Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dressed in Black

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black  
Why you never see bright colors on my back  
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone  
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

                     - Johnny Cash 
                          "Man in Black"

Yesterday I went to Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant  to see if any wildflowers had begun blooming - they hadn't.  Part of the trail system at Chipp-A-Waters goes back to an observation deck that overlooks an oxbow pond.  The pond frequently has one or more species of waterfowl in it.  There was a pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) in the pond that began honking as soon as I got within their sight.  There was also a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).  While I stood on the observation deck, two male Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) taxied in for a landing and hid themselves around the corner of the oxbow.  Within moments another solo Wood Duck followed.  None of these ducks were within shooting range of my camera.

I started walking back down the trail toward the parking lot when a small bird foraging through the leaf litter distracted me.  Over the years, I have learned that I should always (I repeat always) follow small birds and mammals through the forest.  They have a tendency to lead me toward bigger and better things. After following the small bird (a wren) for nearly five minutes without taking a photograph I turned just in time to watch another male Wood Duck coast into a tree ahead of me.  I tried stalking closer to this drake and took several long distance photographs, before a Wood Duck hen that I had not seen took off out of another tree and flew off taking the drake with her.

A Wood Duck drake living up to its name

I followed their flight path through the woods for a short distance hoping to see find them in another tree, but looking down I spied something else.  Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum) shoots were beginning to push up out of the ground.  How could I not photograph something so green?  It was hard enough to not stop and graze - wild leek tops have a mild onion taste.  Five minutes  and thirty-two photographs later I was again walking back down the trail.

Wild Leeks - also known as Ramps, Ransom, Spring Onion, etc.

If I had not stopped to chase a wren, stalk a duck, and tiptoe through the leeks I would have been back to the parking lot 25 minutes soon  and would have missed the best find of the day.  As I was walking the next to last curve of the trail before the parking lot a duck skidded in for a landing less than 20 yards away.  First impression was that of a Mallard, right size and shape, but... something was not right about it.  The color was all wrong.  It was a male American Black Duck (Anas rubripes).
American Black Duck - note the chocolate brown flanks, gray face, and olive-yellow bill

The duck swam slowly against the current which carried him closer to the shore I was standing on.  I was able to get several pictures before it ducked out of sight around the bend of the river.

The purple-blue secondary feathers (speculum) on the wing are barely visible

My attempts to get a clearer view must have spooked him because he took flight downstream thirty yards where he joined up with a female Mallard.  Black Ducks and Mallards can successfully mate and create hybrid offspring.  This hybridization (and outcompeting by the Mallard) have resulted in a decrease in the population of American Black Ducks.

Black Duck drake (left) and Mallard hen - not the white border on her speculum

For more information on the American Black Duck visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

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