Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. February 24, 1901. [Great Spring Flight of Ducks at South Dakota Sandhill Lakes.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 36(147): 20. Forest Field and Stream.

Great Spring Flight of Ducks at South Dakota Sandhill Lakes (1896)

Well do I recall the evening of March 7, 1896, when the Barrister and I crouched in our tule-hidden boat on the west shore of Raccoon lake and witnessed one of the greatest spring flights that was ever my good fortune to behold. And, my! What a kill we made, and what a jocund night we spent after reaching old Anse's cosy hostelrie after the evening's wonders had all faded away into solemnity of the darker hours. All that is necessary is to close my eyes again that thrilling panorama unrolls itself before my mental vision.

On the sky the glittering light was shattered into a million tints, with every thing above the flaming horizon in clear outline, while over all the lake, the sloping hillsides and the expanse of distant prairie rested a pallid glow that but intensified the brilliant shafts and arrows shooting toward the zenith, but east a weird glow over the sombre field of dead tules and rice stalks in an exuberant clump of which, old Bill and I crouched in our flat-bottomed scow. What an enchanting scene that was, and yet there are those who never discovered anything beautiful in the sandhills. From departed Phoebus rosy light radiated into the vault above our canvas-capped heads, while the broad ocean of sky to the east was changed by the contrast into pale gold tinged with fading green. North and south the blue shaded into delicate olive tints, shifting into orange toward the center of the great dome. On the orient lay castles of the richest amber fringed with crimson fire, in the occident rolled banks of coppery gold and fleecy streams of lemon-colored vapor. Over this stage now poured a troop of actors that heightened all the other thrilling elements of beauty and animation a thousand fold. But it would require the camera to graphically tell the story, dumb words never can.

As early as 5 o'clock the ducks began to come, whence no one could tell. They were coming to roost and seemed to come from near the level of the horizon. For an hour the flight was ragged and spasmodic, but after the sun had hidden her fiery face behind the western rim of sandy plain, they came in, it seemed, by the million. Neither Bill nor I had ever seen anything like it before, and many and many a rare old trip had we had together at that. The canvasbacks and redheads came with a rushing, tearing sound, as if rending with their speed the canopy of heaven, down they came out of the face of the night. Dense masses of the latter, with wings set in rigid curves, came winding swiftly down, with long lines of mallards and canvas, with stiffened pinions, made the keen, yet sensuous air, hiss beneath them. On long inclines and sweeping curves pintails and widgeon and baldpates rode down the darkening ether, while swift and straight as the flight of falling stars, teal and ruddy and butterball fell from the iridescent sky, and snipe and yellowlegs and complaining sandpipers shot by in vollies, while knots of greenwings ponced upon the scene like balls of gray, and black and white, with the rush of a myriad of night hawks, Canada geese, in long and solemn lines, high up in space, went trooping past, and speckled brant and snow geese dotted the western and northern skies, marching with faster wing and more clamorous throats, and disappearing long before their raucous cries ceased sounding in our ears.

Column after column of ducks, bound on farther north, for Indian, Clear and Cedar lakes, of for the Renshaw marshes at Lake Creek, came in on over us from the south, and without slacking a wing, hurried on out of our range of vision. Black in the failing night the emerald hood and neck of many an old drake mallard was outstretched for another fifty miles before he would think of diving below for nocturnal rest. The sprigtail, the scaup, and even the gusts of swamp sparrows swept in shadows over the scene, while far above all and still bathed in rosy light and floating southward as light as flecks of vapor, long strings of sandhill cranes, sent earthward through a mile or two of chilly atmosphere their strangely penetrating cries, and even above these, snowy whooping cranes and majestic swans sailed through the sunlight of the upper spaces.

I gasped at the stupendous spectacle of color of cloud, of sky, of water, of bird of sound and darkening land, yet kept my old fowling piece hot with the work in hand. Bang! bang! In goes another pair of those matchless Peters shells-splash! a mallard hits the water; thud; a canvas, the dry land. Bang! bang! Shells in and shells out, dead birds and wounded birds, all worldly thoughts scurrying away in the vortex of flame and sparks and sound, the Barrister and I pumped away until, like a funeral blanket, the night fell, all sound died away, save a passing sibilance high in the darkness, and the lone whine of the waiting coyote on the distant hillside.

"What do you think of yourself?" interrogated the lawyer, as we drew up to the stove after supper, lit our pipes and prepared to go over the exciting scenes of a few short hours before.

"Nothing," I drawled, as I gazed into the roaring fire, my eyes filled yet with the sound and color of that rare March evening, my ears roaring with the melody of quacking throats, whizzing wings and the crack of guns!