Monday, November 29, 2010

Duck hunting: The X, the flight path to the X and nowhere near the X

Perhaps you've never heard of "the X," but for duck hunters, it is our Holy Grail, the mysterious force that determines whether we have an excellent day of hunting or we go home muttering, "At least we don't have any plucking to do tonight."

The X, simply put, is where the ducks want to be at any given time. In places where hunters have a lot of room and freedom to move around, the most successful ones are those who can consistently figure out where the X is and put themselves in that spot.

But the X has a crazy habit of moving, and when that happens, the results can be stunning - as I found out last week. Read more...
Thanksgiving is the time for our annual pilgrimage north to hunt the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Brent.

This year, we knew the hunting might be challenging, because a cold snap had plunged the region into single digits the weekend before, and temps were going to drop again on Wednesday. That's the kind of weather pattern that can send most of the waterfowl south. But I was pretty sure we'd still see birds: Brent's a good hunter who makes it his business to know where the X is.

And besides, I already knew the cold-morning strategy from the year before, and I liked it: Sleep in, because the ducks just don't move early when it's that cold.

We headed out midmorning on Thanksgiving and cased an icy field where the birds had been feeding lately - the X! Then we motored over to our chosen spot.

Now, we didn't put ourselves precisely on the X; other hunters had beat us to the spot. But we weren't really hot about the whole layout-blind-on-ice thing anyway, me being something of a wuss about the cold, and the temperature being somewhere around 10. So we staked out a spot at the edge of the field.

And very quickly it became clear we were on the next best thing to the X - the flight path to the X.

It wasn't lights-out shooting, but we had a pretty steady stream of ducks and geese coming in right over our heads en route to the X. By the time shoot time ended at 1 p.m., we'd bagged three specklebelly geese, one Canada goose, a mallard, a pintail and a wigeon. Not bad for a hunt in the middle of a cold snap.

That night after our Thanksgiving dinner, we plotted what we'd do the next morning. That spot had worked really well - so well that it would behoove us to make sure we got there first the next day. Scratch the sleep-in strategy and set the alarms for 4 a.m. - we're going in!

I think it was 15 degrees when we headed out, and the journey in Brent's boat was slow and gratingly loud with three inches of ice to break on the canal. But that's the price you pay when you want to be there first, and it seemed like it was worth it to not only get our spot again, but get there a little earlier.

We settled in, watched the sun rise and waited for the ducks to come.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

"Release the mallards!" Brent cried. The gods did not heed him.

We'd seen a few geese here and there, but we were beginning to wonder if all the ducks really had headed south - back to where Boyfriend and I normally hunt.

Finally, around 11 a.m. - after six hours of sitting there playing the kind of mind games one plays to pretend one is not seriously cold - Brent uttered the magic words: "Ducks over the field!"

Game on!

These ducks weren’t near us, but it didn’t matter. We were on full alert now. Ducks could come in from anywhere.

They could.

But we soon realized they weren't.

It took maybe 10-15 minutes to see what was happening:

1. The X had moved a bit. Rather than being near the center of the field, it was now near the corner of the field. Where all the trucks were parked. Honestly, I think anyone with a shotgun hiding behind the Porta-Potty would've gotten a limit pretty quickly.

2. Apparently there had been a change of flight plan that we had not been informed of. Rather than flying over us en route to the X, the ducks were now entering the airspace over the field a good 200-300 yards to our west, flying to the north end of the field, banking east, and descending steadily to the X, only to scatter when the lucky bastards near the Porta-Potty fired their guns.

Honestly, if I hadn't been hoping to kill a few of those ducks, I would've been purely delighted to watch it play out. The precision and consistency with which the birds followed this path would've earned the admiration of the most demanding air traffic controllers. It was stunning.

We just shook our heads.

I understand why the X has to shift - ducks go where the food looks good, and you can't park in the same spot every day and expect the food to grow back.

But that flight path! Sure, there were some flocks that didn't follow it, but easily 90 percent of the ducks in the air did. And while my puny human brain can understand why animal migration paths stay the same for generations, I'd really like to know what happens to make all these ducks abruptly change plans - not just where to eat, but how to get there - then follow the new flight plans with such precision.

When 1 p.m. heralded the end of shoot time, we unloaded our guns, picked up decoys and headed back to the truck with not a single bird on our straps.

Back at the boat ramp, I was talking to the guys who'd been closest to the X, and they said they'd bagged 13 ducks in an hour.

"How'd you do?" they asked.

"Nothing," I said, shrugging. "We weren't on the X, and we weren't on the flight path to the X."

