Enter … the ‘ood Duck

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.

Wood Duck at Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle

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.

Wood Duck in Seattle

Wood Duck in Seattle Arboretum Lake Washington

Aix sponsa at Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle

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Comments

  1. says

    That’s a stunning bird, a true marvel of nature and the color spectrum. You photos capture the stillness and shimmering aesthetic that you describe so well; thanks for sharing.

    I’ve been to the Doge’s palace too, though I didn’t have a ‘w’ challenged guide. Awesome place!

    • says

      Thanks, Laurence. I spent some of my childhood to Europe but, had never been to Venice. That was my first visit and although I realize it’s insanely touristed, there’s still an inexplicable magic about the setting, isn’t there?

    • says

      Thank you Val. You are in Wales, right? I enjoy seeing images from photographers in your area, because the species variation is so dramatic. Your European Robin, for instance, is magnificent — and so different from the American Robin. Are your swans mostly Mute Swans, or do you get winter migrants, too?

  2. says

    Yes, I’m in Wales.
    It’s a pity that we found each others blogs so late as I used to write about the birds in my area in my previous blog (which was called ‘Absurd Old Bird’.) I’ll soon be reposting a painting – called ‘Flies on Red Waves’ to my current blog along with some stuff about one of our robins, that might interest you. Our robin is also a member of the Thrush family, by the way, but where the actual similarity is, I don’t know! :)

    As far as I recall, the swans here aren’t Mute Swans, I’ll try to find the info about what they are. I keep trying to photograph them but they settle themselves in a field that’s just a wee bit too far for my camera.

    By the way, I know you’ve got and RSS feed for your blog and email for your comments, but do you have email subscriptions here for your blog posts? If so, where can I sign up for it? I rarely go to my feed reader now and keep missing your posts.

    • says

      Val, sorry for the delayed reply. And thanks so much for pointing out the missing option to subscribe by email.I’ve just added it to the top right column. Give it a go and let me know if you have any trouble subscribing that way.

      I love the title of your old blog, “Absurd Old Bird.” I’ve been ruminating on a blog name-change myself — eh, any ideas? — so I’m obviously drawn to the ones that suggest something as colorful as that one.

      After I read this comment, I did a quick Google of swans in Wales and saw mention of Whooper Swans. Are those among the ones you see? What lovelies!

  3. says

    Yes, I think they are Whooper Swans, at least they are the ones that are most often spotted near us. There are quite a lot of them in the flock. They usually touch down near The Severn and sit in nearby fields – eating what, is anyone’s guess. What does a swan eat in a field?

    Thanks for adding the email subs, I’ve subscribed so will see if your posts appear for me!

    If your readers are used to the name of your blog it’s usually best to leave it as it is. Otherwise… something bird or wildlife orientated? I usually go for puns or word combinations – apart, that is, for my art blog as it seemed best to have my name in the title. Could you use your own name? That way you’d get recognised for your original photography.

  4. Stella says

    I was just at the Arboretum a few days ago and saw a wood duck (maybe the same one)! I shared your excitement in seeing him. Gorgeous bird. I was even more thrilled when my “Wood Duck Arboretum” Google search brought up this post, we shared an experience you and I! And you took photos!!!! Thanks!

    • says

      Stella, I’m so glad you stopped by … and thanks for another nice comment. Isn’t it spectacular when they come into view? The day I took those photos, I was just marveling over the duck, when a parent with two small children walked up. I pointed out the Wood Duck and how different he was from the nearby Mallards. They had absolutely no reaction. I thought for sure this vivid color wheel of a bird would grab their attention. Well, some people just don’t know what they’re missing. :)

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