Out on the lake, a male mallard drifted by in the early autumn sunshine. Farther out, a small duck bobbed its head slightly in the still waters.
The distant duck appeared to be quite small but judging size can be tricky at a distance. Its rigid black tail was cocked straight up, just like a wren. A moment later it disappeared below the surface. It had to be a ruddy duck.
I had fallen a week earlier and was still plenty sore. The report of a ruddy duck on the lake was just too tempting. Gingerly, I ventured out on my scooter to have a look myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
The ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is one of two “stiff-tailed” ducks in North America. The other, the masked duck, is a native of Central and South America. It is rarely seen farther north than Texas.
In some ways, Collington Lake in Prince George’s County, MD, is an unlikely refuge for this duck. In function it is no more than a stormwater pond designed to meet the county’s clean water requirements. In practice, though, it is a beloved 6-acre lake on the campus of Kendal at Collington, the retirement community in Mitchellville, where my wife and I reside.
In 2017, the county and a private company, Corvias, teamed up to turn the site into a high-functioning stormwater cleanup project.
Silt-ladened rainwater that washes off buildings and parking lots is directed toward the lake. The dirty water filters through stone-filled wire cages called gabions. The silt and other pollutants are trapped behind the stone wall, allowing cleaner water to flow into the lake. The clean lake water, in turn, drains into nearby streams that flow into the West Branch of the Patuxent River. Rainwater falling onto Collington takes a circuitous route to reach the Chesapeake Bay.
Not to be outdone, the ruddy duck navigated a much more challenging course covering more than 1,500 miles.
Ruddy ducks breed in the prairie potholes of the Dakotas and north and west into Canada. During the winter, ruddy ducks leave these breeding grounds for freshwater ponds on both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. They also venture onto bays and rivers. The Chesapeake is a favorite destination.
Ruddy ducks, at just 15 inches, are one-third smaller than mallards. Unlike most ducks, the ruddy displays his most colorful plumage in the summer, just like a songbird. In summer, the male ruddy duck is a chestnut hue. He sports a dramatic bright blue, very large bill, a black cap, a bold white cheek patch, and a stiff black tail.
Females, juveniles and winter males, like the one on Lake Collington, are dusky brown with a black cap. The male’s blue bill fades to dull gray. The white cheeks (actually, the tops of a broad strap that wraps under the chin) fade a bit. In the female’s case, a sometimes faint but always discernible dark horizontal line crosses the cheek. Her cap turns brown.
Unlike most ducks, ruddy ducks wait to form mating pairs until they are back on their breeding territory. They produce one or two broods of three to 15 eggs, which they lay in a nest of vegetation suspended just above the waterline in dense northern marshes and ponds.
The eggs are surprisingly large, about 2.5 inches. Proportionally, they are the largest of any waterfowl. Incubation lasts a bit more than three weeks. Big eggs produce big chicks, which are born with a full body of downy feathers. They leave the nest after just one day. Staying near their mother, the chicks begin feeding themselves right away. The young will take wing 45 days later.
Scientists in Canada survey the remote breeding grounds of ruddy ducks and other waterfowl annually. Data from the Canadian biologists suggest an expanding breeding population. In the United States, the annual Christmas bird count is run by the U.S. Geological Survey. The Midwinter Waterfowl Survey is conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state resource agencies in early January. These surveys and others provide snapshots of population health. They suggest a stable breeding population that is gradually moving north.
Loss of habitat is a big threat. Recent moves by the Trump administration have removed federal protection for many of the duck’s natal ponds. Global warming presents an even graver threat.
The bird on Lake Collington had survived unprotected waters and a warming planet to arrive here a week or so earlier than normal. I continued watching the lone ruddy as he dove down to refuel after his long migration. Ruddy ducks have relatively large feet, which are placed way back on their bodies. This arrangement, much like that of loons, is ideal for diving and propulsion underwater. It makes the birds unwieldy on their feet, though. In their rare moments on land, they often flop forward onto their chests, unable to stand erect.
I know too well that sense of feeling awkward and unbalanced. But sitting on the banks of this man-made lake, watching this handsome bird slide beneath the surface, I was reminded anew of how graceful life can be. The challenge is to navigate alien landscapes to find a refuge that nourishes us. I think I have found mine.