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Sam Cook column: March morning more than it was quacked up to be

Sam Cook

I could see, in my limited human way, that something was up with the yellow pup. The dogs and I had been cruising a local patch of woods on foot for an hour. Now we had emerged into an opening of snow-laden hummocks that bordered a small creek.

The pup's nose was in the air, pointed north toward the open lowland along the unseen creek.

It was as if she was sifting the cool March air for a scent that seemed important. Next thing I knew, the pup was prancing through the hummocks and snow-bent grasses to the flowing water. I thought about calling her back to me. Some of these scent-driven tangents have led to a rotting deer carcass or some other juicy delight festering in the woods.

But not this time.

As she approached the creek bank, a dozen gorgeous mallards lifted into flight, quacking their indignation at the intrusion. Their orange feet trailed creek drippings as they rose. The pup pulled up short and watched the ducks climb against the drab sky.

In 30 years, I had never seen that many mallards on this tiny creek before. Occasionally, I had spotted a furtive paired-up hen and drake making a stopover on their way to open water farther north. But never a gaggle like this.

The pup wasn't through. She bounded belly-deep in the snow along the creek, headed downstream. Another eight or 10 mallards lifted off just ahead of her in raucous flight. Then another bunch, and another.

I have no idea what the pup was thinking. She had seen plenty of ducks on a nearby pond — along with geese and swans — last fall. But nothing this close to her nose. Nothing with the chaos and clatter of these mallards.

They didn't want to leave. This little creek, on one of the first mellow March mornings of the late winter, was probably the only open water around except for Lake Superior. About 1,000 mallards have been wintering on the lake, Duluth wildlife photographer Michael Furtman told me. East winds had pushed a lot of ice toward Duluth in recent days, perhaps forcing the mallards to find another source of open water, Furtman suspected.

Now one formation of the birds was circling and calling right over my head. I stood there in a spell of minor awe at the spectacle of flight. Few things in the wild are more compelling than ducks in flight at close range.

The mallards flew only a short distance, then wheeled, rose in the sky and doubled back to the creek. Some lowered their landing gear as if to settle in but thought better of it.

For several minutes, intersecting clusters of mallards brightened the morning murk, talking and circling, rising and descending. Brash quacking mixed with guttural clucks. As they hovered and swirled, the ducks passed each other in the sky until they became almost a latticework of waterfowl, ducks upon ducks against the gray beyond.

It didn't matter to me that these were probably wintering ducks. In that moment, the long, white mantle of the longest season had been lifted for me. There would be more cold, I knew. Probably more snow. But somehow, with that profusion of mallards above me, the spell had been broken.

I hadn't seen that many mallards since October. The drakes were resplendent in their breeding plumage. Big, green heads. Bold white necklaces. Iridescent blue wing patches.

I called the pup in, and we moved on. Behind me, some of the ducks began to drop back into the creek again.

One more thought crossed my mind as we continued down the trail: This dog might have a nose.