Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. September 20, 1903. [Autumn Teal Shooting at Fairmont]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 38(344): 18. Portion of column. With a drawing of teal on the marsh.

Forest, Field and Stream.

With each passing hour now, in these fleeting September days, come multiplying evidences of the summer's decay and the advance of the wintry season. We had a hard frost on Tuesday night last, just as we did one year ago, and the aspect of things generally is such as to justify the belief in an early closing in of Old Crimp and his inclement hosts. The wild fowl have already begun to come down in goodly numbers, not only spoonbill, woodducks and teal, but in many instances, mallards, widgeon and redheads. That the sporting season is now on in earnest there is little room for doubt, and over almost every bit of lowland the wings of the teal are whistling with every passing breeze. The blackbirds, in sable clouds, are chucking warningly, as they undulate across the wet lands, or clamor among willow and reed. Along the oozy shores, the killdeers' feet are leaving a network of delicate tracks and the yellowleg, with his tinkling plaint, moves uneasily through the frosty air, while against the fleece-robed over-arching blue the acute shapes of passing geese may be frequently traced.

In testimony that the active days of the sportsmen are at hand is the numerous canvas-clad, rubber-booted men that are to be observed on every outgoing and incoming train, and the fact that I myself made one of these on Saturday and Sunday last. Together with Charlie Thomas I was the guest of Henry and Jake Carson out at Fairmont, and to say that we had a great two days' shoot, but half expresses it. Both Henry and Jake are sportsmen of the most enthusiastic type, well up in the lore of wild game, capital shots and royal whole-souled fellows everyway. Other members of the guild, besides Thomas and myself, who were Carson's guests over Sunday, were W.A. Pixley, John Weaver, Eddie George, Arthur Rogers, George Tzschuck and George Nicholson. The whole party was after bluewing teal and not a soul was disappointed. Every mother's son of them killed the limit and enjoyed a shoot that is not apt to happen many times in a season.

Without a doubt this is the greatest fall for bluewing teal ever known in this section of the country, and every ducking ground in the state is fairly swarming with them. Nothing like their plentifulness, the oldest and most experienced gunners say, has been known here since the earliest settlement of the state, and were it within the scope of law and conscience 100 a day to a single gun would be no extraordinary exploit.

But before going further let us familiarize ourselves a bit with this royal little duck, Anas Discors, the scientist calls him. As all the roves of Nebraska low lands know, and as I casually remarked in last Sunday's World-Herald, the bluewing is the avant courier of all his kind that comes down to us in the hazy fall days from the breeding coverts in the British Columbias. At the same time there are more teal that breed in this latitude than any others of the wild fowl tribe, and joined by the birds from the north, the local contingent early makes a great showing. Bluewing teal are invariably seen during the last of August and early in September, along the shores of our marshy prairie lakes, where they sit in the mud, close to the edge of the water, and huddled close together, basking for hours in the warm sunshine. They fly swiftly, and when they alight, drop down suddenly, like the jacksnipe, among the tules or on the mud. They subsist chiefly on vegetable food, and are gluttonish in their greed for the seeds of the pink smartweed, reeds and wild rice. Their flesh is matchless, and after a few days upon any of Nebraska's favorable grounds, they are as fat as butter. After a repetition of several hard frosts, they get up in a body and hurry southward, being an extremely delicate bird and as susceptible to cold, almost, as the upland plover. While greenwing teal are often found with the bluewings, it is generally in small numbers, as they are an entirely different bird. On Sunday last the eight or ten shooters who were on the lakes, or ponds, rather, near Fairmont, out of several hundred birds killed, there were not more than fifteen or twenty greenwings. The fact that so many birds of apparently the same family differ so widely in their habits, their feed, breeding, flight and character of their cries is always a rich subject for speculation, and the observant sportsman is always making his notes and comments. The education of the forest and stream is a grand one, and it is only the true sportsman who graduates from this, Nature's school. Take the several kinds of plover and waders, for instance, the snipe, dowitchers, phalaropes, killdeers and gray and red-breasted sandpipers, no two have the same range, the same habits, flight or cry. With the teal it is the same. The greenwing is a decided polaric individual, while the bluewing thrives better in the tropics, and while very similar to the casual observer, they are distinctly different in structural conformation in the markings of their plumage, in diet and habitat. While the bluewing is the first bird down from the north in the autumn and the last up in the vernal season, it is precisely the opposite with the greenwing. He comes down in the fall with the main issue of the hardier sort, the canvasback, redhead, merganzer and bluebill, and up in the spring, in the boisterous weather of early March, amidst sleet and cold and snow and rain, with the pintail and Canada goose. The bluewing is a delicate, vulnerable little creature and easily killed or knocked down, while the greenwing is hard and tersely constructed, tenacious to life and most difficult to stop, and, if but wing-tipped, might as well be given up as lost.

