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A moment in Durham: ‘The ducks were pretty good’

Two couples—one young, one middle-aged— took aim at a pair of unsuspecting ducks. The creatures waddled in the grass, oblivious to the people towering overhead. Each of the humans carried their own photographic device. The four-person photo squad readied their iPhones and Sony cameras, hunched over and trained their lenses directly on the birds.

Click. Picture(s) perfect.

On a Saturday morning in late March, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens had become an amateur photographer’s paradise. Roaming across 55 acres of natural beauty, groups and individuals captured flora, fauna, and one another. The amateurs toted iPhones; those taking graduation and engagement photos brought in cameras and even lighting equipment. From waddling ducks to budding azaleas, no element of the spring day was too small to go unnoticed. “Oooh, gorgeous!” called one young woman, peering down from the gazebo at the Terrace Gardens’ vibrant array of multi-colored tulips. 

Two second-time visitors, high schoolers Michael Penaskovic and Kirsten Cowley, had driven to the gardens from Chapel Hill to take photos. As she stood in front of the koi pond, camera dangling around her neck, Cowley shared that improving her photography skills was one of her main goals for 2024. The gardens provided “a lot to do with the settings and lots of possibilities.”  

Penaskovic agreed. Asked about the coolest photos he had taken that day, he said, The ducks were pretty good. And there were a few nice flower ones, where the sun was reflecting off of them.” Penaskociv’s Flickr portfolio features photos ranging from close-ups of turtles to shots of Cowley in action. In one photo, she aims her camera at the Gardens’ iconic red Meyer Bridge, capturing its crimson arc.

Duke Gardens welcomes approximately 600,000 people per year, with crowds peaking in March and April, according to Orla Swift, communications director for the gardens. In March 2024, 154,957 people visited— a 70.6% increase from last March. “The Cherry Allée is a big draw, as are the tulips and other spring blooms in the Terrace Gardens,” she wrote, referring to the walkway that erupts with Yoshino cherry blossoms. 

Eighty percent of visitors to the gardens are from the Triangle Area, with 57% hailing specifically from the Bull City, said Susan Amey, CEO of Discover Durham, which promotes the gardens heavily on social media. Of the remaining 20%, many visitors come from other North Carolina cities, such as Charlotte and Greensboro. 

“It’s something that gets attention,” said Amey. “Such a beautiful visual to be able to show off some of the beauty that is in Durham.”

It was through social media that Mubina Ahmadi and her aunts Masi and Macha Habibullah first learned about the cherry blossoms. The family sat beneath one of the last of the trees still in bloom, languishing in the shade and the faint perfume of the blossoms. The trio had visited from Cary, N.C., and 2024 marked their second year of visiting.

Ahmadi, 16, shared that after a morning outdoors, her camera roll was full. Her goal was to “remember the moment. And of course, post on Instagram!” Even as they took in the view of the gardens, the trio lamented having missed peak cherry blossom season in mid-March. They resolved to return earlier next year.

Above: Photos of Sarah P. Duke Gardens by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal