Huntinamibia - My Namibian Adventure - The edges of the day
When confronted with the fabulous possibilities for big game that Namibia has to offer, one tends to overlook what a wealth of bird-shooting it offers. And the sandgrouse is but oneÖ
In Namibia you can set your clock by the sandgrouse. The tracks in the sand told the story. The lion came down from the north under the light of the full moon and killed a young eland bull less than a mile from camp. As soon as the scavengers arrived to harass him, the big male dragged the carcass toward the dense cover along the dry creek bottom, and when he couldnít drag it fast enough, he simply picked the dead animal up in his jaws and walked off with it.
The thought of sharing bird cover with a predator powerful enough to carry an eland in its mouth changes the thoughtful observerís perspective in ways that are difficult to articulate. Having grown up shooting 12-gauge shotguns, anything lighter has always felt rather like a toy in my hands. But as we headed for the waterhole at first light the next morning, the borrowed 20 seemed even less substantial than usual.
The lions and I had one thing in common: we both wanted to kill an eland, with fang and claw in the catís case, with bow and arrows in mine. But after an hour of nothing but jackals and warthogs, I knew our eland hunt was over for the morning.
"What do you think?" I whispered to my wife Lori, secretly hoping she would call for an end to the silence.
"I think itís time for a break," she replied, and with that we put away our bows, reached for the shotgun and a box of shells, and crawled out of the blindís cramped quarters and into the daylight.
The morning sun had barely driven the last of the chill from the air. Doves had started to gather in the acacias surrounding the waterhole. There were a few small laughing doves in the air overhead, but the big turtledoves we were after hung back in the trees and taunted us with their reedy three-note cries Ė work HARD-er! Work HARD-er! Finally they took to the air and began to close in on our position in slowly tightening circles. When a single bird made me an offer I couldnít refuse, I rose and broke the spell.
After all our earlier efforts to look and sound like nothing, the shotgunís report sounded abrupt and shocking. But the springbok grazing in the middle distance didnít even look up and when the dove shuddered and tumbled to the ground I knew we had made the right decision. Silence has its place in the outdoors, but sometimes noise does too.
We shot our way through half the box of shells before we considered marshalling our resources for better things to come. "How much longer?" Lori asked as I took a break to collect empties and move the makings of our dove dinner into the shade.
"Fifteen minutes," I replied after measuring the sunís distance from the horizon against the breadth of my hand.
"Letís stop shooting and listen," she said. I quickly appreciated the wisdom of her suggestion and broke the shotgun over my knee.
Like gobbling turkeys and migrating geese back home, sandgrouse on the wing make a noise that somehow seems greater than the sum of its parts. The three-note calls we heard that morning identified the inbound birds as Namaquas, one of four sandgrouse species found in Namibia. All we had to do was locate them visually in the vast azure sky overhead and shoot enough for dinner once they dropped into range.
No other game bird on earth flies quite like a sandgrouse. Descending from great heights in the early morning light, the birds reminded me oddly of curlews, setting their wings high in the air as if on the verge of hovering before dropping from the sky like stones. Tracking those unlikely flight paths with a shotgun can easily lead to embarrassment as I quickly learned, missing the leading member of the first flight not once but twice before the birds rocketed back into the sky for another go around. But go around they went, and when they returned I settled down and dropped a pair onto dirt worn smooth by the hooves of countless ungulates.
The sandgrouse species that fly to water in the morning Ė Namaqua and Burchellís Ė stagger their arrival conveniently, allowing wing-shooters time to reload, retrieve game, and consider the scenery. Over the course of an hour, we enjoyed leisurely shooting as small groups of birds arrived at intervals spaced sufficiently apart to avoid both frenzy and tedium. The last flight of the morning coincided neatly with the end of our shell supply. And so our morning shoot concluded like a well-planned meal, without leaving us longing for more or regretting any indiscretions.
No place on earth embodies the spirit of contradiction like Southern Africa, and wing-shooting offers its own examples. Despite an abundance of game-bird species that practically begs for attention from a shotgun, expectation doesnít always lead to realisation. Francolins? Iíve run marathons trying to get birds to flush within shotgun range. Guineas? Spotted devils, designed to out-fox and frustrate. Harlequin quails? Never have I missed my dogs so desperately.
But then there are the sandgrouse, birds that seem born to keep their promises as a function of predictable habits and a sense of punctuality that would embarrass a railroad conductor. In the right terrain at the right time of year, you donít so much hunt them as settle back and wait for them to keep their appointments. Lest this description of sandgrouse shooting suggests an element of undeserved opportunity, consider all one has to go through in order to experience it, for Africa always finds a way to make its visitors appreciate the balance sheet of give and take. And no outdoor venue on earth seems as eager to remind its human observers how close they are to grits for the food chain: so many calories worth of fat and protein ready for recycling at a momentís notice. None of these considerations meant to imply that death itself lurks behind every tree in the veld. Iíll leave that sort of hyperbole to other writers, some of whom actually seem to believe it. But even when the air is full of sandgrouse, youíll always know youíve earned your shooting.
