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Francis Wharton.

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872 WILD SPAIN.

flood of Guadalquivir had spread itself laterally over its
low riparian terrain to a breadth of perhaps sixty miles of
unbroken water. Miniature breakers dashed up against
the leeward shores; the marsh lands which border the
marisma were submerged, and the whole delta, extending
to Seville, was under water. From the moment we beheld
that tawny expanse, it was clear that all hope of success in
wildfowling enterprise must be abandoned. It is not so
much that in a wet season wildfowl are less abundant
(for they are there in thousands), as that they are
scattered over so vast an area, instead of being concen-
trated at certain spots, which explains the difficulty of
their pursuit and the impossibility of securing any large
numbers.

Biding along the shores of this inland sea, we observed
numerous packs of wildfowl floating on its surface, but
always at such a distance from the shore as to be inac*
cessible by the ordinary Spanish system of the stalking^
pony. The cabresto is only available when ducks are found
in shallow water or in comparatively narrow channels
where the ponies can be worked round them till the fowlers
gradually bring their masked batteries to bear. But now,
with the whole country submerged, it was impossible to
concentrate the fowl, and our efforts were generally di-
rected against scattered packs, nearly always on the edge
of perfectly open water. Instead of being able, by
manoeuvring at a little distance, gently to move forward
the outside birds, to close up the ranks, and thus to gather
together a compact body upon which to direct our broad-
side, we had now to deal with loosely-scattered parties dotted
here and there for miles along what was practically an
open shore, and which simply swam away from us into
deeper water. Then, in this deeper water, the deception
naturally lost great part of its efficacy; for though the
sight of a half- wild pony grazing in shallow marsh where
grass and water-plants rise above the surface, has no
terror for the duck tribe, yet the case is obviously altered
when the pony is directed into open water, devoid of all
signs of vegetation, and reaching up to his belly ! No



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 373

sensible beast would ever seek such ** pasturage," and the
anomaly is quickly detected by the ducks.

There were, however, abundance of wildfowl ; some of
the aggregations of pintails, indeed, were a memorable
sight, darkening acres of water, and in the upper marisma
we occasionally enjoyed a degree of success which would un-
doubtedly have been gratifying but for loftier anticipations.
Eiding along the marshy margins at daybreak, tempting
chances at twenties and thirties offered themselves, but
our pateros would not hear of our disturbing the wastes
for such paltry lots — " veinte 6 treinta pares al primer tiro *'
(twenty or thirty couples at the first shot) was their con-
stant refrain; but sometimes the results belied their
judgment, and more than once before night we regretted
those matutinal scruples. On more fortunate days we did
succeed in working our way into the midst of such
assemblages of ducks as it rarely falls to the lot of wild-
fowler to see at close quarters all around him. It is
necessary, as a general rule, to keep to leeward of wild-
fowl ; but with the cabrestos this is of less importance, and
owing to their numbers and the straggling area of their
phalanxes, it often happened that we had considerable
bodies of duck almost under our lee and actually appeared
to be in the midst of them. Not even in a gunning-punt
can such opportunities of observation of wild creatures be
enjoyed; for, then, one is necessarily lying prone, with
eyes barely raised above water-level ; here, merely crouch-
ing behind a shaggy little pony, one commanded a clear
and uninterrupted view.

Tfee bulk of the ducks this winter (1888) proved to be
Pintails, though Wigeon were hardly less abundant. Wet
seasons suit the tastes of the former species, which then
throng the flooded plains in tens of thousands all
through the winter, whereas in dry years the Pintails
almost immediately pass on into Africa, not reappearing
till February, on their way north. The Pintail with his
very long neck, trim, slender build and sailing flight is a
striking-looking bird — its appearance on the wing suggest-
ing an intensified, or idealized, development of the duck



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874 WILD SPAIN.

tj^pe, iamiliar in the common mallard. We could watch
thefki busily preening themselves, washing and coquetting,
some tugging at the sweet green grasses that grew below,
others daintily plucking the white water-buttercups float-
ing on the surface, all within five-and-twenty yards, or
passing and repassing close overhead, keeping up the
while a wild, lively chatter, mingled with the musical
whistle of the Wigeon. We have never seen elsewhere
such splendid examples of the latter species as some of
the old drakes shot here ; the metallic colours shone
with an intense lustre, and the rich dark chestnut of their
heads was glossed with green and purple reflections.

