08 016.WoodDuckfemalewchix by-arnold-small

Wood Duck Family, Arnold Small Photographic Collection Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

If You Have The Urge To Visit The Metropolitan New York Area...

By Louis Tucker

This is a personal account of how I found surprises, wonder, joy, excitement, interesting discoveries, peace and serenity in the natural realm and more specifically - birding. And, this is about finding a place surrounded by sprawling metropolitan New York suburbia that is one of the gems of the National Wildlife Refuge system, and the appreciation of one of its species which inhabits this place. Although we'll get there in a round-about way.

I have to let out a family secret. My interest in birds started at a very young age; around five or six years old. Quite frankly, that's nothing really extraordinary. However, I grew up in a town called Greenburgh, which is adjacent to White Plains, New York. It's twenty miles north of Manhattan. It's a thirty minute train ride into the heart of NYC. I was a post toddler there in the 1950's. This is an area which is rich in ethnic diversity; in the 50's through part of the 70's, it was an area which had woods, rivers, creeks and strangely some swamp land. That means that there were plenty of animals, birds, and other critters in this suburban haven. The wonderful thing about growing up there was that it was incredibly safe. I don't remember my family locking doors at night. I think that that particularly necessary practice occured in my town in the late sixties.

Safety is something that I think we all took for granted and never doubted. This assurance allowed me to independently do some exploration in these "wild" places; which I would escape, sometimes, for hours on end. I was also a trustworthy child and my mother would allow me this freedom to be by myself in these areas unsupervised for great lengths of time. This was a kind of "get out of jail free" card which I would use whenever my mom had to go shopping - that would be my personal "hell", or carry my siblings to the doctor - another "Ugh" moment, or visit people for hours in their homes - that would make my five year old head explode.

In my explorations, I had become fascinated with birds, especially ducks. I loved the colors. I loved watching them squabble; ducks are a particularly contentious family group of birds. And there were waterways which had great concentrations of Mallards and Black Ducks. Sometimes a Pintail or Gadwall would show up. Now, all my mother had to do would be to say: "I'm going shopping", or one of the other flashpoints that I would find eggregious, and I would ask: "Can you drop me off at the Bronx River?" This river flows almost parallel to the Bronx River Parkway. The river itself has its modern origin at the Kensico Reservoir and Dam in northern Westchester, continuing south through White Plains, Scarsdale, Tuckahoe and into Bronx County and empties into the East River at the area where it joins the Long Island Sound. The actual length is only about twenty-four miles. In White Plains, Hartsdale and Scarsdale, the river broadens out and forms a number of ponds. It is at these ponds where I sat and watched ducks and Canada Geese for hours. I would just sit and watch their behavior. The difference between the duck behavior and the stately Canada's is obvious. The only time I saw the geese be aggressive is when an animal like a dog or a rodent would encroach on their territory. And the Greater (sub-species) Canada is not to be messed with.

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Northern Pintail, Arnold Small Photographic Collection Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

08 008.Gadwall

Gadwell, Arnold Small Photographic Collection Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

As I've said, I do all of this by myself. And I could watch for hours. It was much more preferable to shopping, sitting in a doctor's office with my sick siblings or sitting with adults in a house and being bored. Recently my mom and I were discussing this novel aberration. Because it was so safe where we were at the time in Westchester County, there was absolutely no concern about leaving me at the ponds alone. We joke about that now. We laugh hysterically about it and have nervous sighs of relief that nothing happened. Interestingly enough, she couldn't do that with my siblings because they were unreliable as to doing and being where they said they would be. And, of course, now, Mom would probably be carted off to jail with the charge of childhood endangerment. In light of recent events where a mother, who was at work and trusted her nine year old daughter to play in a park, with her own cell phone in case of emergency, and was carted off to jail and fired; we were quite lucky.

