Waterfowl are amongst the most fascinating of all nature's creatures. From the remarkably small teal to the great grey geese, they are birds which have captured man's imagination since the beginning of history. The wonder of their annual migrations, the romance of their wild habitats, the orderly social patterns of their daily routines and the fact that they normally flight during those magic hours at dawn and dusk combine to explain the allurement which the family ANATIDAE exercises over those of us who call ourselves wildfowlers.
Unlike some branches of shooting sport, wildfowling is characterized by the absolute necessity of fully understanding the habits and habitat of the quarry species. Whereas the gentleman enjoying a day on a formal covert shoot need not concern himself with the mechanics of pheasant production, every fowler must become thoroughly steeped in the natural history of wildfowl if ever he is to come to terms with the geese and duck of the marsh. It is no accident that so many of the greatest naturalists, artists and wildlife photographers are also wildfowlers. All of those interests share a common basis of knowledge and each is enhanced by a fascinating blend of love and sympathy for the birds themselves.
Many behavioural features will be observed and noted by the observant wildfowler but, above all else, he will be fascinated by the annual cycle of migration which becomes as significant to him as it is to the fowl themselves. Each year in April fowlers watch with a little sadness as skeins of geese pass high over the horizon on their journey to more northern climes and then, come mid-September, we will thrill to the music of pink feet as they return from their breeding grounds once again. In October the pinks are joined by their larger greylag cousins while, in other parts of the region, similar migrations will be ending as white fronts splash down at “Hor al hammar” and the ever-increasing army of Brent geese make their landfall in southern Iraq.
Grey geese migrating from Ukraine cover the distance of over 2000 miles in a few days but, at the other end of the scale, duck such as wigeon, teal or pintail may have to travel almost 3-4000 miles from their breeding territory in central USSR and Europe are likely to complete the journey in stages spread over a period of several weeks.
The precise mechanism by which migration is guided is not yet completely understood and it may differ considerably between different species of migratory birds. The Cranes, for example, appear to have highly developed directional instincts and birds in their first year will successfully find their way to their wintering grounds without the benefit of previous experience or adult company. In contrast, it appears probable that memory and experiential learning are of considerably greater importance to the migrations of duck and geese. Although there may be a degree of instinctive behaviour involved in the timing of migrations and in navigating over ocean areas, wildfowl seem to be able to alter their patterns of movement to take account of environmental changes and will return to places where food has been plentiful in former years whilst forsaking previously favoured areas which have become inhospitable. Geese especially tend to travel in family groups, the oldest members of which will have experienced several annual migration cycles.
In addition to the principal autumn and spring migrations, which are a fairly commonplace phenomenon in the avian world, some wildfowl species engage in pseudo-migrations. As previously mentioned, certain duck undertake a molt migration to places of relative safety prior to shedding their flight feathers. Another mass movement of duck can be triggered by the sudden onset of particularly hard weather in winter.
When a wildfowler steps out on to the remote salting he enters the world of the wildfowl and, if he is to be successful in his hunting, he must understand and appreciate the ways of his quarry. Each fowling expedition is an adventure - an adventure within which the discharging of his gun might be an infrequent occurrence. To the true wildfowler the failure to fire a shot does not detract from the enjoyment of his sport because he has spent time in the wilderness of a dawning estuary, he has been enthralled by the sight and sound of the fowl and he has learned a little more about the habits of the wild birds which feature so large in his daytime thoughts and in his night-time dreams.