The fierce wind sliced through my jacket as I stepped outside the door of my apartment building. Winter had wrapped its cloak around the North East of the United States. I had arrived in the country in the steamy heat of August, but now, in December, the mercury was in free-fall. My morning commute took me along the edge of the Hudson River, where I take the ferry from Hoboken across to Manhattan. On this hostile morning I noticed a group of little black dots bobbing in the slack water beside an old pier. The following weekend I reached for my binoculars and bird book. The little black dots were my first ever sighting of Ruddy Ducks.
I knew about Ruddy ducks because I remember being asked in a trivia quiz about a species of duck with a blue bill. I was disgusted at myself for not knowing the answer and would never again forget about the little red duck with the blue bill.
I was thrilled to be able to check them off the life list of birds that I wanted to see, but as they were so close to my door I knew I had to get photographs. You would imagine it would be a fairly straight forward task to photograph a bunch of static ducks, bobbing around like champagne corks on the filthy river.
On the contrary! I first spotted the ducks in December 2014. They finally gave up these photos to me in March 2019. Why so long? A combination of several things such as bad light, poor weather, frozen river, inadequate zoom to capture something so small at range and inadequate competence from this photographer. But the primary reason was that every time I stood outside with my lens pointed at them they would let the wind, current or gently flapping feet carry them just out of range. Smart little ducks!
The Ruddy duck is small, round with a stiff upright tail. All in, they are around 13 inches (33 cm) long. Although they do migrate locally from freshwater nesting sites to overwinter on river estuaries and bays, they have short narrow wings and are poor fliers. The wings are much better suited to “flying” underwater where they dive for aquatic insects and invertebrates. In Hoboken they do their hunting around the collapsed piers and the old timber supports.
Finally my chance came when the group moved from North Hoboken where I lived to South Hoboken, by the station. Here, the footpath runs a little closer to the river and to the pier supports, enabling me to get much closer to them. The winter sun was not particularly cooperative, but I managed to get some nice shots of the ducks, as they were moving from winter to breeding coat. The bill was not blue, but traces of blue were beginning to peep through the little graphite shovel.
Ruddy ducks are North American natives. In the early 1950s they escaped in Great Britain and soon established a breeding colony and started to spread to Europe. You’ll remember that it is the unusual blue bill that puts this duck in a very small group and made them material for a trivia quiz. Well, it turns out that that these ducks can’t resist a flash of blue and will enthusiastically cross-breed with other, endangered blue-billed ducks. Efforts to eradicate the Ruddy duck from Europe have been ongoing and are close to completion. Good news for their cousin, the endangered White-headed Duck, but not so good for poor old Ruddy, who didn’t ask to be introduced in to Britain.
When we open our eyes we can find nature in the most unlikely places and in the harshest environments. Under the shadow of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, on the brown, poisonous waters of the Hudson, on the coldest winter days and nights, Ruddy ducks survive and thrive.
Join the conversation below. Have you seen the Hudson River Rudy Ducks? 👇👇👇
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