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Well Met by Moonlight
Andy Walbridge chases the pinks at night

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Over the years I have shot dozens of moonflighted duck and I consider it to be the most demanding, and thereby rewarding, aspect of foreshore wildfowling. Success relies not only on favourable weather conditions but considerable understanding of the movements and habits of fowl after sunset. While some daylight patterns will hold true, nocturnal activities are often considerable different. The only way to find these out is to spend time on the marsh after nightfall and to the novice gun this can be quite unnerving and even hazardous. 

However, despite my growing confidence and skill with each passing season, I had never yet raised my gun to a goose under the moon.  A major factor in my lack of success was the scarcity of local geese. Canada's are the only legal species that frequent the south coast in any numbers and although I have seen them fly at night, they never seem to be sufficiently active to predict their movements with the degree of certainty required for shooting under a moon. 

Inevitably as the years rolled by I accumulated my own shooting milestones, the first for a species being typical, and while not necessarily driven by a desire to reach new ones, those that eluded my efforts figured large in the mind. Consequently for me, a goose shot under the moon gained prominence, and once it had became clear that I was unlikely to succeed close to home I set about trying elsewhere. 

The exact manner by which I managed to secure an invitation to try moonflighting Pink-footed geese I shall keep secret. But suffice it to say that a good measure of barefaced cheek and an exceptionally generous and understanding host was required. So it was, just a few days short of Christmas 2002, that I embarked on a long drive northward to an area described as having the finest private goose shooting in the country. Better still, the invitation had been extended to include Kern, my long time fowling companion, for whom a moonflighted goose was also an unfulfilled ambition 

Much has been written concerning the conditions required before embarking on a moonflight, and for the large part I cannot add any further insight on the subject. Certainly there must be good numbers of geese in the area, preferably ones that have had time to settle into a regular feeding pattern and remained undisturbed. But as to the weather, on this matter my opinion differs from the one most often described. If you spend the season anxiously following the phase of the moon waiting for the perfect night of thin, high clouds coupled to a decent wind, you are seldom likely to set foot. The simple fact is that these conditions are not common and it is rare for all the variable to come together during the five or six full moon periods of the open season. In my experiences with duck, if the cloud cover lies somewhere between the extremes of none to completely overcast, it is possible to shoot wildfowl under the moon. Don't be too prescriptive when it comes to cloud cover and weather conditions would be my advice. 

The forecast on the days leading up to the trip had looked promising. A weak low losing its identity was predicted to travel slowly northwards, proceeded by a couple of fronts, eventually running up against stationary cold air of an arctic high pressure. If the progress of the low continued at its current rate it would just about meet the high a little south of our intended destination. The outcome of which was uncertain but might result in either a patchy band of showers with high cloud or if the cold air remained dominant could produce a clear starlight sky. 

However, after driving for over four hours under leaden skies and patchy drizzle even my optimism began to fail. This was not what I expected at all and if it continued all the way I feared that it might be a wasted journey. The geese needed to see the moon and we needed the moon to be able to see the geese.  After a further hour and a half we reached our destination, pulling into the farm that would be our base for the next 24 hours. Following a warm exchange of greetings with our host, Raymond, we sat down to discuss prospect. Certainly the geese were about in good numbers. The local roost currently held over five thousand pinks and they had been feeding steadily across the nearby fields without disturbance for over a week. In fact, it was rare for Ray to allow another shoot so soon, preferring as he usually did to allow at least a couple of weeks between each foray. But above all, it was still heavily overcast and with what little wind there was blowing from the East, even our host felt that the prospects were not looking good. 

Still, there was always the local ducks, and so a flight on a nearby pond was arranged and following a quick change of clothing we found ourselves bumping along the seawall in the back of a Landrover, accompanied by Trevor and Leroy, two of our hosts sons. When we stopped and walked across to the chosen pond well over two hundred Mallard sprang noisily from their late afternoon feed. Clearly the duck had arrived early, not the best of situations, but as dusk descended a steady stream of pairs and singletons dropped in. Ideal sport, providing each of us with enough chances to bag a few. 

