GALAXIES OF DUCKS: Science and Telling a Story

Northern Shoveler ducks fed communally in a spiral-like formation on Seattle’s Green Lake.

Seattle_Green_Lake-203A swirling galaxy of Northern Shovelers feeding

Inspiration can come when I least expect it. The winter day was gray and dry, and cold for Seattle, with temperatures hovering around 25°F. Ice was forming where small waves lapped against the shore of Green Lake, one of my favorite places to get some exercise when visiting the big city. But I was cold today and couldn’t get up the gumption to go jogging, so I took my camera for a bird walk.

The crows were having a convention, and looked strikingly sinister when silhouetted against a gray sky. I found some tiny birds foraging in the birch trees along the waterfront; several ladies stopped and asked what the tiny birds were; I wasn’t sure yet, because they were moving rapidly and were a little ways away from me. One of the women thought they were Bushtits, which I had seen in this location on my last trip to Green Lake, but it turned out that they were Golden-crowned Kinglets, feeding and in constant motion among the birch branches. They were so fast that they were extremely difficult to photograph.

Seattle_Green_Lake-378Crows high in a birch tree, facing into the wind

Then a couple from Boston came up and asked if I had seen the big bird with the long legs standing in the water. I hadn’t, but I explained that it was almost certainly a Great Blue Heron. Almost immediately, an enthusiastic young woman came up, pushing her baby in a stroller, and asked if I would like to see the picture she had just taken on her iPhone. I said I would, and she had a good photo of what was probably the same heron. I asked where she had seen it, and she pointed across the bay to “where the ducks are.” Since I wanted to see the ducks, and they were not floating on this cold and windy part of the lake, I decided to head that way. I stopped at my car to pick up a layer of puffy down, because I was getting chilled.

When I reached the dock near the community center, I noticed a lot of Northern Shoveler ducks intensely feeding, and thought that someone was illegally tossing bread to the waterfowl. Then I realized that the ducks were crowded together in three clusters, each group swirling around in a tight circular pattern. I estimated that there were between 50 and 100 birds in each circle, so it was a lot of ducks engaging in a behavior I had never seen before.

At this point my sense of wonder kicked into high gear, and I wanted to know more. Northern Shoveler ducks have a disproportionately large and spoon-shaped bill, which is structured for surface feeding. Their mouth anatomy reminds me of baleen whales in the way they filter tiny plants and animals from the water. Typically, I see a Northern Shoveler motoring along, with its bill just under the surface, busily gathering its food as it swims. But I had never seen shovelers working together while feeding.

Seattle_Green_Lake-350Northern Shoveler male feeding in a typical manner, with its bill just below the surface; with this behavior, it filters small plants and animals from the surface

Seattle_Green_Lake-260In contrast, this group of Northern Shoveler ducks was feeding communally; there must be some advantages to clustering and feeding together

Apparently the circular motion stirs up the water and sediments, and I suspect that it generates a current that brings food from the bottom mud toward the surface. This kind of current has been scientifically demonstrated in the feeding behavior of phalaropes–a small bird that must make itself dizzy spinning in circles on the surface of the water. Perhaps the action of many shovelers working together can create a similar effect.

This shoveler behavior has, of course, been described before, but it was new to me and perhaps not commonly seen, at least with so many birds at once. A fellow blogger, Greg Gillson, described it in this entry: Feeding Habits of the Northern Shoveler. And I saw one video on youtube of three shovelers engaged in the same behavior, going ’round and ’round and ’round.

My challenge in the field was to show the behavior through photography. I snapped a few photographs to record the scene, but quickly realized that freezing the action in a quick shot did not show the pattern of movement and was not an artistic portrayal of the ducks. I decided to concentrate on long exposures to blur the movement of the ducks, but hopefully record the sense of motion. It worked! The motion shots told the scientific story of the feeding behavior, but were also beautiful in their own right. The form reminds me of the spiral shapes of galaxies.


Seattle_Green_Lake-224These two photographs show the difference between freezing the motion and using a longer exposure to show the motion

When I am photographing, I constantly face choices like this, and my analytical left-brain and artistic right-brain skills have to work together to solve a problem. When successful, the pictures can tell an effective story.



Seattle_Green_Lake-220I ended up really liking the motion shots; I took nearly 300 images while experimenting with the rapidly changing composition and while trying different shutter speeds

Seattle_Green_Lake-99One of my Golden-crowned Kinglet photographs that started the afternoon

Seattle_Green_Lake-76Crows noisily flushing from a battered tree that seemed somehow perfectly appropriate 

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A Duck’s Point of View

Photographs of Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and other waterfowl taken from a low-angle viewpoint on Fawn Lake, located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula in the USA.


