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On the Trails: Mallard mayhem and other observations

Posted: May 17, 2013 - 12:00am
This hemlock branch (and one above it on the right) are blanketed with one species of lichen, hardly leaving room for the mosses.  Photo by David Bergeson
Photo by David Bergeson
This hemlock branch (and one above it on the right) are blanketed with one species of lichen, hardly leaving room for the mosses.

All is quiet on the home pond. Three male mallards are lined up, next to each other, on the edge of the last bit of ice; they preen their feathers and seem to be entirely amicable. Occasionally they swim over to the bank and nibble something there or forage on the sunflower seeds floating under the hanging feeders where the siskins feed so messily. Sometimes they all go up to the head of the pond and perch on branches that droop just under the water surface.

These males must all have females that are now incubating their clutches of eggs. Each male guarded his mate assiduously over the days when she was laying eggs, in order to be as sure as possible that he would be the father of the hatchlings. That task being over, the males are free to loaf around and hobnob together.

Ah, but let one of those females arrive on the pond, as she takes a feeding break from incubating her eggs. Instant mayhem! One of those three males is surely her mate, but the others (whose females are elsewhere at the moment) leap into frenzied activity, chasing and biting each other and trying to copulate forcibly with the harried female. Sometimes the hungry female escapes but occasionally these ungentle assaults seem to succeed. Her own mate may then copulate with her also, a technique that could displace the sperm of the interloper. But the interlopers may occasionally mange to sire some extra ducklings by this means; that is, not only those of his regular (temporary) mate but also a few with someone else’s mate. This seems to be a common practice among mallards.

When the fracas is over and the harassed female leaves, the ruffled males are calm again, lazily floating around together or moseying down the creek in tandem.

A day or two ago, I whacked out some brush on the far side of the pond and removed the washed-out plank that had served as a little footbridge over the creek. Shortly thereafter, I saw a male mallard creeping cautiously up along the stream toward the pond. This was very different from the usual approach of the local mallards, which bomb in at high speed and splash down. This male moved slowly among the skunk cabbages and broken willows, looking all around. I believe he perceived the changes in the habitat (missing plank, etc) and so became very wary. Emerging from the thickets, he perched on the bank of the pond, quacking and looking, looking, looking. Finally, more or less assured, he ventured out onto the pond, calling continuously; a female then arrived and began feeding. He was right to be wary: I had found more than one duck skeleton in the woods on the far bank.

On a quieter note: On the Dan Moller trail recently, we noted a low-hanging hemlock branch that sported a nearly complete covering of a certain lichen. There were a few clumps of this species higher in the tree, but none on any neighboring trees. This observation immediately raised questions in my head: Why is this lichen so concentrated just here and nowhere else nearby? Did it all start with one that got established and then spread? Or were there multiple colonizations by spores or fragments that blew in over a number of years, and this branch just happened to be in a good place to intercept lots of them? Did the branch somehow provide a particularly salubrious habitat for this particular kind of lichen?

I see these kinds of concentrations in many places around here; it happens with many other species of lichen, as well as with mosses. I’d love to know what determines these distributions — I think there might be a good graduate thesis in this.

Along the trail from the snowmobilers’ parking lot to the Treadwell Ditch and thence to an up-bound section of the Dan Moller Trail, we picked up six spark plugs, one plastic oil can, about ten beer cans, one mud guard, and various other objects. The upper part of the Dan Moller trail and the bowl behind the cabin are likely to need considerable work as well! It is a shame that some humans just pitch their trash along the trails.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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