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A majestic leap (and a bounce)

Photographer captures day-old ducklings taking their first flights

These ducklings wait their turn before jumping (and bouncing) to the ground below. Photo by Steve Maanum

If you have a desire to photograph wildlife, even if it’s just a hobby, you must understand right up front that a wildlife photographer is not . . . well, just not a normal person. What would possess an otherwise sane individual to sit in trees, ground blinds, or water blinds hour after hour just to watch and photograph some poor unsuspecting animal?

I spend quite a bit of time photographing loons and wood ducks and everything else that flies, hops, runs, or crawls. Because of my strange behavior and the patience it takes to get the shot I’m after, I may be considered a bit “different.”

Oh, I realize hunters have peculiar habits, too, but their seasons are limited to a few short months in autumn. Family members and neighbors may notice a change in them, weeks before the season opens, as they drag the duck boat to the middle of the driveway, spread the decoys around it, and then sit in it, dressed in camouflage while searching the sky for imaginary flocks of mallards.

The mother wood duck peeks out of her doorway, checking for danger. Next up were her young ducklings, who all took their leap to freedom that day. Photo by Steve Maaum

Withdrawal symptoms might linger weeks after the season ends, but eventually, most hunters get back to leading a routine, acceptable life. The smell of Hoppe’s gun oil and deer scent dissipate in time. These hunters finally even get to the point where they can carry on a conversation without a quack, honk, or a grunt entering in.

To a wildlife photographer, the season never ends. As a kid I got all excited about hunting ducks in the fall. Now I get even more excited about hunting them in the spring; I just use a different weapon.

Each spring I wait for the return of wood ducks and then, with cameras mounted inside their nesting boxes, I document the egg laying, incubating, and hatching. The ducklings leap from their nesting box the day after they hatch, so I prepare weeks in advance by placing my photo blind in the back yard. It allows the female time to get accustomed to seeing it as a nonthreatening addition to the landscape. The morning after the ducklings hatch, I enter the blind with tripod and cameras an hour before sunrise. Watching baby wood ducks leap from their nest is one of nature’s many ways of entertaining us. Each duckling has its own style. They may do a back flip, a belly flop, or a swan dive, but whatever style they choose, they all bounce when they hit the ground.

This duckling earns extra style points for its graceful leap from the nest as a sibling looks on. Photo by Steve Maanum

Several years ago our two kids were home from college, and Carrie noticed my blind in the yard. Knowing my peculiar habits, she asked, “Did they hatch yet?” I nodded and asked if she and Scott wanted to sit in the blind the next morning. She said, “Dad, this is what you love to do.” I said, “You’re right, but what I love even more is sharing it with others. Your mom and I can watch from the house.”

So the next morning at 5:30 our two pajama-clad kids entered the photo blind. Our neighbor, who will go nameless (simply to protect his identity) had always told me that he had never seen the ducklings leap and asked if I would give him a call when it was about to happen. I explained it could be pretty early in the morning, and he reassured me that would be no problem.

Well, as the kids sat in the blind and Deb and I watched from the dining room, the female wood duck appeared in her doorway and nervously began checking the area for possible danger. The leaping event was about to happen so I grabbed the phone and made the call. The telephone next door rang and rang and rang before I heard a gravelly voice stutter a “hellllooo.”

All I said was, “It’s about to happen, and if you want to see it, you better hurry!”

A couple of minutes later, the female wood duck dropped to the ground, and ducklings began coming out like popcorn. The kids had front row seats. We watched from the house, and our neighbor witnessed the event in his own way.

It’s time to go! This duckling leaps out of the wood duck house outside wildlife photographer Steve Maanum’s house in Park Rapids. Photo by Steve Maanum

It wasn’t until later that day that I was told what Paul Harvey would call, “the rest of the story.”

My phone call caught our neighbors sleeping, and as the “nameless one” answered the phone, the only thing his wife heard was, “What! Really! I’ll be right there.” Without any explanation, he leaped from bed and disappeared. His wife, confused by what had just taken place, went throughout the house, searching for him. She discovered her pajama-clad husband in the garage, where he was sitting in his fishing boat, looking out the window into our back yard and laughing for no apparent reason. Thinking he must be having a midlife crisis or at least a slight case of caffeine withdrawal, she waited for him in the kitchen while making a fresh pot of coffee. It wasn’t until he returned from the garage that she got the explanation of his abrupt and odd behavior.

Later that day she related the story to me and asked if she should be concerned about his unusual habits. I reassured her that every husband is entitled to a few harmless oddities, and I would do my best to keep his identity a secret so friends and neighbors wouldn’t question his sanity.

As I said, wildlife photographers are just not normal people; but then, I guess their neighbors aren’t either.

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