Sometimes the best Christmas gifts are not items, but rather experiences. And sometimes they come from no giver in particular, but happenstance. This year I received some of these intangible gifts, on a level I had not experienced before. That’s not to say that I didn’t also receive many wonderful gifts from my family. This year I was lucky enough to get a fantastic new camera backpack and some other accessories, a few excellent books, a blow gun, and another year’s supply of socks. But the unique nature of some photo opportunities this Christmas, and their relevance to the nature of my blog has prompted this special holiday post.
For Christmas Eve, Carolina and I stayed in Lufkin. We made a hearty breakfast, took a pleasant walk in the morning, and enjoyed each other’s company throughout the day. In the late afternoon, Caro suggested that we visit some local ponds to look for ducks. This in and of itself was a Christmas in my eyes! So we went to a local pond where a large group of Gadwall (Anas strepera) has been spending the winter. The birds were skittish at first, taking flight at our initial response. But they regrouped at the opposite end of the pond, and I was able to take advantage of some old willows lining the pond’s edge to creep closer. I found a break in the trees where I could lay flat and capture a few images of a spectacular drake. The Gadwall is perhaps our most underrated species of duck. It lacks the bold colors of many species, but the subtle intricacies of its plumage and varying tones of brown and gray make it a beautiful thing to behold. That evening Caro prepared a delicious meal, and we toasted the season and built a fire in the yard.
The next morning we woke early and set out for Austin, where we would be celebrating Christmas Day at my brother Seth’s girlfriend’s house. After arriving, visiting, and enjoying some snacks that she had prepared, his girlfriend, Jen, informed us that there was a detention pond in the back of her neighborhood that often had ducks on it. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the opportunity, so we took a family walk to see what was there. Sure enough, upon arriving I spied a large group of American Wigeon (Anas americana), a few Gadwall, and a lone Ringneck Duck. I tried to circle wide and creep up on some of the wigeon. I have long wished for an opportunity to capture good images of this spectacular duck, but they had thus far eluded my lens. Unfortunately the birds proved initially skittish, and due to the steep banks grading into the pond I was unable to get a shot from a suitable angle. I tried a few different methods of approaching until they finally flew off for good. Or so we thought… After a few minutes of wandering around we decided it was time to head back. It was in that precise moment that the wigeons returned to the opposite end of the pond. So my brother and I opted to remain. We formulated a plan of attack. I skirted wide, using the pond’s berm to hide my approach, while my brother approached from the opposite side, obscured by dense vegetation. I then belly-crawled to the edge of the detention pond where I was at least partially hidden by cattails and dried stalks of Powdery Alligator Flag. I was at a good angle, but unfortunately I was unable to get a clear shot through wetland vegetation. So I decided to start crab-walking into the pond itself, as one does, until i was submerged to my waist. To my surprise, I found the ducks to be much more tolerant of my presence when I was actually in the water. Instead of flushing, they only swam to the other side of the pond, just out of photo’s reach.
Enter Seth. He crept up behind the vegetation on that side and started shaking some of the plants and making some bizarre noises that I could only describe as a mix of a wounded duck and disturbed house cat. It did the trick, however, and the wigeons came toward me, at times approaching too close for me to focus, and I was finally able to capture some fine images of this beautiful species. I couldn’t believe it. There are those times as a photographer where everything just seems to fall into place. It is a rare thing, made all the more special for me that I was able to share the experience with my brother on Christmas Day.
I don’t think my family was surprised when I returned soaking wet and covered from head to toe in mud and bits of wetland vegetation, as they have become desensitized to my antics over the years. I cleaned up and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas dinner. It was certainly not your most traditional Christmas experience, but a fitting one, and one that I will never forget.