Tuesday, 23 June 2015

A Quacking Good Time

The list of chicks that attempt to give me heart failure at this colony continues to lengthen - from Little Tern chicks who wander worryingly far from their parents on a cold, windy evening, to Oystercatcher chicks traversing the train tracks (see "A Tale of Two Oystercatcher"), to Ringed Plover chicks gambolling on the pedestrian footpath. But a new species was about to give them a run for their money...

We have a single Mallard duck breeding in the Little Tern colony, along with Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Skylark. The wardens observed her flying in and out daily and heard her honking in agitation when the Terns were alarmed. Initially, she had a clutch of 10 eggs, though one was predated before it could hatch. Eventually, 9 adorable little dark brown and yellow ducklings were produced.

When the brood was just a matter of days old, I was walking the pedestrian path when I saw mother and ducklings snaking across the track, crouched low to the ground until they made it into the long Marram grass. I followed their progress, moving as a single shuffling snake through the grass alongside the railway fence. To my utter dismay, mother duck ducked under the fence and led the 9 ducklings onto the track. This happens every year when Mallard and Shelduck nesting on the beach make the decision to move their young family to the lagoon on the other side of the track, where foraging opportunities are better. The ducklings, however, find it impossible to jump the lip of the train track and instead huddle as near to where their mother crossed, while she quacks encouragement from the other side.
Ducklings can't follow their mother 
Seeing myself the hero, and expecting this to be an easy rescue, I gathered the ducklings and carried them to the other side in one swift step. Of the 9 ducklings, 7 of them jumped out of my arms on the other side and dived into the Bramble and back into snake-formation with mother duck at the head. Unfortunately, 2 ducklings ejected early, almost floating out of my grasp and darted back the way they had come.

I heard the distant sound of the commuter train at Newcastle Station and dutifully removed myself to the pedestrian footpath. Several minutes later, the train thundered by. It passed just in time for me to catch a last glimpse of the mother duck and the ducklings vanishing into the thick long grass of the cattle field on the other side of the lagoon. She had left 2 ducklings behind!!

I found them by following their high pitched cheeping in the grass. A pair of lost little ducklings. I wrapped them up warm and we headed out on a driveabout through the channels and pans of the salt marsh to catch up with the rest of the family.

The two that got left behind :-(
Alas, an hour an a half later, despite encountering several Mallards, there were no brooding females to take the ducklings in. We made the decision to have them adopted by one of the wardens and raised with the view of releasing them once they are big enough. But before journeying to their new home, the ducklings had to survive a night in the camp, with few provisions, no electricity and, most importantly, no heat source...

Using our telescope box and the fluffiest fleece we had between us, we designed them a little habitat for the night. Various bottle caps and dishes were used to provide them with what little duckling-digestible food we had to offer: cooked carrot, milk, green grass and what few lagoon critters I could catch. As luck would have it, this night was a cool one after a string of balmy warm weather. I filled two plastic water bottles with water straight out of the kettle to keep the box warm. Although the water was near boiling, both ducklings cuddled up to the bottles throughout the night. Thanks to the diligence of night warden Cole, the bottles were refilled with hot water several times in the night. You can only imagine my delight to open the box at half 5 this morning to find the pair blinking up at me.
A makeshift brooding box with the best we could think up!
The ducklings arrived at Jerry's house this morning and I hope to hear that they are doing well.

Days like this make me glad that the Little Terns do quite the opposite - instead of heading for the lagoon, these chicks head for the tide line when they are old enough. Some of our chicks are well over a week old and move about quite independently on the foreshore. Their parents still hunt and bring them food, of course, but they are growing much bigger and more robust by the day. New nests continue to hatch every day, so we have no shortage of vulnerable little fluffsters along with the big boys.

Two days ago, the colony crossed the one-hundred point mark - the evening nest round totaled at 115 chicks! There are many many more nests to go, so with some grace from the weather and our own hard work to keep the predators at bay, this season may turn into another boom-year!

Susan and Paddy

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