In the air, they’re merely astonishing. Wood ducks in flight streak across the open sky, and as they drop through the treetops, toward some hidden creek channel or pond below, they side-slip and careen through the branches as if guided by an unseen puppeteer. Once on the water and lit by the sun, astonishment gives way to true bewilderment. There is no more gorgeous a duck than the wood duck drake. This is Aix sponsa, the “waterbird in a bridal dress,” Thoreau’s “ornament to a river.” Wood ducks are year-round residents of North Carolina, so there’s ample opportunity to find yourself in a flooded wood, at sunrise or sunset, to catch the show. Then you’ll understand what John James Audubon meant when he described these birds descending through the sycamores and maples of yore. “Scenes like these,” he wrote, “I have enjoyed a thousand times, yet regret that I have not enjoyed them oftener.”
Feature image: A male wood duck, or drake, floats through a cypress swamp near Moyock. Females are less colorful.