Wood Ducks at Grindstone Marsh in Hamilton
One spring, on the only clear day in a week of rainy weather, Bob and I seized the opportunity to go birdwatching. A return trip was in order to the area of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton. Not since the previous spring had we visited the protected areas in the Gardens’ vicinity, all of which make for great hiking and birdwatching. It was in the Grindstone Marsh that Bob and I came upon two pairs of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) idling in the backwaters of one of the marshes.
We accessed the valley via Cherry Hill Gate just off Plains Road West, this just after a short scouting expedition in Woodland Cemetery across the road. We were looking for the Screech Owls reportedly seen there. Our timing was not good, so we followed up by electing a new hiking trail to explore. The trail quickly descended into the valley where we linked up with the South Bridle Trail that runs east along Grindstone Creek. We were enjoying a relatively sunny day and fairly warm temperatures given the time of year. We were not the only ones enjoying the sunshine as you can see by the number of turtles basking on these partially submerged logs.
The trail soon had us climbing another hill where it edged around an expanse of open water. In a fairly secluded section of the forested wetland, and from high on a ridge overlooking the swampland, I noticed something unusual about the silhouettes of some ducks and was very pleased when I realized they were Wood Ducks. It was the crested heads of the male Ducks that gave them away because the iridescent green and blue was more readily visible against the pewter-coloured water.
The female Wood Duck has a shorter crest, but being brownish-grey, this one blended in with the shadows skirting the surface of the pond. I think, on the whole, that the females are very elegant looking with the delicate white patches about their eyes.
Bob and I descended the slope of the ridge to get closer to the ducks and overcome the tree branches and twigs obscuring our view, but the wary Wood Ducks were onto us and promptly swam further away, taking cover in the bleached bulrushes at the water’s edge. The habitat in the valley was perfect for the Wood Ducks. They like wooded swamps, creeks, marshes and shallow lakes for their breeding grounds. This breeding pair would have selected each other as mates while on their wintering grounds before they migrated back here to nest. These ducks would have returned from their wintering grounds in April and would be nesting soon.
Wood Ducks are perching ducks, and because of their broad tail and short, broad wings, they are capable of flying adeptly through the woods. Unlike most other waterfowl, they nest in trees where they select cavities excavated by Pileated Woodpeckers or naturally occurring holes in hollow trunks, cavities in diseased trees or places where branches have broken off allowing the heartwood to rot out.
If a suitable natural cavity is not available, Wood Ducks are very receptive to using nesting boxes such as this one attached to a tree near the water. These ducks, like only a few other species, have strong claws with which to grip bark and securely perch on tree branches.
Although Wood Ducks are classified as Perching Ducks, they forage for food much as dabbling ducks do. They eat a wide variety of foods with their first choice being aquatic plants such as duckweed, waterlilies and water primrose. When these are in short supply, Wood Ducks take to dry land where they will eat seeds, fruits, and insects among other things. Examples of foods consumed by Wood Ducks include caterpillars, flies and beetles, blackberries and wild cherries, even acorns and snails.
We had been hoping to catch sight of these magnificent ducks for quite sometime. A male Wood Duck in breeding plumage is the most beautiful of any duck bar none. His crested head is an exquisite iridescent green and blue that deepens to a purplish black below the eyes. It is offset by striking white markings, red eyes and a red and white bill. Even his chestnut breast is glossy while the flanks are a soft golden colour. The duck in my photograph is not close enough to reveal all the nuances of the remaining multi-coloured plumage, but suffice to say that ornate patterns appear on almost every feather. It was a treat to see these individuals, but we will keep our fingers crossed for an opportunity to photograph some of this species at a closer range one day.