Monday, March 30, 2015

Adventures with Ducks Unlimited

Webster / Penfield Ducks Unlimited Banquet

A few months ago I received an email from Gabe Speranza, with whom I had chatted with a bit quite some time ago on an internet hunting forum. Gabe happened to catch my name when it came up after I won the Federal, and as it turns out he is a very active member of the Webster/Penfield NY chapter of Ducks Unlimited. He asked if I would consider being a guest at their annual dinner, and I was honored by his request! Though I have supported many conservation groups over the years, I had never attended a Ducks Unlimited (DU) event before, and looked forward to the experience.

February was the coldest month ever on record for our region, and so on a bitter February day, we drove several hours north to Webster, NY, for the event. Packing my camera, we left a little bit early, as some birders had been reporting a King Eider in the Rochester/Lake Ontario area only the week before and I was keen to try to find him as such a sighting in this part of the country is quite rare. We drive around for quite a while on Duck Quest (Feb. 2015 edition) but weren't able to locate any open water at all. Asking some local ice fishers, the ice was at least 24" thick in most places. Yikes!

Arriving at the DU dinner, I was quite unsure what to expect. Though DU does wonders for conservation (more on that later!) I was a bit nervous that the dinner itself might be like a hunting club. Being a hunter myself, I have been to a few hunting clubs and my experiences were very mixed. My nerves were happily for naught; everyone was very welcoming of me (frankly I am not the image of a stereotypical hunter) and several people engaged me in wonderful conversations about their experiences, the duck stamp program, and more. I watched as the evening progressed as volunteers set out tables full of some really neat stuff. The expected things- such as duck decoys and hunting accessories- lined many tables, but there was also some high end decor, artwork, and even a small boat. I felt a bit concerned that such high end items were purchased with much-needed funds by DU, but upon investigating, I learned that most items were donated (many by local businesses).

The dinner itself was lovely, and I learned more about the real people that are part of DU. It is one thing to research and learn about an organization online, and quite another to be part of an event (one of thousands every year) made up of real people. When the auction began, I was again pleasantly surprised and impressed. I am not aware of many other organizations where the average Joe donates so freely and generously. After the dinner, I learned that this single event, with no more than 200 people in attendance, had generated over $30,000. Considering the economic depression in this area, I was justifiably amazed by the amount of money given by average people in a single evening.

Jennifer and Gabe at the Webster/Penfield DU Banquet
At the end of the evening, which ran until after 11 pm, I approached Gabe and Dan DeLawyer to give my thanks for having me, and to offer any help I might be able to give in the future. Dan, who is the regional director in our state for DU, chatted with me a moment and graciously invited me to the DU NY state convention, which was only a month away. Surprised and honored, I agreed to check my schedule and get in touch later.

Regrettably I was unable to donate a Federal Stamp Print to the event as they are not yet made, but I was able to get a last-minute print of my hooded merganser painting to Gabe, which he graciously framed up for the auction fundraiser.

The drive home that night after midnight was several hours long, and as we cruised over the silent and frozen Western NY landscape, I had a lot to reflect upon. The moonlight and bright winter stars shone on as we arrived home.

The NY State Ducks Unlimited Convention

Upon arriving home and checking my schedule the next day, it seemed I could make the NY state convention. I had a conversation with Dan DeLawyer soon thereafter, and he confirmed that we could make it work. I offered to bring a donation item, though inwardly I despaired a little. There was so little time to get something done as the convention was just around the corner, and on top of that I had several other obligations eating my spare time. I was worried I might not get something done fast enough. After working quite late for a few nights, I was able to finish a small wood duck painting in time, and framed it up the day before the convention.

The kind DU folks made a nice little placard for my donated painting!
Excited about being able to go, I contacted Michael Schummer and Sarah Fleming to let them know that I'd see them at the convention. Mike is a professor and scientist, and Sarah is a regional biologist for DU. We had met previously both though local ties and via the Duck Stamp, and I had immediately connected with the two of them. Graciously and very generously, they invited my husband and I up to use their house as a layover point. The DU convention was being held in Clayton, NY, which is a healthy 5+ hour drive for us, so the chance to stretch our legs and visit with good people was wonderful.

