While looking for Hooded Mergansers on Henrys Fork, I came across the migrating “Wood Duck Social Club”

While trying to photograph Hooded Mergansers one evening near the confluence of Henrys Fork and the South Fork of the Snake River, I saw what appeared to be several wood ducks. They weren’t close, but with my binoculars I identified them and saw four pairs emerging from under a willow tree. They were near a cattle feedlot and near a farm. I only had two really bad pictures of them and I wanted to get some good ones.

For two days I parked next to a bridge hoping (and praying) that they would eventually follow some of the hoodies up the canal and swim under the bridge. No chance. As they fed on plants and seeds instead of fish, they were content to play without approaching. Three of them eventually flew over the bridge and I managed to get some pretty good shots. It was time to knock on a door – no answer – so I waved at a car, got a phone number and called.

After getting permission from the family (one of the sons was a former student of mine) I was allowed to park in their pasture next to the canal. I was in the middle of the migrating “Wood Duck Social Club” with 16 “woodies” playing on the channel. They allowed me to photograph them for about three hours before my movement was noticed by a wise old hen and they all disappeared.

I hadn’t seen them fly away and my former student came to visit and said there were a few further down the canal. I went down and sure enough eight flew under a willow hanging over the water. A huge mistake – they were gone for the day.

Trying to stay hidden, this woodie creates a beautiful reflection in the shadows. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

The next morning it was foggy and I got there a little early and parked near the willow tree where the ducks had been hiding the night before. Eleven of them played near the willow tree but stayed under it, which made photos a bit difficult. I was about to leave when three small herds of woodies arrived, landing in the channel below and above me.

“A fee,” I thought as 31 of them started working for me.

As I started to take photos, everything flew away, including a great blue heron on the canal. A bald eagle was looking for breakfast and no waterfowl were ready to be put on his tray. In most of their wintering areas the antlers can be hunted, and I have found them to be very shy and scared of vehicles and movement there. Savages are difficult to photograph.

Most of these woodies migrated from Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, or California and most likely headed south into Canada. I visited the channel this week and found all but one pair were missing. The Department of Fish and Game reported to me that, like the hoodies, there are a few that nest from the Chester area down to Roberts.

Like hoodies, wood ducks nest in cavities, but they are a bit larger and need at least a four-inch hole in a tree to make a nest. In the eastern Idaho wetlands, there aren’t many trees with a four-inch hole to be found. They can’t dig their own hole, so they have to find one that works for them. Some landowners in the St. Anthony area have private ponds and have set up nesting boxes for them and woodlots have nested there.

wood duck 2
A male “woodie” chased out of the water. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

Plastic nesting boxes have been placed for them in different areas, but studies have shown that the plastic gets too hot and the nests have been abandoned. Wooden boxes about 24 inches deep with a 10 inch square floor and a cavity with a four to five inch hole are what females look for when choosing a place to raise their broods. In ideal locations, they will raise two broods per year.

I have built several birdhouses and will place them next fall on private properties that have given me permission to do so. Hopefully we can get a few more woodies to stay over the summer so they are more visible for us to enjoy. The males are beautiful to look at and fun to watch.

Looking for them in canals, side channels of area rivers, and ponds can be productive. Warm Slough, Texas Canal, Henrys Fork near St. Anthony, private ponds, and the South Fork of the Teton west of Rexburg are all good places to see them.
Check your seed waste under your bird feeders – a friend of mine found a pair cleaning up his garden this week! If you’re looking for it, good luck!

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