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The Gadwall, a study in understated aesthetics

The tail waters of Hoover Dam, northern Franklin County, Ohio, last Monday. There was a wee bit of a nip in the air - it was about 10 F - creating a steam cloud from the flume of warmer water exiting the dam. As the catch basin remains ice-free, it is a great spot to observe and photograph waterfowl at reasonably close range.

A drake Mallard tips up to scavenge algae from the rocks. One must admire the hardiness of fowl on a frigid day, as they cavort in water barely above freezing on the downside, and air that is far frostier yet on the upside. The geese and ducks go about their business as if it is a summer day. Less hardy human observers shiver and shake, and would quickly perish if they fell into this drink.

There were several species of ducks plying the waters on this day, including this handsome pair of Northern Shovelers. Note how the hen swims with her rotund spoonbill skimming the water, seining up food. She could easily be dismissed as some other species of somberly hued hen duck, but the fat bill and emerald-green wing speculum give her away instantly. As does her distinctive companion.

While shovelers, wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and other ducks are cool, it was the Gadwall that mostly intrigued me. I've always rooted for underdogs, and this duck just does not get its proper due. From afar, even a drake such as this can look unassuming and blend with the masses. Waterfowl illiterati might not even notice the Gadwall.

Hen Gadwall are even less distinguished, and look quite female Mallardesque. Note her white speculum peeking through - it often shows on resting birds - and the richly scalloped look to the back.

Wintry as it may be, it is Spring - Spring! - for the fowl, and bonds have already been struck. This charcoal-rumped drake Gadwall watchfully escorts his mate. They no doubt pine for breeding grounds far to the northwest, but ice-choked waters hold them back. Come the spring thaw, they'll bumping against ice-out until they reach their prairie pothole or whatever northern wetland they seek for the making of more Gadwall.

The English name of this duck is odd, and it seems that no one is quite sure of its origins or even exactly what Gadwall means. The scientific name Anas strepera is easier to interpret. Anas = "duck", and strepera = "noisy". One of the aural delights of a spring marsh packed with ducks is the comically nasal blurting quacks of drake Gadwall. CLICK HERE to listen for yourself.

After a bit, a drake Gadwall drifted near, and began bathing - plunging his head under the icewater, and showering itself with spray. I locked the camera on the bird, hoping for interesting compositions, and was not disappointed. In this shot, taken in mid-shake and frozen with a 1/5000 shutter speed, the true majesty of this bird smacks one in the face. It is like an ornately detailed work of art. Note the extremely fine vermiculations of the flank and breast feathers - avian op art in real life. The fanned plumes are nearly egretlike, and the duck reveals its wing panels of chestnut, ebony, and ivory. When caught primping like this, the wallflower becomes a supermodel!

The Gadwall blows the water off with powerful strokes of its wings, offering another perspective of its beauty. Suffering the breezy chill of a frigid February day was well worth it, in order to do a shoot with one of our most beautiful ducks.


C said…
they remind me of woodcock feathers
Anonymous said…
Ah.... chestnut on the Gadwall. Once again your beautiful photos captured that which our naked-eye often misses.
Anxiously awaiting the thawing of the potholes.
Kenmare, ND

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