I mention this because there is a little story to tell - totally true which happened some twenty-five years later. I met a wonderful woman in college, Kathleen, and we eventually married. And, during this marriage, my career as an actor began to unfold. I ended up being cast in a Broadway show, TIMBUKTU, with Eartha Kitt and when the Broadway run ended, we did a national tour. Tours go from being fun to being grueling. Since I was married, I didn't find the need to go out every night to restaurants or bars, so I would head back to the hotel and sleep. Most of the folks in the cast slept all day. I would find wild escapes during the day. The tour started in south Florida, so one of my bright ideas was to find a couple of interested people and we would do a road trip to the Everglades on our day off. The fever for birdwatching struck heavy and hard at that time. It only took some Ospreys, and a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites, an Anhinga and some herons and a few alligators, and I was hooked. So, for almost a year on that tour, I would take every leisure moment and visit wildlife refuges and all the wilderness areas I could. I just couldn't get enough.

When the tour ended and I was back in NYC, I would find those wilderness areas around metropolitan New York where I could flee to. My wife is from north-central New Jersey; and I had been reading about a wildlife refuge in that area called the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Here's the deal: The Sullivan household was a pretty creative place. And, Kathleen and her mother did many things together on our visits. Some of this revolved around making spectacular meals. They were great in the kitchen. They would also look through magazines and source materials for changing up the decor. And there were the necessary errands to run. Her father also had work projects to tend to. So, one day on one of our visits, I asked: "Do you know where the Great Swamp is?" And, her father answered, or it could have been a chorus chiming in, I forget: "Right down the street". A couple of miles down the street as a matter of fact. It was so easy!

And, I discovered a place that is a treasure. However, this is a place that almost did not come into being. According to Laura and William Riley's book published in 1979, GUIDE TO THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES, this area was rescued by more than six thousand private citizens and more than four hundred and sixty organizations. More than one million dollars were raised in 1960 to purchanse three thousand acres and also later acquisitions raised that number to six thousand plus acres of wooded swamps, fresh water marshes, bogs and uplands. This land was spared from being metropolitan New York's fourth airport. I remember when I first started going there in 1980 things were pretty basic. It is a swamp, and I remember more often than not, slipping and sliding in ankle deep mud; always after a rain. Management has now spruced up the trails and put in boardwalks throughout the swampy areas of the trails. The wooded areas are pretty thick in spots and the water component is also pretty extensive. This area is surrounded by a lot of development - sprawling suburbia with all of its trappings: housing, malls, restaurants, coffee shops, etc.

The wonderful thing about it is that with all of this civilization around it, it's pretty wild actually. It lies at the edge of the Kittatinny Mountains migration route; so, some big birds may be seen soaring over - osprey, eagles, goshawks, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned. Red-tails and Red-shoulders are residents. There are also visitations by the gigantic White-tailed Deer, Black Bears are now common in the area, as well as fox, mink, river otters and muskrat. The perching bird occupation and visits are outstanding: most all of your eastern warblers Hermit and Swainson Thrushes as well as the beautiful Eastern Bluebird. Eastern Kingbirds, and other flycatchers abound. Woodpeckers are also around - Downy and Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red-headed, and two specialties there - Red-bellied constantly calling in the spring and Pileated. It's fun walking through those woods and trying to distinguish which woodpecker is tapping. And, after a rain, there is nothing more delightful than hearing the rantings of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo which can go on for quite some time.

Ducks and geese are also abundant. The stately Canada Goose, which in spring, parade their handsome brood. Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal are here as well as Mallards and Black Ducks. But, the crown jewel of the refuge is the charismatic Wood Duck. When I frequented the place in the eighties, they were doing quite well. The male which is so wonderfully colored with red, green, blue, white and black. A dark white spotted brick colored breast, dark beige sides, white belly and black and white stripes separate the colors of the breast and the sides. And, I cannot forget that red eye. The female is much more drab: grayish on the upper body. A bold teardrop white encircles the eye, with a much darker breast and it is streaked. Her only splash of color is a blue speculum. It is, however, her significance that I am going to point out. But, first, I have to mention the care and safety that the people who manage this refuge take to protect these ducks from marauding snakes and mammals. It's very simple actually. They've erected nesting boxes in a number of waterways with reversed cone shaped metal a bit under the bottom of the of the boxes to deter egg and chick harrassment and killing. Also, the Swamp has some really fantastic blinds where you can observe these creatures without even the smallest possibility of disturbing them.

