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NICE WEATHER FOR DUCKLINGS
The winter of 2002-2003 has brought considerable and much-needed precipitation to Hilton Pond Center, finally raising the pond itself to the full mark for the first time in four years. As spring arrived this week, the rains continued, including another 1.2" downpour that began on the evening of 29 March. At sunrise on the 30th our local skies were still overcast and light rain continued to fall--"nice weather," as they say, "for ducks." Sure enough, when we looked out at Hilton Pond from our office window we noticed a male Wood Duck with raindrops rolling off his back, but he demonstrated the previously unobserved behavior of paddling around rapidly in wide circles. We watched him for a few minutes until a female woodie cruised into view--followed by a dark shadow that we thought at first might be a River Otter or Snapping Turtle seeking a waterfowl breakfast. Grabbing our binoculars, we zoomed in on the female duck and discovered instead she was accompanied by a whole potful of downy creatures--our first Wood Ducklings of the year, and the likely cause of the male duck's agitated behavior.
One of the first things we did after moving to Hilton Pond Center in 1982 was erect six Wood Duck boxes (below left) supplied by South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources. Four of these are on Hilton Pond itself, and two more sit near our end of another larger pond that is partly on Center property. Each and every year since, at least two of these boxes have housed female Wood Ducks that produced successful broods of six or more ducklings--for a total of more than 500 baby ducks that we know of over the past two decades. We suspect additional ducklings have fledged locally since 1982--for example, one clutch hatched out in the hollow limb of a large American Sycamore tree--but our regular nest checks in spring provide us with a fairly accurate baseline number.
Early each winter we carefully clean out our nestboxes, removing old egg shells and other detritus--including sticks occasionally deposited by Gray Squirrels that somehow get into the boxes despite the skirt-like predator guards. (Squirrels are pretty smart at getting into "squirrel-proof" bird feeders, so perhaps they've also learned how to parachute.) Then we add several scoops of wood shavings to the bottom or each box, replicating the substrate of abandoned Pileated Woodpecker cavities in which Wood Ducks sometimes nest. As laying begins, the female duck invariably plucks enough of her downy breast feathers to cover the shavings and surround the eggs (below right). After incubation starts she covers the clutch prior to making each of several daily excursions from the nest box to stretch her legs and wings. It's possible the thin layer of down provides some insulation in her brief absence, but it seems to us a more important function is that any potential predator peeking in the hole sees a mass of dull gray feathers rather than an appetizing meal of developing duck eggs.
Our local female Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, begin to lay their creamy white eggs as early as the first of February, adding one each day until the clutch is complete. Our biggest clutch in a nestbox was 26, but that may have been a "dump nest" in which several females laid eggs that did not hatch and that may never have been incubated. In the typical one-female nest, incubation does not begin until the clutch is complete. Since embryo development is triggered by the warmth of incubation, a female that waits insures that all eggs develop at the same rate and hatch synchronously at about the 30-day mark.
On hatch day, the female leaves the nest and calls up to her newly hatched ducklings, which pop one by one from the nest hole and flutter down, splashing into water or bouncing harmlessly on soft ground beneath. The female chirps at her brood, keeping them together until the last sibling has jumped, and then it's off to teach them what they need to learn to be successful in the Wood Duck world. In the case of the brood that hatched from our Nest Box #1 on 30 March, herding offspring was no easy task; we could see through our binoculars that the female had produced 16 energetic ducklings that bobbed like fluffy little corks on Hilton Pond.
Having spotted these ducklings we hoped to capture photo images of their natal day, so we got our Canon D60 digital camera, affixed a 400mm zoom lens, and started toward the pond, which is about 50 yards from the back porch of the old farmhouse and office. As we opened the door, the male Wood Duck (left) exploded from the water as usual, making that species-specific call that sounds to our ears like a pig squealing at high pitch. But the female--now faced with the responsibility of protecting her large brood--stayed put on the water and chirped repeatedly to keep the ducklings close by.
As we approached Hilton Pond, the female led her brood toward the far bank, but we were able to take a shortcut on one of our trails to a dense evergreen thicket that served as a blind. Luckily, the fleet came right toward our vantage point and we were able to snap off the exposures that appear on this page. It was apparent that one of the ducklings was a much slower paddler than its siblings; after reaching the shelter of some overhanging branches the female Wood Duck stopped her aquatic caravan, allowing the laggard to catch up (above right). When we emerged from the thicket for a better view, the female chirped loudly, stopped for an instant as we photographed her in profile (below), and then steamed off again with brood in tow. Not wanting to exhaust the ducklings, we backed off and just watched as the frenetic crew reached the pond's opposite shore and began to explore its shallow waters--perhaps for their first-ever taste of Duckweed.
We made no attempt to capture any of the ducklings. Banding waterfowl requires a special permit and is usually left to state and federal wildlife officials who use their data to determine bag limits for duck hunters. Besides, unlike songbirds that are essentially full-grown when they leave the nest, ducklings steadily increase in size for a few months after fledging. Thus, ducks are not banded until they--and their legs--become adult-sized.
We did accidentally net a bunch of baby Wood Ducks one spring. After hatch date, the female often takes off through the woods with her brood waddling along behind, perhaps in search of a larger body of water or one with a different variety of food. Such was the case one day when a Wood Duck led her ducklings smack into a mist net that was set with its bottom edge on the ground. The adult apparently saw and avoided the net, but the ducklings stumbled in and snared themselves while the agitated female made loud chirping noises that attracted our attention to the scenario. We quickly extricated the five ducklings from the net, photographed one (left), and carried them all to the nearby edge of Hilton Pond, where they jumped in and paddled around long enough to eventually get reunited with their mother. As the hand-held photo indicates, that activity occurred on a bright, sunny morning much different from this year's rainy and overcast March 30--a day that really did bring "Nice weather for duckLINGS."
NOTE: See Wood Duck Nestboxes for plans and instructions for an easy-to-make artificial cavity.
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SPECIES BANDED THIS WEEK
* = New species for 2003
(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
Chipping Sparrow (3)
01/25/00--after 4th year unknown
02/29/00--after 4th year unknown
02/27/02--after 2nd year unknown
Northern Cardinal (2)
06/27/98--6th year male
01/17/99--after 5th year female
White-throated Sparrow (6)
01/09/99--after 5th year unknown
11/06/00--4th year unknown
11/06/01--3rd year unknown
11/06/01--3rd year female
11/26/01--after 2nd year unknown
11/30/01--3rd year female
Eastern Bluebird (1)
07/11/01--3rd year male
House Finch (2)
12/19/00--after 3rd year male
02/18/01--after 3rd year male
A female Rufous Hummingbird was banded at Seneca SC on 31 Mar.
WEEKLY BANDING TOTAL
YEARLY BANDING TOTAL
BANDING GRAND TOTAL
(since 28 June 1982)
OTHER SIGHTINGS OF INTEREST
--On 28 Mar, an early male Falcate Orangetip (above) fed on Bluets and Johnny-jump-up flowers and became the 20th butterfly species positively identified at Hilton Pond Center.
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