Wide Wings Over Africa
November 03, 2010
The author recalls his first ever spurwing goose and a pass shoot on a faraway pan.
From my position tucked under a small two-foot-high bank I heard the steady, rhythmic "aagh, aagh" of a pair of approaching Egyptian geese. Their huge white wing patches were plainly visible as they drew closer, and the moment I had been waiting for had arrived.
That was on the final afternoon, but much had happened since we arrived in the Free State of South Africa seven days before. This was our second trip south from England in search of African wildfowl. We had asked for and been promised a varied bag including spur-wing geese; we weren't disappointed.
The first afternoon found us dismounting our gear from the truck. Before us lay a great shallow pan, filled with shallow water interspersed between tall grasses and reeds. From the pan's margins rose great black-looking spurwings, lumbering in the distance like modern-day pterodactyls. There were plenty of ducks too and these milled around before diving back into the cover.
We waded out into the grass and squatted down in order to make the best of existing cover. A few spurwings were shot, and as a result we returned in high spirits. None of these big geese fell to me, but even so a right-to-left shot at red-billed teal was almost adequate compensation.
The PH left us between a vast nearby lagoon and another dam out of sight a couple of miles farther east. He was to drop us off and scare the geese off the lagoon, so that we might get a chance at them.
We sorted out our own positions, and by chance my place was on the edge of a small pool from which we disturbed a small flock of ducks. The best of the flight was farther away and the others enjoyed some shooting before a single spurwing passed well to my left; it collapsed to a well-judged shot, tumbling into the long grass. I judged the bird to have been well over 50 yards away, and as it was my first ever spurwing it was collected with some delight. Almost immediately another came to present a much easier chance, but was missed quite hopelessly with both shots!
Shortly after that a pair of Egyptian geese came to me high up. The first bird collapsed, and it made a pretty picture as its riot of colors contrasted spectacularly with the upturned soil.
On our final shoot of the day we returned to the grass field ambush, as it had served us well on the previous trip. This time we moved in closer to the lagoon, to where a ditch ran through. There had been plenty of spurwings along the ditch, and the messy droppings in the shallow water gave a clear indication that they used this spot regularly.
Three days later we were back at the pan and this time we were better prepared. I chose a position a few feet from the edge of the grass, and it seemed to me an ideal position--so it was to prove.
Scarcely had we been settled when a single spurwing gave me a long-range chance, and the big bird slanted down into the shallows. There then followed a one-sided chase--for these African geese stand tall and run and flap far faster than any waterfowler can plod through calf-deep water. Soon it was out of the water and onto a grass field, where it made rapid progress in the direction of a field of maize. A call to the professional hunter (PH) was made. The truck arrived at speed, disgorging three Africans and a German shorthaired pointer to make the day a success.
There was time to sit and let the coolness of the breeze wash over me, but soon a black giant that approached from my rear broke the reverie; it fell with a huge splash into the lagoon at my shot. This time the bird was quite dead.
The sharp calling from a pair of Egyptian geese drew my attention to the north, and they could be seen approaching low from over the maize fields. They came down the pan, totally oblivious to the pending danger, and only the fact that I misjudged their speed lead to one of them escaping. They were almost past before I fired, but the first shot sped true; the second, however, missed in a blur of beating white-shouldered wings and harsh alarm calls. Then it was over.
The PH drove me around the lagoon to the far side, to a place at the edge of the water where the grass grew in tiny scattered tussocks and was littered with massive droppings. It was a wonderful spot, although most of the geese had already departed, and the grass and water were alive with ducks.
The dry ground soon oozed water when you laid on it, and it was not long before I had wet backside and legs. Soon thereafter a spurwing cut across me to the left, and crashed into the grass of the lagoon at the shot. If there is a nightmare scenario it has to be a goose down in water with dense vegetation and with no dog in sight. After some initial hesitation, during which a single yellow-bill duck was sent splashing into the edge of the water, I decided to try and find the goose.
This meant more wetting, but with boots off, socks off and trousers rolled up high above the knees I was soon wading out into the grass with gun at the ready. If anybody ever tells you that the water is always warm in South Africa you would be foolish to believe it! It was absolutely freezing! The broken vegetation spiked my bare feet, and mud could be felt oozing uncomfortably between my toes, whilst the water pushed against my knees and higher. Of the goose there was no sign, and eventually the discomfort of wading about in the grass caused me to give it up and wait for the dogs to arrive later.
Within a few minutes two skeins of four geese came out of the north, gliding across the lagoon before pitching in the edge. Eventually I decided to try a stalk, and by moving away from the wet areas into a tussocky landscape just back from the edge it was possible to find some cover. The tussocks were littered with goose and duck droppings of various size and age (and therefore firmness!), and it was not the ideal place for crawling about. It was possible to crawl between the tussocks--which in the main were about 12-18 inches high--and remain unseen.
It was a long and painstaking crawl of well over 100 yards, and eventually it was time to turn towards the birds. In front of me lay a few feet of tussocks, then the weed-filled edge of the lagoon and then the open water began; it was on the edge of the weed that the geese were feeding.
