Outdoors

Smooth Operator of the Wetlands

A graceful neck is just one of the distinctive features of what I regard as the most handsome of waterfowl

Years ago, when I was just getting started as an outdoor writer, I interviewed a guy forming a chapter of the now defunct conservation group, Quail Unlimited.

I was still a city boy just beginning my outdoor education. Regular readers may find it hard to believe I once knew even less about the outdoors, but I assure you it’s true.

Our conversation wandered a bit from mountain quail to waterfowl. The Quail Unlimited guy described a conservation project he was working on. It entailed using dynamite to blow holes in thick stands of cattails at a lake near his San Diego home. The cattail craters formed duck-luring open water.

“I shot four sprig on one of those potholes last weekend,” he told me.

I didn’t respond with sufficient awe, apparently, for after a moment’s silence he exclaimed, “That’s four pintails. Four!”

It’s been so long I don’t recall if it was his use of the term “sprig” that threw me off or that I was too green to appreciate that four pintails is a pretty good outing for any duck hunter. Maybe it was just that I was still naive enough to have not yet sharpened the journalistic instinct to read a source, in this case someone who liked to boast, feed that ego and get him to tell me something I didn’t already know.

The nickname sprig is one hunters coined for northern pintail ducks, their tail feathers resembling a sprig of thyme a cook might add to a pot of soup. Hunters are sometimes quite literary when naming their quarry.

Whether I knew the nickname or not, I’d seen pintails in photographs and the wild. I’d been duck hunting a few times by then, and while my aim foreshadowed a lifetime of frustration, I had at least learned what the birds looked like in the air. The male’s tail feathers weren’t always distinct in the early-morning light, but their necks were.

The first time a pintail flew over the blind I mistook its long neck for that of a goose.

A graceful neck is just one of the distinctive features of what I regard as the most handsome of waterfowl. Pintails are good-sized ducks, nearly as big as mallards, but their necks are longer, their bodies more slender. The colors of a bull sprig are less gaudy than the greenheads they often flock with, but there’s elegance to their design.

Males have a dark bill that turns sky blue on the sides and their heads are a russety brown. The neck is white, but as it reaches the head it narrows to thin stripes pointing toward the sky. The neck joins a gray herringbone body, with darker flight feathers on the wings broken by emerald green speculums the color of a mallard’s dome.

They hold their namesake tail feathers up from their white rumps like an English pointer with a nose full of quail.

There are gaudier ducks, such as my all-time favorite cinnamon teal, but pintails are as elegant a bird as you are going to find. Sprig are smooth. I’m talking James Bond smooth.

Make that Sean Connery James Bond smooth.

I’ve seen plenty of pintail in western Montana, but they are nowhere near as numerous as mallards. And like mallards, pintail are dabblers that have adapted to agriculture, sometimes feeding on spent grain in harvested fields.

Unlike mallards, and despite the compass point reference in their name, pintail migrate early so they don’t show up as often in the game bags of northern waterfowlers.

Sprig make up a larger share of ducks the farther west you go in the Pacific Flyway. They are to California waterfowling what pheasant are to South Dakota upland bird hunting.

And four sprig is a good day anywhere. Next time I intend to be amazed.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.