And truth be told, I'm OK with that. To me, witnessing such a spectacle ranks right up there with some of my more spectacular shoots.

As long as it doesn't happen too often.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Ingrid said...

I'd really like to know what happens to make all these ducks abruptly change plans - not just where to eat, but how to get there - then follow the new flight plans with such precision.

You know, bird navigation and behavior is complex, and they have intelligence systems that obviously defy our limited knowledge. As a hunter, you know how they've learned to work around firing distances and evade hunters by flying at odd times.

I've been studying the wintering wigeon at a local pond, and am always amazed at how the slightest cue sends them into the air simultaneously, long before I even spot the antagonist (usually a Bald Eagle tough guy).

I also notice how quickly they learn a particular person. One local soft heart was bringing food for an undernourished resident duck he spotted earlier. These ducks start calling out and acting up before I even see or hear the guy. It's like the studies they've done on dogs who know ahead of time when their owners are on the way.

I will just say that I no longer point my camera lens at flying ducks, unless they're reasonably secure in a non-hunting environment. Or, if they've come to know me, like the local wigeon have. Otherwise, they spy the camera movement from great distances -- even a slight twitch in my wrist -- and I'd rather not force them to bank away from me or change their flight path toward something more dangerous than me.

(Frankly, I need camo, but can't bring myself to give bucks to Cabelas. And the click of the shutter is sometimes enough to spook them anyway.)

So, I guess you never know what signals they're picking up and sending off. I do kinda wish these ducks had been rewarded for changing their flight path, clever ducks that they were. The happiest ending for me would have been that they evaded all hunters that day with their navigational ingenuity.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey, about that shutter - what kind of camera do you have? I recently got a Nikon D300S and it has a quiet shutter mode that I love. But honestly, I'm sure it's still enough to spook ducks.

As for their sensitivities: Yes, sometimes they're incredibly perceptive, and I'm positive they can sense intent - that sense that something is wrong. But sometimes they're also quite obtuse, and ducks will keep flying into areas where there are definitely hunters. Is it hope? Is it stupidity? It almost sounds ... human.

The consolation prize, for you Ingrid, is that the only guys bringing down ducks were the couple parties near the X - I don't think we saw anyone else drop a duck all morning (and visibility was high, so we could see really clearly). And trust me, on a good shoot day (for us), the birds have lots of flight paths and all the hunters get their shots in.

I think the obvious answer to someone who doesn't know ducks would be, "They changed their flight path Friday because you were killing them in it on Thursday." But that doesn't work either - there's been an X at Delevan NWR where the birds kept piling into it three weekends in a row, despite the fact that many died as a result. (I have not gotten on this X yet, though I really want to, obviously.)

Phillip said...

There's an X?

All I ever see at Mendota is mud and tules... the later the season, the more mud and the less tules. I haven't been out this year, but when I do, I'm looking for that X. What color is it?

As far as their returning to the spot time and again, keep in mind that:

A: Many of these ducks are on migration, so the ducks that piled in and got shot at last week are probably gone. The ducks coming in this week are new in town.

B: Ducks appear to have something like a 3-day memory. I can't recall the full report or how solid the research was, but it makes sense. The refuge can be hot as hell on a Saturday, stone dead on Sunday, and then booming again on Wednesday. With a few days off, the birds forget the pounding they took in a specific area and come right back.

C: It's an elaborate effort on the part of waterfowl to make hunters believe in the mythical "X", and when you finally get there, you will find the birds have moved on.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hmm, three-day memory. Interesting! Sounds plausible. Except for the ruddies Hank and I hunted on Sunday - they didn't have a three-second memory.

In truth, C may be the best answer.

Ryan Sabalow said...

The magic X is a moving target.

I wish you could have seen me the other day in a snow storm up in the Northeastern Zone, the next county over from where you guys hunted over Thanksgiving.

I'd had a great goose hunt in the morning, two honkers and three snows.

I was burnt out, so I probably shouldn't have tried to stay all day to see if I could get some ducks in another spot.

Tired, I carried out six mallard decoys in a little satchel to my favorite afternoon duck ponds.

As I was walking out, up jumped four greenies sitting on the one pond.

I figured I'd put four decoys out right where they were sitting out there in a hole of open water surrounded by ice.

I had a couple of ducks pass overhead. They'd give me a look, lock up hard and fly over to the other pond a 100 or so yards away to land.

I waited an hour or so watching as the ducks would get up, move around and land again in that next pond over.

I moved over there, leaving my deeks out since I figured I'd come back.

