I first heard that there was a Mandarin duck in Kirkland on Sunday, April 11.
Somebody posted a picture of him on social media, and I was blown away by how gorgeous he was. I wanted to see him with my own eyes and capture him with my own lens so bad I felt itchy. I was obsessed. The social media post said that he was at Juanita Bay, so I went there that very day.
As it turned out, he had not been seen at Juanita Bay, but at Juanita Beach. As a City of Kirkland employee, I think of everything in terms of Parks, and as such, there is an enormous difference between Juanita Beach and Juanita Bay. Juanita Beach Park is ideal for families, with a brand new, inclusive to all abilities playground, awesome concessions area, new restrooms, covered picnic areas and much more. It has 1,000 feet of shoreline, with a U-shaped dock that forms a lifeguarded swimming area.
Juanita Bay is quieter and more subtle, with smooth walking paths and rambling boardwalks that take you through lush wetlands. The former nine-hole golf course is a treasured Kirkland asset, and is teaming with wildlife. Juanita Bay is a glorious place to explore in every season.
I arrived filled with confidence. If other people saw the duck, I felt like I should be able to see it too. But I saw no ducks at all. Not even the Mallards were out. I hit all my usual vantage points. Nothing. Finally, I asked another photog if he had heard of the amazing Mandarin duck, and that’s when I found out he’d been spotted not at the Bay but at Juanita Beach, where Juanita Creek flows out into Lake Washington.
It made sense to me. I’ve seen another spectacular duck in that exact spot. A merganser.
I headed straight to the beach, but there was no sign of the Mandarin duck. He had apparently fled the area, leaving a small army of hope-filled photographers in his wake. They were gathered at the confluence of Juanita Creek and Lake Washington, most with cameras the size of my thigh and bigger. Their tripods were set up, and they were poised for the perfect shot.
But our Mandarin friend was nowhere to be found.
All week I made bargains with the universe like a little kid brokering deals with Santa Claus. I uttered various Mandarin duck-related mantras while driving in my car. I’ve been working so hard. I’ve been going above and beyond. It is my destiny to see this duck. I need to take pictures of this duck. This duck is pivotal, a vital talisman, and he will infuse my life with positive energy, joy and beauty.
Come on universe. ACT RIGHT AND LET ME SEE THIS DUCK.
I returned to Juanita Bay the next weekend. Again, there were very few ducks and not even a glimpse of my brightly-hued obsession. I couldn’t complain too much though, because I saw so many amazing things while I was there. Huge fish were jumping in the bay while a stealth blue heron fished from the shoreline and a red-winged blackbird took a bath right in front of me.
I heard rustling in the bushes and a mischievous little muskrat appeared, who I’ve tried to photograph two other times unsuccessfully. He also decided to take a bath and then lingered nearby munching on some reeds. There were several baby turtles sunbathing on the Juanita Bay “turtle logs” and even a red-winged blackbird joined them for a bit. At around 7 p.m., like clockwork, all the turtles slipped quietly off the log, as if responding to a secret call that regular people just can’t hear.
I got some fantastic shots that day, but none were the shots I went to get.
None were of the Mandarin duck.
And then, randomly, on Tuesday, April 20, my coworker Amy emailed me a cell phone picture with a nonchalant note in the subject line that said, cryptically, “Saw him at the marina.”
It was THE Mandarin duck.
I sprang from my chair and literally sprinted over to her desk to find out exactly where in the Marina she had spotted this exotic duck. And really, this is where the universe stepped up on my behalf. The primary reason Amy knows I’m into birds is because one day, I posted this very impressive woodpecker on the City Twitter account and she happened to see it. A couple days after that, she showed me a picture of an awesome woodpecker that she saw in south Bothell.
Somehow, she knew I’d be interested in this wonderful duck, although she had no idea the significance, or that I’d been longing for a glimpse of him for two weeks. “I just thought he was pretty,” she said.
Now, I know you’d expect that with my level of enthusiasm as high as it was, I’d have run out the doors at City Hall and made a beeline for Marina Park right then and there.
But I couldn’t.
