’d just come home from the service and was enjoying reacquainting myself. Fish Creek was a hidden jewel in those days with a healthy population of eye-popping browns.

I was looking for one of those giants when I noticed a hen woodie coming down the river at full speed, and then seemingly she disappeared. A few minutes later, I noticed her again, this time she flew upstream, outside the streamside brush, banked left and then, as she flew towards me she disappeared again.

She was flying along and went behind a tree and never came out!

When I saw her do it a third time, I lost all interest in brown trout. I got out of the water and crept up the trail until I could see the upstream-side of the tree, and sure enough there it was, about 15 feet up in the air, a perfect hole just the right size for a wood duck nesting box.

I sat down and waited. I didn’t have to wait that long. As the gloaming of dusk was settling into the swamp, I saw the hen coming right down the stream at what seemed to be break-neck speed.

Then, as I watched, she pinned her wings to her body and vanished at full speed into the hole in the tree. I expected to hear her “thunk” on the other side of the tree – it was only about 12 inches in diameter – but I never heard a sound.

How she got her wings unfolded and stopped her momentum, I have no idea. I’ve wondered about it ever since.

The moral of these stories? If you want to see the magic of nature, you can’t sit in your office and expect a call. You have to be out there with your eyes wide open.


2 Responses to “Wood Duck Wonders”

  1. Frances Edstrom January 6, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    Hey How do I get in touch with you two?

    Fran Edstrom

    • arklab2704 January 6, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

      Hi, Fran (I left my Heart in San FRAN Cisco..) it’s easy. davidandsusie.balcom@gmail.com or dhbalcom on FaceBook. I was in your territory last summer, camping with my kids and read your piece on John’s passing. It hit me pretty hard, but I have no excuse for not contacting you after. I wish I had. I liked him so, respected his business acumen so; it never occurred to me at any time that he would go before me. I hope you’re well; I hope you’ll make contact with us. We live in southeastern Iowa — it’s a long, sordid story — but we’re pretty happy, healthy and never-wise.

      I look forward to hearing from you.


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