A pewter gray sheen roofed the sky. The river reflected back the same brushed silver on this cold winter morning. Out on the water, a dozen birds were neatly divided into six sets of two. They were in the final phases of establishing pair bonds for the upcoming breeding season. The weather may have been wintry, but to the ducks on the river, love was in the air.
The man and the woman observing from the shoreline had to agree. The cold weather told only part of the story. The birds were a lovely sight.
My binoculars were focused on the leading pair.
The male was showing a milk chocolate head and white neck stripe that slipped down to the bird's clean white breast. The side of his body was gray, and the closed wings on his back revealed a pleasing mix of silver, black and white. The extra-long central tail feathers were jet black. The duck had an especially long and thin neck.
The female swimming beside him was just as appealing in shape if not in color. The smallish head atop that graceful neck was a warm, mottled brown. She had a white breast, but the rest of her was a camouflage palate of browns, blacks and whites.
Few birds are so readily identifiable by shape alone. These were northern pintails (Anas acuta). Numbering in the millions, they are one of North America's most abundant ducks. Although numerous, pintails have declined in numbers worldwide. Audubon estimates the decline at 71 percent since 1967.
The pintails we were at Jug Bay, the magnificent sanctuary on the Patuxent River. The species winters along both coasts and the entire southern half of the United States and beyond, into Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.
In the shallow waters along the shoreline, they exhibited classic dabbling duck behavior, tipping up their rear ends mallard-style to feed on underwater vegetation. When they did so, they showed a black vent and that diagnostic pintail. The ducks also graze in nearby cornfields and other farmlands, gleaning grains and seeds.
Although it is still winter in the Chesapeake, the pintails - among the first ducks to migrate - are already getting ready to head north to their breeding grounds. Once there, they will establish nests in the prairie pothole regions of the upper Midwest, as well as all across Canada and Alaska. There are year-round populations of pintails in parts of the western United States stretching from Colorado to California and Washington state.
Like most ducks, pintails establish seasonal pair bonds on their winter grounds every year. After finding a suitable partner, the birds fly north as soon as the risk of frozen lakes has passed.
On their breeding grounds, the female scrapes out a crude nest and lines it with a few bits of vegetation that she can reach from the nest site. The pair will mate and about three weeks later a brood of perhaps six to eight chicks emerge.
The chicks become familiar with their mother's unique voice while still in the shell and will be ready to respond to her calls as soon as they hatch. Even if there are other nests relatively close by, her voice is firmly imprinted on the chicks.
Precocious pintail chicks do not need their parents to feed them. Instead, they rely on their mother to provide some protection and model feeding behaviors. They follow the hen in tightly clustered packs to nearby ponds, expanding their initial diets to include aquatic bugs and vegetation.
At this point, males are likely to leave the area. They will search for open water with adequate aquatic food sources. Once there, they molt all of their flight feathers at once, leaving them unable to fly for up to five weeks. They need the open water to protect them from land-based predators.
Once their new flight feathers have grown back in, they will be ready to start the cycle over again. In November, they will return to the Chesapeake to find a mate.
In the natural world, ornithologists speak of seasonal pair bonding, imprinting and precocial behavior.
When we discuss the same topics about ourselves, we use words like love, commitment, family and life choices. We select mates. We forge strong family bonds from an early age. We make choices to give ourselves and our loved ones a chance at better lives.
The day was gray, but our hearts were light. A family wedding was coming. Younger ones were looking to us to help them manage in a changing world. As we stood along the shoreline, we had to agree with the graceful pintails out on the Patuxent. Love was in the air.