Exploring The Last Green Valley: Wood duck conservation at work in Sprague, Connecticut


Exploring The Last Green Valley: Wood duck conservation at work in Sprague, Connecticut

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Wood duck conservation at work in Sprague, Connecticut

From time to time, readers of this column will send me emails remarking about a recent column or providing me with information about our region’s natural and cultural resources. One reader that provides me with helpful ideas and information is Dick Waterman, from the Hanover section of Sprague.

This past week I finally had the chance to visit Dick and his wife Paula to learn more about their property, the wildlife that frequents their land, and Dick’s work maintaining nesting boxes for wood ducks.

I went to see him because of a recent email he had sent me specifically about wood ducks. Here is his story, quoted in full from his Dec. 20 email titled, “Opening Gift Boxes Before Christmas.”

“When my wife and I moved to Hanover in 1983, we were visited that first winter by a fellow who pulled into our driveway in an old SUV. He was dressed in a camo jumpsuit. His name, he told me, was Fred Pogmore, and said he worked for the Department of Environmental Protection and was seeking permission to continue to attend to the wood duck nesting boxes he had installed in the 40 acres of beaver impoundment behind our house. I was happy to grant him passage, and eager to tag along. Snow had already fallen and melted into the ice, leaving distorted but visible tracks, and Fred pointed out to me what had made the tracks, as well as other signs of wildlife that were then unfamiliar to me.

“Fred has since given over the responsibility to me of maintaining and caring for the wood duck boxes. The Pogmore family still owns property in Franklin that abuts our town’s (Sprague) land preserve, and in fact the family granted the Town of Sprague an easement for a trail that reaches a promontory from which, on a clear day, one can see the Foxwoods Hotel in North Stonington/Ledyard.

“The beaver impoundment (some call it a swamp) behind our house is shallow, and consequently freezes early in the winter and we have often been able to ice skate early in December on occasion. I maintain five nesting boxes. Today, the ice was smooth as glass, two or three inches thick at most, but hard, black and clear enough to see the bottom on the bright day. I hauled my sled out, and armed with a bucket of wood shavings and a couple of tools necessary to open the boxes and if necessary, make repairs, I headed out to see what I would find in my pre-Christmas gift box openings. Four of the five boxes had been occupied during the season, as evidenced by the egg shells that remained, in the bedding, along with a couple of unhatched eggs, and for the first time in my memory, a day-old hatchling, desiccated but in such perfect shape as to have been prepared by a taxidermist.

“I replaced the old bedding with fresh wood shavings from my workshop, and the boxes are now ready for the coming spring’s tenants. This past year we enjoyed watching and listening to a couple of families of wood ducks. Shy they may be, but the mallards and geese that are bolder and come to the cracked corn we feed them act as confidence birds and after a time the wood duck young are scurrying around between the legs of the bigger fowl, enjoying the feast.”

When I visited with Dick and Paula we talked about our fascination with nature, our favorite nature writers, and shared stories of encounters with some of the region’s animals.

I specifically wanted to talk with him about wood ducks, to get his permission to quote him in this column, and to tour the area around his beaver pond.

Before meeting with them I did some research on wood ducks and here is what I found out about these fascinating water fowl.

One of my go-to sources of information on birds is “A Guide to Bird Behavior” by Donald and Lillian Stokes. Volume III has an excellent chapter on wood ducks and their behavior is certainly worthy of a note.

Wood ducks are very unique and are the only native species of “perching” ducks in North America. They have well-developed claws that allow them to climb trees and prefer to make their nests in tree holes. They have long tails and the males have red irises and beautiful iridescent chestnut and green feathers with ornate patterns. The females have a white pattern around the eye and a distinctive profile. Wood ducks are one of the more spectacular-looking species of waterfowl.

Land clearing by early settlers resulted in the loss of woodland nesting habitat for wood ducks and in the 19th century they were close to extinction.

By the early 20th century, our northeast forestlands had begun to grow back due to the decline of agriculture. Coupled with conservation efforts and protection from hunting, wood duck numbers started to increase.

Nesting boxes were first reportedly used in 1937 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge in central Illinois. Following the hurricane of 1938, when many of the dead trees that wood ducks prefer for nesting were destroyed, staff at the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts also began to experiment with the use of artificial nesting boxes to see if they would be accepted by wood ducks.

Both the Illinois and Massachusetts projects proved to be very successful. The use of nesting boxes has since spread to other parts of the country and today they are being constructed and maintained by wildlife groups, agencies and environmentally-minded people.

The work that Dick is doing on his property to maintain five wood duck nesting boxes is a continuation of this effective conservation effort.

In the spring, wood duck pairs will look for nesting sites. They prefer nesting sites in trees located in flooded or swampland since surrounding water aids to keep predators from raiding the nest.

Females usually return to previous breeding areas, and yearlings will also return to the area where they were born. They will use old woodpecker homes such as the larger holes made by pileated woodpeckers, or if available, naturally-rotted holes.

In many cases, thanks to the work that Dick and others are doing, they will take up residence in the man-made nesting boxes.

The tree nesting hole can be located from approximately 4 to 60 feet high, over water or land, and in trees of at least a foot in diameter. The nest cavity can have an opening as small as 3 ½ inches across, and the small holes may help to deter predators from entering the nest. The depth of the nest cavity interior may vary from 2 feet deep to even 15 feet in heavily rotten trees. No matter the depth, the young use their clawed feet to climb out of the nest cavity.

The nesting boxes that Dick maintains on his property are approximately 2 feet tall and 1 foot square with the opening 14 inches from the bottom. Some of his boxes are near water and some are mounted on poles in the water of his pond.

The female will lay one egg a day and cover it with litter. She will also pluck downy feathers from her breast to cover the eggs and keep them warm (usually when half the eggs are laid). She will lay up to 15 eggs though the nest may contain up to 20 eggs. The extra eggs are a result of “egg-dumping” by other females laying eggs in other wood duck nests, in what is called intraspecific parasitism.

Incubation will usually begin when the last egg is laid. The eggs hatch in 30 days, all within a few hours of each other. The female will not leave the nest until all the ducklings can move about. She’ll peer from the nest opening, check for danger, leave the nest and give a special call to her young to follow. Using the claws on their feet they will crawl and climb to the nest hole and jump out with their wings held out.

A true leap of faith by wood ducklings, they will bounce on the ground a little but are rarely hurt. Immediately they will follow their mother for water and feeding areas.

Wood duck conservation and recovery is an example of successful wildlife management. Thanks to the work of people like Dick Waterman, our region’s population of the amazing wood duck continues to be a healthy one.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.


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