Our Phil’s on a mission to find out where the pigeons are hiding, before it’s too late?
This month is the one I have been waiting for, the September issue. Every year I look forward to this one, more than any other. You see, it’s around now that the fields are finally harvested, and the long crops that have tempted woodpigeons to feed, but hidden them safely out of my reach for months, are no longer there. The safe haven they once offered is gone, and the grain that is spilled during the harvesting process, now sits out in the open, on the ground, waiting to be gobbled up by huge swathes of hungry birds. Usually, the next few weeks will see me bag hundreds of pigeons on the stubble fields – it’s the highlight of my hunting year. Having spent the past month or so watching, studying, and obsessing over where the pigeons are feeding, I have it all worked out. I know which fields they prefer, which trees they sit in, what time they arrive, and when they leave.
All I need to do is wait for the field to be cut, and then put out my plastic decoy birds in an effort to create a realistic feeding group to lure the incoming pigeons into a small kill zone, where I wait in ambush. I’m pretty sure I say it every year, but I will repeat it once again. Decoying woodpigeons is my favorite hunting tactic, bar none! It hands down beats rat shooting for excitement; it requires more skill than rabbit stalking, and more knowledge and field craft than anything else I can think of; it encompasses everything you will ever have learned about hunting, and brings them all together into what can either be the greatest days hunting you have ever had, or the most frustrating. It is not simply a case of popping out a few plastic birds and waiting, and it can take years to master, but when you get it right, its beyond worth it.
This year was different from the very beginning, and I noticed around a month ago that I wasn’t seeing the usual build up I have come to expect. Sure, pigeons were sitting on the power lines and I could see them dropping down into the crops as I drove past, but for a month straight their numbers usually steadily increase. This year however, things were decidedly quiet – a few birds here and there, but nowhere near the numbers I am used to seeing. Still, I kept telling myself that they’d come as soon as the first field was cut, that they were just running late, that sort of thing.
The weather leading up to harvest was extremely unsettled. One day it was blazing sunshine, the next day torrential downpours, which meant that it was difficult to try to predict when they’d finally start to cut the fields. Despite my best efforts I was playing catch up from the get go this year, and the first sign I got of the fields being cut was when I drove past and saw the combine harvester cutting the outer edges of one of them.
In total, I have six decent crop fields that I have access to shoot over, which generally means my harvest goes something like this: I see the first field being cut in the morning, and baled in the afternoon, so I get ready to hit it the next day, making sure I have all my kit in order and I am ready to go. I decoy the freshly cut stubble on the first field whilst the farmer works on the second, because it is the only field the birds have access to at the moment, which narrows down their options and makes it harder for them to resist my decoys.
Day one, I’d say I probably average 15 or so birds, which might sound a lot, but averaged over a full day’s shooting and given what I know can be achieved, it’s not really anything to write home about. It is a very important dress rehearsal for what’s to come next, though.
Day two sees the second, larger field harvested, and then on the following day, the combine moves on to the third, whilst the farm
hands bale the second field. This continues over the next few days, one field is baled, as the next is cut, and once they’re done they move on until they’re all harvested. As soon as the combine is finished on the final field, the driver takes it back to the farm and returns with a tractor pulling a plough, and starts to plough the first field, whilst the final one is being baled. This military precision means I have a very limited window of opportunity, but they can only cut dry crops, so any rain usually means a pause in the work whilst they wait for the crops to dry, and thankfully, we always seem to get at least one wet day during this process, which extends my time on the decoys by a couple of days.
