Archive for the ‘Hollow Pleasures: weekending in the country’ Category

Ohio Chameleon

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

We often hear treefrogs at The Hollow, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one. At least, not until last weekend.

I looked down in the grass, and saw the most amazingly colorful little frog. He was bright green, with dark trim, and he had the most surprisingly bright yellow trim on the inside of his thighs. He was so carefully matched to the tone, color, and texture of the grass, that I almost missed seeing him.

His skin was so textured and warty, that at first I thought it must be a toad. It turns out that Grey Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are capable of shifting their skin tone from almost pure black, to white, with a variety of gray and green intermediate colors, which helps them blend into the background. Although they can’t change their color as rapidly as chameleons can, by Ohio standards, these little dudes are amazingly skillful at camouflaging themselves.

And at only 6cm, about 2-1/2 inches, these are small frogs, although they are big for tree frogs.  I was totally enthralled, and after grabbing some shots with my iPhone, and sharing my new friend with Elizabeth, I grabbed my DSLR and a macro lens, and more carefully documented this beautiful amphibian.

The tiny little toes, surprisingly long and supple, were capped with little tiny suction cups.  Given her arboreal lifestyle, this seems like a useful feature.

The most astounding feature was the eyes, two little dragon eyes, with exotically shaped retinas and a gorgeous gold lacework of bottomless texture. Such a big soul in such a little creature.

 

The Lone Beaver

Friday, March 17th, 2017

Beaver Close Up

Elizabeth woke me up one unseasonably warm February morning, all excited about some huge animal in our pond, visible from our upper story bedroom dormer. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I confirmed it was a beaver, America’s largest rodent, and an animal I’d never seen anywhere near our pond before.  Although we’ve long seen evidence of beavers, and even captured one on the game camera just over a year earlier, until this year, I’ve never seen one in person anywhere at Heiser Hollow.

Beaver checking me out

My parents’ purchase of the Hollow coincided somewhat with Ohio’s Beaver Renaissance.  Reintroduced to the state after being totally trapped out in 1830s, beaver activities characterized some of our earliest experiences at the Hollow. A family had set up shop in the creek bordering the edge of our property, regularly climbing the steep bluff from our wet flat spots up to an area with a stand of aspens in order to chew down some surprisingly large trees.  Clogging up the tiles under his bean field, the neighboring farmer blew up that first dam with dynamite, spectacularly, and probably coincidentally, doing it when Dad and I were flying just overhead in a chartered Piper.  Every few years, evidence of beaver chew would reappear, but only in the low flat area, which offer beavers an endless supply of one of their favorite foods, small alder trees.  None ever again climbed the steep hill up to the aspen patch, and until last month, I never saw any evidence that any beaver was willing to make any further exploration of our wooded and hilly property.

Preening Beaver

I’d been out on a short walk with my DSLR and 150-600mm lens, when I walked down to the pond and startled a large animal that surprisingly, turned out to be a beaver. I sat on a log, with my camera, and began what would turn into a two and a half our show.  After leisurely swimming around the pond in big lazy loops, apparently completely aware that I was there, it crawled up the bank in front of our cabin, and began an extensive grooming process.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. At the time, I was not aware that the beaver has a sort of all purpose cloaca, supporting not just excretory and sexual functions, but also containing the castoreum glands.  The beaver uses its front paws to obtain a waterproofing oil from those glands, which it rubs all over its body.

Beaver grooming with rear foot

The beaver has a split in one of its rear toenails (visible above) that it uses as a brush.   After spending a full 20 minutes grooming, the now relatively fluffy beaver turned around and started looking for something to eat.

Fully groomed beaver, ready for the water again

It spent about 10 minutes nibbling on something on the ground. I got a great view of its distinctive orange teeth.

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Apparently bored with raspberry canes and dead ferns, the beaver jumped back into the water and took a few more lazy loops around the pond.

Swimming Beaver
Then it climbed back out of the water and spent a couple minutes in the same spot where it had groomed 20 minutes earlier, it jumped back in the pond, made a figure 8, and spent a couple minutes gnawing on a branch hanging out over the pond.

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Then it came back out. And went back in. And crawled back out. I eventually got bored of sitting on the dead cherry tree, and moved to the other side of the pond to inspect the chewed up root. Maybe this was the opening that Bucky was looking for.  Finally, after I’d spent over an hour and half observing it, the beaver started beavering away at a beech sapling on the far side of the pond.

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It took the beaver almost eight minutes to gnaw through the small tree. After the top fell into the water, the beaver took a small and lazy victory loop around the center of the pond.  Then it pulled the fallen sapling along the edge of the pond, underneath the fallen cherry log, and spent the rest of the evening biting the branches off, and noisily tripping them of their bark.  It held the branches in its front paws, rotating the branch while gnawing on it like an ear of corn. The biting and chewing noise could be clearly heard all around the pond.

I moved further around the pond and kneeled next to a rock to capture some video and more stills of the feeding beaver, resting my camera on the rock.   By now it was almost 7:30 PM, well after sunset, and I’d spent two and a half hours watching and filming the beaver. I took a few more shots with the electronic flash, clearly gaining the animal’s attention, without scaring it away.