In fact, so engrossed was I by the duck, that it was almost dark before I noticed the change in weather conditions. Just thirty minutes before the cloud cover had been heavy, yet now large gaps had begun to appear and stars shone brightly through them. Looking to the east I was surprised to see the golden orb of the moon bright and clear just over the horizon while a thin mist had begun to form close to the ground. Shortly afterwards the faint yet unmistakably bugle of approaching geese could be heard from the southeast. As it grew in intensity all thoughts of duck vanished and four heads popped up trying to catch a glimpse of the skeins.  The majority passed too low and could only be tracked by their calls, but a few skeins flew across the face of the moon making a wonderful spectacle as they headed back to their roost. Everything seemed to be coming together. 

Once darkness had fallen we set about gathering the bag from the pond and surrounding maize field. Most were gathered without difficulty but even with a dog it took us longer than expected to find the last few amongst the fallen cobs. The result of which was that we got back to the farm later than intended and arrived to find Ray waiting with three other wildfowlers who together would make up a second party hoping for a rendezvous with moonflighted geese.  Clearly they were ready for the off and it was quite a scramble to unload the ducks, get the netting and goose decoys onboard and swap from duck shot to moderate loads of tungsten matrix. No sooner had this been completed than we were back on board and heading out again. With the moon rising early and clear, both Trevor and Leroy were certain the geese would only remain an hour or so on the roost before returning inland. It had now been over an hour since we had seen them head out so it was imperative we get set up quickly. 

Fortunately the field that had been selected was less than five minutes drive away down the obligatory rough track. Although the earth had been rolled and manured there were still plenty of old and rotting potatoes available to the geese with the added attraction that a few large splashes had formed across its surface. The plan was to place the decoys both in and around the largest splash which was conveniently about 30 yards to the south of a shallow drainage ditch that ran alongside the track. Though not very deep it was broad enough to kneel in and had thin fringes of foot high grass on both its sides.  

The greater part of the cloud had by now dispersed and although it was still early a frost had already set in and the edge of the splash was covered by thin ice. That said, what cloud remained was in the form of large, thin and slow moving sheets. The net result of which was that while there were times when the moon shone brightly from an inky black sky there was also long period when it was covered by a perfect film. The wind remained light from the East, blowing parallel with the ditch, and would mean any approaching geese should come from our right. This was not ideal, as it would be difficult to spot them while the moon could potentially silhouette us. We would just have to remain very still and trust that the fact the geese were well settled would give them confidence to land without too much reconnaissance. 

It was now just after 1930 and as we knelt quietly in the ditch the distant talk of many thousands of geese could be heard from the roost beyond the saltmarsh. Shortly afterwards the first bell-like chimes of pinks in flight confirmed we had only just made it in time. Minutes passed and still more geese seemed to be on the wing. I like to think that I have a good sense of hearing but I found it quite difficult to judge which direction they were moving. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the ground or maybe the stillness of the night but I certainly didn't hear the first skein that approached us. There was just the barest murmur of geese but Trevor announced quite casually "these sound better, get ready".  

We all hunkered down and once the rustling of coats and grass had stopped lay in a breathless hush straining to detect the geese that Trevor had so confidently said were coming. Seconds ticked by and yet to my ear there was nothing to suggest any geese were within half a mile. Then, just the faintest unmistakable babble of pinks drifted across the still air behind me. Trevor mouth called a greeting and there was no doubt that a party of pinks really was approaching us. Silence again, had they changed direction and headed away? Once again Trevor shouted a hail and from almost overhead burst a clamour of calling. I dared to lift my head slightly and there, silhouetted by the bright moon-illuminated cloud was first one and then a second goose. Each bird had its wings half closed and was stooping into the decoys. Even above the noise of my ragged breaths and the pounding of my heart the wind whistling through their pinions strummed load and clear.

