by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
You have to have water if you are going to have ducks. Now that's such an obvious statement that it sounds ridiculous to make it, but you would be surprised to learn what a hard job it was for biologists and conservationists to get that basic fact across to the general public and to the federal government just seventy years ago.
And it's a job that's still a hard sell today, even when we know all the facts. Not only do the ducks need water; they need clean water. Even today there are departments of the United States government that are destroying what other departments in the government are trying to create, or are destroying what the others are trying to save. Sometimes both departments work out of the very same office and some of the opposing individuals even have their desks across from each other.
All through the first half of the twentieth century engineers, working for the Department of Agriculture, drained millions of acres of marshland and potholes to put the land into agricultural production. That land on the Great Plains, extending from Nebraska up through the Dakotas and into Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada, was the main duck factory in North America. Draining went on in all other parts of the nation and it's still going on in places today. We are losing 100,000 wetland acres each year. However, nothing approached the conversion of wetlands to dry lands that took place on the prairies.
To make matters worse, the long lasting droughts of the "dust bowl" years in the early 1930s eliminated most of the water remaining on the prairies and decimated the duck populations. I grew up on a farm in northwestern New Jersey, an area not noted for ducks in the first place, and I never saw a duck until about 1942.
Fortunately, thankfully, such ardent conservationists as "Ding" Darling, South Dakota Senator Norbeck, Aldo Leopold, and others, made the public aware of the duck's plight and got the duck stamp program going to raise funds to purchase land to enlarge the national refuge program started by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Ducks Unlimited has raised millions of dollars through private donations to greatly expand the conservation plans. Private individuals, such as Dr. Donald Carter of Butler, NJ, raised and released thousands of wood ducks. The wood duck, the most beautiful duck in North America, was once an endangered species. It is now quite common over most of its former range. The ducks still need all the help they can get but, on the whole, they are common enough over most of the United States that everyone can photograph some of the species at some time throughout the year.
What do you need to photograph ducks? The longest telephoto lens you can possible afford. Ducks are hunted over most of the country and parts of most wildlife refuges are also open to hunting, although no hunting is allowed in our national parks. As ducks are migratory species, almost every duck is exposed to hunting pressure at certain times of the year in most locations and that makes them exceptionally wary. Mother ducks don't raise dummies; ducks that have been shot at don't come close, so you need a long lens.
That brings us up to the next most important item of need, or perhaps it is the most important. I've just stressed how wary ducks are, so it should be instantly apparent that, if the ducks can see you, you will not be able to see the ducks, at least not through a viewfinder. Except in city parks, ducks must be photographed from a blind. According to where I am, and the situation, I use either the Rue Pocket or Ultimate Blind. On private land, where the blind won't be stolen, it's best to put your Rue Ultimate Blind up for several days before you intend to use it so that the ducks become accustomed to it. On a number of refuges, the government has put up permanent blinds for use by the public and, of course, that works best of all because, as they are always there, the ducks accept them as an integral part of the landscape.
I created my own private refuge, in 1970, by dredging a ¾ acre pond on my land. I have built a permanent blind that provides as close to a guarantee for duck photography as is possible. I have always advocated using bait to photograph every species that can be baited, where it is legal. Let me stress that last point again. DO NOT BAIT ducks on either public or private land where hunting is allowed because there are strict federal laws against baiting under those circumstances. No duck hunting is allowed on my refuge, ever. Even if you don't hunt, if someone else should hunt over a pond you had baited, even if they did not know you had baited, they could face stiff penalties if discovered.
I use shelled corn for bait as the ducks love it and thrive on it, and it only costs about nine dollars per hundred pounds. I feed several tons a year as I put a pail full of corn in my pond every day that the pond is not frozen over and, if the ducks are still coming in, I throw the corn out on the ice. I just love to see the ducks flying in and swimming about.
Because I have been putting food out for the ducks for over thirty years, my pond is a Mecca for them, although I don't know where they go when they leave my pond. I have had as many as seventy-six wood ducks at one time, although I usually average no more than three dozen. I have had over one hundred twenty-five mallards at one time and usually a dozen Canada geese. I would probably have more geese, but the pair that nests on the pond each spring and summer chase most of the others off. I get a few black ducks with the mallards and, occasionally, a few ring-necked ducks. The corn also attracts muskrats and deer to the pond. Painted turtles crawl up on the logs I put out for the ducks and, once in a while, herons come in to try for the fish.
I have always said that, when working from a blind, be alert to every photographic opportunity. Don't be single-minded. While waiting for ducks, I've gotten great gray squirrel, hawk, crow, kingfisher and song bird photos.
Wood ducks, as their name implies, live primarily in heavily wooded areas. They, and the buffleheads, goldeneyes and mergansers, are some of the few ducks that nest in tree hollows.
As these hollows are always in short supply, wood duck nesting boxes have been built and put up by the tens of thousands by people and organizations interested in increasing this duck's population.
I have put up nine boxes and usually have four or five boxes used every year. Put up some of these nesting boxes on ponds in your own area and they will give you many photographic opportunities. If you build them, they will come. You can get excellent plans and information from Ducks Unlimited on line at www.ducks.org. or by calling 901-758-3764. You should join Ducks Unlimited as they, like the ducks, also need all the help they can get. They are a key player in increasing duck numbers throughout North America.
The ducks are most active just at dawn and from late afternoon until dark. That means, if it's light enough for you to see the ducks at 6:00 a. m., you will have to be in your blind by 5:00 a. m. because the ducks will start dropping in at 5:30 or before it's light enough for you to see them. You will know they are coming in by their whistling wings and the splashes they make as they set down. If you are late getting into your blind in the morning and you flush the ducks off, they probably won't come back until the afternoon. Because you may be shooting under less than optimal conditions, you may have to push your Fuji Sensia 100 or Kodak Elite Chrome 100 to an ISO of 200. With digital cameras, you can just dial in a higher ISO of 250 or even 800.
Some Duck Facts You Should Know:
Male ducks do not help to raise their young, leaving the female when she begins to incubate the eggs.
All young ducks, male and female, wear female plumage until they molt in early fall. Also, all ducks lose their primary flight feathers in July and cannot fly. The males lose their bright colors at this time, wearing their "eclipse" plumage that makes them look like females. They will be back in full color by September.
Ducks land and take off into the wind because it is easier for them to do so as they get additional braking power or lift from the wind.
When you see a flock of swimming ducks suddenly all turn into the wind, get ready to take your flight shots as they take off. They often signal that they are about to fly by elevating their heads. The higher a ducks stretches its neck, the more anxious it is about something it perceives to be danger.
Both the mallard and wood ducks are classified as "dipper" or pond ducks because they usually feed in water about twelve inches deep. By merely tipping up, they can reach food on the pond's bottom. However, both of these ducks can, and do, feed in much deeper water by diving completely below the surface.
Both of these ducks can fly by springing directly into the air. They do not have to run along the surface of the water to get up speed, as do the scaup, canvasback and other diving ducks.
There are now 520 national wildlife refuges in the United States, which means that there are bound to be several of them within driving distance, no matter where you live. Ducks can be found in almost all of them.
For those who might be interested, I am going to open my private refuge, on a very limited basis, for photography on a "pay per shoot" basis. If you are interested, you can get details from my website or by calling 908-362-6616.