Watching nests like mother hens

The Baltimore Sun

ON THE PATUXENT RIVER -- Mama duck is not amused. Her kids, still in their original oval wrappers, are tucked beneath her, not yet ready to make their entrance into the world.

The bird eyeballs Cliff Brown, who peers back as he teeters on an old ladder atop a leaky boat. Deciding the interloper is not a threat, the duck holds her ground and Brown lowers the lid on the shoebox-size wooden box atop a metal pole.

"She's a good mama," Brown says as he starts the outboard motor and backs the flat-bottomed skiff away from the box. Moments later, he slows the boat to idle and jots a shorthand note on a battered and water-logged clipboard: HON - Hen on Nest.

It doesn't always end this well as Brown checks wooden boxes along the river's backwaters. Sometimes a spooked hen takes flight, spraying him with a noxious curtain of waste. Other times, he finds a nest with 30 eggs, clearly a sign of "nest dumping," when a hen lays her eggs in another hen's nest and both birds abandon the site.

For volunteers of the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative, this is all part of the learning process, figuring out where ducks like to live and how to protect them.

Last year, the group fussed like mother hens over more than 100 boxes in the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and Jug Bay Natural Area, part of the Patuxent River watershed between Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. In return for their efforts, 623 eggs hatched in 73 nests.

The group has hundreds of eager hands - from Scouts and students to hunting clubs and wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center - building cedar boxes. Brown has scrounged up discarded metal sign poles from government highway garages to mount the boxes above water and has enlisted the help of Chesapeake Coatings, a Baltimore metal shop, to create cone-shaped baffles to ward off attacks by raccoons and snakes.

"Cliff stepped in and filled a large void, doing the stuff that wasn't getting done very well," says Bill Harvey, the Department of Natural Resources biologist who serves as the liaison with the wood duck initiative. "His monitoring is important as we try to figure out the story of each box to make each one as successful as possible."

State agencies such as the DNR rely on volunteers to help stretch their budgets. But sometimes, supervising them takes nearly as much time and effort as the work is worth.

"In this case, the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative is the Power Rangers of volunteer groups. They do it all, from initiating the work to monitoring to fundraising," says Paul Peditto, director of the DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Service. "All we do is provide some technical oversight."

The wood duck is among the most colorful ducks in North America. The scientific name, Aix sponsa, means "waterbird in bridal dress." In the fall, the male develops beautiful green, blue and purple plumage with a white stripe that runs from the base of his bill to the back of his neck. He sports a cream-colored vest and a tie of white feathers around his neck. His eyes are red, and his red-and-white bill is black-tipped with a daub of yellow near its base. The hen is brown with cream-colored markings.

Once plentiful, the ducks went into a steep decline in the late 19th century as hunters and development took their toll. Federal laws enacted in the early 20th century protected the remaining population from overhunting, but little was done to save the woodlands along waterways and lakes - the wood ducks' prime habitat - from logging and conversion to cropland.

By the 1930s, biologists were encouraging the installation of wooden nesting boxes that simulated tree cavities. In 1942, scientists at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel estimated that there were 442 boxes in the Maine-to-Florida Atlantic Flyway. By the mid-1980s, the total was nearly 36,000.

In Maryland, where waterfowl hunting is a $16 million business, wood ducks are both prized and preserved. Hunters are allowed to kill only two birds a day during the nine-week fall and winter season.

The 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl survey estimated Maryland's wood duck population at 21,000 birds, including 8,137 breeding pairs.

Brown would like to bolster that population from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore - not by building and putting up boxes in as many places as volunteers can reach but by building a "best practices" model that can be used by anyone, anywhere.

That means spreading out boxes to give ducks more territory and reduce nest abandonment, and designing predator barriers to give ducklings a chance to grow.

"I know we're going to make more ducks," Brown says. "What we want is a great library of 'how-tos.' We want to be the 7-Eleven of wood ducks. You can just come to us for information."

Starting less than three years ago, the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative oversees projects on 35 public sites around the state, involving 1,317 boxes. This year, Brown expects to install 303 boxes, some on new sites, some to replace decrepit nesting boxes or those rejected by ducks.

Jug Bay on the Patuxent River "is about as good as it gets for brood raising," Harvey says. The shallow water enables the ducks to feed on plants and invertebrates, and the fields of spatterdock lilies and grasses provide cover for ducklings.

The 6,000-acre Patuxent River Park, operated by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, hugs the west side of the bank.

Park naturalist Greg Kearns says he started installing wood duck boxes more than 20 years ago "to see if I could make a little bit of a difference here."

"People take for granted that wood ducks have always been here, but that's not the case," Kearns says. "They were so rare to see 20 years ago. Now, they're here to be enjoyed."

Others have taken up the cause. Tomorrow, 150 employees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headquarters in Montgomery County will be at the park as part of a field project. Some will be building dozens of cedar boxes for the Maryland Wood Duck Initiative to install.

"Putting up wood duck boxes is something everyone can do, and everyone can see the benefits of it," says Peditto. "A wood duck box is a highway billboard to show wildlife management is being done."

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