At this season of the year the bluewing affords the best and easiest kind of sport, especially the young birds, which wholly lack the cunning and wariness of their parents, and fall ready prey to even the half-concealed gunner. Like the jacksnipe, in most instances, a single No. 7 or 8 pellet is all that is necessary to drop them out of the air, and once down they are comparatively easy to retrieve. They are full of play and like to cavort and gambol in the low shallow waters or in the open until long in the morning, leaving for the feeding fields any time along between 9 and 11 o'clock and returning to the ponds and marshes from 3 until the hidden sun crimsons the west.

On the little shoot in question Thomas and I preceded the main party, going out to Fairmont Friday evening, and consequently we got in an extra day on them, Saturday, and a memorable occasion it was. The morning dawned gray and threatening, and long about 7 o'clock the rain began to fall by the bucketfull, and continued until after 9, when with Henry and Jake Carson, and Henry's phenomenal kid, Harry, we pulled out from the hotel for the overflowed meadows north of the town. The heavens were ragged with black flying scud, and the prospects for more rain were good, but fortunately we did not get it. I must confess I was extremely dubious about finding any duck shooting in that magnificent agricultural region, with its handsome modern homes and big red barns, its limitless fields of gigantic corn, wheat stubble and clover fields, and much to the amusement of the Carson's, I animadverted numerously and eloquently upon Mr. Pixley's veracity, and his ideas of the meaning of the words "millions of blue wings." It was on Billy's invitation, you see, that I went to Fairmont. The Carsons are his uncles and he had notified them of my coming and urged them to give me a good time. Well, they did—one of the best shoots I have indulged in for twenty years, and I owe them both, and Pix, too, more than I will ever be able to repay, I think.

We had traveled a mile or so from town, and were bowling along the muddy highway at a spanking gait, between two broad, catalpa bordered pasture fields, bound for Aylesford's pond, when I was electrified by the plentifulness of turtle doves. They were feeding all over the close cropped fields and perched by scores along the board fences, drying their feathers, and the sight was too much for me. I had little hopes of any duck shooting, as I said before. We hadn't seen a feather in the air, and being well posted as to the savory qualities of the turtle dove, and being determined to bag a mess of birds of some kind before going home, I urged Henry to pull up and let us take a crack at them, remarking at the same time that Pix, bluewings were in all probability but the creatures of an immature or fevered brain.

"We'll find the bluewings thicker than doves," indifferently remarked Henry, but ever obliging he turned into the fence and brought the team to a halt, and then he and I and the kid got out and opened up hostilities on the doves. The boy soon grew tired of this tame sport, and after perforating one or two with his 22-Winchester he went back and climbed into the wagon, which was following along after us down the road. We had almost reached the end of the field, which butted into one of those oceans of standing corn, and were plodding up over a slight knoll, when a cloud of birds, with outstretched necks, came bursting out of space, it seemed to me, right into our very faces. I was so startled I did not recognize those whizzing drab shapes until crack went the first barrel of Henry's Parker, and crack went the second, and as five azure-winged birds came tumbling and gyrating into the blue grass stubble, I saw that they were teal, and as, with the velocity of a fleeting shadow they swept off over the corn's drying tassels, I banged away both barrels at their receding shapes. Of course, I did not disturb a feather, and you can imagine my chagrin as I picked up a couple of Henry's birds, looked at them critically, then gazed off wistfully over the waving corn in the direction the cloud of bluewings had swept in the hope that they would return. But they did not, and picking up the remaining three birds I carried them by their pale yellow legs out of the field and up to the wagon without uttering a single monosyllable.

