Texas’ shore­bird hunt­ing is rich in his­tory

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - SHAN­NON TOMP­KINS shan­non.tomp­[email protected] twit­ter.com/chronout­doors

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.

Shan­non Tomp­kins / Staff

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.

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