By John Craig — Where Sugar Creek empties into Lake Bella Vista, there is a stand of trees lining the shore that provides nesting sites for a community of Wood Ducks, aka “Painted Ducks.”
In the early morning, Wood Ducks can be heard calling out to their mates as they move out to favorite areas to feed on a varied diet of fruits, nuts, insects and aquatic plants. In addition to where they are likely to find breakfast, they have preferred places to hangout, preen and rest during the late morning and into the early afternoon.
While on the watch for these magnificent birds keep in mind patience and minimum movement are key. Wood Ducks are very observant and will notice anything out of place as they make flights over an area prior to landing.
Unlike most ducks or geese who choose to mate for life, Wood ducks select a different mate on an annual basis. The female selects her mate. The drakes are more visible in the spring while waiting for the hens to become ready for the mating season to begin. There maybe six to 10 males for every female in the early breeding season. The drake will locate several possible nesting sites often reusing sites more than one year. He considers previous sites and checks nests for flood damage or removal, by either humans or natural destruction such as tree felling. Also taken into consideration is the number of rival males competing for the same nesting sites. They will use man-made nesting boxes and abandoned owl or woodpecker holes.
The natural instinct of wood ducks is to select a nesting site that is secluded in hopes that many predators will have difficulty locating the eggs and ducklings. The female will inspect the nesting sites and determine which drake to mate with for the season. After she has chosen her mate she decides when it’s time to start laying her “clutch” of eggs consisting of 10-16 eggs. When nesting sites are scarce, one wood duck hen will sometimes lay her eggs in the same nest as another resident hen. The result, maybe as many as 29 eggs to hatch. Incubation period is 28-37 days and the nesting period lasts between 56-70 days.
“On occasion the resident hen will remove the eggs laid by another hen by simply dropping them out of the nest to the ground.”
The hen has no way of feeding the ducklings while they are in the nest. Therefore, the hen will call to the ducklings to leave the nest after the last egg hatches.
“They bailout of the nest without hesitation, whether a man-made box or natural crevice. They have been observed jumping from as high as 170 feet through limbs to the ground.”
The ducklings are covered with a coat of down, looking like fuzzy ping pong balls with stubby wings and legs. Once on the ground they observe the hen, imitate her actions and are capable of catching their own food such as small aquatic insects.
Some Wood Ducks are migratory and use the Atlantic flyway. Resident Wood Ducks make up 30 – 70% of the overall population depending on location. There are several primary opportunities to catch a glimpse and observe the wonderful birds. During the courting period, when they are searching for a suitable nesting spot, and as they are going in and out of the nest to occasionally feed during the incubation period. It is especially charming when the ducklings are leaving the nest and are working their way to heavy cover along the lake or stream.
When I photograph wood ducks, I establish a vantage point that I can observe their favorite places. My camera of choice is a NIKON D850 with a NIKON 600mm prime lens for capturing them in flight, standing or swimming. Consider mounting your camera on a tripod to provide a solid foundation. The heavier the lens the more important a tripod becomes. If you have not taken photos of Wood Ducks in flight, practice on other fast-flying birds such as swallows catching bugs off the surface of the water. Wood Ducks are incredible birds with a beautiful variety of colors. They look as they have been hand-painted by an excellent artist. Enjoy the experience!
John Craig was born in Wyoming and raised alongside the North Platt River. Growing up near dozens of small creeks on the plains and mountains of Wyoming instilled a lifelong love of the outdoors, appreciating mother nature and all she provides.
John and his wife Mary Ann moved to Arkansas in 1998 and to Bella Vista since 2005 where he pursues his fascination with all wildlife. John is tireless in his pursuit of unique moments which he captures through the lens of his camera and is eager to share with others.