Thursday the 26th of March bloomed into a typical March day; socked-in overcast, with light drizzling ice pellets, rain, and snow. Yuck. Though the weather was not on our side, Nature seemed happy to give me a small victory. A few hours into our dive, my husband caught sight of what we thought was a murmuration of starlings at a distance, or-- no, those were geese! Suddenly the huge flock turned and caught the overcast light, and even at a distance they were obviously white. Snow geese! I had never seen them before, as the part of NY I live in is off of their normal migration routes. Attempting to control myself and keep my body from rocketing right out of the car in excitement, we managed to find a bit of road shoulder to pull over upon so I could watch and photograph them. They arrived in tremendous waves; thousands and thousands strong, with a great beautiful cacophony.
My cellphone camera couldn't capture the many thousands of tiny specks in the sky... each one a snow goose.
A bit closer, with a normal camera. A tiny section of a vast sea of geese.
Unfortunately, the geese were quite far out on private property, and we could only stay pulled over onto the shoulder of a busy highway for a few minutes, but it was still a sight to behold. We passed several other fields like this; each with thousands of snow geese arriving.

Finally arriving at Mike and Sarah's farm just in time for dinner, we were treated to an evening full of wonderful conversation. Also present were Dr. John Coluccy (Director of Conservation Planning for DU) and Matt Regan (DU Mitigation Specialist). I greatly enjoyed learning from them, the various stories and conservation efforts discussed, as well as general bird nerdery and science geeking. 

The next morning we rose early and Mike and Sarah treated John, my husband and myself to a tour of conservation projects, wetlands, and parts of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge near their home. The best of the spring migration is still a few weeks off, as those parts of central NY are still quite frozen, with very little open water in the Montezuma NWR and only parts of the finger lakes open. Still, it was fun and educational, and we did see some birds! Observed by myself were: Northern Pintails, Black Ducks, Mallards, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, Redheads, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Wigeons, Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Red-Breasted Mergansers, Ring-Necked Ducks, Coots, one Gadwall, a pair of Green-Winged Teal, one Blue-Winged Teal (on the way home), Nothern Harriers, Kestrels, Sandhill Cranes, and an immature bald eagle.

A group of waterfowl in a tiny pocket of open water at Montezuma NWR. Duck Stamp dollars and conservation groups like DU at work.
A group of Ring-Necked ducks on the unfrozen section of Cayuga Lake. The drakes are at their finest for the ladies!

This group of quarrelsome Canada Geese cracked us up. The two on the bottom right are flipped completely upside-down, so intense on their disagreement they were!
Sadly, all good things must end, and our merry little band had to break up so that we could all get up to Clayton, NY, for the DU state convention. 

The drive north was increasingly snowy and gross. After we arrived in Clayton, I discovered that our hotel was directly on the Saint Lawrence river, and our room looked directly out toward Grindstone Island in the 1000 Island area. It was lovely! Unfortunately the river was still quite frozen, and the ice breaker hadn't been though yet, so the view was mostly of ice. Still, it was something to behold.
After arriving, I changed and attempted to meet the Pirate Theme of the evening by donning a rumply skirt, a fish-bones shirt, and a hip satchel. Lacking a parrot for my shoulder (ironically, being I had 4 live parrots at home!), I had a small plush goose. He wouldn't stay put even with safety pins, so I perched him onto my satchel instead, and went down to the awards banquet.

DU State Chairman Paul Brody (left)
with regional directors Dan DeLawyer (middle)
 and Ron Zega (right). Ron made a great pirate.
It was a huge honor to have my work present! 
The Pirate costume theme was very entertaining, and the dinner was casual, friendly, and full of good stories by those I met. After we had all settled, there were awards given to many deserving individuals for their various volunteer contributions to not only Ducks Unlimited, but to conservation. I was touched by the vast amount of work so many of the people present did, and they did it with no personal gain. I was beginning to see why many people had been telling me that much of Ducks Unlimited is very much like a big family. Are there spats? Sure-- what family doesn't have them? But the support and common goal impressed me.

