Clouds of mist rippled over the waters of the Black Bottom Branch in eastern Maryland. Just before our visit in late September, biting winds were blowing from the northwest and heavy rain came later that week. But the area held its breath for an afternoon, affording one last glimpse of summer on a day that seemed to be on time.
The creek flows through the Millington Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on the Maryland-Delaware line, then into the Cypress Branch and the Chester River. Ultimately, it winds its way to Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary and sanctuary for waterfowl. The extensive aquatic vegetation and invertebrates of the bay attract ducks from near and far.
The stars of Millingtons Wildlife Show are Wood Ducks. Photo by Ilya Raskin
The most beautiful duck
To see and photograph waterfowl on their fall migration, we crouched in a hunting photography blind on the edge of the muddy wetland of Black Bottom Branch. Millington WMA, a 4,000 acre property in east Kent County, is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conserve wildlife populations and their habitats, says Josh Homyack, waterfowl project manager at DNR. The stars of Millingtons Wildlife Show are Wood Ducks – the birds we saw there.
The iridescent green coat of arms and chestnut chest of a male wood duck are unmistakable along with its scarlet eyes and beak. The most beautiful duck on earth, the bird, was named. The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote in his Life Stories of North American Waterfowl in 1923: “What a beautiful creature this Beau Brummell is [a British fashion figure of the early 1800s] among birds and what an exquisite touch of color he adds to the scene. “Almost a century later, Greg Hoch repeated these feelings in his 2020 book on the art, With Wings Extended: A Leap into the World of the Wood Duck (University of Iowa Press). Hoch cites at least 30 references similar to Bent’s.
The wood duck is a purely North American bird, whose breeding area extends from British Columbia in the south to California and from Montana in the east to Nova Scotia and in the south to Texas and Florida. In the eastern United States, the species usually overwinters from the Carolinas through Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. In the west, however, most wood ducks (75 percent) are not migratory. Wood ducks put on their breeding plumage earlier than many other ducks, often in September, and give them a jump into the coming season. In Maryland, according to Bill Harvey, migratory bird program manager for DNR in Maryland, some wood ducks return north and nest very early in the spring.
Before leaving the Chesapeake in the fall, the birds often form large roosts, says Homyack. “In the weeks leading up to the migration, several hundred people flock to the same place. These roosts are usually found in undisturbed wetlands. In years when it rains abundantly and the wetlands are filled with water, Millington WMA supports several Wood Duck neighborhoods. “
Male and female Wood Ducks at Millington WMA. Photo by Ilya Raskin
Trees and water required
In spring, the ducks nest in tree hollows near water, which were not always easy to find. In the late 1800s, Americans cleared wood, drained wetlands, and hunted the species. In the early 1900s, Wood Ducks were believed to be critically endangered. However, Cornell University’s Birds of the World report on the species states that “because of healthy populations in remote swamps, numbers have never been as low as predicted”.
The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects the species from unregulated hunting that contributed to the recovery of populations. Habitat restoration and widespread nesting box programs have also made the comeback possible.
“If you have wetlands here in Maryland, you probably have wood ducks somewhere nearby,” says Donald Webster, waterfowl habitat manager for DNR in Maryland. According to Homyack, the duck population along the Atlantic Flyway has stabilized over the past few decades.
Wood ducks are also called summer ducks, squeakers, woodies, swamp ducks and acorn ducks, the latter because of their preference for nuts. When they’re not paddling around forest ponds and river swamps, the ducks spend their time in trees, says Webster. Their feet have sharp claws – an adaptation to sit on branches.
Adorned with their presence
We also sat deep and, as we hoped, in the blind out of sight. We carefully risked a look into the wetland. Suddenly the rising whistle of a male wood duck broke, jeeeeee, followed by the drawn-out squeak of a woman, cry, cry, the September silence. A rosy setting sun lit the creek as the male came into view around an island of knotweed. In a little over a month, Webster says the ducks would be leaving town. From early to mid-fall, most of the wood ducks from the Chesapeake region head south.
Then Black Bottom Branch would lose a bit of its magic until a certain whistle heralds the arrival of spring in mid-March.
Science journalist Cheryl Lyn Dybas and wildlife photographer Ilya Raskin ventured into the Millington Wildlife Management Area under the auspices of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ waterfowl biologists. You recently contributed to the May / June 2020 issue of BirdWatching, which featured the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and its birds and butterflies.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, tips on dressing and identification, and more in your inbox.
Sign up for free