Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
I heard the ducks before I actually saw them. Not the familiar quacking normally associated with waterfowl, but rather the screeching “Who-week, Who-week” that is the signature greeting of a female wood duck. Sitting atop a downed log, I was huddled within the tangled confines of a shallow wooded swamp where the birds — eight or nine of them — had come in from behind. Looking over my shoulder, I quickly spotted the web-foots. With necks arched and legs extended, the woodies were descending through the treetops at breakneck speed; dropping like meteors while nimbly dodging any branches that stood between them and the water.
The birds’ obvious enthusiasm to get to where I was sitting had nothing to do with me, of course. Instead, their collective attentions were focused on joining my group of wood duck replicas currently floating in the center of a tiny clearing a few yards distant.
Quickly taking aim on the nearest drake, I shouldered the shotgun, fired, and then cleanly missed – with both barrels. Greeting calls turned to screeching alarm notes as, in less time than it takes to tell, the woodies had climbed back through the wooded canopy and disappeared. There was no time to cry over spilt milk. More birds – this time a group of six – were already on the way. Arriving over the watery opening, they too began a dramatic descent to the decoys. Taking aim on the nearest drake, I shouldered the shotgun, fired and missed again. Staying with the bird, I fired again. This time the shot connected, and the duck splashed down at the edge of the decoys.
Moving to collect the downed bird, I heard another screeching call. Looking up, I spotted a pair making its arrival. When the ducks spotted me, they turned inside out and began climbing straight up. This time, I managed to connect with both barrels and the woodies splashed into the duckweed just a few feet apart.
It had been an amazing hunt. With the sun yet to appear above the horizon, I had attained my three-bird limit in less than five minutes — an unneeded reminder of just how fast and furious hunting wood ducks can be. Returning from their morning feed, all three ducks were bulging with acorns; a virtual guarantee that I would be enjoying some unrivaled table fare.
But although my hunt was over, the spectacular bird show was just beginning. Stepping behind a branchy deadfall, I watched as several more flocks noisily dropped in to the woodland oasis. The sun eventually made its appearance and, following few more minutes of viewing, I quietly exited the woods.
Often referred to as the Beau Brummel of water birds, the elegantly crested woodie is our most colorful duck. It is unique from other waterfowl in many ways. Shunning open water habitats, wood ducks prefer the quiet seclusion of wooded ponds, remote river backwaters, and willow sloughs. Successfully pursuing the bird does not require tons of equipment or large spreads of decoys. A dozen realistic replicas are more than enough. Good thing, since getting to where wood ducks want to be may require a lengthy hike through dense and inhospitable terrain.
On most days, peak activity occurs at first light and again at sunset as flocks leave nighttime roosts or daytime loafing areas to gorge on fallen acorns in nearby backwaters or upland woodlots. When available, woodies will also consume large quantities of ripened wild grapes. Once the fall harvest begins, wood ducks will also visit picked corn fields to glean waste grain. Regardless of diet, wood ducks make excellent, melt-in-your-mouth table fare.
When I first began hunting waterfowl as a youngster, wood ducks were less common than today. But as maple, basswood, and other tree species have aged, the number of natural nesting cavities has shown a corresponding increase which has allowed wood duck populations to flourish. In Iowa, wood ducks currently rank third in the hunters’ bag. Mallards and blue-winged teal are the only species more frequently bagged.
Wood ducks are not particularly fond of cold weather, and the first hard frosts will make them think about moving south. In Northern Iowa, populations exhibit a steady decrease during the last half of October. In the central and southern portions of the state, the migration is delayed for a bit longer. But by the time November marshes begin to ice over, most woodies are long gone – well on their way to wintering grounds in the swamplands of Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. A lesser number of wintering wood ducks have been reported in Cuba.