A male Wood Duck on Fawn Lake as the breeding season gets underway..

Last winter, I set up a photography blind on Fawn Lake, which is located on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.  Our home overlooks the lake, and we have nearly constant waterfowl activity from October through June, with a good variety of wintering ducks, followed by the breeding season for Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers.  No gas-powered motorboats are allowed on the lake, which enhances the opportunity to see the ducks; and even in fishing season the ducks and fishermen seem to get along without irritating each other too much.

During the winter, a group of 25 or so Double-crested Cormorants roost in a tree along the lake, which I have previously described in this blog as sounding like “pig birds,” if you can imagine such a thing.  Pied-billed Grebes, Mallards, and Canada Geese nest here, in addition to the Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers that successfully hatch young birds in our nest boxes each spring.  Predators on the ducks include Bald Eagles–one of which caught what I think was a Bufflehead female and landed on a tree in front of our house several weeks ago–and an occasionally marauding family of River Otters.  The otters eat mostly fish, but the ducks give them wide clearance.

When I set up my photography blind, I wanted to be able to enter the blind at any time without being seen by the ducks.  To accomplish this, I set up a tunnel of camouflaged tarps that leads down to the lake; I crawl down on my knees with my camera on a tripod, then quietly set up the camera behind a camouflage mesh.  I still haven’t decided if I’m fooling the ducks with my elaborate setup, but it fulfills my childhood fantasies of trying to sneak up on animals.

In the blind, I lay prone behind my long lens, and look down into the camera using an angle finder to compose and focus.  I like positioning the camera as close to water level as possible so that the photographs feel like they were taken from a duck’s point of view.  These are some of my favorites from about  a dozen mornings in the blind.


A Wood Duck male suspicious of the blind..

Female Wood Duck calling..

Female Wood Duck up close and personal..

Male Wood Duck after a cool drink of water..

Wood Duck male grooming..

Female Wood Duck on lake, just prior to flying up to nest box..

Bufflehead enduring a heavy rain..

Bufflehead male during its first winter..

Bufflehead female carving a reflection of the sky in still waters..

Buffleheads during breeding season..

Hooded Merganser pair as nesting season commences...

Hooded Merganser male patrolling lake below the nest box where his lady has gone..

Two juvenile male Hooded Mergansers stayed together for weeks..

Hooded Merganser male on a tranquil morning..

Lesser Scaup female resting between dives..

Lesser Scaup female beginning a dive..

Lesser Scaup female with an almost prehistoric look..

Lesser Scaup female in breeding plumage..

Female Mallard..

A Wood Duck male trying to figure out that clicking noise in the bushes..


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January 5, 2009 On Thin Ice

Exploring why dendritic ice formations occur on a lake.


Understanding natural design is a right brain/left brain exercise. We sense beauty and become inspired through the artistic right hemisphere of the brain, and understand the reasons behind natural design through the rational and analytical right hemisphere of the brain.  This is oversimplifying, of course, but it does point out our varied ways of sensing the world.  Van Gogh was undoubtedly right-brained in his perceptions of the world, while the fictional Spock was completely left-brained. When I come upon an element of nature that I don’t 2009_wa_1756wpunderstand, my brain searches for reasons behind the beauty that I capture with my camera.   Nature is filled with patterns that are governed by physics and evolution.

I live on small Fawn Lake in the Puget Sound region of the USA, a place renowned for rain. Our maritime winters are indeed moist, with a climate resembling England or Scotland. I maintain a rain gauge each year, and in a typical year we get about 65 inches of precipitation–mostly rain, but occasionally we get snow. In December 2008, 17″ of snow dumped on us, closing schools and businesses and making roads almost impassable right before Christmas, when people wanted to be out shopping. Then our lake froze over.

I was out of town for the holidays, but when I returned, I noticed a strange pattern on the frozen surface of Fawn Lake.  There were hundreds of ice formations that looked for all the world like synapses in the brain: see 2009_wa_1753wpThese dendritic (think tree branches) formations each had a hole in the center with branching tentacles radiating out from the center hole. When I photographed them, the temperature was above freezing, and the water in the dendritic formations was liquid. It looks to me as if rainwater and meltwater flow from the tips of the tentacles to the hole in the center. But what caused these holes to begin with? And why are they fairly regularly spaced across the lake? Is water flowing into or out of the hole in the center? This inquiring left brain wants to know, and I would appreciate your suggestions. I will update this entry if someone has a definitive explanation.

This phenomenon has been observed before, and you can see pictures by other photographers from several locations at:



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Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.