Going out into nature to photograph wildlife is as much about being connected with the wild and its inhabitants as it is about getting photographs. I don’t think it would be possible to get captivating photographs if there isn’t an emotional connection and passion for the subject matter. Most of the time this leads to interesting experiences, wild encounters, and beautiful sights and sounds. Occasionally I find myself on a different path having a different experience and I’m faced with difficult choices.
I had been completely slammed with school work recently and hadn’t had much time to go out into nature with my camera, so I awarded myself a block of time one afternoon to do just that. I grabbed my camera backpack, walked out the door, and headed east towards Lake Washington with no specific destination in mind. I didn’t have a ton of time, so I narrowed it down to a few locations and finally settled on Matthews Beach. There are frequently birds from a wide array of species in this area and I figured the chances of me seeing something worth photographing would be fairly good.
When I arrived, I took my camera out and glassed over the lake with my lens to see which direction I wanted to go. I saw a few Double-crested Cormorants, Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, and an assortment of other ducks fairly far offshore and decided I’d wander over to an area where a creek spills into the lake. When I got to the edge of the creek, I saw a number of Mallards and Gadwalls foraging and began browsing across the collection with my lens as I waited for something to catch my eye. Just about that time I heard an unusual sound and lowered my camera to see the big picture. I scanned the other side of the bank for the source of the noise and my eyes stopped on a male Mallard near the edge of the creek by a log that appeared to be struggling. I observed the bird for a moment to see if I could determine what was going on with him. As someone that has spent a number of years volunteering at a wildlife hospital, I easily recognized that the Mallard was in distress. I raised my camera to zero in on the duck with my lens to get a better look and saw him struggling for air. I lowered my lens and sighed. Really? The one afternoon I finally get out with my camera and this is what I encounter? It had rained enough recently that the water levels were high and I was trying to figure out if I could even get to the spot where the duck was located. This definitely wasn’t what I had in mind for the afternoon, but it’s the situation that was presenting itself, so I had to go with it.
I took a path that followed the creek and headed for an area where I knew there were some rocks that I might be able to use to cross the water. When I got to the spot I thought I might be able to cross the water, I contemplated a number of different outcomes in my mind. Falling into the water with my camera gear would be devastating. I couldn’t leave my gear unattended because the likelihood of it being stolen was too high. I looked across the water, watched the Mallard struggling for air and took a deep breath. I put my camera back in its backpack and strapped it securely to my back so that I could attempt to cross the water. The rocks were wet and slippery and I already had mud on my boots, which didn’t exactly help matters. I had to jump from rock to rock in order to be able to cross the rushing water. At one point I landed on part of a submerged rock and had to spin in order to keep from losing my balance. When I stopped, I shook my head and imagined how much fun it would be trying to cross this again with a wild mallard in my bare hands. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned, do they? I made it across and wandered slowly towards the area where the Mallard was sitting. If I approached him directly, he was going to go into the water, likely using up what little energy he had remaining. I have a number of different techniques that I employ to get closer to wild animals and I adjust my approach in response to their body language. I didn’t look directly at the Mallard because I knew that was going to make him nervous and decrease my chances of catching him. I focused my attention on some ducks on the other bank as I kept the Mallard in my peripheral vision and slowly side stepped in his direction. I knew that I was probably only going to get one chance and I didn’t want to create a chaotic and frightening situation for the duck when he was already struggling. Everyone knows how terrifying it is to not be able to breathe, and if you don’t, I hope you never find out. I stopped when I was about six feet away from the duck and acted like I was ignoring him. He began to get nervous about how close I was to him and began to rise while moving towards the water. I lunged quickly and grabbed him so that I could pin his wings to his sides. I quickly positioned him on my right hip covering his eyes with my shirt to calm him as I made my way back towards the spot where I could cross the water with him.
I could feel the Mallard’s keel and could tell how weak and emaciated he was. I doubted that he would survive whatever had happened to him, but I knew that I could offer him a peaceful exit at the very least. In the back of my mind I was hoping he might be okay, but I also knew it was unlikely. I got to the rock crossing and hoped that the duck and I, along with my camera, wouldn’t wind up in the water. We made it across the rocks and I headed for my car knowing that I didn’t have a box to put him in. I was going to have to put him in a blanket and hope that he would make a good co-pilot on the trip north on I-5.
The Mallard poked his head out from between the folds of the blanket as I headed north and continued to struggle for air. I glanced over making eye contact briefly as I made my way to the highway and the Mallard looked somewhat relieved in spite of his struggle for air. In that moment I had a glimmer of hope for him-instead of giving up, he continued his efforts to survive. The duck and I were going about 70 miles per hour when he suddenly got a burst of energy. This is why a well-ventilated, escape-proof container is the best way to transport a wild animal. The Mallard launched forward onto the floor of the passenger’s side of my car as I began merging right in case I had to exit the highway or pull onto the shoulder. Against my better judgment I whispered, “Man, I thought we had an understanding here-I get you help, you stay seated!” While I don’t think the duck had a clue, he remained on the floor until we got to the wildlife hospital about ten minutes later. I walked over to the passenger side and scooped the Mallard up to take him inside. Once I got him inside, I handed him over to one of the wildlife rehabilitators and gave all of the information I had about his situation. I had done this many times and since this is the wildlife hospital where I have volunteered, there were familiar faces and jokes about how I wound up spending my afternoon driving a duck around Seattle.
Unfortunately, the duck died that night in spite of receiving supportive care. He was in a warm, quiet, peaceful place when he died and he had medication to make his exit more comfortable. It beat waiting for death while struggling for air and waiting for the inevitable predator. Don’t get me wrong, that’s nature and if the duck hadn’t been struggling for air, I probably would have never intervened. I couldn’t be sure that he had arrived in that situation via natural causes and that his struggles weren’t human-related. It was the least I could do to give him a chance and if it didn’t work out, it beat the alternative. While it was somewhat sad, I still felt better about it for the duck. These things don’t always end badly. I’ve had the pleasure of releasing many birds and mammals back into the wild after rehabilitation and it always feels like it was worth it. To see an animal beat the odds and to have the opportunity to return it to the wild where it can be strong and free is a magical experience.
Source: Personal Experience