Acrobats Of The Baltic

Oldsquaws exhibit circus-like maneuvers in pursuit of mates

It had just turned February.


For the first time in nearly two weeks, gale force winds calmed to a light breeze. The sun burst out over the Bay of Faxe, a Danish part of the Western Baltic Sea, setting the scene for an oldsquaw hunt.

A considerable number of the estimated 5 million birds of the European population spend the winter in this area of the Baltic. Under calm weather, oldsquaws will be engaged in mating behavior. Groups of up to a dozen drakes will, while yodelling their distinctive call, chase a single hen. They speed through the air, twisting and turning, and sometimes, buzzing past the boat at close range. On the water they will fight hard -- so hard the splashing of water can be spotted several hundred yards away. It is truly a spectacular performance, one that gives hunters a chance to get within shotgun range of these normally wary sea ducks.

The name of the game is to sneak up on the birds from a motorized duck boat -- a legal and sporting method in the Baltic. Hunters can only practice the style out on the open sea, and are limited to moving only 2.7 knots when shooting or sneaking on the ducks. In addition, shotguns can legally only hold two shells.

Once a flock is spotted on the water, a course with the stern pointing slightly to the windward of the birds is laid out. While approaching the birds, you watch them intensely.

If they stretch their heads and turn against the wind, you alter your course more windward, leading them to believe the boat will pass, until they again swim downwind with low heads, and you can resume your original course.

Done by the book, you will be in a position 50 yards upwind from the birds. But most of the time, reality seems to be different from the book. Oldsquaws are tougher to hunt this way than other sea ducks, because they are more willing to fly and need very few feet of running over the water against the wind, if any at all, to get airborne. Given the fact they fly around a lot and decoy readily, a line with a few decoys dragged behind the boat sometimes help bring birds within range.

Eiders, common scooter and velvet scooter are often represented in the bag, but none provides the same challenging shooting situations or the same spectacular show as the oldsquaws -- the acrobats of the Baltic.

The outboard has worked at full throttle for 45 minutes while the sun has risen well above the horizon, having changed the burning red eastern sky into a blinding golden. I've arrived at the oldsquaws' preferred area, so I reduce speed to 3 knots to begin scouting. In order to spot the white dots on the blue sea, I set a course with the waves, wind and sun behind me.

A splash of water created by a bird dropping into the water "the oldsquaw way" gives the first flock away. Fighting, with water splashing around them, the birds take no notice of the approaching boat.

Suddenly, with no warning, the ducks take wing 150 yards out. But instead of flying away from the boat, they fly directly toward it. Amazingly, the sea ducks pass like small rockets at 20 yards.

They jet past so fast I only can fire one shot. The hen and her eager suitors fly on -- except one. A brilliant drake in its finest plumage skips along the surface several times, and then lays still. A beautiful duck, indeed.

Niels Henriksen is a worldly waterfowler from Praestoe, Denmark.

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