I’ve been having trouble keeping up with the pace of spring this year. Maybe it’s the birthdays that keep piling up, maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Every day I walk these five acres we’ve worked with for 32 years something — usually more than one thing — merits my attention — and my camera. Native deciduous azaleas seem to transform from swelling buds tinged with color to full-blown explosions of flowers and fragrance. As I type this, blooming azalea colors range from yellow to orange-red to pale pink, deep pink, lavender, and white. I am so glad we’re entering a bit of a cool spell tonight. I am hopeful that the blooms will last a bit longer in cooler weather.
Believe it or not, I’m less focused on flowers these days than usual. Animal antics have grabbed most of my attention. I’ve got a pair of bluebirds feeding five nestlings in one of the new boxes we added a few weeks ago, and that is exciting. However, the wood ducks win the prize for captivating us.
I’ve read up on wood ducks lately to try to understand what we’ve been seeing. Did you know wood ducks will nest in tree hollows as high as 50 feet off the ground? The day after the ducklings hatch (up to about 14 usually), mama duck gives them a signal and one by one they leap from the hole and tumble to the ground. Seriously! My reading tells me that the ducklings sort of bounce when they hit the ground. As soon as all are out, mama duck leads her babies to feeding grounds, which can be as far as a mile from the nest. As you might imagine, a lot of ducklings are picked off by predators before they get there. Even if the ducklings make it to the water, predators including large fish and snapping turtles may grab them from beneath the water.
We always see and hear the wood ducks this time of year. Male-female pairs swim up and down our creek. We suspect they feed in the beaver-built wetland on the other side. When the females are startled, they shriek loudly. It’s quite a disconcerting sound when they see you before you see them.
We thought it might be nice to offer a pair a nice new wood duck house, which we mounted about 8 feet off the ground right next to the creek. We figured the ducklings could jump out and land either in or right next to the water, minimizing risk from at least some predators. The box, however, has been ignored. Instead, a mama duck appears to have laid her eggs in a dying old oak in our back yard. Thirty feet up there’s a sizable hole where a branch once grew. One day a few weeks ago just at dusk, I watched a pair of wood ducks fly toward the tree. The male flew right past, but the female dove straight into the hole, barely slowing to soften her landing. It seemed clear that the male’s role was to divert attention while the female dove into the hole as fast as possible. Binoculars in hand, I watched for some time, but she did not emerge before the sun set.
I read that females sitting on eggs fly out at dawn and dusk to feed before returning to the nest. Males don’t incubate the eggs at all. I’ve never managed to see her leave the nest in the morning, but I’ve seen her dive into the hole at dusk several times. Lately, the male hasn’t been with her. I’ve read that after the females begin incubation, the males go off and hang out together elsewhere.
Wonder Spouse and I are trying not to worry too much about the ducklings. The distance from the tree to the creek is about 100 feet. The terrain is overgrown with massive boulders on the far side of the tree. Wonder Spouse removed a section of the fence between the tree and the creek (there to deter beavers), so that the ducklings won’t pile up at the fence trying to get to the water. A pair of red-shouldered hawks is nesting in the area; they sit in trees near the oak often, looking for their next meal. Theoretically, I am supposed to be dispassionate about the fate of the ducklings, but they are in our backyard. Somehow we feel responsible for them. You can bet that if we are around when the ducklings take their big plunge, we will be out there trying to run interference for them.
Today, however, the wood duck drama took yet another turn. A few days ago, we saw a male-female pair loitering in an ash tree about 50 feet from the oak tree. Using our binoculars, it appeared that the couple was conversing back and forth while looking intently at the nest hole. This afternoon, they returned to the ash tree, again conversing. Suddenly, the female flew to the nest hole in the oak. I am fairly certain this was not the female I had seen diving into the hole on several occasions. This one clung to the edge of the hole and stuck her neck inside, peering in. Liking what she saw, she disappeared inside, briefly stuck her head back out to say something to her mate still sitting in the ash tree, then disappeared again. About ten minutes later, she appeared again at the entrance to the hole, paused a moment, then flew to join her mate in the ash. They soon flew off together. I believe we had just witnessed wood duck egg-dumping behavior. I’ve read that instead of making their own nest, some wood duck females find another wood duck nest and simply add a few eggs of her own to those already on the nest. Apparently the owner of the nest incubates them as her own. The experts aren’t sure of the adaptive value of this behavior, beyond the obvious notion of literally not wanting to put all of one’s eggs in one metaphorical basket.
Wonder Spouse was able to grab his long lens and grab a few photos. The male was sitting quite still in the afternoon sun, providing a nice photo opportunity. The female never stopped moving at the entrance hole, so her shots are more blurry. Still, I think you’ll get the idea.
I confess I am emotionally invested in what happens next. If I’m lucky enough to witness how this story ends, I’ll be sure to let you know.
For my North Carolina Readers:
Audubon North Carolina is encouraging all native plant and animal lovers to register their support for a bill currently before the NC Senate that would ensure that native trees, shrubs, and flowers are used to landscape all state properties and state-funded projects. If you’ve read my blog much, you can imagine how much positive impact this could have for our native flora and fauna. You can read more details and sign their petition supporting this effort here.