This is the most challenging time of year for duck watching. But it may be easier than one thinks to bump into a wolf in the forest.

We’ve been exploring the western side of the north-central part of the state, in and around Itasca as far west at Tamarack Wildlife Refuge, where we saw several fine herds of tamarack clustered in the usual low flat areas they prefer.

Duck watching this time of year is very hard. In the beginning of the season the males are in full bloom. Females found near males are almost always of the same species. (Unless the male is a mallard. They do not discriminate.) So you can use the male and female view of the species to narrow it down and it is never hard to identify the ducks. A little bit later in the year there are ducklings with females, and you don’t see the males very often. For some species, the males have gone into the woods. For others, they may have actually started to migrate early. In any event, the females are easy to spot because they are more or less tethered to miniature flocks of miniature ducks, and as they are fully mature females, they look just like they are supposed to in the bird book.

Over time, the number of ducklings goes down, thankfully, or we would be living on a planet with ducks piled all the way to the moon. One might wonder where all those ducklings go. Well, they go here.

By the end of the season, the very small number of ducklings that remain have become “mature” in that they are not any longer dependent on their mothers (or crèche keepers) and are off on their own looking rather adult. But the problem is, they are looking rather adult what? Yesterday we saw a duck alone on a pond in a remote woodland west of Itasca and had a hard time identifying it. The duck was floating around with it’s bill in it’s chest sleeping. After several minutes, he finally woke up enough to stretch his head and we could instantly see that he was a wood duck. Not recognizing a male wood duck may sound rather absurd, and you might wonder why I’m even admitting that. It’s a little like looking up at the night sky when the fully lit-up Goodyear Blimp is going by and not being sure which were the stars and which was the blimp.

But a male wood duck born this year and not yet fully mature almost looks like a female teal or something. Especially when it is curled up on the pond sleeping at some distance.

It happened today again, at a small pond off the main road at the Tamarack Nature Preserve. We think it was a female gadwall (though it looked a lot like a whistling duck), but it did not quite hit all the points. Then we realized …. oh, right. Immature female gadwall duck. That works.

A very large number of nighthawks seem to live among the Tamaracks. We saw no fewer than three flocks, all active mid afternoon.

And back in the dense old growth forest that our cabin is in, but just on the other side of the narrow Lake we are on (Itasca) we came across wolf scat. As I poked at it, revealing a nice piece of enclosed bone, I suddenly realized that it was quite fresh. Fresh enough that I checked over my shoulder.

There were no visible wolves. Just ducks. But then, the wolves are always invisible.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    August 21, 2010

    Nighthawks, somewhat, and their relatives Whippoorwills are down in Wisconsin a quite noticeable amount. Good to see you are getting some there.

  2. #2 Joe Bloggs
    August 21, 2010

    Hi folks,
    Great to hear people are duck watching. They do the same thing where I am on the border of Germany and Switzerland at the Bodensee (Lake Constance)as it is a main migration route to cross the Alps from north EU to south. As soon as the ducks cross the border from Switzerland to Italy, the locals stop watching and start shooting or netting for the freezer. Funny to hear the old Goodyear blimp mentioned.
    Regards JB (LTA comedy site http://www.airship.me)

  3. #3 jim
    August 21, 2010

    Nighthawks and Whip-Poor-Wills are common in the Ozarks of Missouri, but I have never seen either a flock of them, or any daytime activity. This is in thirty plus years of close proximity to them. Both rest during the day and are extremely difficult to see as they roost on branches of oaks and hickories.

  4. #4 Ana
    August 21, 2010

    I’m with jim – flocks of Nighthawks in mid-afternoon??? What’s going on up Nort der???

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    August 21, 2010

    Flocking is less common than flying around mid day. The word “flocking” here should be defined: From a given point we could see three or four dozen nighthawks feeding. They may very well have been acting as individuals, but all in the same place, eating somme flying flock of bugs that we could not see (I would guess something like a dragon fly).

    I’ve seen that sort of behavior many times in the early evening, especially up in Maine.

    The mid day flight is notable and rare. If you read the secondary literature on nighthakws, it says things like “usually” nocternal and crepuscular. I assume that “usually” means that in the harder literature there is evidence of the occassional day time engorgement.

    This is not a case of mistaken identity. The behavior was unusual enough that, even though I could tell in a second that they were nighthawks, we checked carefully.

  6. #6 jim
    August 21, 2010

    I wasn’t doubting you, I was amazed. There has been a lot of dragon fly activity, and that well may draw them out. One thing about whip-poor-wills, they do have an uncanny knack for perching by bedroom windows at night, then letting loose their insane cry.

  7. #7 Rob
    August 22, 2010

    Whistling ducks in Minnesota?

  8. #8 MJ
    August 22, 2010

    A friend of mine linked me to this entry. Said it reminded her of me.

    I live in the Midwest and raise ducks. Domestics, of course – so their lives are somewhat different than those you watch.

    Our family continues to marvel at the social aspect of our peaceful little duck community. Pekins, Rouens, Golden Cascades, and Khaki Campbells.

    One of our old gals is on her third ‘pairing’. She mourns deeply the loss of a mate, and will park her white self in the center of the pond, hoping – we think – to catch the eye of a hawk. For a week, she becomes unapproachable. After that, she keeps herself apart from the rest for months! This spring, she found her new mate (a Rouen) and they are inseperable. We have three mated pairs, at this point.

    Right now, all of our boys have their curled tail-feathers back – but they’re still cross-dressing otherwise. Twice a year, they do this.

    Anyhow – nice to read and know that people out there get into duck watching.