"What do they call that disease that always catches these green hunters, Jake?" said Thomas, as I handed him Henry's birds and climbed up into the seat beside him. "Oh, yes, the buck fever—that's it, but no fever will ever faze the sporting editor. You'll have to use an ax to do that. However, that was a bully shot you made, Sandy. What, you didn't shoot! Well, what are you doing with these birds then?"

I was impregnable to Bull's—that's Charlie's pet soubriquet—facetious assault, but there is no telling what sort of a burst of oratory he would have evoked from me, had we not at this moment reached the top of a slight rise in the road that gave us a bird's-eye view of a grand expanse of that lovely country.

"Look there!"

And Henry pulled the team to a standstill, and rising to his feet, pointed off to the northeast, with his whip, and together, we caught sight of thousands of flying birds, blue-wing teal, in great rising and falling flocks, one after another, until that portion of the heavens was fairly darkened with them. They seemed to come up out of the eastern horizon, and were following each other in one long, ragged stream over the flowing fields, diagonally, toward the northwest.

"They are making for the upper pond, Jake," remarked Henry, as he seated himself and, chirruping to the horses, away we dashed.

The blackish scud had almost vanished and blue patches—like your sweetheart's eyes—were opening in the sombre firmament, and it wasn't many moments before the full luster of the autumn sun was bathing the world in a flood of gold.

And the ducks. Still they rose and fell, bunch after bunch, flock after flock, line after line, all bent in one direction, all on a single errand. We soon reached a point where we could see them circling around over a sort of a hollow in the green expanse, and then in sweeping curves, settle down, with fluttering wings, and disappear.

A mile further on and Henry swerved in to the side of the road and with a "get out boys," he tied the horses to the trunk of a catalpa, and remarked that we had reached the end of our wagon trip.

"Sandy and I will cut across the fields here to the lower pond, Jake, and you and Charlie do likewise for Aylesford's. "Get plenty shells," to me. "there's no hurry. In fifteen minutes we will be among them and when we get through I think you'll have the laugh on Mr. Thomas."

And you bet I did.

By the time we had crossed the big wet field and reached an elevated point that commanded a view of the pond the picture was one of the most exhilarating I had ever gazed upon.

The mist had all lifted from the valley and the sun, shedding its bright rays from amidst fragments of floating vapor sprinkled corn and grass and reed, weed and water, as with golden rain, setting the myriads of twittering blackbirds in delightful motion, while from the little smartweed covered morass came the muffled sound of thousands and thousands of feeding teal. The scene was one well calculated to enthrall the sportsman, for the year the first time out, and I made Henry linger while I drank it in with inexpressible rapture. On the other side of the gentle vale there was a grand sweep of waving corn and brown stubble and broken ground, now layed in alternate lines of dim gray and topaz, swelling from the very edge of the tule-lined and shimmering water. Across the heavens still floated masses of fleecy vapor, fiery edged, and dropping their lights and shades over the corn, the yellow stubble and blue bosom of the pond, like the play of color on velvet. A playful breeze came rustling through the tall, tawny grass from the south, and brushing by us, pounced upon the open stretches of water, streaking the surface into darkening ripples, fanning the rushes with its delicate wings and then melting away in the distant cornfields.

While teal shooting on the big pond out near Fairmont last Sunday morning, with Will Pixley and Eddie George, we saw among a flock of passing spoonbills, an old squaw, as it is commonly called on the New England coast. It is seldom encountered this far inland. ...