My steps had taken me to the edge of still water at a spring pond, and red-osier dogwood offered me protection from the watchful eyes of waterfowl.
You see, the birds were here to nest and I yearned to be in on the courtship of these migrants. It might be a link in genes somewhere in the past that compelled my interest.
As the early light exposed bulrush and the statue-like pose of a blue heron on the far side, a pair of blue-winged teal dimpled the water with movement hardly noticeable. Mallards already were nesting, and the squeal of a hen wood duck as she flushed with her gaudy mate within yards of my hiding place forced these eyes to follow their flight to a hole in a red oak that had lost a limb to some summer storm.
Her egg laying also had started, with one egg deposited in the nest hole each day. She will incubate when possibly a dozen or so complete the clutch.
But the teal had my attention. They just had migrated from the south and I quietly wondered of their far travels. The hen might have left southern Wisconsin with other teal in late September last year.
Summer air still lingered in that marsh but a lone maple branch on a nearby tree already blushed as though embarrassed to show red so early. But shortening days triggered the teal to speed like the wind, and within days they fed on wee beasties in a lovely slough in Brazil, or Chile or Cuba.
Blue-winged teal are great distance migrants. A teal banded in Quebec in early September was shot at a plantation in northern South America on Oct. 15. It had traveled 2,875 miles in 27 days.
The male she was with on this morning might have made an appearance in that southern setting. In fact, other males vied for her attention. Head bobbing and nuptial plumage were put into play.
She chose just one. The two fed and lounged together. Living was easy, and as the sun traveled north the pair followed the lengthening days to possibly a wildlife refuge in Louisiana or a flooded cattle pasture in Mississippi.
Other males made passes but her male companion was up to the challenge. They remained paired.
Now a pond in the Town of Koshkonong became home. I often saw the male alone, lingering as she nested nearby in a grassy field.
I would surmise nocturnal skunk and raccoon often passed close to the nest but she had concealed it well.
Only the hen would incubate but the male would hang around, just in case that first nest was destroyed and the hen would need his services to re-nest. It is a male thing!
I was pulling for this tiny hen, as she must keep those eggs warm for up to 25 days. Then the ducklings must be marched to the nearby pond. Crows are good at spotting the marching gang.
Young crows need the protein in this food chain of nature also. The prowlers of the night and day never cease their quest. A nearby home permits the family cat to join in.
Cats should be kept on the owner’s property. They are notorious killers. But the group of ducklings made it to the pond.
Then, one morning, from my hiding place, I spot a hen blue-winged teal swimming across the tiny wetland with five ducklings following so closely they seem as one. I almost cried with joy.
The hen had traveled far. So many miles! So many dangers! Three cheers for this pair of teal. The male now was nowhere to be seen.
As is the case in most waterfowl, it is the hen alone that cares for the brood. In the case of geese and swans, both parents watch over the young.
Insects are their food of choice. A good source of protein, amino acids must be rearranged in digestion and metabolism to construct duck protein. The tiny wetland provides this in abundance as the young gorge themselves on hellgrammites, midges, crane flies and other winged things.
The brood thrives and the young grow strong. I spot them on subsequent forays to the pond. But, as in baseball, our brood is nearing the ninth inning. Days are hot and dry. It just never seems to rain this summer!
Corn stalks on sandy fields curl and wither. People complain of drying lawns. The tiny wetland shrinks, not unlike a balloon losing air.
The hen leads the still flightless young to a larger nearby pond. A relentless sun robs this pond of the life-sustaining water also.
We crank the air conditioner at home and I water my garden. Golf courses stay green for our summer pursuits. All is fine in our modified life style of air-conditioned vehicles and stores. Food stores bulge with produce. The dry weather mostly is conversation fodder.
The teal tough it out, but one day the water is gone, taking protection and insect protein with it. Nature has the hen programmed to save her own life to hopefully nest another year. The brood is left behind on the dried soil. They have struck out in our ninth inning.