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Blue-winged Teal, Arnold Small Photographic Collection Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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Mallard, Arnold Small Photographic Collection Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

It is in one of these blinds, one afternoon, for somewhere between two and a half to three hours I observed a Wood Duck family go through their extraordinary day. I entered the blind, having it all to myself and gazed out at the pond which in the early afternoon seemed quite serene. As I looked out, Red-winged Blackbirds were giving a Red-tailed Hawk a complete case of the "blues". They made that bird whimper. The Red-bellied Woodpeckers were calling. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was singing. An Eastern Kingbird was busy catching insects. And I was now being treated by a pond parade of Mrs. Wood Duck and her kids. She seemed to be very stately in leading her brood of twelve. The youngsters were occaisionally feeding off of the vegetation in the pond. Nine of the ducklings would follow her closely in a tight line. It was a very impressive formation. But, I noticed that numbers ten, eleven and twelve didn't seem to receive the formation memo. They were chasing each other and doing little snipes at their siblings' tails; pretty much not paying any attention to this rather dignified procession. Consequently, they were always playing "catch up". They splashed the water getting around so much that I thought that "Mom" would have to come back and give them a bit of a scolding. It suddenly occurred to me that I was really watching a "cartoon". They were like "Donald Duck's" nephews: Hughie, Dewey and Louie. And this was like Saturday morning watching cartoons with my sister when we were kids. I have to tell you that I laughed so much watching this. They were pretty nuts, chasing each other around, when I noticed that the "Mom" got rigid and her neck extended straight up.

WODU 8573-adj by-Don-Sterba-sat

WODU 9815-adj2 by-Don-Sterba-sat

Wood Duck, Photos by Don Sterba

She sensed that they were not alone. The ducks were proceeding near an island in the pond with high grasses. That was when I noticed in the water something so sinister and dangerous that I hoped that her "Three Stooges" kids would finally pay attention. This creature's shell rose to the top of the water. The appearance of this shell is of a reptile so prehistoric, it's actually chilling to describe it. The shell was the size of an almost round coffee table in someone's home. But, the texture is somewhat like that of a dinosaur. The carapace itself looked like it could be some dangerous mountain range set in aboslute order; nothing out of place. It is jagged and is a formidable piece of armor. I was just looking at part of the shell of an Alligator Snapping Turtle. The males can get somewhere between one hundred and fifty to sometimes over two hundred pounds. The head is massive and the beak comes to a sharp point; not unlike some birds of prey.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Garry Tucker USFWS Wikimedia CC BY FPWC-lrg

Alligator Snapping Turtle, Photo by Garry Tucker, USFWS

Now with this gigantic head and razor sharp beak, this monster can do some incredible damage. That bite can sever fingers, toes and definitely can chew up the little morsels that are swimming in the pond. Usually these snapping turtles lie in wait at the bottom of the pond; nabbing fish and other things which swim at the bottom of these waterways. They have in their mouth on the tongue, a lure, which they deceptively wiggle to attract fish and other curious underwater dwellers and as soon as the prey goes near, they strike. These turtles can stay submerged from thirty to forty-five minutes and then come up for air and go back to the bottom.

Alligator Snapping Turtle Macrochelys temminckii Gary M Stolz USFWS FPWC

Alligator Snapping Turtle, Photo by Gary M. Stolz, USFWS


Alligator Snapping Turtle, Courtesy www.akehduit.biz

Now, I have an educated theory, that with the "crazy toon trio" causing such a disturbance on the surface, that the reptile sensed that his meal would come by him swimming just slightly beneath the surface and picking them off one by one. Mrs. Wood Duck, however, had other ideas and was very alert and quite diligent. As she approached the island, she began to make some gutteral clucking noises. Obviously in "Wood Duck speak"; this was a signal for her brood to get out of the water and get into the high grasses. The scene now becomes "Swamp Jaws" and the snapper is getting perilously close to Hughie, Dewey and Louie; and, this gets pretty scary. They are really having a grand old time, but, you want them to pay attention and get the heck out of that pond. The reptile continues to stalk and I am breaking out in a sweat. Mamma Duck continues to do these alarm sounds and her three recalcitrant babies are barely getting the HINT, when all of a sudden as the turtle is almost ready to grab a duckling tail, there was a flurry of splashing as the three lept onto the island. That was close, too close!

