By Dave Coulter
Just when I think there’s not going to be much excitement waiting along the Des Plaines River, Mother Nature dishes up some surprises and sends me back home in wonder. We’re kicking off the spring migration, and today I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler, my first of the season. I also spotted a Pied-billed Grebe fishing in the main channel of river, just north of Lake Street. This was my first time seeing this small water bird in these woods.
But today was the Day of the Duck on the Des Plaines. Wood Ducks are regular nesters in Thatcher Woods along the river bottoms. These are shy creatures, and unlike Mallards and Canada Geese they keep their distance from humanity. They often hang back fifty or a hundred yards away, paddling among the cottonwoods and maples. They are masters at hiding behind tree trunks so if you want to get a good look at them bring your binoculars. You will be rewarded for your perseverance.
I have never seen Wood Ducks put on the display like they did this morning. I saw over a dozen paddling in the flooded woods. They are all in their full breeding plumage now, which by itself is a sight that should restore your awe of our local - often battered - natural world. The normally shy Wood Ducks were ripping and cavorting like Blue Jays through the bottomlands presumably staking out mates and territories.
The colorful males are dramatic, but this was the first time I‘d noticed the subtle colors on a female Wood Duck. They are perfectly camouflaged - a study in grey - to blend in with the bark of the tree cavities they’ll nest in. I had never noticed, until today that is, that the female sports a deep dark moss green coloration in her head feathers, an iridescence that I only saw when she was at a certain angle to the morning sun.
Female Mallards, it should be noted, sport their own subtle come-hither plumage: a bright blue trapezoid on their back half. It seems to be effective. A number of the bright-green headed males were in thrall, and life along this minor flyway flies along.