At several periods there appeared to offer chances for
our four united barrels to reahze from twenty-five to
thirty head ; but our friends would not hear of it, and
when at last the signal to open fire was given, the occasion
was often less favourable, and the net result little more
than half those numbers. Our friends' anxiety for a big
shot had perhaps tempted them to overdo the " herding "
business ; it was, however, a relief to be at last allowed
to stand upright. The labour of crouching along, bent
half double for an hour at a stretch, splashing throu^
water over knee-deep and in clinging mud, is rather severe.
There is, moreover, but scant room for two behind a pony,
and the crowding intensifies the discomfort of the bent posi-
tion. There is the necessity to avoid bringing one's heavy-
nailed brogues down on one's companion's naked heels or
toes ; then again, no part of one's person must show in out-
line above or astern, and lastly there is the gun. By an axiom
of sport, it must never point towards man or beast ; to
carry it pointing downwards would never do — the muzzle
would be a foot under water, and upwards it would show like
a pole-mast above the ponies' quarters. The gun, in short,
for fifty-nme minutes in every hour, is simply a nuisance.

^though the chief species of ducks against which our
operations were directed were the above-named — Pintails
and Wigeon — there were several other kinds, notably
Shovelers — very handsome birds, the drakes, with their
boldly contrasted plumage, glossy green heads and ch^st-



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 375

nut breasts divided by a band of snow-white purity.
Besides these there were the Mallard and Teal, and others
to which we will refer presently.

It was during flight-shooting in the early mornings that
the greatest variety of wildfowl was observed, the numbers
of Shovelers being especially conspicuous. One morning
we particularly remember ; we had ridden nearly all night
to reach a certain favourite spot before daybreak. Even
the patvros were still asleep when, at 2 a.m., we rode up to
their solitary choza on the verge of the marsh. However,
we were soon in our allotted positions, each on board a tiny
lancha, or flat-bottomed punt, far out in the marisma.
Towards the dawn a very great number of ducks were on
the wing — ^Mallards, Pintails, Teal, and Wigeon, while from
an opposite direction the Shovelers streamed overhead for
a couple of hours. These handsome paleUmes took my fancy,
and drew the bulk of my cartridges ; but whether they
were too high, or the powder, in Spanish phrase, too
"cold," the results were certainly not commensurate.
In any case it is no easy matter to take fast and high
shots when balancing oneself in a cranky pmit. A valid
excuse was the unusual amount of water. This disadvantage
is felt, in wet winters, at every turn ; here, in flighting, in
the entire absence of covert in which to conceal our punts.
Hardly even the tops of the rushes, tamarisk and other
bog-plants protruded above the surface. Consequently the
high-sided punts loomed far too conspicuous, even in the
half-light, causing the fowl to ** sky " or to swerve to right
or left. Again by reason of the punts being fully afloat
(instead of lying on the mud) a diflficulty was added to the
taking of quick shots, for on any sudden movement of its
occupant, the tiny craft lurched almost to the capsizing
point. '^ In spite of all this, the double flashes from the
adjoining lancha were generally succeeded by one, and often
by two, answering splashes in the dark water.

Pochards and a few Tufted ducks are almost the only
members of the diver-tribe that we have met with in the
marisma during wet winters, though, by February, some
of the Ferruginous ducks {Fuligula nyroca) are beginning to



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376 WILD SPAIN.

return, and probably a few White-fronted ducks (Etisniatura
leiicocephala) will also, by then, be found on the deeper
waters. Of the Red-crested duck (F. rtijina), which is
fairly common near Valencia, we have never seen a single
example in the Andalucian marismas ; nor were any
Gadwalls included in the bag this season, though in other
winters, not entirely dissimilar, we have secured several.

