Occasionally procrastination pays.
Unseasonably warm February weather fast tracked the spring duck migration in North Iowa, and I had yet to put out the wood duck welcome mat. Time to bedden those boxes.
While many species pass through, “woodies” are among those calling the area home throughout the warmer months.
With most weighing less than two pounds, woodies are among the smaller duck species.
What they lack in size they make up for in pizazz, with drakes being arguably North America’s most colorful and attractive waterfowl.
Once near extinction due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting, woodies are now a thriving conservation success story.
Most waterfowl species nest either on vegetation over water (typically muskrat houses), on small islands, or on wetland-adjacent uplands.
Woodies are among a handful of cavity nesters, normally choosing hollow trees.
Nesting sites are abundant over much of their range, but can be limited in areas with relatively sparse timber, including North Iowa.
Fortunately the diminutive ducks readily use artificial nesting structures. There are a variety of commercial or homemade models constructed of wood, metal or plastic, and the woodies don’t seem to discriminate.
Installed over water and/or outfitted with predator guards, wood duck houses are actually safer for nesting hens and their eggs than natural cavities and can greatly enhance duckling production.
I provide a couple dozen of these structures on properties along the Winnebago River north of Ventura, some in place for over 20 years.
Once installed, they require only annual cleaning and bedding with cedar shavings along with occasional repair or replacement.
Since most of mine are over or immediately adjacent to water, this is best accomplished when everything is frozen.
But the aforementioned balmy stretch took the ice early, leaving me the more challenging task of servicing the boxes via kayak.
And then, as is wont to happen in March, the weather changed.
Several days with lows around 10 degrees and sub-freezing highs were punctuated by a single morning with the mercury well below zero at sunrise. Most area wetlands were blanketed with a fresh layer of clear, strong ice.
Sensing a reprieve, I rearranged my schedule so as to be free on that final frigid day.
The prolonged chill left me reasonably confident the new ice would bear my weight. Yet a similar assumption once cost me a dunking, and a $400 iPhone, when the ice gave way. (The Lifeproof case proved not so much.)
Fortunately the water I hoped to be walking on was only waist deep or less in most spots, allowing me to hedge my bet by wearing chest waders.
This proved helpful in shallower areas where, as expected, the ice wasn’t quite up to the task. In the deeper spots, where standing on the bottom would have made for painfully slow going and left me vertically challenged, the frozen sheet held.
The sun was out, the wind light and by early afternoon the temperature had risen to a comparatively mild 20-plus, making for a comfortable excursion.
Over the course of a few hours I reached all of the houses, finding evidence of last spring’s duck activity in most.
Along the way I saw a river otter, bald eagles, several pheasants, a small flock of trumpeter swans, numerous Canada geese and lots of mallards. Although I never spotted one, I did hear the distinctive whistle of a wood duck fleeing my approach.
Often the boxes will attract other winter inhabitants. This year I found an unhappy fox squirrel with a thick nest of leaves and sticks.
Initially I set to digging them out, which elicited a high-pitched squeak that I soon discovered came from a pink, quivering body.
I’m not sure how many were in the litter, as I quickly returned as much of the bedding as possible and closed the door. Naked babies and frigid temperatures don’t mix.
Hopefully mamma squirrel forgave my intrusion and came back to resume housekeeping.
Although it’s a bit early for New Year’s resolutions, mine for 2018 is to get at those boxes earlier next winter rather than counting on a late-season cold front.
This year, however, procrastination worked out just fine. And with the duck boxes now scratched from my to-do list, it’s time to get to those taxes!