A Beautiful Little Duck

After years of observing and photographing natural events, I’ve learned one thing for certain: opportunities must be seized, because “next time” is wishful thinking in the context of a lifetime. Twenty four years ago we had a 43 inch snowfall in March.  A similar event occurred this year, blanketing the region with about three feet of snow. Since the Spring migration was underway, there was a unique opportunity to learn about the response of wildlife to deep snow, freezing temperatures and frozen surface waters in late winter. When travel advisories were lifted, I began searching rural areas, farms and aquatic habitats in an attempt to capture the moment.

One of my discoveries was the presence migrating waterfowl in small streams and wetlands that were ice free. Wood ducks were in the mix and became my subject of interest.

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The unique beauty of a male Wood Duck has universal appeal. Artists, photographers, nature lovers – all treasure the moment when a drake presents himself in full breeding plumage!

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Wood Duck foraging along the banks of a small stream

By late March, most of the snow had melted and a new and exciting landscape appeared. The vivid scenes with brightly colored ducks and snow were gone, but aquatic habitats were fully charged with melt-water and primed for breeding pairs to explore and occupy.

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Photos by NB Hunter, March, 2017. © All Rights Reserved.

Spring Scenes and Winter Landscapes

A rainy, overcast day with dirty snow and mud seems like a good time to reflect on the month of March and illustrate early spring in Central New York. I’ll emphasize wet places and some of the birds that frequent them.

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Hooded Merganser

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Canada Goose and a pair of ring-necked ducks

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Canada geese grazing in a farm field

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Killdeer grooming at a spring seep

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A pair of mallards under the reflection of deep snow

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Great Blue Heron over ice and Canada geese on open water

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A solitary Snow Goose in a flock of Canada geese

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Migrating snow geese above farm fields, refueling on waste grain

Photos by NB Hunter, March 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Canal Waterways and Resources

Many of my posts are linked, directly or indirectly, to the elaborate water transportation system engineered in New York State in the 19th century. The network of canals, reservoirs, feeder canals and associated wetlands that once transformed the movement of coal, agricultural products and people across New York and Pennsylvania are now critical wildlife and outdoor recreation resources that define the Central New York region.

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Wood Duck on the Chenango Canal

A small section of the Chenango Canal (originally a 97 mile long feeder to the Erie Canal that operated from 1836 to 1877), has stood the test of time. It is now listed on the National and New York State Registry of Historic Places. The massive, chiseled stones in this aqueduct provide a vivid historical perspective: Immigrant workers from Ireland and Scotland, aided by mules, oxen and horses, built the entire canal by hand. At the height of the construction, there were 500 laborers per section, toiling for $11.00 a month.

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The remains of a 19th century aqueduct on the Chenango Canal

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Waterfowl on the Move

There are now Canada Geese, resident and migratory, on every puddle, pond, lake and wetland. Their favorite feeding grounds are harvested corn fields near open surface waters.

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Canada Geese and other waterfowl on Woodman Pond

Geese aren’t the only waterfowl species enjoying the ice-free water.

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Common Merganser, males

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Common Mergansers, male and female

Yesterday, a flock of nearly 100 migrating Snow Geese chose to work the corn stubble and refuel, rather than battle strong, cold wind and snow. SnowGeese5Apr14#021Ec3x5 SnowGeese5Apr14#049E Snowgeese5Apr14#061Ec8x10

My favorite waters this time of year are small streams; tree-lined, canal waterways; and swamps. They’re usually quiet, off the beaten path, teeming with wildlife, and provide more photo ops within reach of my modest gear. Wood Ducks are cruising around in these places now, thinking ahead to the nesting season.

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Male Wood Duck, one of several on the Chenango Canal

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Birds at the Marsh

Tall cattails, small, weedy ponds choked with lilies and an old beaver dam characterize a local wetland that I often visit in the morning. Like most healthy wetlands, it is teeming with life and full of surprises!

A flock of Cedar Waxwings, perched briefly on a snag at the edge of the beaver dam; they were feeding on air-borne insects above the adjacent pond.

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Cedar Waxwings

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Cedar Waxwing

I was set up in the woody shrub thicket colonizing the inactive beaver dam, in the midst of a family of Song Sparrows. This one was a bit upset with me, but not to the point of leaving its perch.

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Song Sparrow

The main attraction at the marsh has been a family of Common Gallinules. They’re fascinating, chicken-like, aquatic birds that like the dense cattail marsh and weedy pond habitats for feeding, nesting and raising their chicks. I prefer the Old World name, Moorhen, which was discontinued in the U.S. in 2011 in favor of Gallinule.

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Common Gallinule, adult

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Common Gallinules, adult and chicks (grooming)

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Gallinule family retreating into the cattail marsh after feeding in open water.

Dressed in brilliant spring breeding colors, the male Wood Duck is one of the most popular subjects for photography and art in the world. In summer however, it looks much like the female Wood Duck, adorned in what is called “eclipse” plumage.

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Wood Duck, male, eclipse plumage

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.