Crosswinds: Nesting Time

Across the breeding grounds, ducks and geese are getting down to the business of procreation

© Michael Furtman

By T. Edward Nickens, contributing editor, Ducks Unlimited magazine (IG: @enickens)

The blue jay flew with a wisp of bark in its beak, and I followed with binoculars. It must be building a nest, I thought, so we had something in common: I was sheltering at home myself. And while I’ve been nesting over the last few weeks—like it or not—I’ve kept a backyard bird list as a way to keep connected to wild places and wild lives. Each morning, I drink a cup of coffee on the back deck, with binoculars and a worn copy of Peterson’s on the railing. I may be hunkered down, but with the spring migration on, I don’t have to move an inch for a wildlife bonanza.

Please understand: I’m a duck hunter first, and a birdwatcher second. So, every morning, watching woodpeckers and warblers and other migrants putting down roots in my back quarter of an acre, I can’t keep my mind from wandering. Because I know what’s happening far, far away.

On the prairies, the mallard hens are nestled deep in the asters and sow thistle, little bluestem and white-top grass.

In the Boreal Forest, on the sedgy wetland fringes, ring-necked ducks are building nests in the leatherleaf shrubs.

Just about everywhere, ducks are making themselves at home, in some of the lushest wetlands on the continent—and some of the harshest environments on the planet. One of the most incredible sights I’ve ever witnessed was a small colony of cackling geese nesting on a soaring cliff over the Alaskan tundra. I was rappelling with raptor biologists as they studied the diets of arctic gyrfalcon chicks, and was astounded to see cacklers land on tiny, foot-wide cliff ledges hundreds of feet high. The river below boiled with swollen snowmelt. It was a scene that would send a mountain goat into an acrophobic fit.

But there they were: Geese making geese. 

High and low, by the water and far from it, in places you can hardly imagine, ducks are making baby ducks. Geese are making geese. And only a waterfowler could watch a songbird build a backyard nest and think: Crank ‘em out! Make those babies! Winter’s just around the corner! Duck season will be here before you know it!