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The Great Snow Goose Hunt
Things ain't always what they seem to be

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Dick was clearly excited as he came rushing into the pub one cold night in early January. How could we tell? Quite simply because, if he can possibly avoid it, Dick never rushes anywhere.

"There's a snow goose on the estuary," he breathlessly exclaimed. "Bob and I were out for an evening flight at the ducks and we saw it amongst a skein of pinks which passed over the island."

I suppose that along the shores of the estuary there are many wildfowlers who are directly descended from the sportsman-naturalist breed who roamed the marshes at the turn of the century. In those days any rare species of bird was regarded as a real prize and, somewhat to my surprise, the local fowlers of today appear to retain that primordial urge to capture any rarity which has been seen in the district.

Dick was besieged by almost a dozen men, ranging in age from 18 to 80, all demanding to know exactly where the snow goose had been seen, where it was roosting and where the skein might have been feeding during the day. From the speed with which some of Dick's inquisitors left the hostelry, I guessed that the geese resting on the mudbanks in the middle of the Firth were going to have a pretty disturbed night!

The pictures which the great goose hunt conjure up would do justice to a top Disney cartoon. For the next two weeks local wildfowlers were almost frenetic in their search for the elusive snow goose. All normal flighting was suspended and the pinks and greys of the estuary enjoyed an unaccustomed respite as, all along the shore, fowlers held their fire just in case they might scare the next skein - the skein which, just conceivably, could include the snow white bird.

During that period several sightings were made. A farmer reported a white goose feeding amongst the pinkfeet on his potato stubble. But, next morning, when his field was surrounded by a veritable army of fowlers, all hooting on their goose calls at every skein which passed overhead, not a single bird could be persuaded to alight on that particular farm.

Somehow or other news of the snow goose was published on BBC-2 Ceefax's nature page and it seemed that busloads of twitchers, all armed with massive telescopes and tripods, came north to spot the rare bird. Many must have ticked the goose off in their species-lists before departing but, characteristically, they did not tell our local wildfowlers where they had made the sighting.

Grumbly Jack McCabe, a loner of a fowler if there ever was one, claimed to have loosed-off both barrels of his 8-bore at the snow goose but, as was his nature, he wasn't giving any secrets away either. We suspected that the bird would be flying at least 100 yards high when Grumbly Jack took his shots; he always did have an exaggerated notion about the firepower of his ancient fowling piece.

One man who was less caught up in the great snow goose hunt was the man who started it all - Dick himself. It was almost three weeks after his initial sighting of the white goose that he phoned one night and suggested that I join him for a morning flight on the north shore of the estuary. "There's a huge flock of greylag come down from the north," he explained, "and they are roosting in the big bay."

I needed no second invitation. Next morning saw the two of us cosily ensconced in the reed beds which border the bay, listening to the unmistakable talk of several hundred greylag as they preened in the darkness a mere 150 yards in front of our position.

As the eastern sky slowly lightened we heard geese in the air. From their calling we knew that they were not the greys but, rather, a small skein of pinkfeet which must have been roosting farther out on the mudflats. On and on they came. Our trigger fingers tightened as we crouched deeper into the reeds to avoid being detected by the birds' sharp eyes.

Unfortunately the skein passed too far to my right to give me a sporting shot but my pal was within range and I heard his Laurona magnum speak twice. Only one bird fell from the skein and, as it caught the light on its tumbling descent, I could have sworn that the plumage was pure white.

Drake, Dick's big butch labrador, was out in a trice and disappeared into the flooded gully where the bird had fallen. I joined Dick to await the dog's return and, when the retriever appeared over the top of the creek, a goose firmly clenched in his massive jaws, we could see that, sure enough, it was the white bird which, for most of the month, had commanded the attention of nearly every wildfowler in the district.

Only, as Dick accepted the goose from Butch, we both burst out laughing. "Snow goose, indeed" I shrieked. "How are we going to break the news to all those trophy-hunters who have forsaken three weeks of perfectly good wildfowling just for the chance of shooting a snow goose?"

I will not report the exact words which Dick used but the essence of his expletive-punctuated statement was that he would take great delight in telling them that their time had been wasted. The bird which he held in his hand was not a snow goose but, instead, an albino pinkfoot. Not a rare species, a vagrant from North America, but merely a freak, a genetic mutant of one of the most common goose species in Britain.

I must confess that I felt a little sorry for the fowlers who had been misled but I giggled at the idea that dozens of earnest twitchers had ticked-off "snow goose" on their species lists, even their powerful telescopes being unable to give them a positive identification of the albino pinkfoot.

Next time Dick - or anyone else for that matter - thinks that they have spotted a rare bird on the estuary, I hope they will keep their mouth firmly shut!

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