I love my job at City of Kirkland with my whole heart, but it is a challenging job, and my department moves at an almost frenetic pace. I have deadlines, I have projects, I have a lot of work that simply cannot be delayed, no matter how many Mandarin ducks there are. Tuesday was a crazy day, and I hadn’t even brought my camera with me. I thought about trying to sneak down to the Marina to have a quick look, but I didn’t have time during the day, and I had two evening Zoom meetings that night.
Wednesday, I arrived at City Hall armed with my camera. I was prepared.
I headed down mid-afternoon. I had a solid grip on my deadline projects and wasn’t feeling too rushed or stressed. I tried not to have incredibly high expectations. He’ll either be there, or he won’t, I told myself. Either way, I’ll be OK. I’ll survive.
I walked through the Al Locke Pavilion, which is a neat, covered area at Marina Park that is, in non-pandemic times, home to parties and festivals and sometimes outdoor fitness classes.
It’s named in honor of Kirkland’s first City Manager. Al Locke served as the City Manager for 20 years and was a great contributor to the wonderful parks system we enjoy in Kirkland today.
Instinctively I made my way along the northwest edge of the waterline, thinking the beach and wading area was just too obvious for such a fabulous duck. But I was quite wrong. He was nowhere to be found back there, so I circled around and emerged on the east side of the Pavilion.
There he was. Swimming effortlessly in between the rocks like it wasn’t even that big of a deal.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
He was so close to the edge of the concrete walkway, I plunked right down and started taking pictures.
He was stunning. He was beyond stunning. Every time he turned, every time the sun hit his body in a different place, more and more colors were revealed. His rich, vibrant hues were dynamic, shifting and changing depending on what he was doing. There was only one other photographer there and his lens was at least twice the size of mine. We were both masked, so you couldn’t see our smiles, but as we made eye contact, I could immediately tell his jubilance matched my own.
He’d been looking for the duck, just like I had. He told me that he had journeyed to Kirkland from Sammamish seven times in its pursuit, and finally, his perseverance paid off. His daughter splashed in the water nearby, a sweet-natured girl who exhibited such patience as her dad watched the duck. She liked the duck too but was not as enamored as her father and me.
I snapped over 400 pictures that first day. He was so beautiful he seemed too good to be true. I was reluctant to leave the duck but returned to City Hall ecstatic about my pictures. I went to Amy’s desk immediately to tell her, and to thank her for that beautifully-timed email, and unintentionally made enough of a ruckus that the City Manager emerged from his office briefly to inquire if I “got the duck.”
Oh yes, I sure did. I went back the next night, which was Thursday, and returned on Friday with my 70-200mm, which is a heavy lens I reserve for special occasions.
Like when there’s a Mandarin duck who has decided to take up residence in Marina Park.
He’s so fun to watch. It never gets old.
All ducks are beautiful. I think people sometimes forget to really look at them because they’re so common, but that vibrant flash of blue under the wings of both the males and the females is quite alluring, and the striking iridescent green of a male Mallard’s head is stunning. And that’s just the Mallards. American wood ducks are even more remarkable, particularly the males.
It’s funny how with birds, the males are often more colorful and ornate. It’s interesting to me. It’s the same with red-winged blackbirds, and probably other types of birds as well. I’m an amateur photographer and a novice bird enthusiast, so I have much to learn.
But back to wood ducks. Wood ducks are especially stunning and belong to the same genus as Mandarin ducks. Wood ducks are quite exotic as well, with piercing red eyes. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a male wood duck at Juanita Bay. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I knew he was something special. It was actually another parkgoer, quite a young one I might add, who made me aware that I was looking at a wood duck. As always, when I receive random facts from folks I don’t know, or even folks I do know, I later verified and confirmed that it was indeed, a wood duck.
There are some definite similarities between Mandarin ducks and wood ducks, but this Mandarin duck is extraordinary and I’m so grateful I’ve managed to capture him with my lens. Much of the fun has been chatting with other photogs, musing about where he came from and how long he might stick around, and just sort of bonding over our collective sense of awe and wonder at his existence.
He is a conversation starter to say the least.
A joy-infused beacon of hope for the future if you want to get dramatic about the whole thing. But in a way he is. Kirkland has embraced its famous duck with open arms and is delighted to host his stay for as long as he likes. We’re here for him. In every conceivable way. He makes us happy.
Enjoy Kirkland wildlife safely and please remember to not encroach on protected areas. Facial coverings are required in Kirkland Parks. Thank you!