Night shot of the beaver

I walked out a few hours later, with a flashlight, and found the beaver about 50 feet away from the pond, up a hill. That was the last I saw of it. It was gone the next day, and there’s no further evidence that it has come back.  I can’t find any other beaver-chewed trees or saplings anywhere on the property, even in the alder patches down near the stream.

Previous blog entries using our game camera to track the activity on the Fall 2015 beaver dam on the northern border of Heiser Hollow:

Night time video of beaver repairing its dam

Other animals enjoying the beaver dam

Cicada Emergence

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

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Every 17 years at Heiser Hollow, thousands of insect nymphs emerge from the ground and metamorphose into adult cicada.  Perhaps after spending almost 2 decades underground, its unsurprising that their journey into their final stage of life is a nocturnal one.

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Starting slowly about a week ago, by last night, it sounded like a gentle rain was falling in the woods, as countless cicada nymphs poked their dusty bodies out of pencil-sized holes in the ground, and began a slow and steady crawl to a higher perch.

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A 40 year old red oak, old enough to have attracted female cicada in 1999, surrounded by mowed ground that catches direct sun for much of the day, has been ground zero for the periodical cicada emergence.  Starting at dusk every evening this week, I’ve found dozens of teenage cicadas, confidently crawling up the bark, seeking a convenient branch for their metamorphosis. Regular plopping sounds are evidence that some of them clumsily fall off their perch, but they undoubtedly just patiently start back up the tree trunk.

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Once they’ve found a suitable spot, some 15 feet in the air on branches, some on nearby bushes, flowers, and ferns, some on short blades of grass, they dig their 6 spiked heels into the surface, and appear to pause for a brief moment, before splitting their skin.

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Like showgirls at work, dozens, if not hundreds of adjacent cicada nymphs simultaneously, methodically and unselfconsciously strip off their dirty old cloths.

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It must take huge energy and initiative to pull so many complex components: a half-dozen legs, antenna, mouth parts, wing stubs, and various other unrecognizable bits, out of a stiff and unyielding exoskeleton. Not all of them make it, and popular cicada emergence points are punctuated by the dead and dying that failed to fully escape from their former selves.

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With their comical Fu Manchu moustaches and uninflated wings that resemble some sort of hat, they are temporarily at their least attractive, and at their most vulnerable. 

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Graceful is never a adjective that fully applies to cicada, periodical or annual, but at this short but significant period of transition, they seem particularly awkward.  Only their scarlet eyes provide some visual continuity with their adult form.

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Once a cicada has fully extricated itself, it uses its front 4 legs to hang from its old exoskeleton, back legs comically dangling, while it begins to inflate its wings.

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If you sit carefully and watch, you can see the wings expanding before your eyes, as it begins to look more and more like an adult cicada. Although they are trapped by their task, the cicada somehow seem to know that they are being watched, with their nervous red compound eyes exhibiting black spots that look like pupils, always pointing towards the camera.  Their wings  unfurl from the top down to the bottom, looking more like mature flight surfaces as hidden organs pump them full of fluid.  Not everyone makes it. The cicada above managed to expand its left wing, but the right one remained malformed at the base, preventing the possibility of flight, and providing a snack to one of tomorrow’s birds.

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Most of the cicada do manage to complete the process. The cover girl from the top of this blog post, shown in reverse immediately above (note the oviposter at the base of the abdomen) risked some of the later birds with an early dusk start to her metamorphosis, and was substantially complete when this photo was taken at 1130pm last Friday night.

Kenko extension tube, lit underneath with LED light panel.

Although a few stragglers may still appear ghostly white, by morning, almost all of the newly emerged cicada have fully expanded their wings, and hardened up what becomes their final exoskeleton, which turns deep black in the process.  Although they may be able to fly short distances, most of the previous night’s emerged cicada remain silently, albeit warily, in place the next morning, hardening their skin and their resolve, while waiting for the warmth of the sun.  By the early afternoon, most of the newly emerged insects have either been eaten or have flown up into the protection of the tree canopy, leaving behind their nymphal husks, and the unfortunate remains of their brothers and sisters who could not fully emerge or form their wings.

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The cicada apparently wait about 4-5 days before they are ready to take on the full responsibilities of their short adult life.  They didn’t begin singing audibly until a few days ago, and as the visual signs of emergence are ramping up in a greater number of places, the song volume, and number of cicada in flight has increased.  I know not everybody is entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of being surrounded by millions of screaming insects, but for me, its one of nature’s most special times.

Fowl Weather

Monday, March 28th, 2016

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The anticipation of capturing something photographically inspires me to seek out new experiences.  Intellectually, I realized that Heiser Hollow was only a few miles from a major motel for migratory waterfowl , but until I bought a long telephoto lens, I’d never explored the opportunity.

