Winter Wing-Shooting and Waterfowl Habitat
By Gary Lewis
Ducks and geese drifted in and out of my dreams. It's always hard to sleep the night before a hunt. When the alarm rang, I rolled out of bed and found my camo and my boots. An hour later, we tromped through icy marsh. A biting wind howled out of the west, driving a sullen sky.
Sage, Bill Herrick's Labrador, padded on top of the crust, while we broke through at every other step. We had to break through ice and wade to our waists to climb into the blind. With a head-high wall at the back and a low shelf in front, it was just what we needed to stay out of the storm, hidden from the birds.
"There!" A single teal went jinking over, with the wind that whistled in its wings. Bill scrambled for his still-unloaded shotgun and three more ducks – mallards – went by 30 feet off the deck in easy reach. If only we'd been ready for them. Sage stood, shivering from her swim to the blind.
A single drifted toward us, high on the wind. Bill shouldered his gun. "It's a little far, but I'm going to try," he said as he swung the barrel up. His finger tightened on the trigger and the greenhead folded to crash to the earth behind us.
Sage quivered with anticipation. "Fetch it up, Sage," Bill said, and the dog splashed down into the icy water and scrambled out onto dry ground.
While the dog and his master fetched the drake, two more mallards streaked by and I swung, led the second bird and missed. Twice. For the next two hours, we watched widgeon, teal, mallards and Canada geese drift by out of range.
Bill's hunting club owns a piece of property with several small lakes, east of Bend. It is 23 acres of tall grass, tules and wetlands – a high desert habitat that supports cottontails, herons, marsh hawks, mergansers, cormorants, raccoons and other critters.
"It's all here for the wildlife, I come out and clear knapweed and do little projects to make this a good place for waterfowl and other animals. For four months out of the year – once a week or so – I hunt ducks," he said. "The birders come out from Bend and set up their binoculars and watch from over there," he said, pointing south. "We could develop it, but then this would all be gone."
People love nature in different ways. There are conservationist hunters, there are wildlife watchers and near-religious preservationists. To some, science-based management is irrelevant. But hunters' efforts protect the land and animals, locally and around the world.
For someone who doesn't hunt ducks and geese very often, I've been on several big-time waterfowl hunts. The first was on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
We hunted a narrow freshwater inlet, where we found brown bear tracks in the snow. I set up on a thin hump of gravel on the edge of a sheltered pool. The birds came across in one big wave and I shot a greater scaup. Over the next few days, we hunted oldsquaw and harlequins on the open water. They streaked by in small, tight skeins just above the surface and some drifted close enough to the boat to reach them with our steel.
Twice I went to Mazatlan and hunted with Big Tony of Rio Presidio. There, the economic benefit that hunters bring to coastal towns, keeps habitat productive for waterfowl. We saw more than a dozen species of divers, puddle ducks and dozens of other bird species.
I remember Fernando, pushing us in a panga out to our blinds. "Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu," he said, in a passable imitation of the sound of an outboard motor and about the only English he knew. Beaters drove the birds from the marsh. Salvatore could speak enough English to tell me what I wanted to hear. "Senor Gary, muchos pato coming low!"
April's snow goose depredation hunt with Living Sky Outfitters in Saskatchewan was glorious. We heard them on the water a mile away and when the birds took to the sky, the beat and roar of 20 thousand wings sounded like a jet airplane leaving the tarmac.
We hunted on dry land from sets of decoys with more than 300 shells and silhouettes to entice the birds within range. We set up to pass-shoot on flyways into and out of feeding areas. When we flew south, back to Oregon and the massive flocks winged north to Hudson's Bay, we felt like we'd done our part to save the tundra. At least for one year.
The people that make the difference are the hunters. Money raised from license fees, state waterfowl stamps and Federal duck stamps support science-based management and habitat enhancement. Banded together by conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Oregon Hunters Association, the political force can work together for the good of wildlife.
Waterfowl West of the Cascades
Birds in the Pacific Flyway migrate from as far north as the Aleutian Islands all the way to the California coast. The Olympic Mountains and coastal areas of the outer Puget Sound support dense populations of harlequin ducks. The Copper River Delta produces the world's largest populations of trumpeter swans and dusky Canada geese. Upwards of 10 million waterfowl use the Copper, Yakutat, Stikine, Tsiu and Susitna river flats in the spring.
Any habitat loss or degradation within the Pacific Flyway has an effect on the total population. Some of the issues include urban expansion, contamination of the estuary environment and loss of aquatic beds.
Funded by hunter dollars, conservation organizations work in concert with private landowners, foundations and corporations to protect and preserve wetlands.
Habitat restoration projects in Puget Sound and northern California benefit hunters in Oregon by providing healthy environments for ducks and geese at both ends of the Flyway.
Ducks and Geese in the Great Basin
Over on the dry side of the Cascades, productive wetlands areas are limited. A component of the Pacific Flyway, the Great Basin is a major stopover on spring and fall migrations and a production area for mallards, canvasback, gadwall, redheads and cinnamon teal.
Projects in the Great Basin seek to preserve water quality and quantity to prevent outbreaks of disease and ensure habitat for resident waterfowl and birds passing through.
East of the mountains, the focus is to improve the use of water supplies on public and private lands and increase the habitat values that support migration and reproduction. Biologists and engineers work to restore marsh functions to support habitat that waterfowl use throughout the year, all supported by hunter dollars.
Anytime a waterfowl hunter takes to the marsh, he or she is making a positive difference for wildlife and habitat.
Whether the hunter travels halfway around the world, jump-shoots mallards on a meandering Willamette Valley stream, or climbs into a blind overlooking an ice-encrusted pond east of the mountains – every morning brings a new chance to take part in the age-old thrill that haunts our dreams.