As a dedicated conservationist and supporter of Ducks Unlimited until the day he drew his last breath, our friend Glenn Chambers could often be heard saying, “It’s for the ducks.”
To be clear, Glenn loved waterfowl and duck hunting. But in reality, he knew it was not just about ducks. Glenn knew it was more. A lot more. And so, with a tip of my hat to Mr. Chambers, let me say this: For those who have learned to see beyond the end of their shotgun, past the cupped wings of mallards wheeling into the decoys. Yes, it’s for the ducks but there is a much bigger show to be seen.
Missouri wetlands are a grand stage where seasonal performances ebb and flow from the spectacular to the sublime. Filled only with leads and no understudies. Some moments are pure theater, others a symphony, and sometimes just improv. Bigger than Broadway. Better than Carnegie Hall. But be forewarned. There are no intermissions, there is always drama, and wetlands never sleep.
Waterfowl hunters, of course, have a season pass with orchestra seating during one of the most spectacular shows of the year. September through December is primetime. From the pre-dawn overture and awakening until the evening curtain call the show is continuous.
Early season matinees bring the winnowing of snipes and a smattering of shorebirds probing mudflats while staging for migration. September days bring the whiplash of rocketing blue winged teal, and through October, flocks of gaudy wood ducks fly up and down the watershed while squadrons of white pelicans fall from the sky in choreographic spirals.
When frosty November days arrive, so does a different mood. A gray cloudy sky illuminated by the amber light reflection of cordgrass from a sunrise leaking across the marsh tells us things are changing. As vegetation falls away, secrets are exposed. Every natural and unnatural mark on the marsh is presented for discovery. Muskrat and beaver lodges. Deer trails and buck rubs. The silhouette of an eagle’s nest. A long-abandoned duck blind, its walls saturated with stories and a few lies. Remnants of a few old shotgun shells squashed into the mud nearby.
Sitting quietly, you may experience the adagio from a wedge of trumpeter swans smoothly winging by your seat. Or witness the tangled talons of eagles above. The pouncing of a marsh hawk. A reflective aria from a single Canada goose in flight, unsure if the song laments leaving something behind or the anticipation of better things ahead.
As evening encroaches, the grand finale begins. Wave after wave of ducks winging across the sky. A mile long string of snow geese looking for nighttime refuge. A thousand white fronted geese settling into the marsh after sunset, chuckling, gabbing, and giggling as they feed under a beaver moon.
When sunlight finally disappears, another curtain rises as the starry sky illuminates. Feeding waterfowl become the soundtrack. And very late, as web-footed enthusiasm subsides, a careful ear will hear the nighttime gnawing and the slap-ker-plunk of beaver. The outburst of yipping coyotes. Or the teasing serenade of invisible geese high above as they pass by, destination unknown.
In the early pre-dawn darkness, the headlamps of camouflaged ushers assist visitors and one another with preparations for another day’s performance. Standing in their pole boats, silently pushing through marsh they watch for streaking cameos named Leonid or Geminid as they ponder seating options for the day to come.
January and February deliver stillness and mostly an icy silence. Undeterred geese perform in the round atop a frozen stage. From the work of nearby eagles, plucked feathers blow across the frozen windswept marsh. Tracks tell us who occupied the stage during nocturnal performances, and the snowy backdrop gives away the location of even the stealthiest. A red fox in stunning attire. Otters sliding down the bank of a creek. Or the remains of those who could not survive for another season.
In March and April, the post-winter set is worn and shabby, but the quality of the show is still spectacular and diverse. Costumes are still elaborate but the story is evolving. Migrations are a quick rewind. Timing is more crucial for the actors and audience. The cast of characters is changing fast. And sooner than you realize, the summer stock troupe will take residency with a different more subtle story to tell. So, grab some camo, your opera glasses, a field guide, and a friend. The spring tour is happening now. Admission is free and you won’t be disappointed. And when you hear that voice tell you, “It’s for the ducks,” don’t be fooled. That’s just the hook.
Photo credit: Dale Humburg
Originally Published, CFM, March 1, 2022