In the end the only possible tactic was to raise and rush forward in hopes that those few crucial extra yards would make all the difference as the birds rose. It didn't! The birds were up in an instant, and the single shot fell harmlessly short of them as they headed for the open water on the far side of the lagoon.
It was on day three that the PH had first shown us that lagoon, with its resident assemblage of geese and duck. If the water was the vital ingredient for the birds, an adequate nearby food supply was as crucial; imagine then our delight at finding nearby a field that had been harvested for groundnuts (peanuts).
By way of routine the PH would drop you off one by one from the truck, often with the reassurance that "This is a good place."
As a result I was first out, and found myself beside some heavy wooden posts set in the fence, which made a useful hiding place. A few dried plants were scratched up and woven into the fencing among the poles, giving me at least some cover from any birds approaching from the lagoon.
It transpired that this really was a "good place," with the best of the flight around my position. My first chance was at a pair of yellow-bills flying very low from the lagoon. They hurtled past to my right, which allowed me the opportunity to crumple them both--one fell onto the track, and the second in the field behind for a passable right-to-left.
A few geese began to come off the lagoon, including one spurwing flying at modest height that folded neatly and fell close to the fence. Eventually a single Egyptian gave me a long shot and it fluttered untidily into the groundnut field. You leave wounded African geese at your peril, and it did not take long to swarm over the fence and head out to pick my bird.
From the direction of the lagoon a great spurwing came gliding towards the field, and a shot fired from a hastily assumed prone position caught it well back in the body. It continued its glide--this time out of control--for over 100 yards before crashing in a plume of dry earth, which meant an even longer trudge to bring the bird back. Three big geese and a pair of duck was an excellent start to any flight.
Another goose was taken from the front of a small skein as they came back towards the lagoon; it packed up and seemed to fall for an age, with the air rushing through its wings as it hurtled to earth. It was not long before there was a repeat performance, and the fifth spurwing of the flight was brought to hand. Within a couple of minutes a long strung-out skein of spurwings came back over the harvest, and even though once again they were very high my confidence was at an all-time high and there was never a moment's hesitation in taking the shot. The bird packed up, and fell through the air as I watched spellbound; then my attention returned to the ragged skein that had broken at the shot. The second shot also sped true, for a ragged right-to-left, probably my finest ever.
In total I brought down seven spur-wings, one Egyptian, two yellow-bills and one red-bill from a truly wonderful flight, which included some of the tallest geese I have ever shot.
Change Of Tactics
The next day we returned, and decided upon positions. In the end a narrow grass strip that ran right down the center of the harvested field caught my fancy, and partway along there was some low brush that would make a hiding place.
No matter how vigilant you remain even a bird as big as a spurwing can sneak up on you! Without any warning a single bird appeared on the field at my rear, some 80 yards away, where it stood bolt upright and alert. The only option was to be patient and await events, hoping that the bird would make a fatal mistake.
Eventually, the bird took off straight at me; and there was just time for a long and hopeful shot as it turned away. At the shot the bird collapsed onto the field, and when I reached it the goose was quite dead. I stepped it out at over 70 paces!
After that the spurwings came through high from the far side of the maize field with the wind in their tails. On a couple of occasions, birds came right overhead and I should have done better than scare them. With the final chance as the barrels went through the chosen bird I remember thinking, "Now get in front of it!" and that was enough of a reminder for the bird to collapse far out in the field.
On our final afternoon we were brought back to the groundnut field, and whilst others wanted another go at the spur-wings I opted for a fence line ambush and the potluck of a flight at Egyptian geese that I had spotted previously. The PH complied, although seemed unimpressed at my chances of success. The ambush was set beside a small sharp-sided bank, which is where this story began.
From our previous visit a couple of years before I knew how surprisingly tough and maneuverable these birds are, so should not have been surprised when they turned on a sixpence in mid-air at the sight of me. The first shot back-ended the bird, and as it began a labored descent the second shot balled it into the long grass. It seemed dead, but it was with great relief that the bird was found on its back amongst the long grass.
Back below the bank fantastic excitement followed. First a pair of geese came low across the field in front: this time I let them come that bit closer, and took the left-hand bird as it began to turn away; the second shot was fired at a bird turning back and still climbing. Both birds crashed into the long grass where they were found dead. A couple of misses followed before a fourth goose thudded onto the track at the edge of the groundnuts.
The next pair of geese came to my right and this time they were allowed to cross the fence, so that they were past me and over the field before I fired. For once they had not seen any danger, and the first they knew of my presence was when the first bird bundled up; it was then a case of nudging the barrels down the right-hand side of the second goose. Both fell with heavy thumps into the loose earth among the ridges of the harvested field.
Eventually two more geese approached from the right. The normal routine of keeping down until the last moment was followed and when I sat up to fire was surprised to find that they were spurwings; this brought a desperately urgent swing and the single shot sent one of the giants plummeting onto the track with a mighty thud. A couple of misses followed before a single Egyptian fell in the grass.
This was so far my finest hour on African soil, and not just because the bag had been six Egyptians and one spur-wing. It is because this was an English waterfowler spotting the birds for himself; gambling when the spurwing flight was the safer bet; working out the flight line; using careful field-craft in hiding and finally shooting well. At home or abroad that is the true essence of wildfowling.