Now Mom has some more work to do. She now must embark on saving her brood by leaving the ducklings hidden in the high grasses on the island. And luring the snapper to the opposite side of the pond, which is about an eighth of a mile away. Since the turtle has now missed what would have been appetizers, he now seems to want a meal and follows the mother more closely. It seems that this is happening at a faster pace. And, she leads him to where there is a small tributary that feeds water into this pond, but does not give her much wiggle room. She purposely hems herself in. Just when a strike is about to happen, she's up in the air. She flies over the pond, low enough to check that her babies are OK and then she flies into the woods. I'm watching the island and not one blade of grass even moves. These guys are absolutely still.

I'm now watching because she is gone for a good length of time; about forty-five minutes. Since I've seen this far, I have to watch this whole thing play out. There is absolutely no movement in the grasses. Everything is still. And, after about forty-five minutes, she comes flying out of the woods. She flies around the pond, I assume making sure there are no signs of the dinosaur menace. And, she flies over the island and finally settles in the water. She makes some different gutteral sounds and her faithful nine come orderly out of the grasses. A few seconds later "the Marx Brothers" literally clumsily fall out of the grasses - splashing and thrashing. And, the cartoon continues.

I wanted to applaud. This was so fantastic. She heroically saved all twelve of her ducklings. I don't have any idea whether she was a new mom, or all of this is done by instinct, or it is her experience that this can be a dangerous place. They all live to see another day. That day they had a happy ending. I went from amusement to nervousness with the unfolding drama. It was also thrilling to see a part of the natural realm and what's at stake. It also reminded me of our life situations. I remember the year I taught school and you have an attentive class that is always interrupted by a couple of jokers. The difference is that kids in school aren't going to have the possibility of losing their lives for being the class clown compared to what might have been in store for these little ducklings.

I was spellbound for almost three hours. You can also guess that I'm not what you would call ADD or ADHD. The fascination with bird behavior is somewhat the same when I was five as it is now. I walked away from that wishing I had a movie camera. This was my own private little showing. The twenty-first century is an era of instant gratification. Technology has cuased us to believe that all you have to do is press a button and you get instant results. There is no patience for watching a situation unfold and come to a natural conclusion. There have been some wonderfully gratifying moments just patiently watching things happen. There are times when the conclusions are good for all and there are times when things can be a little grim. Whatever the outcome, there are lessons and rewards stepping out of your world and watching life other than yours unfold. This is a memory of over thirty years ago and I still see it clearly and with wonder. I still go through the emotions I was feeling at that time watching this. Feelings that would have been non-existant had I just walked into the blind, saw the Wood Ducks, put a tick on the species list and left.

Wood-Duck-Family Courtesy-www.portlandbirds.blogspot.com

Wood Duck Family, Courtesy www.portlandbirds.blogspot.com

Oops! I completely forget that I have to get back to my in-laws for dinner. And, I'm really late! As I'm sure that dinner has been ready for quite some time. I'm not sure how my explanation is going to get over: "Uh, I was watching a duck family and a gnarly turtle?" Ugh!

If you get the urge to visit the metropolitan NYC area and you need a little taste of wilderness and swamp much akin to southern swamps, try an outing to the Great Swamp. At any time of year it is full of creature action. Many bird species nest there. Spring and Fall migrations are probably the best seasons to go, for physical comfort. Summer is amazingly hot and humid and the winters are really cold. But, there is never a dull moment. And, who knows you might get a surprising visitation that will get your juices flowing. And, it's less than an hour west of mid-town Manhattan. Trust me, it's worth a shot.

Louis Tucker was born in White Plains, New York. He got his college education at Boston University and Boston Conservatory of Music, Drama and Dance receiving a Bachelor of Music degree. He moved back to New York in 1974, in Manhattan and he did a little detour and started acting. He made his professional debut on Broadway in the musical TIMBUKTU directed by Geoffrey Holder and starring Eartha Kitt and was a principal understudy. Over the years he's made a ton of commercials and in 1987 moved to LA, being part of the entertainment scene and doing all the birding he can possibly fit in.

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Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 1 Sept/Oct 2014