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Nature Nut: A hatch, a march and a search

July 1, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns concerning duck nests.

Last week, I wrote about two mallard duck nesting experiences that had caught my attention this spring. The most recent took place right outside my front door and kept me busy watching the brooding hen for almost three weeks.

But the real duckling excitement came on Father’s Day, when none of my children or grandchildren were within 500 miles of Rochester. So that day, I decided to see if I could get a closer look at what was happening under the hen mallard.

As I got near, she hesitated to leave the nest but finally did walk a couple feet away. Her absence revealed one egg with an exit circle of shell at one end broken by the duckling’s egg tooth and another egg with an exit hole just started. It was happening!

A day or so before emerging, the young ducklings apparently start some peeping, causing the hen to vocalize back for imprinting. Shortly after hatching, they shed the beak tooth and dry off under the security of Mom.

Not too long after seeing the cracked eggs, I saw the first bold duckling partially crawl out from under Mom for a look at its new world. I read they may all emerge within a few hours or possibly a whole day, so I stepped up my checks on them, hoping not to miss their journey to the lake. By dark, I had seen five peeking out, so I hoped she would not be leaving at least until morning.

I was up in the rain at 5:45 a.m. and set up watch from a chair inside my front porch, peering out periodically to see what was happening. Mom obviously was getting ready to move, as I could hear her soft vocalizations increasing.

After about an hour of waiting, the march was on, and I began snapping pictures of the seven ducklings trailing the hen. As they headed down the hill towards the lake, I hopped on my bike for more pics.

The first major challenge for the ducklings was jumping the curb, about three times their height. It took about five minutes before all made it, with one obviously more challenged than the rest.

The next curb was scaled a bit quicker before they arrived at their first water puddle from overnight rains. The hen began drinking, and the ducklings all followed suit as if they had been doing it for years. Then it was off to the lake.

Once at the shore, the hen walked right in, with one duckling behind her. But the other six paced the shoreline, not sure about this maiden swim. Soon another hen mallard joined the effort, and it appeared she encouraged them to get in the water before she left.

Swimming around the shore with ease, they soon were grazing on vegetation hanging over the water, apparently following Mom’s lead in doing so. Then they came up on shore for some new taste treats and continued grazing, so I decided they were on their way to a new life and headed home.

However, about two hours later, I was going for a bike ride and decided to see if I could locate the family of eight. At first, I didn’t see them where I had left them, but then I saw a hen mallard close by, but with only three ducklings following her. To me she looked obviously stressed and immediately headed into the shoreline vegetation before leading the three into the water.

I couldn’t imagine, if this was her, what had happened to the other four ducklings. I pondered, a hawk, maybe crows or maybe dogs. My best guess was hungry snapping turtles, but four meals in two hours?

I continued my ride, which took about an hour, before going through the park for another look. Again, I didn’t see any mallard with ducklings right away, but further up the trail, I saw a couple walkers looking intently at something on the shoreline. I biked up to them, and lo and behold, there was the hen, reunited with all seven of her ducklings.

I told the walkers the whole story, as one indicated he reads Nature Nut and was a former teacher who brought students to Quarry Hill when I was there.

So, for that day, things seemed to be going well for the mother duck and her ducklings. I never thought I would get that much fun out of nesting ducks. But I knew that by fall, odds were that only one or two of the ducklings might still be alive.

Making Silver Lake Park even better?

We are looking for people interested in making a great park an even better one for Rochester residents and visitors to our city.

If you would like to support this effort with improvement suggestions, volunteer time or a donation, please let us know by coming to a one-hour gathering at 6:30 p.m. July 9 at the pavilion on the east side of Silver Lake Park.

You also can email silverlakefriends@gmail.com or call Greg Munson at 507-261-2985; Mike Brumm at 507-358-6065; or Shaun Palmer at 507-254-9484.