There’s an Eliza Doolittle thing happening at the local duck lake. Hugh and I have been frequenting our neighborhood shoreline on Puget Sound — a local, private beach where we hold the golden ticket: an access pass. It’s a coup really, because a lot of the shoreline is privately held here in Washington.
This short strip of beach is a gem. It’s the tip of a 10+-acre restored wetlands parcel that nurtures salmon up creek, houses one Great Blue Heron, one Belted Kingfisher (maybe two), and two Bald Eagles who flush the gulls and crows every time their eagle shadow swoops overhead. There’s also a marsh pond with a regular crew of tame Mallards. They practically rub against your ankles, chirping the way contented, habituated ducks do.
A short while ago, the migrating ducks started to arrive. The deluge began offshore with a raft of Surf Scoters in the shipping lane. There must be a thousand of them, plus a few straggler Pigeon Guillemots flying in from time to time, practically creating a breakwater with their mass.
Then came the wigeons — all American Wigeons, unless a Eurasian Wigeon is flying incognito. They stayed offshore, too, like the scoters. But each day, while sitting on our driftwood log, watching the takeoffs and landings, we heard their squeaky-toy peeps get closer to the shoreline. They’d venture mere yards off-shore . . . until I stood up, or pointed my lens at them. This sent them panicking right back out into the Sound. Needless to say, I stopped pointing my lens at them. Ducks this time of year are a bit nervous.
Four days ago, we saw that a group of eight wigeon had moved into the pond. That means a flight across a gravel parking lot from Puget Sound. It’s closer to human activity and right next to a kids’ jungle gym. That’s a trusting move for a wigeon. The pond is small enough that they wouldn’t stand a chance against a human-driven projectile . . . if we’re thinking in terms of the wigeon’s biggest concerns. The Bald Eagles don’t seem to fluster them. The eagles prefer their salmon fishing grounds. And there’s an early alert system in place, run by local crows who have their eyes to the sky, and who caw the minute a raptor enters air space.
The wigeons’ first day there was marked by the type of skittishness you might expect from birds who aren’t quite sure if this pond is a “safe house.” Maybe the Mallards should have clued them in from the start. But who knows what Mallards think when the winter snowbirds fly in and take over the neighborhood. The wigeons that day stayed huddled against the cattails at the far end of the pond.
That was four days ago. Yesterday, we visited the pond again. The same eight wigeon were there. But they were shaking off their Pacific Flyway nerves. Three of them were preening in the sun on a floating log with the Mallards, easily within range of my lens. I tried one photo and it didn’t spook them. So, I settled in near the reeds and watched as this ducky Pygmalion story unfolded in reverse: the wigeon were transforming from their northern, sophisticated reserve, to the casual assuredness of the local Mallards.
I’m not usually close enough to wild, migrating ducks to watch this transition with such detail. It’s tougher to get next to game animals than it is to species who don’t have as much to fear from humans. As such, I hold the privilege dear. I had my own enculturation into the world of the wigeon, including an intimate view of the mated pairs, the communication between them and their flock, their collective behaviors — preening together, feeding together, squeaking at each other, and floating together in synchronized slumber. It was a perfect musical in its own right . . . no Rex Harrison required.