cinnamon quest in search of the lovely cinnamon teal

It was kind of a shame to ignore a sunrise like that. But I was looking for something else.

Mist hung on the surface of a little pond just off the southeast corner of the city, the sun still below the horizon cast salmon-coloured light onto the eastern clouds and sent streamers of shadow across the sky. A train was coming my direction and I could hear its horn sound as it came to the highway crossings.

There were birds everywhere. Gulls that had spent the night on the open water lifted off and noisily flew off semi-silhouetted, a flock of dark boomerangs skimming across the cattails. Blackbirds sang their morning songs, geese - there’s always geese - sent their honks echoing across the fields to meld with the sound of the train. Mallards gabbled, coots squawked.

The light was gorgeous, the sounds a morning symphony. On almost any other morning I’d be thrilled just to sit there and let it wash over me. But on this morning, I was on a hunt. A duck hunt.

I was looking for cinnamon teal.

Cinnamon teal - the drakes, at least - are one of the most lovely birds we have around here. Their most obvious trait is their feather colour, a dark, orangey rust the colour of the ground-up bark of the cinnamon tree, that covers most of their body.

Their wings and tail are darker with longer plumes a shade of thick cream. Their bill and the top of their head is dark, the bill nearly black and the topknot shading to a chestnut brown. Their legs are orange. And their eyes are a bright, glowing red that looks lit from within.

They are absolutely stunning. And annoyingly hard to spot.

You wouldn’t think that birds that look as distinctive as that would be so hard to find but, yeah, they are.

For one thing, they are very small, not a whole lot bigger than a robin. For another, they’re kinda shy, preferring to stick to the spaces between stands of cattails - where their colouring actually helps them blend in with the shadows and brown stalks - rather than swimming around out in the open.

And for a third, there’s just not that many of them.

But they are around and I’d already caught glimpses of them on other jaunts in the country. I’d just never been able to get a decent picture of one. So I headed out before dawn to try to remedy that situation.

Cinnamon teal like small ponds with lots of cover and there are several of those between Calgary and Indus. So that’s where I headed, hoping that the early morning would find them active and out in the open where I might spot them. And as dawn broke and the sun started to rise, I was feeling pretty lucky.

There were plenty of ducks around and I found several groups of their cousins, blue-winged and green-winged teal, on nearly every patch of open water. Among the teal - pretty much the smallest ducks we have around here - the blue-winged are the most common. You can find them nearly everywhere. The green-winged are easy to spot with their green-patched wings. The drakes have a gorgeous green swipe on the sides of their brown heads. Lovely birds.

With them were pairs of redheads and, even more common, pairs of green-headed shoveler ducks, mallard lookalikes that throng nearly every little puddle.

But no cinnamons.

I wasn’t about to give up, though. This was my third try at finding them and I was determined that it would be a success. So I headed east.

There were pheasants out in the morning light, striding through the fields. Blackbirds - yellow-headed and red winged - sang at every slough. I watched a muskrat preen. Chorus frogs sang. I couldn’t have asked for a better morning.

But I was cinnamon-less as I passed slough after slough. Further east I found canvasbacks, gadwalls and ring-necked ducks on the deeper ponds, and hundreds of the ubiquitous shovelers. Coots squabbled and cackled at each other on the shallow ponds they shared with pintails and American widgeon.

East of Hussar I even found a flock of snow geese running a bit behind on their migration north.

By now it was mid-afternoon and clouds were building up to the west so I set up a camera to shoot a timelapse beside a slough absolutely covered with ducks and geese. While it ran, I poked around some more.

And by Makepeace, I found my first cinny.

It was far off on the opposite side of the pond and the light was awful but there it was, a cinnamon drake swimming with its mate, a pair of blue-winged teal and scattered gadwalls. It didn’t make for much of a picture but I grabbed it anyway. When in pursuit of cinnamon teal, every picture counts.

I packed up my second camera and headed back toward town as it started to rain. I checked ponds on the way back, hitting sloughs by Strathmore and Lyalta but no luck. Home time.

I had things to do in the city the next morning but by noon I found myself in the deep southeast again. The light was harsh and a breeze had kicked up but it was an otherwise pleasant day. And since I was close, I decided to give the Indus sloughs one more shot.

They certainly didn’t look as lovely in the noonday light. The cattails were as much grey as yellow and the water was brown and scabbed with slabs of old algae. The ducks were still there, though, but they looked drab as they flew off across the milky sky.

I scoured all the open water as I drove slowly along, hoping for a flash of brown, when a couple of birds flew up from the ditch as I pulled over to let a truck pass me by. If I hadn’t been looking to my left just as they took off, I’d never have noticed what kind of birds they were.

A cinnamon teal drake and its mate flew off and landed again about fifty feet away. I swung the camera out the window and prayed that they would stay put while I focused.

Oh, such a lovely sight it was. The little drake's colours were magnificent, the glowing cinnamon of its body set off by the crazy red of its eyes. The dark water I’d lamented acted like a mirror while the grubby cattails held back the breeze to let the water reflect.

He looked at me for a bit and then joined his mate in feeding, dipping his head and coming up with green underwater growth. I could see the tooth-like strainers on the edge of his bill. I watched water bead on his cinnamon head.

For a full five minutes the drake and his mate swam around in the one small open spot I could see from the truck and then paddled away into the cattails. A frog started to sing.

And, happy, I drove on.

I’ll think of that little cinnamon drake the next time I’m up early for the sunrise.

But it’s the sunrise that I’ll see.


MAY 2, 2017

Photographed with the Canon 7D Mark II and EOS M5 with the Sigma 150-600C lens.

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