Twenty miles from the bustle of K Street the ducks and geese were doing a little hustling of their own.

John and I pulled the canoe up onto a bank of the Patuxent River and were casting minnows along the shoreline, hoping to find some perch or pickerel or bass.

The wild rice marsh stretched for a mile east to the other side of Jug Bay. We couldn't see exactly where the birds were resting but there clearly were hundreds in there. From time to time a marsh hawk would cruise overhead and shortly afterward a pile of black ducks and mallards or wood ducks would erupt from the flats and flap off to safety.

I sensed some movement off to the left and so did John. Neither of us swung our heads. We cocked our eyes as far as we could without moving.

John doesn't hunt. He does an awful lot of watching. I could see him out of one corner of an eye and the approaching ducks out of the corner of the other eye, and by my standards he was doing just right.

He didn't even smile -- just stood there motionless, his arm still cocked halfway through a cast.

The ducks kept coming, straight down the river at breakneck speed until they were directly in front of us about 20 yards high. They were pintails, one of the prettiest breeds of all, with a lot of dusky brown and white and long pointed tailfeathers.

The lead duck saw us and the duck blind we fronted. He didn't like that a bit and rose up as if he had been hit by a sudden updraft of wind. The three pintails peeled off to the east in perfect formation and then they were gone.


It may smell and feel like spring but winter visitors from the far north have not seen it to depart yet.

They are massing in places like this, where there is open water and plenty or tawny marsh growth to feed on, and they'll remain for at least a week or two until conditions are right to begin the long flights north to the nesting grounds.

The Jug Bay natural area and the marsh that surrounds it are part of Patuxent River Park, just off Route 301 a few miles south of Upper Marlboro. It's a waterfowl valhalla in Prince George's County, half-hour drive into the big city.

A large flock of Canada geese is ensconced there, as well as a good number of whistling swans. Both staged handsome flights for us during our afternoon canoe voyage, and the ducks were so thick they occasionally blackened big chunks of the sky.

John is John Page Williams, a naturalist who runs educational canoe trips for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Patuxent River Park is one of his favorite places and he had been trying for three years to get me to visit there.

As we paddled upstream he pointed out spots of historical significance -- a streamboat landing where up to 300 tons once completed the 50-mile journey from the Chesapeake; a rotted railroad trestle from the old Chesapeake Beach-Washington line; a big brick house that breifly served as the Maryland capital.

We tramped across some barren stretches of the marsh and he pulled apart some of the plants waterfowl feed on.We chewed on the little seeds and they were delectable.

We watched the birds, which were plentiful, and enjoyed the solitude, which was complete.

I bring all this up because spring is fast arriving and it seems a pity that some Washingtonians will spend their weekends in front of a television set for lack for a beautiful nearby place to go.

The Patuxent is an easy river, wide and gentle and perfectly suited to small boats. Waterfowl are massed there now but they won't stay long.

"The geese and most of the ducks start leaving around the middle of March," said Rich Dolesh, the park naturalist. "The swans generally stay around until the first week of April."

Once they'd gone the birds won't be seen again for six months, at least. There's something doubly dramatic about watching flocks of birds picking up from the water when you consider that they may be departing on leg one of a voyage that will encompass thousand of miles before they come back.

Not that the place will be empty without them.

About the time the waterfowl move out, the summer residents will begin arriving -- ospreys and great blue herons most notably. Once in awhile an eagle shows.

Spring is a good time for fishing as well, with yellow perch, white perch, shad and herring staging spawning runs and bass and crappies moving into the shallows to reproduce.

There's 3,000 feet of boardwalk through the marsh and a tall observation tower for those who just want to look, and two boat ramps for those who want to get thoroughly in the environment.

All in all, a fine place to visit.

Jug Bay is run by the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.

It is open seven days a week. Canoe rentals will be available starting around April 1, again by reservation only.

If you want to see the last clouds of wintering waterfowl, go soon. For information and directions call the park office at 627-8074 or 6075.