Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCluskey is a classic American picturebook set in Boston. The statue commemorating the book is in Boston Public Garden and I took this photo in May, a few days before Michael and myself met one tenacious mammy duck and her two plucky ducklings in downtown Ipswich Mass. What followed was a pretty amazing set of coincidental sightings, as we anxiously followed their attempts to get back home.
Day one: we paused on our way back from morning coffee/work to look upriver from the bridge over the weir (A).In this photo the water is quite calm but that morning it was very turbulent and we were alarmed to see a duck leading her two tiny babies into the tumbling water, attempting to scale the weir.
Once we began watching we couldn’t look away. Over and over, Mammy Duck went into the foam, and over and over, the ducklings tried to follow her. After approaching the falls head-on multiple times, she led them to the right where a tree trunk was lodged, but the water there was particularly rapid so they couldn’t reach it. She gave up and brought them all the way over to the left where there’s a salmon run, but again it was too difficult for the little ducklings.
Every now and then she’d drop back to the stones in the corner of the photo above to let the babies rest, before starting all over again. The ducklings were tiring and it seemed only a matter of time before one or both of them was swept away. It was a huge relief to us when Mammy finally decided to give up and let the current bob her and the babies under the bridge we were standing on, where she led them onto a sandy bank mid-stream.
We went home, exhausted from watching. I googled ducks as soon as we got back to Ed and Barbara’s, and every article described how strong a mother duck’s instinct is to get back to her nest. We thought we had just witnessed one (sensibly) give up!
Day two: still on Irish time, we headed off early to Zumi’s for coffee.
After a few hours writing we again took the river route home, stopping as soon as we reached the water (1) to check for Painted Turtles. There was a duck swimming below us, with two small ducklings.
‘It can’t be the same one?’ Michael said.
‘This is right where we last saw her,’ I said. ‘And every other duck we’ve seen has four or more babies.’
The duck began to swim to shore and got up on the bank in front of us. We thought she was taking the babies out to bask in the sun. It took a minute to realise we had arrived just in time to witness the beginning of another attempt by Mammy Duck to get her family home.
The day before Michael had suggested that the only way the duck would get her ducklings upriver again was by land, but given the built-up nature of the water at this point he’d figured she’d have quite a way to go. He’d pointed to exactly where they were coming ashore right now as the nearest logical starting point.
This morning it seemed Mammy Duck had reached exactly the same conclusion.
We watched her lead the ducklings across the path towards a carpark. It was railed off; we couldn’t follow. Instead we walked along the river path, watching as Mammy and babies appeared between parked cars, hugging the walls of the buildings as they went.
From the bridge (A) we watched Mammy Duck lead her babies out across another wide expanse of concrete until we lost sight of them. A woman crossing the concrete stopped and turned, as if she was watching them too, then came out onto the bridge through an employee gate.
‘Did you see the ducks?’ we asked. ‘Where did they go?’
‘Up towards the street,’ she said.
We felt sure they were going to walk around the big red brick building (B) and re-enter the river on the far side of it, so we sat down on a bench and waited. When nothing happened we decided to walk to the riverbank opposite the building for a better view.
But still, no sign of the ducks.
We gave up. It was half an hour since we’d last seen them. They’d obviously slipped into the water and we’d missed it. We decided to walk the dirt track along the river anyway. I kept glancing at the bank opposite, just in case. At one point (C) I looked across and stopped. That would be a good spot to re-enter, I thought, if they haven’t already. I hung around for a bit. Then I thought I saw something – movement under the wheels of the car parked behind the pole.
‘It’s them,’ I called to Michael, who’d gone ahead. ‘Quick, quick! Here they come!’
She turned her head and looked straight over at us for a few seconds before she headed upstream. I’m sure she was checking us for danger but it felt strangely like a salute.
We followed through the trees till we reached a fence (D) and then watched the little family swim out of sight, thrilled to know they had made it home. We were amazed – at the tenacity of Mammy Duck, at the bravery and hardiness of the wee ducklings, at the serendipity which had allowed us to witness the whole thing.