I Dreamed of Canvasbacks

March 4, 2015

Drake canvasbacks cruise past my hidey-hole along a Mississippi River backwater. It took almost nine years for me to get a shot like this. Now I can move on to my next nemesis species!

I’ve always held the canvasback in high regard, even going back to graduate school in 1986 when I’d never even been waterfowl hunting before. One of my fellow graduate students at University of Missouri was studying the life history of canvasbacks and his passion for the species was impressive. I was studying larval fish communities in the Missouri River and I remember being a little jealous of my friend’s field of study in which he could concentrate on one magnificent animal. He had collected every paper that had ever been written about the canvasback—this was well before the internet days—and every time I saw him, he was either reading, thinking or talking about canvasbacks.

Fast forward to the early 1990’s when I started duck hunting with my friend Kevin Meneau, and the canvasback became more of a reality than just a discussion topic. But the mystique of the stocky, red-headed duck with the canvas colored back continued as we weren’t even allowed to harvest one at that time because their numbers were so low. Eventually, we were allowed to harvest them in limited numbers, probably due in part to the research of my friend from graduate school, but by that time I was shifting gears to photographing ducks instead of harvesting them.

It has been almost nine years since I began dedicating a huge chunk of my life to wildlife photography but the canvasback has continued to elude me until this past week. Sure, I have photographed them from afar, and one of my canvasback silhouettes was even selected for the 2014 Natural Events Calendar, but I’d never gotten up close and personal with one, as I have with most other waterfowl.

Everything changed a few days ago when I stopped at the MDC office at Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area to talk to my friend Chris Adams. Over the years, Chris has directed me to several wonderful duck photography opportunities but little did I know that the best was yet to come. “I know where you can photograph some canvasbacks,” he said, as I sat across from his desk. I leaned forward and said something to the effect of, “Dude….are you serious?” Actually I can’t remember for sure what I said, as the image of a canvasback was short-circuiting my brain.

Later that evening, I loaded the 4Runner, went to bed early, and dreamed of canvasbacks on the Mississippi River. I arrived at the site well before sun-up, as all of my stories begin, and took a short hike through six inches of fresh snow to the site along the river. I found a spot for my turkey chair under a big tree, augmented the surrounding natural cover with some cut-leaf camo, and settled in.

I’d jumped a bunch of ducks on arrival so it wasn’t long before many of them moved back in. I had situated myself in a position where ice cover was closest to the bank, forming a nick-point where the ducks would have to pass less than 30 meters from my position if they went by. It took forever for the steam to clear off the water as the temperature was 8° F, so I just sat and watched the canvasbacks, pintails, mergansers, ringnecks and other species for over an hour as they fed and loafed near my position.

By 8:00 the steam was mostly cleared and the sunlight was filtered by thin clouds—perfect! I was just getting serious about capturing some images when all of the ducks took flight at once, including my beloved canvasbacks. For a second or two, I wondered how I had blown my cover but I soon realized that a river otter had scared them away. I watched the otter porpoising in the icy water for a while but never got an opportunity for a shot.

It wasn’t long before the otter disappeared and the ducks returned to feed along the ice, but I had a new problem. A bald eagle had landed in the tree I was sitting under and every time the ducks would move in, it would chatter, squeak and grunt, not unlike my cat, Salem, when she watches birds through the window to our deck. If that weren’t enough, every time the eagle got excited it would jump around in the tree and dump snow on my head, my lap, and all over my equipment. Fortunately, the ducks grew accustomed to the eagle’s shenanigans and decided they were safe enough to stick around. I finally got down to some serious shutter snapping.

Below is a close-up look of one of the drakes from the featured image. I was about 20 meters away from this stout diver and it was hard to keep from shaking as I tracked him with my 500 mm lens. The light was just right to expose the intense reds and blacks of the duck’s head and breast without overexposing its cream-colored body.

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The next image is of a canvasback hen, one of many that passed by my stealthy position along the shoreline. I always love the subtle coloration of female waterfowl and the canvasback was certainly no exception. Even without the classic colors of the drake, the hen canvasback’s long, sloping bill is a dead giveaway.

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The final image is of a pair of canvasbacks taking a nap right in front of my position. Whenever ducks become relaxed enough to rest at my feet, I know I’ve done all that was necessary to achieve proper concealment. My old buddy, Marv Boyer, whom we used to call the “camo cop” back in my duck hunting days, would have been proud of me.

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During my morning photographing canvasbacks, I also managed to make some captures of other species, including some stunning northern pintails and hooded mergansers. I’ll share those images with you over the next few weeks. For today, its all canvasbacks!

Thanks for looking,

Danny Brown

Email me at:  NatureFrames@Rocketmail.Com

Note:  If you would like learn a little about a fascinating sea duck, the long-tailed duck (formerly old squaw), check out my story and photos in this month’s Missouri Conservationist or go to the link here.

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