Near the end of the awards, I was a bit surprised to have Dan announce and introduce me. Now, Dan can be a bit of a cartoon character when he gets going (sorry Dan!) but he can also be quite a passionate speaker. His glowing introduction and kindness left me a bit emotional, so when I was then handed the microphone in front of a room full of passionate people, I felt as if I could never address the audience as eloquently as I might hope to. I managed a small speech, and to my amazement received a standing ovation! It was hard to keep composed as I hurried back to my seat. I had never felt so welcomed!

The rest of the evening was very social, and I had the pleasure to talk to a great number of people and answer questions as best I could about the duck stamp program, where the money goes, and how it is all so very important to conservation. I spoke with hunters, and I spoke with non-hunters. Birders, scientists, spouses, and children all had amazing questions and input. I felt humbled, over and over.

The night ran late with conversations of ducks, land, people, and more. The next morning dawned early, and for once the sun promised it would peek out!
Early Saturday morning on the St. Lawrence River in Clayton, NY.
I was very excited about this morning. It was to start out with a conservation programming, with talks from various conservation specialists, biologists, and so on. The talk lasted several hours and were incredibly educational, covering the efforts that groups like DU, in coordination with USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service), the DEC (NY Department of Environmental Conservation), partners in Canada, and others, were making. It covered the obstacles and hurdles, both natural as well as political and social, that wetland conservation and mitigation faces. Successes and failures, and a plan for the future. It was wildly interesting to me. I knew that Ducks Unlimited is not "just about ducks" or duck hunting, but the depth of the conservation work that they do surprised me and enlightened me. Because of their partnerships with these other groups, and because they are a non-profit organization, they are quite amazing at getting things done; things that many outdoors persons and enthusiasts, from birders to photographers to hikers enjoy and probably don't even realize who made it possible. I knew DU was important, but the scope of the importance and the diversity and knowledge of the people that are part of DU hit me like a bus! I was most impressed, and very inspired.

After the programming, we were invited to go on a bus and walking tour of various projects (both finished and still being worked on) in the area that DU made possible. We visited Zenda Meadows and a wetland restoration project. Sadly everything was still quite frozen and it was a cold day so we didn't spend much time on foot, and we were unable to access the French Creek Fish Ladder project due to snow, but it was still really lovely. We wrapped up the tour at a local winery that supports DU: Coyote Moon winery. They also gave a tour and it was a nice way to warm up.

Later that evening was the major donor's cocktail hour as well as the rest of the awards dinner and auctions. Dan made this especially entertaining and as before I was impressed with the generosity of attendees, as well as the diversity of people and the quality of donations. The last live auction of the evening was a cooler (ice chest) that the directors put items into as the bidding went higher and higher. At one point, they ran out of items to put into the cooler for the winning bidder. It seemed as if the auction was at an end, while the audience cheered for "more love (items)" to be added, in a good-natured way. On a whim, I ran up to the director and whispered that I'd ship a free collector's edition Federal print to whomever won, once they came out. That set the auction off again, and it bounced quite a bit higher. It was all in good fun, and wildly entertaining, and in the end the vast majority of the money goes directly into conservation projects.

The rest of the night, and well into the morning, was spent socializing and talking once again with various individuals... from general supporters to those quite high up on the Ducks Unlimited totem pole. I felt very welcomed, and time after time I was left feeling speechless when my work would be complimented upon. Feeling quite emotionally drained, in a good way, I retired and got some sleep.

Cute little Bufflehead Drakes in icy Cayuga Lake!
Sunday morning again dawned early and bright, and sadly marked the time that my husband and I had to depart to get back home. Halfway through central NY, on a whim we decided that since the sun was out, we'd go looking for those snow geese and other waterfowl again, and decided to go the very scenic route of following Cayuga Lake down through the state. Though we didn't have nearly as much luck as we'd had only two days ago, the weather was pleasant, and we only got stopped by a State Trooper once when we pulled off of the road to check out some birds. Despite being in a safe location, we were gently told to cut it out, and so we went off on our way. The southern end of the lake did offer me a few photos at Buffleheads, and then we made our way home late in the afternoon.

Next up: A local solo show, then the Jr. Duck Stamp Competition in April!

1 comment:

  1. What an incredible experience! The Ducks Unlimited dinner sounds a lot like the Ruffed Grouse banquet I've attended many times back in my home town in MN.