Ducks on the Downs
Tower-bird recalls evenings spent duck flighting on high ground, where the glorious views are a not unwelcome distraction from the task at hand
The evening before, the sea mist had come rolling over the high downs to blot out the scene and spoil our flighting of duck coming into barley stubble. So the next evening, we arrived half an hour before the first duck. We were thus better able to survey the ground and to form some kind of concealment. My own hide was comprised of reasonably high walls of collected barley-rakings — but my nearest neighbour, a dogless man, was content with more Spartan accommodation. Merely scratching out a “form” in a line of rakings, he settled down apparently to sleep, drawing an eiderdown of straw over his person.
It was a beautiful evening of just sufficient wind to force the ducks to land into it. Presently a single mallard fled over five gunshots high, to be followed within minutes by a couple more scouts that, flying lower, were nevertheless well out of range. They flew almost out of sight, circled the wide sweep of stubbles towards the sea then returned, just wide of us, the way they had come — presumably to signal to their fellows that all was well.
Four miles away, as the duck flies, was the sea and several small ships were plainly visible between shore and horizon. Some miles to the right I could discern my coastal fowling grounds. As I sat there, on the highest point of the downs commanding a view of many miles in every direction, the sky to seaward became full of the extending lines, skeins and bunches of flighting mallard, all seemingly coming up from the sea and making in my direction, though parallel with the coast.
Great lines and skeins
Chancing to glance behind me, a similar scene was unfolding. Well out across the broad valley between the ridges of the North and South Downs were more great lines and skeins, flying parallel to those nearer the coast. For a short time the sky in both directions was etched with these formations; an approximate count of birds, not including the bunches and small skeins in our own vicinity, lay at between 1,500 and 2,000.
I did not see the final vanishing of the two great extended battalions 50 • SHOOTING TIMES & COUNTRY MAGAZINE for by now ducks were coming on to our own little barley field from every direction, and a half-moon was brightening in the sky. On nearly every evening that week we went to the same place but I never caught sight of the battalions again; though a few hundred mallard came our way, or dropped down to feed on neighbouring ground, where the sound of shooting caused them again and again to rise in haste and circle our territory.
One evening I took, as an experiment, my silhouette curlew decoys, setting them out on the stubble 50 yards from my hide. Curlew are seldom seen here, except birds passing high over. Once, during a lull in the shooting, some 20 to 30 mallard, after circling high, came dropping in round the decoys. Watching them feeding
“I had a view of many miles in every direction — four miles away, as the duck flies, was the sea”