I tossed out two decoys in the other pond. Can you guess where the mallards kept landing?


Where I'd just left.

I spent a good hour crawling around on my belly trying to get close enough to jump shoot the ducks that kept landing on the spot I just left.

Making matters worse, my gun broke and I watched as I was walking back from my truck with my spare shooter as about a dozen mallards and a 20 teal come in at 20 yards high over both spots.

I swear I could hear their little raspy ducky laughter.

I did get one fat, red-legged greenhead before it got dark, but my dog must have thought I was out of my mind slithering on the dike like a Neoprene-covered snake trying to get close enough to ducks that kept jumping up way out of range.

It was one of those rare times when I wished I wasn't the only hunter on the refuge.

All it would have taken to get a limit was one other hunter, each of us sitting on that day's two magic Xs.

NorCal Cazadora said...

OMG, I feel your pain, but, DANG! That would've made AWESOME duck hunting TV. I've been waiting for a show that portrays the kind of stuff that really happens in the field, and this was a perfect, perfect example of how ridiculous and frustrating it can be.

Wish I had a picture of your dog watching you!!!

Hunt Like You're Hungry said...

SO that's how all this duck hunting stuff works?


We hunted this weekend and a duck legitimately flew over my head. Even when the X was 12 inches above me, I failed to produce.

Three cheers for the hypnotizing affects of duckies!


NorCal Cazadora said...

HLYH, I feel your pain too! But I've been comforted by many fellow duck hunters who've told me it's the shots that look the easiest that we tend to miss the most. That's certainly been true with me. Except, OK, I miss the middling and hard shots too, LOL.

Ingrid said...

Hey, about that shutter - what kind of camera do you have? I recently got a Nikon D300S and it has a quiet shutter mode that I love. But honestly, I'm sure it's still enough to spook ducks.

Well, ducks in hunting areas during hunting season, probably. But there are quite a few places to photograph where the ducks feel more secure and allow closer access by humans. Photographing from the "blind" of a car can work, too.

The Nikon D300S is such a super camera! A few of my friends have it. I deliberated (literally) six months between the original D300 and the one I eventually purchased, the Olympus E-3. I've probably read every D300-versus-E3 article on the net. And I live in a world of Canikon people, so there was peer pressure in breaking the mold. Ultimately, I just love the Zuiko glass (although Nikkor is amazing). And at that time, the E3 had better weather sealing, an articulating LCD, and a few other features that are now getting more common in all models.

With the right lens, Holly, you should be able to get some amazing shots. You already have the hand-eye thing down. Even with a budget Nikkor (like a 70-300mm) you can get great shots -- although lens hunting and focus can be an issue. I still shoot with budget zoom lenses since my wallet doesn't really allow for the $8000 wildlife glass. Yet. If you can spring for one of the fast, long lenses, shooting (the non-lethal kind) will be a dream.

In areas where there's hunting pressure, it's very tough to get close to the animals. And I usually don't try, because of the stress it appears to cause. But around the Bay Area, there are so many protected parks and open spaces, I can give you a list of my favorite spots if you get interested in photographing wildlife. Let me know.

Phillip, you wrote "Ducks appear to have something like a 3-day memory."

I'm assuming this is anecdotal or facetious, based on hunting patterns you've seen.

I've read quite a few papers on the topic of human and hunting disturbance and duck behavior. Even though the patterns aren't fully studied or understood yet, human presence and disturbance is a factor in how and where ducks choose to be. But I don't think one can simplify, because so many other factors are at play, including species variations, location of feeding grounds, the type of hunting pressure (consistent, intermittent) and so forth. There was a recent study in the SF area on how ducks responded to the proximity of a human-populated trail, i.e. they moved.

SimplyOutdoors said...


As I've said before, I've never duck hunted. But I would sure like to know the approximate location of local whitetail buck's "X".

That would be splendid :)

Tovar said...

SimplyO: When I read this post, I was thinking of the parallels to whitetails and their astonishing ability to vanish to parts unknown.

Live to Hunt.... said...

The X was definitely down here in the Valley over that weekend. We had outstanding hunting at our club. Three of us harvested limits of mallards on Thanksgiving and Friday the five of us had 30 ducks, mostly mallards. I think all that ice you spoke of drove the ducks to the nice open water. There wasn't really an X per se, rather just a lot of birds that were very easy to decoy. Wanted to be where we were. Fun times!

Peebs said...

