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
‘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