Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold, Sporting Editor. February 16, 1896. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 16.

The Spring Shooting.

Balmy Weather Brings on the Old Fever.

Early as it is sportsmen are growing fretful and uneasy and as each day goes by the symptoms of this disorder increase. Wild geese and ducks, too, have been flying north at diverse times during the past week, and this fact alone is sufficient to account for the restlessness manifest among the lovers of field sports. Down at both Parmalee's and Townsend's, where the sportsmen most do congregate o' evenings, the one theme of discussion now is the approaching spring shooting. When will it begin, what will it amount to and how long will it last? The recent bland weather, too, has had an enlivening effect upon the spirits and imagination of the men who shoot, and they come together now almost every evening as if drawn by some irresistible magnet, with their linguistical propensities all whetted to an edge. The hunter's moon will soon ride the sky like a silver canoe, and when once this delicate crescent is traced in the blue above the sportsmen might as well prepare for the fray in earnest, for it will be but a short time thereafter until the first issue of the great army of wild fowl starts on its pilgrimage to the north. Under the present circumstances there is abundant cause for restlessness among the sportsmen. Anxiously they await the vernal serenade of the batrachian orchestra from the lowlands and river shores, the surest evidence that the frost is leaving the earth and that balmy weather is on the way. Anxiously they await the time when river, lake and slough, scarcely distinguishable yet as they lie locked in the fetters of ice and snow, will peep forth like eyes of blue and break into sheeny ripples neath the soothing breath of the southern winds; when the red-breasted robin sounds his sweet, but homely melody 'midst the red-twigged maples in the sheltered coves, when the crow caws petulantly at every passing breeze; when the pintails' wings cut the air with their sibulant whistle; when the quack of the mallard echoes over the wild rice, and the far-reaching honk of the lordly Canada penetrates the trenchant air.

These are the conditions which makes the sportsman's existence a heaven on earth, the sights and sounds which presage the awakening of the gladsome springtime and beckon him on to a new life amidst the bursting beauties of hill and valley, forest, field and stream.

Shortly, now—say, a brief month hence—and those fancy pictured glories will be realized, and not to be caught napping by reason of any dereliction in the work of preparation, the gunners are alive and busy everywhere. The favorite of Lefever is uncased, the muzzles uncorked, a searching glance shot through the glistening barrels, the break tried and then brought to the shoulder and held again for the hundredth time repeated upon some imaginary fleeting canvasback, redhead, teal or widgeon. Then with a sigh the piece is slipped back into its case, the hunting suit and waders hauled forth and carefully inspected. Everything in this department found all right, a trip is made to the stable or shed, where the boat and decoys are stored away, and they are carefully looked over; a cheery call to the old pointer chained to his kennel nearby follows, and then, despite the dog's desperate tugging and whining cry, he passes on down the walk, out upon the street and down town to store or office, with a heart buoyed high by the ecstatic thoughts these operations have given rise to.

But to speak of the spring itself, divested of all poetical sentiment. If the weather softens up any more good shooting may be looked for as early as the first week in March, for on the warm winds, after the first hard spring rains, the sprigtails, our first callers, will come up from their sunny southern haunts in myriads, a trifle lank and lean from their long journey, yet nevertheless furnishing most excellent practice for ambitious sportsmen. In the springtime these birds, in this western country, are the most plentiful of any of the duck family and when once in condition are not bad for the table. They are a beautiful bird, extremely speedy on the wing, but generally lack those qualities that make them coveted along with the redhead and the mallard. While traveling, the pintail flies high, and as they pass over keep up an incessant whistling and chuckling, as if glorying in their ability to keep out of harm's way. Like graceful shadows they cleave the gray morning air, following each other for hours in straggling flocks of from -00 to 200 down to single birds. They are upon exceedingly friendly terms with the mallard and often travel and feed in his company. After the last of the snows has disappeared and the back water on the open prairies afford them facilities for rest and food, they decoy well and furnish rare sport from a good blind.

I got a letter from Sam Richmond, the Clarks' guide and crack shot, on Wednesday last. He said he was down on the river Sunday and saw quite a number of Canada geese and a surprisingly large number of pintails, but he thought their arrival a little premature. He said, however, should the propitious weather continue, that he would pitch his camp sometime during the present week. There is plenty of water in the river and feed is good, and he predicts great sport at this celebrated old sportsman's rendezvous.

The canvasback is another one of our earliest visitors, as ice and sleet and wind and snow and pestilential weather of all sorts is nuts for him. The canvasback is unquestionably the most prized game bird in the world, although it requires the most artistic epicure to distinguish much superiority in taste or flavor over a well roasted mallard or redhead. Much of the canvasback's vaunted excellence over his congeners, the redhead, mallard, bluebill and teal, is purely imaginary, and yet he is really a superior bird to them all. Another thing I might state here is that this great bird is to be found in no part of the world in greater abundance than he is in certain parts of Nebraska, especially at Hamilton's chain of lakes in the western sandhills. They are not only the largest of the duck species, but speediest in the air, the wariest and hardest to kill. Still they decoy admirably, but the gunner in wait for them must understand his business. A large stool of decoys is always necessary and they will seldom come in to any but those of their kind. I have shot canvasback at Currituck, on the Chesapeake, at Koshkonong, on the Illinois and the Kankaree, but I never knew what canvasback shooting was until I came to Nebraska. Up in South Dakota, this last fall, notwithstanding the conditions, barring a lack of water, were first class, but fourteen canvasback fell to three guns in eight days' shooting. But South Dakota, although in juxtaposition, is not Nebraska. They are almost purely a spring bird here, but good shooting has been had at Hamilton's also in the fall.

After the sprigtails, canvasback and redheads, and frequently with them, comes the mallards, widgeon, teal, bluebill, butterball, golden eye and spoonbill and other lesser varieties, all straggling in, in greater or smaller numbers, through the month of March and way up to the first week in May, the bluewing teal, mallard and spoonbill often lingering until summer comes upon us in her fullest fervor. Some few birds nest and breed in our local waters, but the main body continues on to the wild and unbroken fastnesses 'roundabout Hudson's and Baffin's bays, where they rear their families in comparative security from molestation at the hands of man and his hammerless. For a long time I have been contemplating an article on the nesting of wild fowl and hope to get at it yet some time this spring. It may not be generally known, but the eyes of no living man has ever yet rested upon the nest or eggs of the sandpiper curlew, which, while not strictly a water fowl, comes under the same category.

Of all the birds of the duck family most familiar here, the mallard (Anas Boschas) ranks first. He also seems to be the most highly prized, and surely affords the most capital sport. Take an old drake, for instance, in the resplendent blazonry of his matchless plumage, did you ever gaze upon a more royal or gamier looking bird? And then when suspended along side his mate, the yellowish brown hen, and the picture is one which, for effectiveness in a sportsman's partial eye, would be hard to match, let alone beat. But this bird with all his graceful characteristics, his toothsome qualities, his haunts and habits are too well known for dilation upon the subject here.

The goose shooting, which always opens up before the duck shooting, may said to be in its beginning now. Last Thursday evening several flocks flying high were to be seen passing over the country to the west of the city, birds probably that have been in the vicinity all winter. But in a few days more the main body of these big birds will be coming northward, and then for the sport in earnest.