At Home with the Florida Duck

Volunteer Perspective Series

Written by Nan Mattingly

How Florida mottled ducklings helped this CREW Trust volunteer survive quarantine.

Before the governor of Florida imposed a safer-at-home order, I had been experiencing flu symptoms and decided to self-quarantine. So I’ve been pretty isolated since early March.

Fortunately my house is situated on the edge of a fairly large lake, so I’ve long been in the habit of watching activity on the lake. Herons of all types come here to work the banks for small fish; anhingas dive for fish, which are plentiful, and then alight on the banks to dry out their feathers; occasionally I see an osprey snatch up a fish and run; and from time to time I watch long-time resident Wally Gator make his stately way up and down the lake. And of course we have the requisite Muscovy duck population, begging at doors for bread and showing off their unique brand of ugliness. 

Right about the time I decided to voluntarily quarantine and cope with what felt like murderous viral symptoms, a miracle occurred: a pair of Florida mottled ducks emerged on my lake with a brood of ten tiny ducklings, just little balls of downy feathers. Though their nest wasn’t very near my house, the whole group took to hanging around my neighbor’s house and mine. Before they showed up, I had only a casual interest in ducks (and a decided dislike for Muscovys). Virus fatigue and a lack of other distractions, I guess, allowed me to become fascinated with the mottled family. Now, about two months after their debut, the ducklings are still a mob of ten and the parents are nowhere to be seen. How they evaded predators is a mystery. Over time I’ve had the privilege of watching them grow, develop their voices, and learn to fly. At the end of May, they’re still there, and behaving like adolescents – chasing each other around, pecking each other on the head and occasionally making test flights across the lake.

Once the little ducklings had attracted my feeble attention, I developed the habit of looking out at the lake first thing every morning to check on them. They tended to arrive in my backyard around 6:30 a.m. Until a few weeks ago, they made tiny little peeping noises, which were charming, but unfortunately they are now developing that distinctive duck voice. On Memorial Day I was awakened early by a chorus of quacking before they did a very patriotic flyover of my lanai.   

Anticipating the sad day that my ducklings depart for bigger things, I checked the FWC website to learn when I can expect to become an empty-nester. It was mostly good news. First, I learned that we in south Florida have the pleasure of hosting these ducks year-round; they tend to live south of Tampa and are non-migratory. They are a member of what is called “the mallard complex” which includes about 20 species of ducks, all alike in body shape but distinguished by their feather characteristics and colors. FWC noted that the Florida mottled duck is also known as the “Florida duck” or the “Florida mallard” because they are found only in Florida.  

Some people might find a mottled duck’s grey and brown coloring a little boring compared to the mallard, which I now consider to be the designer version of mottled ducks. The mallard has that showy display of teal bordered with white on their wings. Mottled ducks, male and female, have a more subtle version of that coloring on the wings with almost no white showing.  

There’s little difference in coloring between male and female mottled ducks, so you have to look at the bills to distinguish them. The male has an olive green-to-yellow bill while the female has an orange-to-brown bill. 

Watching the ducklings peck in the grass and dip their bills into the water, I tried to figure out what they were eating. FWC supplied the answer: about 40 percent of their diet comprises insects, snails, mollusks, crayfish and small fish. For the other 60 percent, they eat grass seeds, stems and roots, the seeds of other marsh plants, and bayberries.

I knew that my particular ducklings were special not only for their  survival skills and playful personalities, but according to FWC, a female produces only one brood a year and typically lays eight to ten eggs. The mother of my ducklings must have produced a pretty big clutch of eggs, and she must have protected them well. For the first two months or so, the parents hovered over the ducklings and shepherded them around the lake, giving them a good start in life.

It’s not all good news for the Florida mottled duck, however. Go to the FWC website and read about the challenges to the long-term survival of our unique south Florida duck. Loss of wetland habitat, of course, is a big threat. And what FWC calls “feral mallards” have been mating with mottled ducks and producing hybrid offspring. 

Having relied on my mottled ducklings to keep me distracted and happy during a tedious quarantine, I’m sorry to contemplate the threats to this special south Florida dabbling duck. We’re still looking for a cure for Covid-19. Watching ducks grow up won’t cure anyone, but it’s a great distraction. Today I’m as healthy as those ten beautiful mottled ducks, and I thank them. 

CREW and You, part 5 and 6: WHY and HOW

This is part 5 and 6 of our six-part series on the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the CREW Trust.

The trestle bridge at Bird Rookery Swamp

In our previous posts, we’ve talked about the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW) and the role of the CREW Land & Water Trust.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of the water resources and natural communities in and around CREW.

We do this through assisting with funding and land acquisition and through environmental education.

