Feathers of our Lives

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Wood ducks are one of the harbingers of seasonal change at Heiser Hollow. We start seeing them about the time the pond melts in the late winter, and then after disappearing for the summer, a few of them return in the fall. I think most of them must be migratory. Some of them are regulars during the summer, hanging out along a secluded bend of the creek that borders the northern edge of our place, but we usually only see them in front of the cabin during migration time.

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Careening out of the early morning sky like so many feathered bowling balls, they somehow manage to make a graceful and relatively quiet landings. Punctuated by the quietly piercing upward jeeeb call of the drake, the ducks, which usually arrive in pairs of 2-8 birds, dabble around the pond, grazing around the edges of the pond, sometimes walking several feet out of the pond, and hurriedly by silently scooting across the center of the water.

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They also hang out in the trees surrounding the pond, sometimes roosting within site of it for several hours.  They are brilliant fliers, much more adept at zipping around trees than are their larger mallard cousins.   Masters of the vertical take off and landing, the former typically accompanied by the teeWEE alarm call, they can run rings around geese (which we haven’t see this year). In spite of their obvious comfort with heights, there is something a bit disconcerting about seeing ducks in the tree.  They have claws on their webbed feet and they can land on the side of a tree trunk.

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Whenever the ducks are on the ground or water, it seems to be a subject of interest for our local hawks—or at least those that are equally comfortable in arboreal settings. This afternoon, I watched a red tailed hawk, frequently seen checking out our pond and woods, sail 40 feet over the top of 4 wood ducks and land in a tree just beyond the dam. When shooting most of the duck shots in this blog entry, leaning out our bedroom window, a young cooper’s hawk shot right over the top of the cabin, swooped low over some dabbling woodies, and perched on the far side of the pond, bright yellow eye of prey keenly interested.  Although the wood ducks are always watching, and fly at the least sign of danger, they evince no fear of birds of prey.

 Immature Coopers Hawk

While the majority of our anatine visitors only seem interested in a meal and snooze, a couple times every spring, one or two pair suggest that they might be sticking around for the summer.   A pair of wood ducks can get very frisky, and spend an hour tightly circling the pond, weaving in and out of the tree tops, quietly screeching, as only wood ducks can do. I once found a small, dark yellow egg lying alongside the pond, apparently a premature and inconvenient arrival.  For the last three years, we’ve had a duck nest box hanging over the pond.  Although it has apparently raised several generation of screech owls (even more elusive than the woodies), only once did a see a wood duck hen fly into it and check it out.  For a brief 10 minutes, I thought we might play host to a family, but something about it just wasn’t what they were looking for. It never seems to be.

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Earlier this month, I really thought that a pair would setup housekeeping with us.  Arriving early one morning, without a larger flock, they very quickly took to the trees, never sitting in one spot for long. The drake flew on top of a broken stump of a red maple limb, right outside my office, and began gently encouraging the hen to join him.  Last spring, that hollow and cracked branch had providing a nesting site for a litter of squirrel pups.   The male called, whinnied, pleaded, looking alternatively lonely and encouraging.  The hen flew up next to him.

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He flew to a nearby branch on another tree, continuing to whicker at her, while she carefully inspected the site.

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They flew around the pond, landed on some other trees, checked out a big knot on the side of a sugar maple, and then she returned to the broken limb. She sniffed it carefully.

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She experimented with a landing at the base of the broken limb. 

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She tested the route between bedroom and kitchen, to see how long the trip would be.  She discussed the local school system with the drake while they tried to envision how easy it would be to avoid predators.

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She tried the nest on for size, roosting in the hollow space for at least 10 minutes. 

By that time, and all of these photos were taken of the same pair of ducks during a 40 minute period,  I was very hopeful that they’d decide to stay.  I was already envisioning our being able to watch (and photograph) the entire cycle of wood duck life, envisioning fluffy little ducklings following their mum around around our pond.  But something about it just didn’t their (or probably her) standards.  They decided that this particular nesting site wasn’t all that it was ducked up to be, and they flew off, never to return. Or maybe they did, but that was the last time I saw any of the ducks roosting in that spot.

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Our little half acre of woodland water is probably a better for resting than for roosting—at least from the point of view of a wood duck. While the pond is surrounded with the homes of countless ground hogs, multiple squirrels, robins, orioles, sometimes a pair of buzzards, and one very territorial pair of eastern phoebes, Aix sponsa is particularly shy.  At this time of year, just opening my office door and walking out onto the cement pad is likely to result in the alarm call, as one or two pair of hidden ducks quickly depart.  A midday delivery from Ron the mailman immediately results in a wood duck exodus. It would be nice to think that they could build a home within site of ours, but they are just too shy for it.

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Notes on photography: Nature photography isn’t really my specialty area, and photographing wild animals is just not something I have much patience for. Sitting still for hours at a time to shoot something, with camera or gun, is just not how I’m wired. Yet we are surrounded by nature, and a constant parade of animals, so earlier this year, I supplemented my Canon 7DII DSLR with Sigma’s new 150-600mm telephoto. Together, the lens/camera combo tops the scale at a sobering 7 pounds, which is a lot of weight to hold steady, especially when the tiniest motion of such a long telephoto can blur the image. It does have an image stabilizer, which helps a lot. I quietly slid down the lower half of the window, and rested the lens on it. To keep from startling my subject, I set the camera in a special mode that keeps the shutter quiet. It was a bright and sunny day, with harsh beams of light shining through the trees, making a very contrasty light source.  I’d been shooting at a relatively high ISO in order to keep the shutter speed up close to 1/1000, but I was afraid that with such high-contrast light, higher ISOs would result in either burning out the highlights, or losing the shadows. When the hen turned toward the sun in the shot immediately above, her wing bar lit up an iridescent blue that I’ve never seen on a female woodie.  At that point, I had the sensitivity set at what I’ve found is relatively low for this telephoto, at ISO 500. At 562mm, just shy of full extension, and shooting wide open at f/6.3, there wasn’t much depth of field to be had. While it did a nice job of blurring out the background, it also meant that by focusing on the drake’s bright red eye, I’d thrown the front of the hen slightly out of focus.  The moment didn’t last long enough for a second chance.   I like how it turned out, but I’m still learning what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to use with this honking big bird lens.  All of the above were shot in camera RAW and processed with Adobe Lightroom.

2 Responses to “Feathers of our Lives”

  1. Cassandra Paul Says:

    These are beautiful shots of Wood ducks! Do you ever sell any of your prints? Also, please do not think I am criticizing your photos, but in a couple of the shots of the male on the tree stump the shadows almost look as though he is wearing a plaid shirt! PLEASE….do NOT interpret this as a complaint. I have yet to find an Wood ducks in the wild in my area (SW OH…..only at zoos). Thank you for your time and for sharing such wonderful photos of these beautiful birds, Cassandra

  2. David Heiser Says:

    Hello Jay.

    Is your father’s name Arlan?

    Was his father’s name Elmer?

    My father’s name was Bruce and I think I’m your father’s cousin.

    If so, it’s good to meet you. I have a small stack of old family photographs that I would like to share with other Heisers. They go back several generations.

    Do you know how to contact Mike or Richard Heiser? If I send the pictures to you, can you pass them on?

    I like your photography. And your father’s photography, too.

    Are your parents doing OK?

    Hope to hear from you,
    David Heiser
    760-703-3027