116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A small group of people at a ballpark with binoculars and cameras on an early Saturday morning in late summer might not be too strange a sight.
Except that this group was way too early for a game and they were facing the wrong direction.
It’s 116 miles from Marion to Prairie City in Jasper County. But if you miss its exit from I-80, and then you skipped the next exit at Mitchellville because you were involved in a “whose to blame” argument with yourself, then the distance is 144 miles.
But for me and others across the state, the baseball complex on the south side of town was a necessary destination.
The complex included two small stormwater ponds. In those ponds there was a most unusual group of birds: black-bellied whistling ducks.
Some folks have checklists of states traveled or stadiums visited. If you are a bird-watcher, then you have a list of birds seen. I find the exciting part of a list are those boxes which haven't been checked off yet. That’s the motivation.
I learned a family of black-bellied whistling ducks were in Prairie City and I hadn’t checked them off my list.
As far as ducks go, black-bellied whistling ducks are strange. They mate for life, like geese. Males and females look the same, like geese. And they all share a penchant for feeding in grain fields by the light of the moon.
But they will nest in trees like wood ducks. Yet when it suits them, they will nest on the ground or in a cactus. Did I mention these ducks aren’t native to Iowa?
These pinked ducks are at their northern limits in Louisiana and Texas in the Mississippi River Flyway. Their greatest populations live in Mexico and South America. Hola. ¿Como estas?
I wasn’t the first to the ballpark that sultry Saturday morning. A couple from Muscatine were among the vanguard. At the far edge of the little pond was the group.
I breathed a sigh of relief. When the price of gasoline is in most every conversation, a fellow could almost feel sheepish in admitting he’d driven, “How far?!” to just look at a duck. Avoid negative people.
The adults were beautiful. Their colors were bold when most ducks wear drab for the summer. I was an instant fan.
It was the sight of the clutch that gave me a double take. I was able to count about 18 to 19 fuzzy chicks. A clutch this late in the summer spurred a lot of questions. And no, mama did not lay all those eggs. Some other duck, whether a wood duck or another black-bellied whistling duck, deposited her eggs into that nest and then took the rest of motherhood off. It is 2022.
More people with long lenses arrived. The feathered family walked the water’s edge, the ducklings foraged with abandon. One adult was at the front of the chicks and the other guarded the rear. Straggling wasn’t allowed.
When they got to within about 100 feet from us they took to the water. The quiet crowd was too much for them to advance farther.
They paraded a couple of times on the still water in front of us as if giving the paparazzi what they wanted. Then the ducks returned to the far side, slipped into some tall grass and were gone. And then so was I.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion, teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.