The Quiet Blue Horse

A female lesser scaup prepares to dive on a winter day

There is much of me in this simple portrait of what may be my favorite duck. Not lesser scaup in general, but this particular duck. Over the past handful of years I’ve spent many hours sitting at Horse Lake watching a female lesser scaup dive for food. I don’t know that it’s the same individual from year to year, or even visit to visit, but I’m a little disappointed if I drive by and she’s not there.

Many photographers only like to shoot on sunny days but I also love days like this, the typical winter day of the Northwest, heavy overcast with an occasional gentle rain. I often won’t go to the refuge on sunny days since it brings out the crowds, but if it’s raining I can sometimes sit quietly and enjoy the subtle beauty of this seasonal pond without the constant noise of cars driving by (or idling while parked behind me). The scaup often hangs out on the far side of the pond but if there isn’t much traffic she’ll swim over and feed near the road.

While there are often other ducks present, she’s usually the only scaup. Perhaps she enjoys the solitude of the place as much as I do. She’s tucked her feathers tightly against her head, a sure sign that even though she just surfaced, she’s about to dive underwater to feed again.

Ring-necked Thieves

One ring-necked duck chases another to try and steal his food

Sometimes animal behavior seems all too familiar to our own.

A small flock of ring-necked ducks was diving under the shallow waters of Bull Lake to feed, sometimes bringing up what I’m guessing is the root of an aquatic plant. Whatever it was, the ducks were very fond of it, and the one that surfaced with it would swim away from the others while trying to quickly eat it, all while any nearby ducks would try to swim over and steal it and eat it for themselves. I wasn’t sure which of these two males actually surfaced with the plant but the chase was on.

While in a mad dash to escape with his food, the ring-neck swam directly over a lesser scaup as she was surfacing, leaving her rather startled but none the worse for wear. He held onto his prize and was able to eat it at last.


Collision Course

You’ve Got a Little Something …

As the rain pelts down a female lesser scaup swims with plants on her back that she picked up during her last dive to feed at Horse Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in December 2011

I’ve often thought about creating an album called “You’ve Got a Little Something …” to highlight animals that are carrying around a bit of their environment they picked up along the way. Diving ducks like this lesser scaup sometimes surface with plants that snagged on their back during their last feeding foray, but they often shed them on their next (as happened here, she surfaced after her next dive with a clean back).

The Happy Scaup

A female lesser scaup yawns as she swims across Horse Lake

Over the past few years I’ve noticed there’s a lone female scaup that sometimes hangs out at Horse Lake. I don’t know if it’s the same bird from year to year, and she often hangs out at the far side of the lake, but it’s always a treat when she swims in close. Unfortunately in this instance I had been photographing diving coots and ducks and to get a high shutter speed was shooting at ISO 3200. That’s higher than I like to push the 7D and the technical quality of the picture suffers a bit for it, but since she was yawning it provides a nice change from my other pictures of her.

The Diving Duck

A female lesser scaup starts her dive under the water, her head already underneath the water, at Horse Lake on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington in December 2013

I love watching the diving ducks on Horse Lake, like this female scaup starting her dive to search for food under the water. She pushes forward with her flattened tail on the surface of the water and her webbed feet below and breaks the surface of the water with her beak, her body soon to follow. It’s absolute poetry and I’ll never tire of watching it.