DEEP THINK­ING: Re­flec­tions as the sky erupts with bird calls

The calls of a large colony of Brent geese trans­port Alan back to trips he en­joyed to that cold, bar­ren land­scape, and he takes more than a mo­ment to re­flect on the sport he so trea­sures

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH ALAN JAR­RETT

‘The dark-bel­lied Brent geese graz­ing close to the shore were as tame as could be, set­ting up a con­stant ‘brupp, brupp’ as I me­an­dered past’

Sit­ting on a wash in Cam­bridgeshire, idly re­flect­ing on a suc­cess­ful first half of the sea­son, caused me to drift into a re­flec­tive state. Three mal­lard lay on the grass be­side me and the dog was on full alert.

A wood­cock passed some 80 yards to my left, sur­pris­ingly swift on the wing for such an ap­par­ently un­gainly bird. A men­tal note was made to look out for it on an­other day, as more than once they had eluded me at this spot.

The dog raised her ears slightly and a mo­ment later the soft bugling mu­sic of whooper swans came down to me on the breeze. Their calling in­creased un­til half a dozen passed through.

There are cer­tain bird calls that are, to me, so evoca­tive and make me think of wilder north­ern climes. Here, the calls took me back to goose shoot­ing in Ice­land, when on ev­ery flight the pas­sage of un­told num­bers of these regal birds was an un­for­get­table fea­ture of the trip.

The week be­fore, I had been in Kent dig­ging lug­worms on the north shore; there had been per­haps 150 dark-bel­lied Brent geese graz­ing close to the shore where the zostera grass grows, but now their num­bers had quadru­pled, a cer­tain sign that there had been a big in­flux of this noisy lit­tle goose.

They were as tame as could be – fur­ther re­in­forc­ing the the­ory that they have re­cently ar­rived on our shores – do­ing lit­tle more than set­ting up a con­stant ‘brupp, brupp’ as I me­an­dered past.

They have an­other of those bird calls I find so dis­tinc­tive, bring­ing with it a re­minder of their epic jour­ney from far-off breed­ing grounds. We will, in all prob­a­bil­ity, never legally shoot Brent on the shore, for their spas­modic breed­ing means num­bers fluc­tu­ate vi­o­lently, with some years re­sult­ing in an al­most com­plete breed­ing fail­ure.

Stand­ing, watch­ing them, trans­ported me back to many flights on this par­tic­u­lar shore. Un­less you were tucked in close to the bro­ken groynes, it was in­evitably a painstak­ing and messy af­fair, in­volv­ing a lot of grub­bing about in the mud as you waited for birds that of­ten don’t ever ap­pear.

Later in the sea­son, when the zostera is all gone, you are less likely to get a shot at the wi­geon. Even as I thought of that, the zostera was

start­ing to turn from its lush green to a yel­lowy hue, de­not­ing the pass­ing of the sea­son; for all that, the Brent were busily at work fu­elling up on this suc­cu­lent plant.

My thoughts fled back to a Fe­bru­ary morn­ing long ago, when I had gone right out to the low-wa­ter mark to dig in and await events. The flood tide would be early, and sit­ting out there in the moon­light wait­ing for the dawn and the birds to move was an idyl­lic ex­pe­ri­ence.

In the event, a suc­ces­sion of oys­ter­catch­ers – com­ing head-on and ef­fec­tively dis­guised as wi­geon – brought re­peated false alarms! In­evitably, when the wi­geon came they were thought to be oys­ter­catch­ers un­til the last mo­ment, and the first bird of the day was se­cured.

A mal­lard and two more wi­geon brought an un­usu­ally pro­duc­tive morn­ing on this shore to a close. Then it was time to walk back ca­su­ally in front of the tide, ev­ery now and then turn­ing to watch the wad­ing birds as they crowded the tide edge, all ex­cit­edly twit­ter­ing as they grabbed a last meal be­fore head­ing off to roost.

On that same moon, the dog and I sat out there in a muddy pit half-filled with wa­ter. The moon rode high in the sky and there was not a cloud to be seen. We sat there for what seemed an age, watch­ing the stars and lis­ten­ing with des­per­ate op­ti­mism for the sound of wing­beats. Even had the duck come, it was un­likely they could have been picked out against that dark back­cloth. Op­ti­mism can be a won­der­ful mo­ti­va­tor.

It was bit­terly cold as the frost gripped the land­scape, and it was just a mat­ter of how much longer the lonely, fruit­less vigil could be main­tained. Sud­denly, that soft sigh of wings could be heard, and a mo­ment later three dark shapes were over the de­coys, which were sit­ting still in a shal­low pool. The gun thumped twice and a sin­gle bird lay spin­ning among the de­coys.

The bird was a hand­some pin­tail drake – a great re­ward for such pa­tience. The de­coys were gath­ered, and the dog needed no se­cond bid­ding to be away over the flats on the jour­ney back home.

These and other thoughts swam through my mind as the geese were left in peace. Their voices car­ried with them a slice of the tun­dra from whence they came and re­minded me why this sport is so trea­sured by so many of us.

Time spent re­flect­ing on the sport he loves, to the sound of wing­beats, seems al­most as plea­sur­able as the ac­tual sport for Alan

Iden­ti­fy­ing quarry in the half light can be a chal­lenge and oys­ter­catch­ers can eas­ily be mis­taken for wi­geon

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