At the heart of our WHY is this: we care passionately about the water, the land, and the flora and fauna within the watershed.

We care.

Part of protecting anything, from land to water to animals, is getting people to care. We know that, when someone is out on the trails and learns about how a drop of water moves through the watershed and is filtered by the 5,000-acre sawgrass marsh and helps fill our aquifer, we are helping them care about where their water comes from.

When a student learns about the palmetto berries and the bears that feed on them, they have an understanding of why we protect both the berry and the bear and how they (including the human) are all connected in our ecosystem.

Because we know that, when someone cares, they then ask HOW. How can they be part of protecting and preserving water? How can they work towards making sure that our future generations have clean water to drink?

How can they help protect endangered species like the Florida Panther?

game camera image by Tom Mortenson

All of us here at CREW Land & Water Trust – from staff to interns to volunteers and Trustees – we are all part of this nonprofit because at some time, we learned, then cared, then felt called to do something.

And if you have attended a program and learned about the watershed, or wandered the trails and watched a swallow-tailed kite soar overhead, you probably care, too. You are part of our why, and you can be part of our how.

Become a member. Our members help support our environmental education programs, not just through their membership dues, but also through attending our programs as paid participants.

Volunteer. Our volunteers do everything, from trail maintenance and exotic plant removal to assisting with field trips and leading guided walks. We simply could not educate the over 49,000 people who visited the CREW Trails or participated in a CREW Trust program last year without our volunteers.

The reality is, no one person started the CREW Project, and no one person founded the CREW Land & Water Trust. It took a few people caring a lot to start the process of acquiring and preserving land within the 60,000-acre border. Their WHY led to their HOW and it’s up to us to continue and carry the passion they had 30 years ago into the years to come.

To see, or not see, a panther

Recently I led a group of new volunteers on a training session at the Cypress Dome Trails. My goal was to discuss our volunteer handbook and things to know as a new volunteer as well as engage in conversation so we could get to know each other.

I also wanted them to hike the Wild Coffee Trail, the section of the white trail that few people actually traverse. Why?

Most of the year it is wet. Very wet. And when it isn’t wet, it’s muddy. Not fun muddy, but suck-your-shoe-off-and-taunt-you muddy.

While we were hiking the easier part (after marker 10), I asked our volunteers, “What is the coolest wildlife sighting you’ve had?”

For almost everyone, the answer came very quickly and varied from mammals to reptiles to birds. I have two: a Great Horned Owl that flew very close to my husband and I while we were hiking and completely surprised us, and the Pink Lady’s Slipper, a member of the orchid family that surprised us all by growing one summer in my grandmother’s garden at our cabin in Northern Michigan.

The most common answer, not surprisingly, was the Florida Panther.

A few in our midst had a story to tell about their panther sighting, and for the rest of us, we all expressed how seeing one was definitely on our bucket list.

I myself have yet to see one in real life. I did recently find tracks, right by our mailbox, and they were spectacular.


I sent the photos of the tracks to a volunteer who monitors game cameras near our office, and he emailed a photo taken the evening before I found the tracks of this handsome male panther.

On the short drive home that evening, I was thinking about my excitement and the possibility of seeing my first (living) panther. Surely I would see one soon since I saw the tracks and we have the panther on game camera.

It seems inevitable. Move to SWFL, and you are bound to see panthers. There are signs all over warning of panther crossings (and, no, panthers are not black – please help spread the word).

I’ve heard everything from locals who have waited their whole lives to see a panther to tourists who simply turned a corner in their car and saw one dart across the road.

One of my very wise volunteers often tells people on her guided walks that she has never seen a panther, even with the countless hours she spends outdoors volunteering with several local nonprofits. Her view is that, when the time is right, she will see a panther. She uses the word “honor,” as in, the panther will honor her patience with its presence.

And maybe that is how we should look at at all of our coolest wildlife sightings. Whatever we see, when we see it, it’s an honor.


-Anne Reed







Save the date- Wiggins Pass Nature Festival


Join the CREW Trust at the annual Wiggins Pass Nature Festival sponsored by the Friends of Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park December 12th, 2015. 

The event will be held on Saturday,December 12, 2015 at Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park from 10:00am to 3:00pm. A day of fun has been planned for the entire family in Area 3 of the Park!

The festival offers fun interactive and educational activities for adults and kids of all ages. FlyerVisitors will learn about the plants and wildlife of Southwest Florida while participating in a variety of activities and crafts such as palm boots painting, shell necklaces, fishing clinic, paddleboard demonstrations and much more.

The CREW Trust along with many other local environmental organizations will have educational exhibits. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Friends of Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park for support of the State Park.

For more information call 239-657-2253.

We hope to see you there!

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