I might have named the backwaters of the Huon River “swan lake” after the black swans that I find there but I have another name for an expanse of water where wildfowl gather. I call the waters of Lake Barrington in the north of the state “duck pond” because of the large number of Australian wood duck I always see there.
After paying closer attention to black swans this year, I have also been looking anew at the wood duck, another waterbird that is so common it goes virtually unnoticed across the state.
I know the wood duck from not only my local birdwatching patch, the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart, but from just about every pond and river I have surveyed on my journeys across the state.
The wood duck’s abundance also makes it a target for wildfowlers each hunting season, it being one of five species of duck that can be shot under licence. The others are grey teal, chestnut teal, black duck and Australian shelduck (mountain duck).
The wood duck might appear unremarkable with its largely grey plumage but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be a stunningly beautiful bird.
At the Lake Barrington international rowing course earlier this year, marking time between rowing races, I unpacked my binoculars from my backpack and focused them on a family of wood ducks gaily dodging the boats out on the lanes.
The Australian wood duck is medium-sized, and goose-like with a rich brown head and a pale grey body with two black stripes along the back. Males have a darker head and a small dark mane. This species is also known as the maned duck or the maned goose.
Unlike the majority of waterfowl – described as either dabbling or diving ducks – the wood duck is found on grasslands, open woodlands, wetlands, flooded pastures and along the coast in inlets and bays. It eats grasses, clover and other herbs, and occasionally, insects. It is rarely seen out on lakes, except place likes Lake Barrington where people congregate and force it to take to the water.
The wood duck forms monogamous breeding pairs that stay together year round. It nests in tree holes, above or near water, often re-using the same site. Both parents feed young and young birds remain with them up to a month after fledging.
My knowledge of wood duck breeding had always been sketchy until last summer when I discovered a pair breeding at the Waterworks Reserve. Nine chicks had been hatched and from these nine survived and it was a joy to see them following their parents across the grasslands on the dam walls.
By coincidence a bird carer who had a baby wood duck that had fallen out of a nest had phoned a little earlier to ask me if I knew of a wood duck family that might not notice another duckling added to the clan. The young bird was duly released near where the family was feeding and soon was absorbed into the flock.
Away from the Waterworks Reserve, Lake Barrington has always been wood duck territory for me and I remember having a discussion about them a few years back over dinner in the Sheffield Hotel where my son’s rowing crew was billeted. I had described their natural history to a noted rowing coach, who owned a farm near the Huon.
“Yep, lovely little ducks,” he agreed and then added matter-of-factly: “Shot two on my lawn last week. They make lovely eating.”