With clothes for almost any occasion, waterfowl are flashy dressers

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For no apparent reason, in a flurry of splashing water and flapping wings, the northern pintail burst out of the quagmire of cattails, flying in the orange glow of the setting sun from the prairies.

“That’s how I would dress if I had an audience with the Queen,” I said to Christine, as we watched the dapper duck fly away. “Now, if I were to be knighted, I would appear as a bull canvasback. And if I were to go to the Caribbean for a fortnight of hearty celebrations, I would have to adopt the look of the tigernut from the north.

“Where did you hear that,” Christine wanted to know.

“I didn’t hear it, I just thought it out loud.”

She looked at me with the yellowish eye of speculation and said, “Well, that’s a good idea, if you think about it a lot, wild birds are flashy dressers.”

We were on a break from settling my father’s estate and chose to spend it revisiting the country where I had learned my first hunting skills and where Christine, many years later, discovered a love for hunting dogs. It’s a love that has brought us close to the point, or perhaps beyond, where people might whisper, “It’s those crazy dogs.”

Eastern North Dakota is located in the prairie pothole region of North America. The vast region, which includes Saskatchewan to the north, is affectionately known to waterfowl hunters as the “duck factory”. Thousands of small ponds or “potholes” that rarely cover more than a few acres, along with the cattails and other vegetation that surround them, provide nesting cover as well as stopover points for migrating birds to rest and feed during their journeys north and south.

Folklore has the term pothole originated in the Roman Empire when pottery makers dug divots into the dirt roads of the time to make their pots. Whatever the origin of the term, the Pothole Plains region displays a remarkable variety of life – if one cares to look.

It also represents an important part of the Great Plains, also called the “breadbasket” or the “heartland”, where farmers and ranchers feed the country, or perhaps more accurately given the food stress created by the huge growth in human population, the world.

When Christine and I took our first hunting trip to the area together, she commented on the midday drive to our destination, “How can anything live on all this flat farmland?”

The crops had been harvested in late October, leaving remnants of corn stalks, bean vines and some wheat stubble. With no machines working in the fields, the country seen from the window of a vehicle traveling at 75 mph on the highway looked desolate.

“You’ll see,” I replied.

For the next week, we hunted the rural countryside, rekindling my childhood connection to the land while lamenting the many places plowed for corn production.

On the way back to the airport, Christine said, “Reminds me of apartments.”

Her experience with the estuary at the mouth of the Kenai River, which we call the “flats”, had led her to walk through them every day for years and think they were wasteland, until which she begins to hunt there and comes to find the amazing range of wild creatures that have made their home there.

On subsequent hunting trips with my father, Christine came to embrace the plains, though like me, not enough to leave Alaska. For the past few years, health issues and the beer bug had kept us from taking the fall trips we had enjoyed so much, and in the meantime, we’ve lost my dad.

Although our return home was bittersweet, we were determined to get out and visit the hunting grounds and “take the temperature” as Dad always talked about his daily roaming around the country. That’s how we found ourselves looking at ducks and thinking about imitation opportunities for the dress.

Spotting a ginger drake duck in another pothole, Christine blurted out, “So where would we go dressed in ginger?”

“It’s easy,” I said. “The Highland Games.”

“Careful,” cried Christine as we slid along a quagmire that the spring melt had nearly flooded the road.

I slammed on the brakes, “What?”

“A turtle came out of the grass, and I thought you were going to hit it.” Over the next few miles we saw many more turtles crossing the road. Each time we stopped and helped them, hoping they wouldn’t get run over.

“Look,” I pointed to a yellow-headed blackbird clinging to a distaff. “This one looks dressed for the Oscars.”

A much larger pothole lay ahead and there were large snags that had been drowned over the years and covered in cormorants, a sure sign that some sort of fish resided in the quagmire.

“I should have brought a hook and a worm?” I asked.

“Who dresses like them? Christine wondered aloud. “Pirate”.

“Let’s go see the mallard swamp,” said Christine. The place she meant was just up the road from Dad’s. The little pothole had been surrounded by cattails and mallards would pour into it at the last light. We always chased him at least once on every descent.

When I made an approach in front of the mallard mire, we looked at a plowed field. We found out that the farmer had sold the land a few years earlier, and burned the cattails and filled in the slough for a few acres of corn.

Finding places we had hunted in the past, plowed and planted had become routine on our trips there. There is little public land in this part of the world and the availability of places where people are free to roam the country and commune with the natural world is disappearing.

If that’s not enough to keep us in Alaska, Christine has discovered another reason. We had taken a walk around the pothole swamp on my father’s property, where hundreds of birds of all kinds lived. When Christine felt something land on her hand, she looked down to see her first live wood tick. I had already found several on me, a childhood memory where unchecking was a daily chore.

Since we had always visited in the fall after freezing weather, Christine had never experienced them.

“You know,” I said deadpan, “we’re going to have to shave our heads before we go home, we can’t risk bringing ticks back to Alaska.”

“Maybe you could have told me before I came here,” she replied.

“Not really,” I said. “But that’s another good reason we never left Alaska.”

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