One experience can change a word forever. This experience took place in Venice years ago, on a guided tour of the Doge’s Palace. Our lovely guide, who couldn’t have been more enthused about his subject matter, simply could not pronounce the letter “W.” So, we took note of the palace’s ‘ooden beams, the historic ‘ooden boats, and the ‘ooden prison stalls.
CUT TO: Seattle Arboretum 2012
There’s an area where the resident Mallards like to preen, in part because it’s a sweet and easy slope back into the lake, and in part because [although it's not condoned], visitors sometimes stop with duck food at various spots along the way. The Mallards are on alert for potential handouts, so the sight of a human through the thickets sends a snack-alert signal through the community.
** My wildlife hospital training ingrained in me, the importance of not habituating birds. So, I don’t bring food. And there are plenty of natural sources for the ducks. **
I scan the bay with my telephoto, seeing a few Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers dipping for food in the distance. Otherwise, the waters are placid, breakfast is over. I hunker down with the Mallards for a bit of sun and quiet. The light is awesome: amber/golden in the way Seattle light is when the sun breaks the rains. Each Mallard who slips back into the bay, sends taffeta ripples through the pond.
An hour later, stage left, in my periphery and into the sun, a particularly vivid drake Mallard swims into this lusciousness. I train my lens on him and am surprised to see instead … the face of a Wood Duck … I mean ‘ood Duck (Aix sponsa). I haven’t seen a Wood Duck at this location yet, let alone a Wood Duck who doesn’t mind paddling in open waters with a camera pointed at him. He dips his bill in the water and his reflection beams back at him. I wonder if on this glassine pond, he can see how handsome he really is.
I snap a few shots then send a quick text to Hugh: “Stellar view of a male ‘ood duck!”
Like many other birds of stunning plumes, Wood Ducks were once hunted to near extinction. That, combined with habitat deforestation almost wiped from the earth this model of nature’s perfection. Wood Ducks, as their name suggests, thrive in woodland areas along waterways and wetlands. The Migratory Bird Treat Act and the installation of Wood Duck nesting boxes helped these ducks recover from the brink. If you’ve ever built or helped install a Wood Duck nesting box, you know there’s a near science to the construction and placement which makes some boxes more preferable to Wood Ducks than others. Rough-cut lumber (for interior traction) and predator guards are among the things Wood Ducks prefer when house hunting.
What I like most about Wood Ducks is their furtive, forested behavior. Although I’ve seen photos of Wood Ducks sitting on bird feeders, most of the Wood Ducks I’ve personally seen are dabbling in the shade of tree overhangs, staying true to their woodland inclinations, steeped in the mystique of shadowland birds. I’ve heard hunters talk about their disdain for wood ducks, because they won’t decoy and they won’t respond to calls. I admire that quality in the same way I admire how a cat looks the other way and grooms her toes when you call her.
That’s what makes an ‘ood Duck encounter like this one stellar to me. It’s unprovoked, unexpected and then, so mind-blowingly beautiful when it happens. It’s all I can do to keep from fawning over the bird as I watch his colors and textures change with each turn against the sun. I try to keep my comments on the QT unless I know I’m absolutely alone. But once in a while, I’ll slip. I’ll say something like “look at you, you gorgeous thing,” and then turn around to see who might have heard me — and who would have concluded I was either nuts or Narcissus, admiring my own reflection in the pond.