Flight of the Easterling

Coming a poor second to a pugnacious wren, a disappointing flight doesn’t end well for Mike Smith, but then something very special begins – magic happens. 

Diminutive, shy and inclined to caution, she none the less started it! The sight of the little wren, affronted and little more than an arm’s length away, shrilly protesting my presence, was so overwhelmingly engaging that my one chance of a shot was lost. 

A single mallard drake had chattered close, seeking the echoed reassurance of its own kind. Hesitating it banked left a comfortable gunshot out. In the long moments it takes my languid human reactions to re-engage with my reason for being there, the duck was off and gone. 

Disappointment lingers

My Labrador’s ears were stuck at half cock in that care-worn ‘what happened there?’ look. The blunt ache of disappointment lingered: for the subconscious had absorbed enough to prepare for success. Sensory memory primed for the familiar: shot, strike, falling bird and the splash of a prize hitting the water. Instead there was nothing of the expected, only the continued scolding from my quarrelsome little wren. 

Seconds pass and the eye yet hangs with the diminishing spec of the now distant mallard as it ghosts back to a chilling dusk. The mild fizz of nowhere-to adrenaline gradually passes, and I am slowly pulled back to a flood filled world. Back then it had been the wettest autumn in Sussex for 40 years. 

October had been miserable: ludicrously wet, high winds, storms pulsing in off the Atlantic. Harvesting had been dire, badly hit by rain; tractors abandon track-scarred wheat stubbles, ploughs mire in the sodden Wealden clay. For those flighting duck inland a local knowledge of farming and how the weather affects it is fundamental to sport. Acres of maize and field beans stood unharvested, marooned within water-bloated flood plains.

What happened there?
What happened there?

Duck nirvana

For the off-coast ‘fowler’ this kind of extreme weather presents an intractable problem. Long spells of flooding take duck far off predictable river-tracing flight lines. Normally reliable flight ponds, feeding well and attracting duck remain dormant. Extensive and prolonged flooding is duck nirvana, a time of foraging glut and unnatural plenty. But things were beginning to change. 

Overnight a cold front had swept southwest and by morning the wind direction had shifted to the north and east. Throughout the day temperatures fell and a stiffening breeze honed to a keen, bitter edge. Now even the dusk appeared to resist the diminution of day; night hesitates, forestalling its inevitable conquest, with the most glorious sunset. High cirrocumulus drapes the great vault of the sky with radiant colour: yellow-gold to mellow orange, pink and soft reds to darkening crimson, the colours of fire-touched copper.

Between time

Gun slipped and kit gathered, time to pause and contemplate this between time: a place between day and night, between light and dark, a place here on the edge of things. From ancient times water-filled landscapes were believed to hold within them an uncertain yet potent magic. What happened next was unexpected and entirely outside personal precedent: magic happened. And when that magic fell to earth it came with the voice of the Easterling. Wigeon! 

Hear and head closer to wild things, the dog reacts first. Sinews tightening, instantly alert, his neck twists to the dark horizon at our back. Something unusual is about to have a beginning: and like the bursting of a dam it happens suddenly. Senses are all at once enveloped beneath a cowl of sound – close, persistent, pressing. The distinctive whistling calls – ‘whee–oo–whee–oo’ – of male wigeon are everywhere. On the cusp of a phenomenon, and within the grasp of night, the pulse quickens.

Shooting close to the south coast, wigeon are regular visitors to flight ponds in this area. The presence of wigeon is enlivening to any pond side evening vigil with birds arriving in small, irregular sized groups. This was something very different and on a significantly larger scale; a genuine ‘fall’ of birds numbering several hundred. 

Moving in early autumn from main breeding grounds across a swathe of the Subarctic Boreal between Iceland, east to the Bearing Strait, wigeon escape hard weather by flying south. Britain and Ireland represent the essential limit to their northern European migration westward and here hundreds of thousands of birds stop over until spring. The influx of wigeon to the UK fluctuates, driven by the extent and severity of winter weather across Europe, but is on-going from September. 

The movement of wigeon within the UK is also dynamic. Although habitually a bird of the saltings they will fly inland to feed, especially during rough weather. Cold spells also force birds from areas where they initially make UK landfall on the east coast further west. The old regional name for wigeon, ‘easterling’ is due to the bird appearing as colder winter winds blow from the east.

Like scattered jewels

The wigeon that fell that night were probably recent arrivals, birds from outside the area on another of their migratory hops westward. Perhaps flying for hours, hungry, unsettled and keen to drop together, the flood engorged river valley widening to the coast must have appeared estuary like. Ten minutes on all light had gone; only a latent reflectiveness remained from the vast waterscape around me. Still wigeon came, dropping to the flashes like scattered jewels offered to the night by the east wind.

Eventually the ebb began: a retreat toward an end. Calls softened, gradually subsiding from the intensity of what had gone. Coat collar turned to the cold, the dog and I take our leave, every minute that had passed crowding to be remembered. In all the seasons since then nothing like it has happened again. Yet on every flight since, with the wind in the east and the voice of wigeon on it, hope again stirs that it just might.

Enjoyed this article and want to know more?

Why not contact us at Glenzier Sporting. Mike Smith has run the Whithorn shooting ground for 20 years and offers teaching lessons and gun fitting.


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