Morning In The Swamp
January 12, 2016
No matter how hard you wish it, a hooded merganser will not morph into a wood duck.
I tried, though. The three mergansers zipped into the decoys just after legal shoot time, but the shadows linger in the edges of the river swamp so I couldn’t get a bead on them when they landed. They came in low over the water, and skidded across the slick surface with that soft, swooshing sound. I could see the wake as they coasted to a stop, but between the dim light and the intertwining branches, I couldn’t tell what they were. A low approach like that usually indicates diving ducks, but all I’d ever seen in this stretch of the Northeast Cape Fear had been woodies.
The trio motored toward the decoy spread, silently cruising across the inky water, and as they broke into the open, there was no mistaking the big, white sail on the drake’s head. I blinked my eyes, hoping that they were just playing tricks. This had to be a wood duck. I really wanted it to be a wood duck. I needed it to be a wood duck.
But it was still a hooded merganser, as were the two hens sailing along behind him.
They put on a show for me, paddling around in the decoys, ducking and dodging. The drake stretched his neck and lifted his boldly striped breast up out of the water, showing off his full glory. It was a display that any wildlife artist would give an eyetooth to capture in oils or watercolors. But all I could think was, “why can’t you be a wood duck?”
The plastic ducks floating still on the water must have become boring, and the three mergansers paddled on upstream a bit. About 40 or 50 yards away, where the little cut opened into a pond, they idled away the morning. The sun rolled up over the cypress trees, painting the sky with that magical palette that rewards the early-morning outdoorsman. For a moment or two, I really wished I’d brought the camera.
But then I caught a glimpse of the mergansers at the edge of the swamp, and forgot about the scenery playing out along the treeline. I squinted my eyes, peering through the tangled cat claw vines and hanging cypress branches. Was that a white-feathered head, or was that the topknot of a wood duck? I knew the answer before the question, but that didn’t dim the wistful thoughts.
If that were a wood duck, how would I get the shot? I could slip over the side of the canoe into the shallow water. I could sneak along the edge of the cat claws, up to the trunk of that big cypress. Then I could step out, and as the duck launched himself into the air, I would give him a few feet and then, “BANG!” I’d let the little 20 gauge speak death.
But it wasn’t a wood duck. It would never be a wood duck. I do not possess the magic to turn a hooded merganser into a wood duck. So it remained a hooded merganser.
Finally, the three birds decided it was time to find something else to do… maybe go find some fish to eat or something… and they took off in that low, skipping, diving duck way. They came across the opening in front of my hiding place, streaking by in a telltale flash of black and white that tells the experienced waterfowler, “fish duck, don’t shoot.”
It would have been a beautiful shot, if they had been wood ducks. I’m pretty sure I could have made the single, and probably could have taken a hen too. But I don’t eat mergansers, so I don’t shoot mergansers.
If only they had been wood ducks.