Texas’ shorebird hunting is rich in history
The sounds that whispered from the night sky on some cool autumn evenings when the moon was bright and the wind was out of the north reminded the old man of the sound and rhythm of ocean waves breaking on a beach coupled with soft singing.
At least that’s what he said he remembered from nights spent beneath a thin canvas tent on the Texas coastal prairie when he was a teenager and shorebirds were migrating overhead. They came in pulses, great sheets of them, he said as he turned the century-old decoy of a greater yellowlegs in his arthritis-gnarled hands and drifted back to a time and a world I could only imagine and only a few could still remember.
The decoy had given rise to the memories. The old man saw me holding it in an old hardware store in Baytown that also collected and sold arcane hand tools, old farming and ranching equipment and other “antiques” found in the rotting barns, garages and outbuildings of the abandoned and being-abandoned home places of the area’s old-line farming and ranching families.
It was 1969. Maybe ’70. He looked to be at least 80 or maybe 85, although it’s hard for a teenager to accurately assess such things, and the fog of five decades doesn’t help. And while I’m sure he introduced himself as he walked over and struck up a conversation about the decoy, I don’t remember his name and, sadly, I never saw him again.
What I do remember — what I can’t forget — are his descriptions of what he witnessed and experienced as he spent time in camps, hunting or working cattle, on the Texas coastal prairies and marshes, bay flats and beachfront around 1900. And every time I look at that morethan-a-century-old yellowlegs decoy I bought that day for the princely sum of $5 — a “tin” clam-shell made by Strait and Sohier of Boston on a patent from the 1870s — and see the missing paint and the dents and pockmarks created by stray shot pellets, I recall our conversation and am reminded of what’s lost and give thanks for what’s left.
The old man had witnessed something now gone, or nearly so. And was going quick when he saw it.
Once a sight to behold
Each late summer and early autumn for millennia, tens of millions of shorebirds would leave nesting grounds on the matrix of grasslands and wetlands that stretched from the northern prairies to the arctic and head south. Some would stop in Texas for the winter, spreading out on sand flats and marshes and beaches and even native shortgrass prairie, where they would feed on the rich abundance of insects and other invertebrates. Others would continue south some traveling all the way to the southern reaches of South America.
The host contained a dizzying array or shorebirds — dozens of species of sandpipers, plovers, curlews, godwits, dowitchers and phalaropes. On a night with a bright noon when the shorebirds were migrating, the man recalled, they passed in huge sheets, and you could see them silhouetted against the illuminated sky. They flew low enough that the sound of their wings was audible, sounding like a rush of water as they swept past.
Some passed with only a rustle of beating wings, others with a sound like tearing paper. Some occasionally called as they flew — wavering trills, peeps, whistles and shrill cries.
It was something to see and hear, he said.
The shorebirds’ arrival was more than just a feast for eyes and ears. They fed the body, too.
He hunted shorebirds. Lots of people did. He had seen other hunters use store-bought decoys like the one I’d found among the store’s trove of trash and treasure. But mostly they pass shot birds on the flats and on the prairie. He liked yellowlegs and upland sandpipers best. “Butterballs,” he called them. Roasted, they were delicious.
Many people thought so, too. From the 1870s through the early 1900s, a thriving market for shorebirds existed in this country, and tens of millions were shot and sold from autumn through spring.
But by the time the old man was a teenager, the abundance was quickly evaporating. Shorebird numbers began a steep decline in the late 1800s, hammered by a combination of unrestricted gunning and, of even more impact, dramatic changes in the landscape on which the birds and their sustenance depended.
Conversion of native landscape to agriculture, especially on the northern prairies, had a tremendous negative impact on shorebird numbers. Not only did it deny them crucial habitat, it resulted in the loss of a vital food source with the extinction of what was the most populous single species in North America — the Rocky Mountain locust.
The locusts — actually a grasshopper — were the most abundant creatures in North America, thriving by the hundreds of billions across the native prairie and often swarming in clouds that covered the sky from horizon to horizon. Most scientists believe conversion of the Rocky Mountain locust’s prairie and its grassland to agriculture along with other environmental changes such as the demise of bison on the plain resulted in the Rocky Mountain locust vanishing. Unbelievably, what had been the most abundant creature in North America — even more numerous than the storied passenger pigeon — was extinct by 1902. A huge food resource for many species of shorebirds — and many other birds — was gone.
