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On a long-ago bright and balmy October morning, two duck hunters stood in a blind staked to a grassy island in the upper Penobscot River. Spread before them, in a quiet eddy created by an outcropping of hummocks pointing toward the Passadumkeag shore, a dozen black duck decoys appeared to be dozing in the autumn sun.
Because of the “bluebird day,” the hunters had become lackadaisical in scanning the sky for trafficking ducks, which had thinned since the dawn “rush hour.” Eventually, however, the hunters’ lethargy was interrupted when the older of the two warned, “Watch it… 10 o’clock. Coming straight at us.”
“White bird,” said the crouched younger hunter, his eyes tracking the duck’s approach. Seconds later, without dipping a wing toward the decoys of a different feather, it flew past the point. Simultaneously, the younger hunter straightened, fired and watched the duck tumble to the water.
After his hunting partner’s Labrador retriever Soot had earned his Alpo, the younger hunter held the duck and studied the unfamiliar markings of its black-and-white plumage. “It’s not a whistler,” he said. “What’s it look like to you?”
“Drake ringneck,” the older hunter answered. He then pointed out the narrow chestnut-brown neck ring barely discernible between the black breast feathers and the crested, iridescent-purple head. “But here’s a more conspicuous, identification mark,” he added, pointing to the white ring near the end of the gray bill. “The hen has a neck ring too, but it’s even more indistinct because of her brownish head and breast feathers. She has the same ringed bill, though, plus a white eye ring.” Thus concluded the young hunter’s introduction to the ring-necked duck.
On a recent fog-shrouded morning, the younger hunter of the aforementioned anecdote stood in a blind staked to the marshy shore of a pond and watched the awakening wind animate a dozen ringneck decoys. Musing about the morning when he shot his first ringneck, Hank Lyons thought aloud: “That was in the late ’50s, Coot.” Sitting to the right of the portable blind of camo-cloth fastened to wooden stakes, the big Labrador retriever responded with cocked head and ears and several thumps of his tail.
“Back then,” Hank remembered, “the limit on black ducks was four a day. So that was primarily what we hunted. That changed, though, when the limit on blacks was eventually reduced to one a day in the early ’80s. Rather than give up duck hunting – and a lot of guys did – I got serious about hunting whistlers and ringnecks.”
Although ring-necked ducks are indigenous to Maine, the species appears to have increased substantially during the past two decades. Come October, large flocks of the migrating ducks, also referred to as “ringbills,” provide sporty shooting on the myriad marsh-rimmed waters common to the state’s interior. Seldom are ringnecks seen on coastal gunning grounds.
To the pleasure of waterfowlers, ringnecks are nervous, active ducks that fly readily, even on bluebird days. Hence, hunters bemoaning the lack of “fowl weather” often are surprised by the swift arrival and departure of ringnecks scaling over the decoys, wings ripping the air with the sound of a train rushing through a tunnel.
The fog was thinning and the day was nearly an hour older when Hank said, “Well, Coot, I’d say it’s time for the old coffee trick. I’ll no sooner let go of this gun and get a cup poured when ducks will come pitching in here from every direction.” Accordingly, Hank kept one eye on the sky as he fetched the Thermos from the pack basket and filled a cup. So far, so good.
Moments later, however, while pawing in the basket for a package of doughnuts – nothing ever stays where it’s put in a pack basket – Hank saw Coot lowering his head and looking to the right. Let’s just say the ensuing exclamation wasn’t, “Oh, Shucks!” as six winged silhouettes emerged from the fog and scaled toward the decoys on set wings.
Like aircraft executing touch-and-go landings, the ringnecks lit in long sliding splashes and immediately took wing as Hank tossed the coffee aside and reached for his shotgun. Owing to the ducks’ momentary loss of flight speed, only four flew away.
While watching Coot charge toward the downed ducks – one floating feet-up, the other head-down – Hank credited the nontoxic Bismuth shot he was using: “It’s expensive,” he thought, “but by the time you fire three or four shells of steel shot at a duck – one to take it out of the air and the others to finish it off, if you’re lucky – you’re talking even money. Aside from that, I’ve watched too many ducks fly away wounded after being hit with steel shot.”
In the meantime, Coot had managed to mouth both ducks at once. When the dog came out of the water lugging what could be described as the proverbial “Lazy man’s load,” Hank cursed himself for not having a camera at hand.
Sunlight was squinting through the trees on the opposite shore of the pond when, only minutes apart, Hank bagged two more ringnecks. The first, a single hen looking for company; the second, a drake dropped from a trio that roared past the decoys out of range and then, as ringnecks are wont to do, swung around and came straight in.
“Well-feathered for this time of year,” Hank thought as he admired the rich umber tones of the hen’s upper wings and back contrasting to the brilliant white belly. Spreading a wing, he admired the ashy-brown primary feathers and the secondaries displaying the distinctive pearl-gray speculum. “Not as colorful as the wing markings of blacks, teal and mallards,” Hank allowed. “But these diving ducks have a beauty that’s both subtle and dramatic.”
Like whistlers, ringnecks feed by diving and feeding on a variety of subaqueous plant and animal life. About 80 percent of the ringneck’s diet, however, is vegetable matter. Therefore, the ducks are excellent table fare.
Because ringnecks nest in marshes, bogs and flowages, and typically build nests close to the water’s edge, the eggs – usually 8-12 per clutch – often are jeopardized by rises in water levels. Yet, the ducks appear to be proliferating.
In mid-November, while hunting on the same pond, Hank observed a high-flying flock of ringnecks whose number he estimated at 200, give or take. “You couldn’t lug enough decoys to toll a flock that big,” he thought. “There’s safety in numbers. Chances are those ducks will arrive below the Mason-Dixon Line in good shape.” After wintering in southern states, ring-necked ducks return to their breeding grounds in Maine, several northern-tier Midwestern states and Canada’s prairie provinces, during April
“Ringnecks sure took up the slack when the black duck limit was reduced,” thought Hank as he picked up the decoys. “Granted, they’re nowhere near as wary and challenging as blacks. But, they’re swift and sporty enough to keep me buying duck stamps – and to give Coot a chance to earn his Alpo.”
Tom Hennessey’s columns can be accessed on the BDN Internet page at: www.bangornews.com.