If it flies like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, but there’s hundreds in a maelstrom whirlpool whose torrent of wingbeats make your ears mute and skull hum, it must be a Great Salt Lake tornado a la duck.
This past waterfowl season, I saw them out in some of the flats not yet trammeled by cover brush in the wetlands which drain the Bear River to the Great Salt Lake. The experience was possible because my friend, a well-seasoned duck hunter, had “a spot” he wanted to check out. We headed out at 4:30 in the morning from town, drove to the icy ramp, and put in his boat. We navigated the winding canals lined with irreconcilable phragmites in the black until we reached an end. When he cut the engine, nothing but the sound of water trickling from unnamed subfoliage passageways could be heard. We unloaded our equipment, moored the vessel, and took off on foot for “the spot”.
We hauled floating coffins with our gear: decoys, grass blankets, some food, and our hunting tools. The air was cold, but hauling sleds through muck and knee deep water is warm work. We could see the delicate prints of yesterday’s game puttering in the mud, foraging for fuel. Our heavy feet cratered their Pollack art, mud streaking behind and steam rising as we trudged on.
When we found the spot to set up near a small patch of open water just deep enough, we set out the decoys, took our positions, hid, and waited until the clock struck the shooting hour. With the sun yawning from behind the morning’s dense clouds, the tornados began.
They started to the west on a rest pond and slowly rose about a half mile out, an acrid steam swirling along magnetic edges of lazy morning thermals. Slowly, the steam became more dense, a heavier molecularity, and yet somehow like the paint stretching off a worn artist’s haggard brush, harnessed a fluid winged chaos into streaks of prehistoric migratory cosmos.
Once a feathered mass rises and begins its molasses churn about its night’s pond, it is as if an intuition shoots through the birds, and they become an it, and suddenly strike off unified in a particular direction on the morning flight. One such wave comes our way.
You don’t hear the mass at first, but when you do it begins with quacks. Their distant airy rasps build as they approach and eye our decoys and open water. It gains slowly, like Holst’s Mars, or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a romantic era symphony of avian legions unified by the course of cacophonous time. It’s epic and deeply beautiful.
Soon, they decide to give our hole a scout and the whirlwind aims itself at us. The squadrons of drakes and hens give passing dives. This is where the real magic lies; nothing makes your hair stand on end like the sound of cupped duck wings catching air, braking in the atmosphere with such force, and then throwing on the afterburners to pull back up towards their comrades. It makes F-35s look like the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk flier. That howl as air is held compressed beneath stressed wings comes in from all angles. We are transfixed within the eye.
And as quickly as the tornado cometh, it also flyeth away. The music dissipates as the breath of ancient gods gains altitude, eyes another pond, and moves on from us. The duck tornado roars on.
So even if you’re not a hunter, or even that keen on ducks, there is nothing quite like a duck tornado; a force in this world which once was commonplace with the other primal elements of nature, but now only rarely seen in those last lightly touched places. Know that they’re out there, and if you can, one day go looking for them. Gaze at the power, the glory, and the mystery of the Great Salt Lake wetland duck tornados. You’ll never forget it.
I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.
Images: Image Courtesy Pixabay, Ilona Ilyés(ilyessuti), Photographer, https://pixabay.com/photos/duck-bird-waterfowl-lake-wild-5838408/
Images: Image Courtesy USFWS, Steve Hillebrand, Photographer https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/9588/
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org/
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org
Duck Tornado, Idaho Fish & Game, Feb 20, 2015, https://youtu.be/HmK9ArTgU0A
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/bear_river_migratory_bird_refuge/
Waterfowl Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2020-21_waterfowl.pdf
Hellstern, Ron, Autumn Migrations, Wild About Utah, October 15, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/autumn-migrations/