Snipe population up
The plummeting numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl triggered actions to protect the birds. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 ended legal market hunting for shorebirds and other migratory wildfowl. A decade later, recreational hunting of all but two species of North American shorebirds — Wilson’s snipe and woodcock — was prohibited.
The protection helped. But anthropogenic impact left permanent damage to some shorebird species. Despite a century of protection, many shorebird populations have struggled. One couldn’t recover.
The Eskimo curlew, once one of the most abundant of the several curlew species and a favorite of the market gunners and epicures, saw its population steadily fade through the first half of the last century. The last known photo of a live Eskimo curlew was taken on Galveston Island in 1962. A year later, the last solidly documented Eskimo curlew was shot on the island of Barbados. The bird has not been officially declared extinct but almost certainly is.
Some shorebirds that nest in forested areas such as the boreal wetlands and farther north, where nesting grounds have seen less human impact, have had a better time of it than those tied to grasslands and prairie. That includes the two shorebird species still classified as game birds — Wilson’s snipe and woodcock.
Wilson’s snipe are creatures of bogs, wet prairie and shallow wetlands, where they use their long, flexible bills to probe for insect larvae and worms and other invertebrates. Wintering snipe can be found across much of the eastern half of Texas from coastal prairies to the damp flats around stock ponds and fallow pastures flooded with an inch or so of water from heavy rains.
Snipe are wonderful game birds, most often hunted simply by walking the wetlands they frequent and jump-shooting the birds when they flush. And when they flush, they make a challenging target. Snipe are among the fastest shorebird, able to hit 60 mph. But they combine a wickedly erratic flight with that speed to make them what many consider one of the toughest targets in wingshooting.
Unlike many shorebirds, Wilson’s snipe have a healthy and stable population, estimated at 2 million or so breeding birds. Large numbers of these birds winter in Texas, which allows a 107-day hunting season for the birds, with an eight-bird daily bag limit. The 2018-19 snipe season, which opened Oct. 27, runs through Feb. 10.
Woodcock, the other shorebird classified as a game bird, would seem to be a shorebird in appearance only. The short, stocky, long-billed bird — a little larger than a bobwhite quail — is unlike most shorebirds in that it does not gather in flocks or even large groups, preferring to live a fairly singular life. And that life is spent in forests, not along shores or bay flats or the mostly open terrain most shorebirds prefer.
Woodcock are birds of early successional forests, foraging for earthworms — their preferred food — in soft, damp soil of fairly open areas such as grasslands and pasture or recently cutover woodlands. Most of this foraging is done on the dark side of dawn and dusk, with the bird relocating to adjacent forested areas, where they spend daylight hours hunkered on the forest floor, their cryptic feathers offering almost perfect camouflage as overhead shrubs, briars and brambles protect them from avian predators such as hawks.
More an upland game bird than a traditional shorebird, woodcock are most often hunted using pointing and flushing dogs. The cover the birds prefer — often briar-clogged thickets with pockets of standing water or otherwise wet ground — can make it tough going for hunters and dogs. And snipe have nothing on woodcock when it comes to being a challenge for wingshooters. Woodcock often flush close but burst into the air, twisting and turning like a frenzied bat, dodging through the thick cover that often prevents a clear shot … if the hunter can avoid getting the shotgun’s barrel tangled in vines or limbs or briars.
Woodcock like forests
Eastern Texas’ forests winter a large number of North America’s woodcock. The region also has a small breeding population of the woodland-loving birds. The area, along with adjacent portions of Louisiana, are considered the premier wintering woodcock region in the country.
North America’s woodcock population has slipped a bit over the last few decades — a function of habitat challenges the bird faces. But the population is plenty healthy enough to allow a limited hunting season. Texas’ season allows a 45-day woodcock season with a three-bird daily limit. The 2018-19 season opens Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 31.
Snipe and woodcock offer Texas wingshooters vestiges of the shorebird hunting that once was a common pursuit in the state. They offer hunters the opportunity to pursue a pair of wonderful game birds that provide challenging shooting and a rich meal. And maybe a chance to reflect on what used to be.
Wintering Wilson’s snipe, one of only two shorebird species classed as game birds in this country, gravitate to damp or shallow areas, where these challenging game birds use their long, flexible bills to probe for insect larvae and other invertebrates.