When springtime arrives in western Pennsylvania, I begin to get excited about photographing the waterfowl migration. Many migrants come and go but one duck that stays with us throughout the summer is the Wood Duck. The Wood Duck is one of my favorite ducks to photograph because of their beauty and because they present a challenge. They are one of our most shy birds so getting close without alerting them is most of the challenge.
Because they are such an interesting duck, I want to take you on a photographic journey through their time in western Pennsylvania, with a few Wood Duck facts along the way.The Wood Duck is Pennsylvania's most colorful duck and when they begin arriving in early spring, their colors stand out in a snowy landscape.
The Wood Duck has some colorful nicknames like Carolina duck, squealer, summer duck, and the most famous of them all, woodie. Woodies are common migrants in Pennsylvania in March and April and they stay throughout the summer and breed. Other than some southern parts of Pennsylvania, they begin their journey south again during the months of September through November. Most woodie's spend the winter from the Carolina's south to the Gulf and as far west as eastern Texas.
One of my most favorite activities in the spring is to set up a blind along a wooded swamp to photograph these beauties. Although there are females in the area, early spring seems to offer flocks of several males. There was a heavy fog on this morning and I had to wait patiently until the sun began to burn it off. The woodies were swimming all around the marsh when the sun finally shined through.
The male, also called a drake, has an iridescent green head with shades of blue and purple in the large head crest. Other identifying marks of the drake is the red eyes, reddish-orange bill, chestnut chest, and golden sides. Typically, in the bird world, the female of the species is duller and drab compared to the male. The Wood Duck is no different. She is covered in gray, white, and brown with a small head crest and white around her eyes.
Wood Ducks aren't known to mate for life. They have an intense courtship that takes place on their wintering ground so most are already paired up when they get to Pennsylvania.
The photo below was made after dipping her head and body under water. See how the water is rolling off her back like a newly waxed car? Ducks have an oil gland at the base of the body, basically where the body and tail meet. Ducks will spread the oil all over their feathers during preening giving instant water repellent.
Here she is giving a few flaps to help rid the excess water from her body.
Wood Ducks are known as dabbler ducks. A dabbler tips its head into shallow water to probe for vegetation parts , seeds of pond weeds, wild rice and water lilies along the bottom. You will also find them feeding on the shores where they may eat grapes, berries, and various nuts.
When you think of the noise a duck makes most people instinctively think of the quack, quack sound of the Mallard Duck. Wood Ducks do not quack. The hen is more vocal and louder than the drake when she squeals a warning call sounding like "hoo-eek, hoo-eek". The drake whistles an ascending "twee twee". Wood DuckDrake
You often find Wood Ducks in small groups of 20 or fewer, keeping apart from other waterfowl. Below is a short video clip to a small flock swimming through the wetlands.
The light was hitting at a perfect angle to display his true colors.
As I watched this drake meander around the swamp, he rose up and flapped water from his coat of feathers.
Unlike most waterfowl, Wood Ducks perch and nest in tree cavities. When a hen migrates north she will tend to locate last year's nest tree and if she is a yearling, she will return to the general location that she was hatched.
Thanks to their broad tail and short, broad wings, woodies are very agile fliers abling them to twist their way through woodlands. Above open terrain, they can reach speeds up to 50 mph.
Timing is everything when one seeks out to photograph Wood Duck ducklings. This year, I was a little late and the ducklings were beginning to grow up.
The story about Wood Duck nesting habits is fascinating so I'd like to share it with you. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities or nesting boxes near water. Sometimes the nests are directly above water and other times they may be a mile away. The hen may lay between 8 and 15 eggs but she will not begin to incubate until all the eggs are laid. Unlike most other ducks, the drake will stay with her through much of the incubation period but will be gone by the time all the eggs hatch. Because she began incubation after the last egg was laid, all the eggs will hatch on the same day. The very next day the mother will leave the nest and call to her flightless ducklings. One by one they jump from heights up to 50 feet without injury and follow her as she guides them to water.
The Wood duck is the only North American duck that sometimes produces two broods in one year.
Wood Ducks are very attentive. Any slight movement catches their attention. Even though I am hidden in a blind, the movement of my lens from side to side is enough to alert mom. In this next photo, mom doesn't appear to feel threatened but she is keeping an eye on my blind while allowing two of her ducklings to continue their hunt for food.
One spot that I like to set up my blind has its best light in the evening. Sometimes, when I arrive, there are woodies out in the open water. When mom begins her warning calls of hoo-eek, hoo-eek, hoo-eek, her brood heads for cover. You can see in the next photo that their little wings aren't big enough for flight but their legs do an awesome job of moving them quickly.
The ducklings aren't able to fly until they are about two months old so they rely on their feet to tread water. This one is paddling so fast its chest rose out of the water like a motorboat.
I was set up one day watching and hoping for a Wood Duck family to come into view. They didn't show up that day but you can see a trail through the reeds that mom and ducklings used recently.
After leaving the hen, the drake woodie will join other males in deep cover of the swamps or wooded waterways. At that time he begins to molt, losing his beautiful plumage and taking on a look similar to a hen. Later in the summer, both hens and drakes lose their flight feathers and are unable to fly. In late summer or early fall, they molt again restoring their normal colors.
It was getting late one evening when a molting drake emerged from deep in the shadows. This is the first time I ever saw a male at this stage of the molt. They generally stay hidden.
The hen, however, is still as beautiful as the day she arrives in early spring.
I waited about one week before setting up my blind again. It's hard to believe how quickly they grow. Occasionally, a duckling will separate itself from the brood but they don't break up until they are about six weeks old.
This lone duckling probes the swamp for tiny morsels of food.
The duckling above spent so much time in front of my lens I was able to capture some video.
By the end of July their maturity is noticeable. I was able to photograph this family resting on a log last summer.
I hope you enjoyed this quick journey through a few seasons of Wood Ducks in Pennsylvania. I hope you found the story interesting and maybe taught you something that you didn't know about Pennsylvania's most colorful duck.
Thanks for looking,