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Wildfowling: One morning flight

Slowly the light grows over the sea, and then strange dusky shapes appear out of the dimness. They may be flotsam of the tideline, they may be tussocks, they may be geese — the eye strains to make them out.

A curlew calls far away over the flats; you can hear it passing down the tide, its voice growing fainter. These are ever restless birds, even on the darkest night.

There is always this wait, but how enjoyable it is! Never a dull moment! The dog beside you, crouched low in the crabgrass, has his head up, staring out towards the sea. He hears and smells things you are not aware of; his frame quivers against you, for he is excited. A comfort, too, on a cold morning; a dog is a hot water bottle as well as a retriever of his master’s game.

Now the sea is visible, a spear of brightness, and yet the dark mysterious lumps are still unrecognisable. Funny how easy it is to imagine they are moving! If you look at them long enough you can swear they take the forms of geese, and you can even see their spindly necks and small, wise heads.

Whistling wings pass over, not from the sea, but from the land. A big party of duck has passed directly over you, but you could not see them, though the dog did. He stares up and takes a sidelong glance at you, which is very amusing. After the duck there comes another party — you saw those for an instant and they were in range. The gun twitches on the arm and is couched again — no gunner in all the world could have taken so fleeting a shot.

A goose calls afar off, another answers, and then there comes the thin keening of gulls — a cold, thin-drawn sound which always seems to me to have something of the desolation of the vast seas in it. And then the first birds come. They are gulls, a small party, wagging their way inland in a compact bunch as orderly as geese. Silently they pass. Soon after come others, until wherever you look, gulls are coming in. Then a bunch of curlew. These, unlike the gulls who came silently, call to one another — clear yodelling cries, sounds beloved of the fowler, their wings are working at twice the pace of the gulls.

Those dark lumps out there are tussocks — at least you think so. They have not moved. Your imagination has played another trick. A redshank appears suddenly, sees you and gives a tuee of alarm. Immediately afterwards, a mallard plumps down on the wet sand not 30 yards off. This so often happens at morning flight. No doubt he has been feeding inland and has stopped for a snack before passing on to the sea. The spaniel’s ears nearly fall off, and you whisper to him to keep down. But before you can begin to lift the gun, the mallard has seen you and is up. By the time the gun is at the shoulder, he is away.

All this has taken a second or two. When you next look at the “tussocks”, your heart gives a bound. They are not tussocks, but sleeping geese! They sit all along the fringe of the marsh edge, strung out like beads on a string. Every bird has its head tucked in, but you can do nothing about it. They look just in range, which means they are more than 100 yards away, and even as you look one pulls out its head and stands up. These geese have no doubt but lately come in, and are off their guard. One by one they wake up. They are still silent; geese resting on the marsh edge are often as quiet as mice.

Coming or going?

Now the birds begin to waddle slowly away. They sway, or rather roll, as they walk, like sailors — a true nautical gait. It is difficult to judge distance and movement on the open ooze. You cannot tell for a moment whether they are going away from you, or walking in, but you know it cannot be the latter, as geese never walk inshore at dawn. Every bird — there must be 30 or more in front of you — is swaying, but they are dwindling in size.

Then, with a clamour, and a threshing of wings, all are up. No, they didn’t see you. They are eager for a wash and brush-up in the fresh burn water that flows in over the muds half a mile from shore. The whole line swings right-handed, and you see them land again, far out on the burn edge, where they begin to splash and cackle and chase each other. Not until the sun peeps over the mountains, and the whole Firth is visible in the clear pellucid light, do the geese start to think about breakfast.

There are fully 300 pinks and greys far out on the sandbanks, arranged in a black ribbon. One end of the ribbon lifts and the ripple passes like a snake along the length. A moment’s pause and the full glorious music crashes out as though at the bidding of a conductor’s baton. Now as you look — to left, to right — the limpid dawn sky is spotted with weaving bunches, all passing inland. What a moment that is. If you see no drama in this, then you are no fowler.

Climbing all the time

Most parties are low when they cross the muds, but they are climbing all the time, and as they cross the gullies they are out of gunshot. Some fool along the coast has two barrels, You see a skein lift and a moment later hear the shots — a tiny double-pop. One big V comes straight for your ambush. Out of range, don’t be a fool! Yet the urge to fire is almost irresistible as with wry neck you look upwards under the rim of your hat. Clear in the light, they pass right over, each stern snowy white with paddles neatly tucked, necks moving, all cackling. Some writers call it “honking.” No goose honks save the Canada goose, which makes a noise like a deep-toned cowbell.

We might as well face it, we are not going to get a shot this morning. We need wind, the answer to the fowler’s prayer, to keep them down. And then happens one of those quite unforeseen happenings that add so much to the uncertain joys of fowling. The sun well up, and the flight over, we are tramping back across the marsh, thinking of breakfast, as hungry as those old grey-bellies that are now lowing on some distant pasture. There is a single croak behind us. We swing round, dropping by instinct to one knee. And there, almost on us, is a party of six greys intent on committing suicide! Why this sometimes happens I have no idea, unless the geese are watching that other shore-popper who is making his painful stumbling way to shore half a mile to our left.

The gun goes up, the geese scatter at the movement, each bird climbing desperately, silently, not even calling, so intent are they on gaining height. Bang! And again, bang! The long cases of BB shot whistle skywards. The cackling breaks out and you cannot believe your eyes when no goose drops. Are these birds wearing armoured waistcoats? You’ve bungled a good chance. Disbelieving, sick with anger and disappointment, you stand like a heron there on the saltings, fingers automatically reloading. You watch them reform and go on steadily shorewards. They are over the sea wall now. Quite suddenly, without any fuss or warning, you see a goose slump from the middle of the skein. One moment it was flying as well as the others; now it is falling like a black rag to earth. Fortune has relented at the last moment, you have a goose down after all.

You arrive at the bank in record time, with your spaniel bounding in front. You range the sea wall frantically, straining to catch a glimpse of an inert grey form. But the wind stirs the grass, other geese pass in unheeded (they are still moving in), a hare sits up in the middle of a green field washing its paws. You rake the pastures with your glasses. Farm carts move towards steaming middens, fieldfares cluck overhead, all the bustle of the day has begun. The spaniel ranges along the foot of the sea wall, his feather wagging urgently. Did that goose drop this side of the bank or over the land? How difficult it is to tell from the marsh!

Then comes the supreme moment. The dog pauses and casts quickly. He stops, half-hidden by the rushes; his head is down, there is a pause, then he raises it — and, yes! There in his mouth is a bulky, grey form, limp, with wings drooped awry.

“Good old fellow, good old chap; bring him on, bring him on!” Is there any prize so much worthwhile as this massive grey bird, warm to the touch, with hanging pink paddles, and stern as white as sea foam?

There is a point in this account that is worth remembering: always watch the skeins after you have fired, follow them out of sight. One single shot may have gone home without your knowledge, and many a bird is lost in this way.