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Chapter XVI
Shooting woodcock and plover

WOODCOCK-SHOOTING with the long-bow is rare sport--rare in quality and rare as regards the opportunities for experiencing it. The 0rdinary haunts of the bird are so brushy that snap-shooting on the wing, a thing not to be thought of by the archer, is the only way of taking it. If you rely on the bow, you must have very favorable ground, be keen of eye and a dead shot, to make this noble game find its way to your table. In a word, you must be able to find your bird on the ground, and to kill him when you have found him, neither of which is an easy performance. Like most wild things, the woodcock has a combination of colors peculiarly adapted to the prevailing tints of the places he haunts, and in such a way as to make him next to undistinguishable when at rest among the tufts of brown grass or heaps of old withered leaves, generally found in the places he visits in the shooting season. This, even under the most favorable circumstances, causes the archer much trouble; but when, after a long and careful search, he descries the outlines of his bird, and by a well-sent shaft knocks him over, he is richly paid.

This power of rendering themselves practically invisible to all eyes save those of the trained hunter, is possessed by the snipe, the quail, the pheasant, the hare, and a few other wild things. I have seen a keen-sighted greyhound run round and round, vainly looking for a gray rabbit which had squatted in plain view on the bare smooth surface of a country barn-yard. Even the powerful vision of a hawk is powerless to separate from the tuft of dry grass the mottled body of a crouching quail, and I have spent an hour watching a blue-tailed darter (the small chicken-hawk), which, perched on a fence-stake or old tree, waited patiently for a meadow-lark to discover itself by the slightest motion.

I remember a day's sport that Will and I had on the celebrated Devon farm of Richard Peters, Esq., which lies near Calhoun, Georgia, resulting in the death of seven as fine woodcock as ever went to table. It was in December, but, as is often the case in that latitude, the day was quite warm. We had been informed by a lad who had been shooting meadow-larks on the blue-grass fields of the beautiful farm above mentioned, that he had seen some big snipes in a bit of wet land, and we at once surmised that these big snipe were really woodcock.

We hired the boy to go with us in the capacity of pilot, and a little after sunrise we were on the ground with our bows strung and our quivers full of light blunt-headed arrows. The marsh was small, covering not over three acres of land, and through its centre ran a small ditch stream trickling down to the beautiful Oothcaloga. A kind of rush or semi-aquatic sedge grew in heavy tufts all over the wet portion of the tract, and where the land was dryer the blue-grass thickly carpeted the surface with its short sward.

Separating a little, Will and I at once began our search by slowly advancing into the wet area, scrutinizing every foot of land as we went. We had progressed thus but a few steps when Will stopped short, and, after glaring for a moment into a sedge-tuft, raised his bow and sent an arrow whistling to the spot. A fluttering sound, as of a bird en-tangled in the grass, and then a woodcock rose rapidly from where I saw the arrow sticking and wheeled away, uttering its sharp, peculiar cry. Will had missed his bird.

Despite my efforts to the contrary I became a little excited. How eagerly my eyes scanned every place where a bird might hide 1 How I longed for such a chance as Will had just had! All at once my vision was blessed. No more than thirty feet from me the brown outlines of a wood-cock were barely distinguishable under the drooping fringe of a sod of dead wire-grass. I stopped a moment to collect my nerves, drew my right hand across my eyes to clear my sight, settled my-self firmly on my feet, fixed an arrow, drew to my ear and let drive. My shaft struck the thing and stood quivering there in its very centre, but not a feather stirred. I went forward and found that I had shot at and hit a brown clod of earth. I pulled up my shaft and glanced at Will. He was chuckling at my mistake. I forget just what I said. Presently, however, we had better luck. Will drew first blood, bagging a fine bird, and I followed suit. We had a fine time of it. We got all the birds up and they scattered out and lit in the short grass of the surrounding pasture fields, whither we followed them and dogged them from spot to spot, till four of them hung at Will's girdle and three at mine.

I once had an excellent opportunity of watching the manoeuvres of a woodcock while feeding. It was about the 1st of May, I think, and I was in ambush for some buffle-head ducks, near a pond. All about me the shadows of a maple thicket were duskier than ordinary twilight, and the ground was damp. While I was lying there waiting for an assistant to go round the pond and drive the ducks to me, a slight rustling directed my eyes to a woodcock running swiftly in elliptical lines on a little patch of soft ground some twenty yards away. Its motions were strangely eccentric, almost grotesque-its wings akimbo, its head thrown back till its long bill pointed almost directly upward, and its big eyes gleaming as if in ecstasy of fright or pain. Suddenly it stopped, stiffened its legs like stilts, and began tilting up and down, piercing the soft loam to the depth of two or more inches at each downward movement. It drew forth worms and marsh grubs, which it devoured with lively show of delight. After a few successful borings in this way, it again began its strange curvilinear movements, lasting a few seconds and ending in a repetition of the feeding process, then again the running, and so on till some slight movement I made frightened it, whereupon it darted into a clump of water-grass, and I saw it no more.

Plover-shooting is in some places excellent sport. On the wet, short-grassed prairies of Indiana and Illinois I have shot them on the ground, and in Florida, where immense flocks of them congregate, I have killed as many as three with a single blunt shaft.