The low winter sun that blinded me on the drive to the wood augured well for an extended shooting session. It was 2.30 pm on the penultimate day of the year. It would make a welcome change to stand in the dry after what seems like weeks of torrential rain. I’d already checked the wind direction and had decided which roost to target. Not that you can ever guarantee that you’ll pick the right one. The biggest decision before setting off, though, had been which gun to use this afternoon. Air rifle or shotgun? For both are efficient in their own way. Today it was topography that made the decision. The wood pigeon roost I had elected to shoot was set amongst a stand of tall pines in the centre of a deciduous copse. The birds need to be shot as they approach the trees. Conifers don’t lend themselves well to airgun shooting. Too much dense cover. The airgunners only chance is to pick off the birds that alight on bare branches and pause to ponder where to tuck away for the night. A highly effective strategy in deciduous woods during winter as the boughs are leaf-bare and the birds are looking for ivy in which to shelter. Procrastinating pigeons were unlikely today. This afternoon was more likely to be a dash straight into evergreen cover. Scattered shot and soaring birds; firs and feather.
Stepping out of the motor into the cold afternoon air I applauded myself on my choice of attire. Light cotton layers under a warm Jack Pyke camo fleece. For the first time this winter I donned my Elmer Fudd baseball cap … the one with the furry, turn-down ear flaps; a sound purchase from Hoggs of Fife. I pulled a camo snood over my head and tucked it beneath the collar of the fleece, pulling it up over my chin. Toasty togs. Ever the optimist, I stashed a couple of dozen Gamebore Black Golds in the game-bag, cranked three into the semi-auto and popped a couple of magnums into my right pocket as insurance. I hate bumping into Charlie and not having an adequate load to hand. Setting off for the lee-side of the wood I could already see the warm red glow of sunset shimmering between the stark black silhouettes of the pine boles. The walk to my intended stand worried me slightly for I didn’t disturb a single woodpigeon. In an established roost, there are always early-birds. They usually flush when you walk beneath them. Today, curiously, none. As I walked I was checking the bases of the trunks I passed. There was plenty of fresh pigeon squit. The birds had rested here last night, for sure. At the edge of the wood, I set up behind a tall stand of briar overlooking a stubble field. A spot I had used before to good effect. The tactic was simple. The woodies would coast across the wood behind me with the breeze at their tail. They would soar out across the stubbles, circle round and sweep into the conifer stand with their faces to the wind. As they put on the aerial brakes, wings outspread, they give an opportunity to the confident shooter.
As the crimson sun lowered I looked backward, into the wood. The western side of every pine bole shimmered with pink. A magnificent sight. I looked out again across the stubbles. Above the wood on the opposite side of the field, 400 yards away, dozens of woodpigeons were gliding in and landing in the canopy. On the windward side of the wood? I let out a sigh of frustration, even though a lifetimes experience told me what would play out next. I stood my ground and in the dimming light watched a lone bird heading towards me, ten feet above the stubbles. Thinking it to be a crow I shouldered the gun and pushed off the safety catch. By the time it came in and soared upwards, the safety was set again. The buzzard lifted above me and lit on the bare bough of a dead elm. I didn’t move a muscle. It shuffled around to face the stubbles and the opposite wood. I was directly below so the raptor couldn’t see me. After enjoying watching the old hunter scanning the same horizon as me for a few minutes I realised it was planning the same tactic as me; I moved away far enough for the bird to sense me and depart in a panic. This was my ‘stand’ tonight.
A jay, having seen the buzzard move away, started its irksome shrieking. Unaware of me, it jumped onto a fencepost nearby. Only the virtue of a hunter after meat for the pot stopped me shooting the little blue crow. I threw a stick out onto the stubbles and the jay fled behind another demonic scream. The light now was descending into a pink-tinged fugue. As I watched, it happened. Prompted by some unknown signal, the grey hordes in the opposite wood lifted and circled. The flock split. Half heading for a wood to the east, the other half heading towards me. I watched the incoming birds from behind my briar hide. Now, I had a decision to make. Allow them to pass over and shoot those who circle back to land? Or shoot as they approach. The light was fading and so was my patience. Flicking off the safety I lifted the semi-auto to my shoulder. I must confess that I am so left-eye dominant that I shoot with my left eye half-shut. Preferring to shoot birds from beneath rather than face on I was resigned to failure but I got lucky. The flock made that last traverse to my roost at a modest pace and I managed two birds for the three chambered rounds. The rest of the flock scattered to the winds as I reloaded. I waited for a second approach which never came. The big disadvantage of the shotgun. Noise scares.
I straddled the fencing into the stubble field before the light finally faded and located my two birds. I’m desperate for a lurcher pup to bring on, to do the retrieving for me. With the buzzard in mind, I swiftly crowned the pigeons and bagged the breast meat. I drew out my Foxcaller and gave a couple of ‘peeows’. The old raptor appeared above the edge of the wood and circled above me. I picked up the two carcasses and threw them further into the field. As I turned for the wood and the trail back to the motor, I stopped to watch a long noisy skein of geese silhouetted against the pink afterglow of the sunken sun. While unloading, at the tailgate of the SUV, the tawny owls started their banter. A male voice choir. No ‘keewik’s from a female owl. With everything packed safely away, I was reluctant to leave. I perched on the tailgate enjoying the ambiance of wood and field at twilight, self-analysing my choice of roost tonight. Two birds are poor show but little effort was exerted. Sometimes, though, it isn’t just about shot to kill ratio or the number in the game-bag. It’s about being out there with the right to walk some land freely and with a license to carry a gun. Neither should be viewed lightly. Two birds, on an evening when you have resigned to going home empty-handed, are a treasure. Two birds can make a meal. Many people in this world would love that meal.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2020