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The Killbuck Creek is the primary drain for the western half of Wayne, Holmes, and Coshocton County.  Thousands of years ago, it flowed from south to north, but the glaciers changed all that, forcing the Killbuck into the Mississippi watershed, and filling up the 80 mile valley with alluvial silt and muck. The ice didn’t quite make it to the Appalachian foothills of Heiser Hollow, but where the glaciers stopped, a short five miles away, they left a really nice place for ducks.   As described by the Ohio DNR “the wetlands in the Killbuck Creek Valley are the largest complex of wetlands remaining in Ohio, away from Lake Erie.” 

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A day earlier, I’d seen some kind of exotic looking water bird when driving to town (‘exotic looking’ meaning something other than the wood ducks, mallards, geese, and herons that we see on our pond).  In spite of the snow, I decided to hitch my new telephoto to my DSLR and see what I could see.   On the theory that the birds were used to seeing lots of vehicles, I figured I could just sit comfortably in the pickup cab and shoot out the window. 

American Coot

It didn’t take me long to find some geese. The lower Killbuck wildlife area crawls with the things.  I found a few shy Wood Ducks, hiding in the weeds.  I startled a Blue Heron, and he flew off to the middle of the swamp where I couldn’t follow him.  So I drove around to another position and found something with a bright white beak swimming along the shore.  I followed him around for awhile, and managed to get a good enough view to identify him as an American Coot.

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Nearby the coot were were a couple of little jobs that I couldn’t really make out, until they broke cover and headed into some open water.  Pie-Billed Grebes are divers, and these perky little swimmers with their big heads and striped little beaks didn’t seem to mind the snow at all.  Now it was starting to get exotic for me.   I’ve watched loons dive in Ontario, popping up far away from where they submerged, and I’ve sat and watched some kind of diving duck in Lake Zurich, but I’ve never seen a show like this in Ohio.  I spent at least 20 minutes watching 4 of them disappearing and reappearing as dripping water, they moved out of camera range.

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Then a much nicer proportioned pair of birds, with a much more elegant paint job, appeared.  Ring-Necked Ducks may have been named by the same guy who named Red-Bellied Woodpeckers—there are so many more obvious characteristics that could have been chose.  They apparently are divers also, but all they did was float around the emerging lily pads, with the drake’s glowing amber eye keeping track of his mate.

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My favorite find of the day was a pair of Hooded Mergansers, which I found in a smaller pool while driving home. Like the other ducks, the hen was much less gaudily colored than her mate, but both of them had fantastic headdresses, feathering out behind their ears.  The drake had striking black and white racing stripes, accented with a bright yellow eye. I could have watched them for hours, but they got shy under all the attention and soon flew off.

Feathers of our Lives

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

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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.

Make Way for Ducks

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

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We’ve been seeing wood ducks regularly all week, but we hadn’t seen any mallards until this morning.  Migratory fowl are always interesting, and welcome, but we didn’t realize there was going to be trouble.  I blame it on the female mallard.  She hopped up on an old cherry tree, half submerged along one side of the pond, and started letting it all hang out. She was primping, preening, and working those duck breasts big time.

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I should start at the beginning.  Today was a very typical rainy spring day. One you might say it was a perfect day for ducks.  After .33” of rain, on top of sodden ground, the pond was slowly taking on a light brown stain as silty water flowed in from the sandstone falls further upstream.  The ducks had begun arriving early , apparently not aware of the change in clocks last night.  We hadn’t seen more than 4 at a time this year, but this morning, we had at least 3 pair of wood ducks, floating, paddling, dabbling, and then grazing on the far side of the pond dam.  And then a pair of mallards arrived.

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The hen quickly perched herself on the cherry branch, and started putting it on—or taking it off, as the case may be. Its hard to tell with ducks.  Either way, she put on show for the lads, stretching, and contorting, doing a Daisy Duck dance for the drakes.  The wood ducks all pointed themselves towards that end of the pond and started paddling over to the perch.  A wood duck hen made a small commotion at the opposite end of the branch, but a drake pushed her out of the way.

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Another wood duck drake swam around the corner while the first one perched himself on the same branch, and started edging sideways closer towards the larger mallard hen.  Several curious female wood ducks floated around, apparently curious.  At this point, I should point out that while there are significant aesthetic differences between the two species, the plumbing is relatively compatible.   It turns out that duck crossbreeding is a recognized problem, at least from the point of view of the wildlife managers.

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One particular drake was having none of it. He sped across the pond and, in his own duckish way, Donald made it clear to the other males that he had first dibs (dabs?) on Daisy.

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With an open beak, some stretching of the neck, and a beady eyed staredown, the mallard called fowl, and the smaller woodies retreated.

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This left the mallard couple alone together on the preferred perch.  The drake stood half in the water, not looking at the hen, but perhaps communicating his feelings.  The 3 pair of wood ducks continued to hover around in the water, approaching several times, and then retreating after a gesture from the mallard male.

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Perhaps the mallards were embarrassed, or maybe this just isn’t a completely comfortable spot for ducks who prefer avoiding trees. Once the female had finished drying and combing her feathers, they took off, leaving the pond to the wood ducks.