The night prowlers will win in the end. It is a survival thing. There are winners and losers. But my heart still goes out to that little hen blue-winged teal. That little brood will not make the trip south this fall. The drying winds had won.
There might be another spring to nest for that hen. But oh, it is so distant … so many miles to travel … so many pitfalls. I wish you well, friend teal.
Nesting in the waterfowl world
Ducks collectively known as puddle ducks nest in grass areas and sometimes quite a distance from a wetland. The species nesting in our area mostly are mallards and blue-winged teal. These so-called puddle ducks nest away from water, have a colored patch on their wings, can vault into the air when taking flight, and generally feed in shallow water by “tipping up.”
The species known as the “diving ducks” generally dive for their food in deeper water, have no colored patch on their wings, need a running take-off to gain flight, and usually nest right in a marsh. The nest is constructed in the rushes. Canvasbacks and Redheads fall into this grouping of waterfowl.
In all duck species, the hen might re-nest if a first nest is destroyed. If it is too far along in incubation, she will not attempt a new clutch of eggs. No ducks raise two broods in one summer.
In Wisconsin, predators get most of the waterfowl nests. In most cases less than 3 or 4 percent of the nesting hens are successful. In fact, all ground -nesting birds are in trouble.
Meadow larks nest on the ground, and when did you last see one of these birds? There just are not enough large areas of grass. And in a limited grass area, the predators have a much easier time happening upon the nest.
To top it off, the rural area in Jefferson County teems with skunks, raccoons and house cats. Ducks that nest in alfalfa fields have to put up with haying operations to boot. This summer drought must be factored into the equation. It was the last straw for many broods of little ducks.
I will sit in a duck blind on opening day and marvel at the flights of teal. Shotgun to the shoulder, I will relish my good luck to drop one of these tiny ducks in the marsh. It will grace our table.
These will be birds that migrated from the north where nesting success is much better. I wonder at times where my feelings lie in this life-death scenario of nature?
Waning Summer days A fast-moving flock of blue-winged teal very easily can be compared to the fast movement of this summer! Where has summer gone? The tilt of the planet Earth that we call home dictates our slide out of warmth, through a season of color and change and into winter. But heck, it is a continuum. What goes around comes around. You can count on it. Each day — no, each moment — offers something for us to enjoy.
A wife and I marvel at busy chickadees on the feeders this very moment, and tomatoes being readied for canning arouse our sense of smell. I promise to enjoy the rain on the windows, the flock of sand hill cranes alighting in grain stubble fields, the egrets aside the State Highway 26 bypass wetlands, a voice in the hall of an apartment, mail in the mailbox (no matter how “junky”), a picture of a grandchild and even the softness of my breathing.
Whatever you have, at least you have it at this moment. And you know what, I think I will go cruising with the pickup to find the Black-eyed Susans in bloom. Some will harbor grubs in their stems come November, and this bird has plans to snake some slabbo bluegills out of ice fishing holes this winter!
Some last notes. I have had reports of as many as 100 great egrets roosting in the trees by those wetland scrapes on the Highway 26 bypass These are southern birds that, after nesting, move northward at this time of the year. Good frog and fish hunting are the idea!
We did spend time at Nelson Lake again this year. All of our children and nine grandchildren had a wonderful time at that Hayward area lake.
And yes, those mystery islands of sticks etc. still are in the lake. And yes, we did catch plenty of bluegills, but the shoulders were not quite so large this year. But a good fish fry was enjoyed!
Thus, summer wanes and the young ducks that beat the odds are testing their wings. My mother often said I shouldn’t wish time away, but I am ready for crisp days and nights. Sorry mom.
An added note: This column was written during our dry summer. Recent rains since have filled the ponds that the brood of teal were using.
These rains are too late, however. I see no signs of the small ducks. However, some frogs of the area have migrated into our tiny water lily pond in the back yard.
We watch as what seems to be a young Barred owl hunting these frogs, which it spots while sitting atop an old water pump. These owls are rodent hunters but the hungry fellow is doing just fine on a frog diet … and in the daytime no less!