The beat changed more, and now they flew striking all together, so that their wings sung in unison as they went over his head. He stood stock still watching them, and long after they had passed down the sky he stood there, with the noise of their wings above his head.
- Patrick O’Brian from The Dawn Flighting
The late philosopher John O’Donohue, a mystic fellow, once pointed out that beauty does not linger. It only visits, whetting our appetites and refining our longing. Now, he wasn’t talking about ducks, but he could have been. With their vivid, metallically colored feathers, their perfect symmetry and liquid movement, ducks are beautiful by every metric (with the obvious exception of their voices). And as all of us know, wild ducks do not linger. They flush from wetlands at the merest hint of our presence. Many pass through our region on their way to some place north of us, and then again on their way to some place south of us. That they’re ephemeral makes them even more beautiful.
As for the word “longing,” we’ll grant you that it may seem a bit misplaced (unless you’re a randy drake during mating season). But to recognize beauty is to recognize dignity, grandeur, and grace of spirit. So why wouldn’t we long for a glimpse of that? You can see longing in the way a duck dog whirls around in the passenger’s seat, making little cries and licking the side window whenever she nears a wetland. See it in the brush strokes of artists and the prose of writers like Patrick O’Brian, quoted above.
What follows is a celebration of ducks, brought to you by award-winning photographer Tom Reichner, ecologist Allan Strong from The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, and hunter T. Michael Scott, a man who pursues waterfowl with almost evangelical passion. The guides we refer to include The Birder’s Handbook, by Paul Ehrlich et al, The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Sibley, and Waterfowl of Eastern North America by Chris Earley.
The ducks in this essay fall into two general categories: dabblers and divers, though these terms can be misleading. Since dabblers dive and divers dabble, you’re forgiven for being confused. In general, the dabblers feed on the surface by dabbling (slurping tiny organisms from surface water) or tipping (dunking the first half of their body into the water). They float high, walk easily on land, and rise to fly straight from the surface of the water. Divers feed by diving underwater, sit low in the water, have trouble walking on land, and need a running start to take off.
We hope this photo essay serves as an educational tool for those new to ducks, and a love poem for those naturalists, conservationists, and hunters who are already familiar with these remarkable birds.