Quacks and Splashes

by Cheryl Shank | Feb 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Waterfowl migration on the Choptank River, Cambridge, Maryland. Photo © Cheryl Shank.

Surf Scoters floated beneath us on the Choptank River, their dramatic head patterns standing out against the water. Five minutes later, we parked at the end of a dead-end street and unloaded our gear. A 4-foot (1-m) concrete wall was all that separated us from the river we had just crossed.

As we leaned over the seawall, the water erupted with hundreds of expectant waterfowl. For about fifty years, the locals have tossed corn to the migrating waterfowl here, and now they investigate every visitor.

Originally, we had planned to visit Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Stevens, Pennsylvania, this winter to see the Snow Goose migration. However, a month earlier we met a wildlife photographer who told us about this hotspot for duck migration. Hoping to see a wider variety of species up close, we changed our sights to Cambridge, Maryland.

At first, I simply tried to process the sight of the river teeming with Canvasbacks, American Wigeons, Greater and Lesser Scaups, Mallards, and Canada Geese. Overhead a few Ring-billed Gulls circled and screamed.

We tried to capture the essence of the moment with our cameras, but it was a little difficult. Generally, ducks photograph best without a dozen others photo-bombing the scene. This, however, was one giant sea of ducks, and picking out the most photogenic ones was tricky.

A neighbor lady came by and tossed out some corn. Instantly the water boiled in a giant, frenetic eruption. Scaups dived, Mallards dabbled, gulls shrieked, and cameras vibrated. The frantic excitement of the ducks surged through us as we tried to absorb the spectacle. For a few minutes, chaos reigned; then, slowly, the ducks sorted themselves out and settled down a little.

In the afternoon, we left for an hour at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. As we circled the loop drive, we caught views of hundreds of Canada Geese and Tundra Swans. Several Bald Eagles soared high overhead. Everything stayed at a distance, though, so we headed back to the river to finish out the day.

The tide had come in and puddled in the end of the street. The ducks continued to float between the riverside houses. In the distance, hundreds of gulls swept past, and an Osprey flew by. Golden light drifted over the river as the ducks started settling down for the night.

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