Sliding off my safety catch, I turned to face the decoys and immediately geese loomed in low from the right. Trevor held his fire and called the shot just as the birds began to beat to a halt. A single shot from Kern sent a goose plunging into the earth and I took the next bird in line just as neatly. The remaining geese powered away into the easterly breeze and as they loomed above the backdrop of the far hedge I heard Leroy fire, while for my part I poked a wayward second barrel at a departing bird as it leapt away to my left. I ejected my empty cases, pocketing as a momento the one from bottom barrel, and as I did so heard the familiar and resounding thud of a stricken goose fallen to earth. Evidently Trevor, who had graciously let Kern and I shoot first, had taken one of the higher birds that had still be circling as the others landed. 

Unbidden we all stood up, ignoring the possibility that more geese were coming preferring to relish the moment of triumph. Leroy moved out with his dog to pick the geese but they were all clean kills. Each of us had taken a single, all Pink-footed, just as simple as that as if it was scripted. We gathered the birds and were congratulated by the brothers on our mutual success. I remember actually saying  'well that's enough for me, time to pack up' and I really would have been quite happy to have left the field cradling my goose. Yet even as we excitedly discussed the details the strident calling of approaching geese sent us scurrying back into the ditch.  

To describe all the details of the developing flight would require something akin to a chapter in a book. Skeins of geese flighted off the roost in a steady flow, some particularly large, but the majority just small bunches of less than twenty. The larger groups we had decided to leave alone for fear of over disturbance. When they did approach we simply made no effort to conceal ourselves content to just watch them wheeling around overhead. I am not sure they actually saw us sufficiently to recognise the danger, only once did I hear a staccato alarm call, but they clearly sensed something amiss and would simply drift off in search of more comforting ground. 

However three particular moments stand clear in my mind and I believe highlight the true essence of wildfowling. The first concerned a single goose that rushed into the decoys over our shoulders like a driven partridge. It could have been no more than ten feet high when it passed between Kern and myself, its approach so fast and silent that neither of us had time to react before it landed smartly at the edge of the splash. There it stood; seemingly oblivious to its strangely static comrades, while we quiet openly discussed whether this was the bravest or most foolhardy goose in England. There was no thought of clapping it off to give a simple shot. Though it could not have known it, this goose could have fed all night undisturbed by the four fowlers lurking just yards away. Evidently though it had other plans and after a few minutes decided to leave, straight out the way it had come. Only this time, with so little time to gain height, it was no more than two feet above our heads. If we hadn't been so surprised either of us could have made a grab as it passed. Instead we watched it flash past and sent it on its way with peals of laughter. 

Kern and I had each taken another goose by the time that what sounded like a relatively large group of pinks approached from the West. It was clear that Trevor also thought there were too many as he chose not to call them. But despite this the geese seemed set on the idea of coming into our field and though we were all sat up watching they seemed oblivious to our presence. Once they were within eighty yards it became apparent that it was a skein of around only thirty, all of which seemed intent on calling incessantly. Clearly this had fooled us in to thinking they were more numerous so we ducked back down in case they continued on their course. This one seemed like a certain chance but just as Trevor gave the go-ahead the skein started turning away. Just this slight moment of uncertainty stopped both Kern and Trevor from firing, as the geese seemed to coalesce into a moving shadow rather than individuals. Such are the tricks of the light that you encounter under a moon since although Leroy and I were just 30 yards further along we could still pick birds and each took a shot. Both failed to find their mark and it was now our turn to lose sight of the birds just a fraction of a second before I fired my second shot. For a few moments it was silent as if the great grey birds had vanished into thin air before they once again became visible and gave voice to their alarm. As they peeled away into the darkness a singleton stuttered out underneath the main group setting its wings and tracing a slow curving glide away across the field. Initially it seemed as though it would fall short of the hedge that marked the fieldís southern edge but it cleared this before turning sharply and disappeared over a stand of trees some 200 yards away. 

This bird would have to be searched for straight away and after a quick discussion as to where we each thought it had had come down Trevor set off using a powerful lamp to sweep the ground. Having checked the field it seemed certain that the goose had made it over the boundary and so Leroy went to assist with his dog. Kern and I stood up and busied ourselves adjusting the geese while in the distance the piercing beam of Trevor's lamp swished left and right before he passed into the next field. Minutes later the light came bobbing back towards us and when he was in hailing distance I asked if he had found the bird. To my relief he shouted back that he had. Apparently the bird was another 100 yards further in standing alert and seemingly unscathed, but by shining the beam directly at it Trevor was able to walk right up and take it in hand.  Quite a feat in itself and one for which I was very grateful. There can be nothing more disconcerting than losing a wounded bird and every effort must be made to recover one even if it means passing up further chances. 

