First steps

Alberta has six species of cavity-nesting ducks. Two species (Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead) are quite common while the others (Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Barrow’s Goldeneye and Wood Duck) are less common and/or have more limited distribution in the province.

One duckling launches from the nest box

One duckling launches from the nest box

Alberta has six species of cavity-nesting ducks. Two species (Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead) are quite common while the others (Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Barrow’s Goldeneye and Wood Duck) are less common and/or have more limited distribution in the province.

Since these ducks are secondary cavity nesters, they can be attracted to use nestboxes. Jim Potter of Delburne has built and set out thousands of duck boxes throughout Central Alberta and has inspired others to get involved in cavity-nesting duck conservation.

My opportunity to get these images of buffleheads fledging came one evening last July when Jim called to say that he knew of a box containing young that would likely fledge the next morning.

Ducklings remain in the nest for only 24-36 hours, after which they climb up the inside of the nesting cavity and leap to the ground below. They have been known to jump from as high as 20 meters!

I was on the road by 5:30 a.m. and sitting in Jim’s blind by 7:00 a.m., with a clear view of the entrance hole, about 2.5 meters above the ground.

What promised to be a pleasant morning turned nasty as the clouds blew in, a chilly south wind came up and it started to rain. These weather conditions didn’t deter the mosquitoes, which descended in their usual hordes.

Cramped and cold, I waited and watched for over three hours. I could hear the noise of the young scrambling around inside the box and the mom peeked out entrance hole a couple of times.

By about 10:30 a.m., I wondered if she sensed me in the blind, so I tiptoed out and sat on a wet hummock well away from the nest.

Sure enough, about 15 minutes later she came up to sit at the entrance hole. Suddenly, a small dark duckling pushed its way from under her breast and launched itself out of the box.

I knew she was ready to soon follow, so I gingerly returned to the nest.

It was mayhem for the next minute or so as the 10 remaining ducklings fledged. Each ball of fluff plopped softly on the ground beneath the box and immediately pressed its way towards the direction of the hen’s incessant clucking.

It was a struggle for some, as they had to clamber though thick grass and up over rotten logs. But they all eventually found their mother, who was fussing to and fro in the underbrush.

Once she had her brood gathered together, she led them off—single file—down an overgrown cow path towards the water. Still clucking excitedly, the hen eased into the pond and implored her young to follow.

The babies swam without hesitation, looking like little black and white wind-up toys as they churned their way to the safety of mid-pond.

As if on cue, the sun came out and the wind stopped. The new family settled down in the calm of a warm July morning as I packed up my gear, bid them adieu and thanked them for letting me witness such a remarkable event.

I would like to thank Jim for his tireless conservation efforts. He has written a book about cavity nesters that can be downloaded at: http://www.ab-conservation.com/go/default/index.cfm/programs/wildlife/wildlife-projects/nest-box-program/overview/.

He also assisted Phil French, a local videographer, and the Red Deer River Naturalists with the production of an excellent video about cavity-nesting ducks: Inside the Box.

Contact me if you’d like more information.

Myrna Pearman is the Biologist/Site Services Manager of Ellis Bird Farm. She can be reached at mpearman@ellisbirdfarm.ca.