SO IT BEGINS
This year, as I have already mentioned, was different. The combine had done the first field and they baled it in the afternoon, but whilst they were doing that, they also cut and baled the second field, working quite late into the evening. The next day was raining heavily, but I still expected to find fresh stubble and woodpigeons aplenty, instead, as I approached the field, I saw seagulls in the sky, a lot of seagulls. Although confused, I knew from experience that could only mean one thing, they were ploughing the field already! I rushed to see what was going on, only to find a tractor ploughing the second field, the first was already completed. I guess with the rain forecast they decided to crack on with ploughing whilst they waited for the other fields to dry out enough to cut, but this had totally destroyed my plans. I have had some success decoying fresh plough in the past, but there hadn’t been enough time yet for the stubble to pull the birds in, so I knew I would be wasting my time trying to get any real numbers, and with the rain coming down hard, I decided to head back home, regroup, and make a new plan.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
The next day I was back out, no decoys, just me and my Weihrauch HW110. Everything I had learned over the past month was with the first two fields in mind, and since they were now nothing more than bare muddy earth, I had to catch up with what the birds were going to do, and I had to catch up fast. It wasn’t going to rain forever, and I knew that the combine would be back, with the dreaded plough not far behind.
First task was to see if the fresh plough was actually attracting any pigeons so I set myself up overlooking a sitty tree so I could target any incoming birds that might choose to perch
“I decided that maybe all hope wasn’t lost, and I might still get some decent decoying this year after all”
there, whilst I watched the skies above. After a frustrating and largely wasted afternoon, I’d only bagged a single bird from the tree, so I decided to study the fields that were yet to be harvested. It was clear that the ploughed fields were lost opportunities and no matter how much attention I gave them, the birds simply weren’t interested.
Speaking of birds, I still couldn’t actually find the pigeons, although I know at this time of year the local population largely acts as a flock, so they had to be somewhere, didn’t they? I must admit I was beginning to doubt myself slightly, but nature doesn’t change, not completely, and not in a year.
They’re always here; every year for as long as I can remember I have seen them arrive, the numbers steadily building over days and weeks until hundreds appear every day to feed. They had to be somewhere, and I would guess somewhere close, but if I was going to find them, it was going to take every bit of skill and knowledge I had gained over the years, and maybe a fresh perspective.
I spent another couple of hours over the next few days walking the hedges and sitting under the trees, picking off what pigeons I could from the field boundaries, but I was filled with a sense of great disappointment. Twelve months I had waited for this, and it was looking like I’d have to wait another 12 to get a chance at it.
With the deadline for this very piece upon me, I was out of time and in serious trouble. I am contacted pretty regularly by readers who find themselves in similar situations, looking for advice, so I decided to run with this piece, to show you all that it doesn’t always go right for us – just because we are magazine contributors, that doesn’t mean we have some magical powers that automatically guarantee us success. I’d spoken to the editor a few days before and explained the situation and he suggested simply making this a two-part article. I’m not one to shy away from working under pressure, and there was still an outside chance that I could still pull something out of the bag and actually make a success of it, so I agreed.
That decision actually turned out to have other, rather unexpected benefits, too. I was out taking a few extra photographs, and decided I wanted to get a couple of shots of the furthest fields that I thought were untouched, before they got cut, but what I actually found was that a part of one of the fields had already been cut, which left half of it ploughed and the other half still standing. That was interesting enough, but I soon I noticed just how many pigeons were on it! I almost couldn’t believe my eyes – I had found them, finally!
Right there and then I decided that maybe all hope wasn’t lost, and I might still get some decent decoying this year after all, if I moved quickly while the birds were still using this area to feed. Because I need to know exactly where to set up, I will head out tomorrow to do a recce, finalise where I will be best positioned, and then shoot the following day. Success or failure, either way, part two of this story will be in next month’s issue, featuring a picture of me smiling alongside a hefty bag of shot birds, I hope. Wish me luck! I
I was running out of ideas and starting to get desperate.
I spent hours studying the fields, trying to formulate a plan.
Pigeons love to eat; find their food and they won’t be far behind. With no birds to decoy I targeted them at the edge of the fields instead.
With things the way they were, I couldn t afford to miss any opportunity.
Finally! This is what I have been searching for so desperately.
This looks quite promising.