Although geese were moving all around us now they were obviously agitated by the sound of our shooting since they continually crossed and re-crossed the entire area aware that danger lurked somewhere below. Not surprising really since what little easterly wind there had been had faded away and the night was now quite still. The reports from our earlier shooting must have carried for miles. Even the smaller bunches that were attracted by calling simply wheeled above us ignoring both the pattern and our attempts to mimic a contented feeding buzz. This was as exciting as it was frustrating but we held our fire preferring to wait for better chances rather than risk shots at long range. 

As time passed it was evident that many of the smaller skeins must have joined together and it was noticeable that there were now several large skeins milling about where before there had been many smaller ones. Initially none showed any sign of returning to our location and there calls faded away southwards but within fifteen minutes they returned having apparently failed to find anywhere better to feed. If they had stuck to form and ignored us all would have been well but their approach was direct and purposeful. As they bore down upon us from the inky southern sky it was quite impossible to seem them and then suddenly they were coming into the decoys. I couldnít say exactly how many geese there were, at least fifty hung overhead and I am sure there were more above. Up until then, we had been anxious to avoid shooting at larger skeins wherever possible but this group offered the perfect opportunity as it stretched right across our front. 

Picking a bird at the edge I swung, fired and saw the shot strike true. Though it could have been for no more than a couple of second I actually de-mounted my gun and with an entirely false calmness waited to pick another bird. With such a weight of geese committed to landing, those at the front were prevented from a quick escape and could only check their descent before rushing closer towards us. There was scant light to see them by, but the range was only about twenty-five yards and at that distance I was able to identify a target for my second barrel. This bird was lower than the first, just visible above the dark background of the distant hedgeline and while I was certain of my aim when I fired the melee of fleeting shadow confused my vision and I didnít clearly mark its fall. The air was rent by a cacophony of alarm notes and the threshing of mighty wings as the pinks made their ragged escape. Strangely enough I never heard any other shots but my own, so intent was I on the unfolding drama.  

Before leaving the ditch to gather the fallen, Leroy did a quick check asking each of us how many geese we thought were down, For his part, he was certain of one but had missed cleanly with his second shot. While for Kern, Trevor, and myself we each modestly professed to a certain first followed by probable but not definite second. Yet as soon as Leroy counted up he quickly realised that the probables were in fact all certainties finding as he did seven fine Pinkfeet lying on the dark soil. Quite simply an amazing moment or as Leroy put it in his broad local accent "a good do's". In fact he jokingly apologised afterwards for fumbling his second barrel thereby missing the perfect scenario of four 'right and lefts'. 

At 2100, just an hour and a half since we had first settled into position, we decided it was time to leave. Leroy had taken a magnificent high crossing singleton by then while his brother had accounted for two more. We could have quite easily continued until we had run out of cartridges, but to do so would have crossed the boundary of sportsmanship. No, we had made a good bag, all of them Pink-footed, and that was enough. 

Conversely, the second party had not found their circumstances so favourable. They had set up around a mile further eastwards and while plenty of geese had neared their position, a lack of cover in the field meant approaching skeins often saw them. To their credit, they resisted shooting at the geese circling high above them, preferring to be patient and only take on the few birds that came into the decoys. That said, one of the guns made a truly remarkable bag consisting of a Greylag, a Pinkfoot and a Whitefront. The later being his first in almost forty years of wildfowling. A very special achievement, the likes of which I have never heard of before. 

Before arriving I had read this was the finest private goose shooting in the country. From my own experience I am convinced this is true. Having seen the care, respect and above all restraint shown by our host and his sons, I felt honoured to have been allowed to sample it. A wildfowler may spend his whole life waiting for that one special moonflight of geese, I know I have experienced mine.

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