Pressing the Reset Button

Gifts from the marsh...a day to reflect, reconnect, and maybe even to retrieve a rare bird.

Gifts from the marsh…a day to reflect, reconnect, and maybe even to retrieve a rare bird.

Craig and I had not hunted together for several years, not since my move to Northern California and its abundance of waterfowling opportunities. We’d enjoyed our last outing together down south, despite the monotonous heat and scattered few targets that typify a lot of Imperial Valley duck hunts. Probably because we’re a lot alike; focused and hard-working, among other things, but not obsessed or competitive.

So it was good to find out he was making a road trip to my neck of the woods, and to get an invite to go along on a good card for Delevan, one of our best refuges. It’s a tough one to get, too; in many years of putting in for it, I’ve only been drawn twice.

The pond we picked was a beauty, two long channels defined by thick patches of tules. But it was next to the large open water island blind that went first in the morning draw. The ducks and geese wanted into that spot, and the constant gunfire and whooping that came from there surely took a toll on our action for much of the morning.

It was still early when a flight of five big birds came down my channel on the right, silhouetted by the low morning sun. They came in wings outstretched, sailing toward me barely a foot above the flat water, flying a lot like pelicans I’ve seen on the Salton Sea. A tired mind and squinting eyes aren’t entirely trustworthy, so doubt flickered in mine. Are they geese, or something else? Then they began their acrobatics, behaving like Ross’ Geese (only much, much larger) with two birds ricocheting off of each other, and one of them actually cutting water with a wing tip!

Unbelievable!

I’ve observed thousands of Snow Geese and occasionally Canada Geese, in Southern California and, a few times, in Saskatchewan and Alberta. So though I’ve bagged a few, the White-fronted Geese of the Sacramento Valley, affectionately known as Specklebellies, are fairly new and unknown to me. The ones I’d seen before didn’t fly like this. And so I thought, these can’t be Specks, and hesitated.

But they were.

The low-on-the-water frontal silhouette veered behind the strand of tules I huddled up against, then rose suddenly. Now the orange-ish beaks and salt ‘n pepper bellies jumped into focus! The gun went up in a hurry, dancing between five targets not more than fifteen feet away. Three shots. And nothing.

I stared after them as they departed for many minutes, feeling a shock and awe of the worst kind. Dropping heavily onto the tule seat, I stared into the murky water, just muttering to myself and the dog. As the day marched on, nothing flew. The sun warmed the flat water to swimming pool temperature. And inside I stewed about that missed opportunity.

But that old combat pilot adage came to me, it’s not the mission you’re on that kills you, it’s the one before it. So I called out to Craig, “We need to press the re-set button!” He agreed, but not without putting some closure to that strange flock that was so almost-on-the-strap. “Did you see how that one bird’s wing sliced the water?” he said from his hiding spot. Yes I had, and was glad for a witness. Otherwise, later on I might have chalked it up to my 3 hours of sleep, or just plain ‘seeing things.’

Well, the hunt was now re-booting. “Next bird in, gets nailed,” I said. And a moment later, it did, a lone pintail.

That small gift would have been enough. We were having a good time, just being out in such a beautiful spot, and both said so. And then I saw something else I could barely believe.

Five large birds coming head on, from the same direction the others had, only it was later now, the sun above us. Not quite so low this time, veering off my channel and over the tule island in front and between Craig and I. It can’t be, I thought, or at least, it can’t be them. But they were doing it again, the sudden bumps in altitude, their outstretched wings flicking from horizontal to vertical and back again, dancing in the air like small nimble birds.

When they were almost over us, we fired. Not taking any chances, I poured all three shots into one bird, and Craig did the same. Two of the five fell, and Schatzie was after them. So were we; out of our hiding spots and accepting them from her before she’d swum a stroke back to us. There couldn’t have been two happier, more relieved hunters at Delevan that day. I’d been given a second chance, and Craig had got his first ever Speck.

Later at the check station, I learned that these geese were different. After some measurements and inspection, I heard “Congratulation, you got a Tule!” While most white-fronted geese come from interior northwest Canada and number in the 600,000s, the Tule Goose is a different subspecies, from southwest Alaska, with a population of only about 10,000. I was told the only difference between the two is that the Tule is larger and longer-billed. And yes, he felt like a Honker in hand, but I’m not sure that’s the only thing that sets them apart.

At times they fly like acrobats.

~ by zenhunter on October 28, 2013.

One Response to “Pressing the Reset Button”

  1. Thank you Neil for being part of a great day full of memories. Watching those Specks “roll” in was awesome. See you up north again soon. Thanks buddy.

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