Chris Dollar: Amid conflict, pain and suffering, nature can be a balm | COMMENTARY
By Chris Dollar
Jan 17, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The predicted blow was nowhere near the steady blast we were banking on to make the ducks and our shotgun pellets fly. At best, just a huff here and a puff there. A few hundred yards away hordes of gadwalls bobbed unmolested, flashing their white hind parts as they upended to feed leisurely on vast mats of coontail that blanketed this upper Chesapeake Bay creek.
The tranquil scene playing out before us was a far cry from other outings we shared: slogging dead-legged through marsh mud as thick as setting concrete; dodging bone-jarring winds as they pelted eyeballs. All in the name of waterfowling, one of the most fanatical sects within the outdoors religion.
Our quarry was gadwall. At first blush, it’s easy to think them rather drab, hence the nickname gray duck. And I suppose they are when compared to others in their tribe. Under closer scrutiny, however, the observant hunter — or birder — soon realizes that characterization is unfair.
The 2019 waterfowls survey showed gadwall populations have increased about 13% to 3.26 million birds, which is 61% higher than their long-term average. Gadwalls now rank third in annual harvest estimates, second only to mallards and green-winged teal. It should be noted most 2020 migratory breeding surveys were shut down by the pandemic.
Like all Chesapeake creatures, migratory geese and ducks face an uncertain future as we battle to slow the impacts of climate change. According to future projections from Audubon’s climate model, at risk isn’t the gadwall’s winter range, which the group calls “largely stable.” The potential problem lies with what will become of the species’ summer range. Modeling shows 91% of that habitat could possibly disappear, and if it does shrink to such disastrous levels then the total amount of available space would decrease “by a potentially catastrophic 87%.” The saving grace, says Audubon, is that gadwalls are a numerous and widespread species.
Once we set decoys in a small enclave, we tucked down among the cordgrass and bay berry, and waited. Hundreds of gadwall were joined in their avian rafted up by scaup, mallards, ruddys and Canada geese. This huge congregation definitely hurt us. As good as our feint was, real beats imitation every time. We spotted the morning’s first customers at a good distance, silhouetted against winter’s half light. Three scaup barreled our way, and in less than a minute, the lead pair cupped their wings, rumps down for landing. And what a glorious sight it was. At the last second, they ferreted out the ruse, hit the brakes, pounded the throttle and escaped just in time.
We had a few more looks over the next hour when finally a lone gadwall decided to check things out. Big mistake. My gracious host let me have a first crack, and I connected. It would be the lone bird in the bag that morning. In two subsequent outings, my host faired better, bagging three birds, respectively.
There’s definitely been an influx of gadwalls this winter, which has helped hunters fill their bag. Because they often dive bomb your spread in large numbers, that’s the appeal. But compared to pintails or black ducks, gadwalls are not that bright. More skittish than wary, I’d say. Still, they aren’t sea ducks that will decoy to a Clorox bottle painted black. Blending in with the terrain is key. A face mask or camouflage paint on your face completes the deceit.
Another quirky thing about gadwalls is that they’re notorious “circlers,” infuriating in their indecision — not unlike the silly tourists I encounter in downtown Annapolis who putz around seeking that ideal parking spot. Park it already! I’ve been on a few hunts when groups of 12 or 18 — gadwalls, not tourists — refuse to commit, instead circling five to eight times before committing to a group of decoys. If you stay hidden, limit your movement, and be patient, eventually you’ll get your reward.
No doubt I like to shoot my share, and love to sear duck breast in a sizzling cast iron skillet and then slather them in homemade raspberry sauce — a splash of Chambord or Grand Marnier adds just the right touch. The main driver in my love for waterfowling, however, resides in the ruse itself. I’m on record numerous times that for me, few things are better than outwitting a wild duck. Done right, it is euphoric.
Creating a panorama of decoys and then disappearing into the landscape is what truly enthralls me. There’s also the camaraderie, nostalgia and anticipation. The work of a good gun dog cannot be overstated. I also like that there are rules and a code ethics to the game, though not all adhere to them, sadly. For these same reasons, I love sport fishing.
These are selfish reasons why the outdoors are so important to me. Looking at the big picture, I believe we now have a great opportunity, perhaps the best in decades, to build on the momentum gained last year to begin to right the injuries to our environment. Many new conservation initiatives are now in play that will protect wildlife and wild places, help repair damaged ecosystems and restore water quality.
The outdoor recreational community can help lead the way to rebuild our natural infrastructure and its resiliency and combat climate change while creating jobs and providing equitable access. Taken together, they will assist in a creating a more sustainable economy.
It’s easy to forget how much natural beauty still remains in the world when we’re bombarded daily with images of conflict, pain and suffering. Nature can be a balm for almost everything that ails us. Respectful immersion in its glories is a salve for a battered soul. But like democracy, it takes perseverance and commitment to keep it from suffocating.