Food wind and other weather factors all come into play for the ducks flight pattern, the slightest change in wind speed or directon can change a sweet spot by many yards. The birds we hunt at Delevan are not after food rather somewhere to sit and process the food they have eaten and of course sleep. As for wiffing on a shot Delevan is a wonderful place nothing like finally getting that Greenhead inside 20 yds only to empty the gun and not even pull a feather. This is usually in front of ten to fifteen hunters all mad because you got him there, you usually get a few cat calls and a few claps or a NICE SHOT (most in jest and usually from someone you know)

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Since I'm in deer-hunting mode, I'm with Tovar. Whitetails are as maddeningly elusive as ducks.

Here's my theory: since the dawn of firearms, we've been steadily killing off the slow and the stupid of all our hunted species. What's left are the smart and the fast. And it's just going to get worse.

NorCal Cazadora said...

To all my deer-hunting friends: I hear you! I got no deer this year, though I had a marvelous run-in with a spunky doe (not legal to shoot here).

LTH: There were still Xs in Klamath, just not as many. And if public lands were doing well down here, it definitely doesn't surprise me to hear people at private clubs were raking them in. But hey, didn't you say recently in a comment here that you shoot public land, and that you weren't a "private club snob"?

Peebs: Yeah, nothing like having an audience for your least fine moments! But I love Delevan, peanut gallery and all. Delevan is precisely why we ditched our membership in a lame club with lots of rice blinds - Delevan consistently shot better than the rice fields.

Tamar: You are correct! It is natural selection, a force we've managed to utterly thwart for ourselves. (Ruh-roh, I'm getting all Malthusian again.)

Ingrid said...

What's left are the smart and the fast.

See, this is why I'm also a fan of the Darwin Awards. :)

NorCal Cazadora said...

If you like the Darwin Awards, then you must watch 1,000 Ways to Die on the Spike channel. It's graphic and usually hilarious re-enactment of Darwin-worthy acts of fatal idiocy, with deadpan expert commentary. As I tell my students, easily 50 percent of the featured deaths involve young men drinking.

Ingrid said...

I'll check it out. Now that I have cable, vicariously.

When I lived in LA, they said the majority of rattlesnake bites went to the same numbskull demographic: drunken young men. We double XXs really need to band together and take over the world. :)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Most of the people who die of such stupidity, though, could have easily passed on their genes before doing so...

Josh said...

I've got an X on wild roosters and snipe, Holly, if you want to come out with us.

I don't know duck hunting well enough to know the 'x', but I do know some mallard hens that know where/how to get their food... they knock on the back door!

Ingrid, I must say I'm shocked and a tad offended at your Darwin Awards comment. I usually consider the anti-animal rights comment that, "they care more about animals than people" to be just a smear, but the callous comments about "stupid" people, and the inference that they deserve to die, is pretty hard to hear from a person who is driven by compassion. Surely, if animals are "stupider", then they, too, deserve to die? I'm kinda tongue-in-cheek here, but I'm still kinda unsettled, too.

Mark said...

Ah, the elusive “X”. I have a relationship with this entity, however mine revolves around Moose. I can understand your frustrations when X moves, I have seen this too, she (if I may use this term) moves for no apparent reason. For example there was a time I had seen moose in the same cut block (logged area) at the same time for two days in a row, but because of the position I was unable to approach. I concluded that, like you, I would forgo the need to sleep in and arrive early. And move she did, my nemesis the X, those moose did not even show themselves that day. Phooey! To make matters worse, the next day X returned to the original spot. Go figure? I guess that is why it is called “hunting”, not “shooting”!

Ingrid said...

Josh, my response was genuine sarcasm -- in the spirit of The Modest Proposal. Tamar's tongue-in-cheek comment about wildlife was not really the germ of a thoughtful, poignant response on the condition of humanity. If I were to take her comment seriously, it could be as unsettling to me, as mine appears to be for you. Perhaps I need a few lessons from Swift in the proper execution of sarcasm.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I need to state unequivocally that I am against the execution of sarcasm. Sarcasm hasn't done anything wrong; leave it alone.

Josh said...

Ingrid, I didn't read sarcasm in that at all, and I'm sorry for not seeing it.

I didn't see Tamar's comments as ethical, and so I didn't see a line of thought that would lead one toward a sarcastic comment.

Ingrid said...

Josh, I'm not sure how my comment isn't sarcastic. I guess smiley faces don't go far enough to relay intent. I use them begrudgingly in public forums, but I thought the visual wink-nudge after my comment would definitely indicate the tone.

I guess it's time for the SarcMark:

Holly, since when was "doing something wrong" the baseline criterion for execution?

[insert SarcMark]