Sandgrouse are fascinating little birds, whether you view them from a biologistís perspective or a sportsmanís. Sixteen species inhabit arid terrain from Africa to Iberia and the central Asia steppe, of which four occur in Southern Africa: the Namaqua, Burchellís, double-banded and yellow-throated, of which Iíve hunted all but the last. Their family name is a misnomer, since they arenít grouse at all. They resemble pigeons in bone structure, but some authorities think they may have shared common ancestors with marine shorebirds, a view I happen to endorse based on nothing but a subjective appraisal of their appearance in flight.
While sandgrouse Ė like Africa itself Ė offer no shortage of mystery, ambivalence tends to fade when you see them while holding a shotgun in your hands. Sandgrouse on the wing look like theyíre daring you to try to shoot them. And while theyíre not particularly quick on the wing, their fluttery flight patterns make them deceptively challenging targets. Factor in their dependability and at least occasional abundance and itís easy to appreciate their reputation as game birds. Some exotic species tend to disappoint once you finally catch up with them, but not sandgrouse. Believe me.
Sunset. After another long day on the trail of the elusive eland, Lori and I gaze off toward the north west where an endless array of acacias stands silhouetted against a blood-red sky. In the distance, a jackalís eerie yap rises against the murmur of the desert breeze. Elegant and stately, a giraffe slowly browses its way along the horizon.
"How long now?" Lori inquires softly.
"Nine minutes," I reply.
"Not ten?" Do I detect a facetious tone in her voice?
"No," I insist. "Nine minutes. Soon to be eight." Full of confidence, we begin our last-minute preparations, stuffing pockets with shells so we will be able to reload quickly and moving toward the dark side of the waterhole to put as much sunset as possible behind the birds when they arrive. Then once again it is time to sit back and wait, relying on our ears to announce the beginning of the show.
"Any minute now," I observe after taking a final measure of the skyís dying light, and sure enough. Somewhere out in the loneliness a liquid five-note warble announces the arrival of the eveningís first flight Ė donít WEEP so, Charlie! Ė and there they are, an undulating wave of a dozen birds hurtling out of the darkening sky behind us.
They are double-banded sandgrouse, and Iíve always found their on-the-dot waterhole arrival at last light one of the veldís most enjoyable spectacles. Again their flight pattern suggests shorebirds, not curlews this time, but plovers perhaps, or oversized snipe. In contrast to the Namaquas we shot that morning, double-banded sandgrouse allow little opportunity for reflection. With the sunsetís dull glow fading rapidly, we will measure the shooting they offer in minutes rather than hours. I track the first inbound flock eagerly, only to lose them in the gloom behind us without firing a shot. But when they circle the water on final approach, they offer just what I need: plump black silhouettes strung out against the luminous quarter of the sky. At the little doubleís report, two birds tumble and disappear from the air as I quickly break the gun and hand it to Lori.
"Keep shooting," she cries. "Iíll fetch."
"You donít have to," I reply, but sheís already on her way, leaving me to fumble home two more rounds and address the next flight.
By this time, birds are arriving faster than I can possibly shoot. Plastered to the ground around us by the dozen, the sound of their calling builds toward a crescendo not even the repetitive bark of the 20-gauge can interrupt. Soon theyíve formed a solid ring around the edge of the water. The Bushmen hunt sandgrouse by lying prone until the birds have congregated. Then they send a long throwing stick spinning through the flock. With birds stacked up as thick as they are tonight, itís easy to appreciate the efficiency of this tactic. Of course, Iím left to take our birds the new-fashioned way, but thereís enough action overhead to leave us with the ingredients for a gene¨rous sandgrouse dinner in less time than it takes to tell.
Breast feathers laden with water droplets to carry back to their roosts, the assembly finally rises en masse and departs, and the spectacle ends as suddenly as it began. Groping our way through the darkness, we successfully round up the last fallen birds. Despite the racket we created, jackals are already circling through the thorn brush in case we miss a mark or two, but it is our pleasure to disappoint them.
Endlessly capricious, nature sometimes seems to delight in leaving sportsmen standing around like brides forsaken at the altar. The notion that one cannot possibly miss a rendezvous with a given species of fish or game usually turns into a certain prescription for disappointment. Havenít we all spent hours casting into empty streams or staring glumly across lifeless spreads of duck decoys? But there are welcome exceptions to every rule, and none so reliable as sandgrouse, game birds that keep their promises like no others.