Call me the Existential Birder.
Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–
I began a search for wood ducks.
Having become a more serious birder, it was my aim to get a good look at all sorts of birds: warblers, woodpeckers, waterfowl, what-have-you. But where I fell short was the wood duck.
My treks into the woods of the Southeast were typically driven by The List. What bird could I by chance come across today?
In spring, my eyes were in the trees searching for vireos and warblers of all sorts–vibrant and soulful with the sound of spring. In summer I looked for the July natives such as the wood thrush and the yellow-billed cuckoo. In fall, I hoped for warm windy days so that I could see the hawk migration in full swing. And in winter, I scanned the lakes looking for migrant ducks and swans that frequent the shallow waters of the Piedmont.
Throughout all these seasons I looked for one bird in particular, a “common” bird, a year-round bird, an elusive bird–the wood duck.
At first these attempts were quick glances in passing. I’d happen upon a wetland and scan the area for wood ducks. With no success, my search became more pointed and intentional.
This led me to venture further into the rural woods of coastal North Carolina. I found myself near Lake Mattamuskeet on a trail that wandered around a wetland prime for birds that thrive on shallow water and secrecy. It was dusk and light was leaving quickly. I was told that there were wood ducks here, but that I would probably hear them before I would see them. I saw nothing. And I heard nothing.
The following year I came back hoping my persistence would pay off. But the trail was muddled with dried leaves and overgrown grass. Each step was a warning call. I continued on only to be disappointed again. An explosion of wings went off to my left a quick look only gave me the distinct eye ring of a female wood duck. The male and the others were gone before I could truly observe them in flight. I was not satisfied with this encounter. It was a tease. However, afterwards when I described the moment to another birder they laughed and said “That’s a fairly typical view of wood duck.”
Then I had an idea.
Perhaps if I offered shelter, the wood ducks would flock to me and see me as a friend. Being cavity-nesting birds, wood ducks require very specific housing often left by woodpeckers and tree rot. Due to habitat loss it is a struggle to find adequate housing near shallow wooded wetland to raise some chicks. I had heard that they accept manmade houses readily and gratefully. So I applied for a grant and purchased wood duck boxes made out of white cedar.
I assembled the boxes, concocted make-shift baffles, and hit the lakes to find the best spot to place the boxes. This was in coordination with my local bird club and the county Parks Department.
During the project I went out to restore older boxes. I paddled a canoe up to an old box that didn’t have a roof. When I looked inside, I saw a female wood duck. I quickly glanced away from the opening and held my breath. I stood as still as I could be balancing myself in the canoe. A second look was too much though and the bird flew out, bursting from the box in a fantastic flutter that frightened me and almost made me fall out of the canoe.
Even this encounter wasn’t satisfying. A birder likes to observe and to collect details. These quick encounters gave me no time to appreciate the beauty of these birds. I had to keep looking.
The wood duck boxes did not help me in my attempts to happily check this bird off my list. Instead it made me spiteful.
A bitterness grew in me–I’ll be damned if this bird gets the better of me!
A year went by. I continued my search.
I sat alone on a guardrail just off a road that runs adjacent to a local marshland. It was early March, wintery and in-between migrations. It was dusk and there was very little activity.
I sat there, simply thinking, and hoping for a wood duck to float out from the reeds and into the view of my binoculars. A truck pulled up behind me and stopped. It was another birder. One who knew me and knew what I was looking for, “You find your wood duck?”
“No,” I said.
He gave me advice on where to find some and then drove off, both of us wishing the other luck in our respective searches.
As I walked back to my car, three ducks flying fast began to circle the marshland. I quickly looked. The lighting was poor, it was twilight, but I could just barely see that they were wood ducks. They circled the water three times but did not land. They must’ve known I was there.
Perhaps it is my fate to be perpetually searching.
But surely, I’m not just searching for this one specie of duck. Perhaps I’m searching for more–driven mad and driven forth by some unknown force of nature, a powerful and keen impetus to be out in the world and seeking.
Later that week, I followed the birders advice. I went to the exact spot he suggested at the exact time he suggested. I took the trail about a half-mile into the woods and walked out onto a platform that overlooked a maze of water and grass in a wetland designed by beavers.
I had been to this location in the summer when the view was blocked by green leaves, but winter had removed the obstruction and the view of the wetland was unimpeded. I scanned the area noting the Canada Geese and Mallards, observing the signs of beaver, and still hoping a wood duck would pop out from behind the tall grass.
Sure enough, two wood ducks appeared–a male and a female. They navigated the waters disappearing behind muck and grass and reappearing again a moment later. They were far off, but still visible and clearly identifiable.
I sat and watched them for a while, observing the colors of their plumage and their behaviors before nightfall. It was all-and-all uneventful, just a man in the woods with a pair of binoculars, breathing in the cool winter air of March, looking out at a world that rarely looked back.
It is an odd feeling to find what you are looking for.
I was resigned to accept that my search was over. Now I could place a little check next to the words “Wood Duck” in my Peterson Field Guide.
The damn duck had gotten the better of me after all.