The distribution of the AnatidsB is, in fact, somewhat
puzzling. Some species are very regular; others, without
apparent cause, are just the reverse. The movements of
Pintail, as just stated, are clearly regulated by the state of
water in the marshes. Those of Gadwall and Garganey, on
the other hand, bear no visible relation to these or other
external conditions, but neither of the two last-named are
ever abundant. The Garganey, a bird of infinite speed of
wing, the first to come in autumn, the last to depart in
spring, spends the mid-winter months in Africa ; though
one morning at dawn (January 81st) four drakes fell
to a double shot, and during February we secured many
more ; but this does not occur every year. The Marbled
duck (Q. maimorata), a first cousin of the teal, seldom
arrives in time to take part in the wildfowl-shooting;
though we have notes of an occasional straggler being
recognized amidst the slain as early as February,

Sheld-ducks of both kinds are found at all seasons in
the Guadalquivir district, where they remain to breed in
spring ; the common species in rabbit- or disused badger-
holes among the sandhills, the large Suddy Sheld-duck
in low cliffs or barrancas. A few of either species usually
fall to our guns while flight-shooting during the winter
months.

Next to ducks, the most important wildfowl of the
marisma are the Grey Geese, which resort thither from
November till February. Their habit is to spend the night
on the open water and to fly up in successive parties about
daybreak to the grassy shores, where, if unmolested, they
spend the day feeding, preening, and washing in the shallow
water. In these situations, we frequently fell in with them
while fowling with the cabrestos. " Anseres son ! "—geese



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 377

they are " — was Vasquez's verdict, as he slowly shut up the
glass after a long and particular survey of the distant
foreshore. The words were spoken sadly, as though solilo-
quizing, for the Grey Lag is altogether too wary and
supicious a bird to fall readily into the snare of the
fowler. Barely indeed is it possible, by this stratagem,*
to approa.ch within the short range which alone is fatal —
forty yards is the maximum for these ironclads, and twenty-
five much more desirable. Except when in very small
numbers — twos and threes together — it is barely worth
while to attempt a «talk ; our friends only undertook the
operation under protest, saying it was a compromiso — a
thing calculated to compromise their aucipial repute.






''AN8SRBS SOS I"

Anseres son f there, sure enough, on the utmost verge of
the plain, sits a straggling line with detached groups of
big, blue-grey forms, some slowly moving about, others
squatted on the ground or resting in various attitudes of
repose. Such big packs are inaccessible ; only once, that
winter, did we seem to be really on the road to success.
The bulk of the geese — some seventy in number — appeared
to be peacefully sleeping away the mid-day hours, some

• That is, with two men behind the pony. We have since then,
^omg single-handed, occasionally succeeded in outwitting even the
Grey Lag.



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878 WILD SPAIN.

sitting on the grass, others standmg on one leg with heads
snugly tucked away under their back feathers. We had
already reached the critical point, and the ponies well know
now the importance of caution — step by step, with a halt
at every fourth or fifth to crop a mouthful of grass, they
slowly advance. We had proceeded thus to within a shot
and a half of the still silent geese, when from an interven-
ing belt of rush there sprang a couple of the half- wild,
black pigs of the wilderness. Away they scampered,
jostling and fighting with each other in their fright, and




GREY LAG GEESE FLIGHTING— DAYBREAK.

squealing as only pigs can squeal. In an instant the
geese were on the alert — every neck at full stretch, every
eye seeking keenly tlie cause of the unwonted uproar. From
the sentinel gander came the low, clear alarm-note —
Honk ! honk ! The rest were still silent, but they knew
full well the significance of those low warning notes. A
few seconds more and, despite our utmost care, the whole



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\NT[LDFO\\a.ING IN THE WILDERNESS. 379

pack rose on wing, amid deep Spanish execrations on the
mothers and female relatives of those malditos cochinos.

The geese have particular spots along the shore to which
they show a predilection — usually the point of some flat
promontory or tongue of land, to which they daily resort.
By placing a few decoys before dawn, and lying in wait at
these querencias^ several shots may be obtained at the
** morning flight." The difficulties of wild-goose shooting
are, however, proverbial, and these big Grey Lags are,
moreover, the hardest and most invulnerable fowl. Yet if
the bag is sometimes light, those mornings spent in the
marisma will never be regretted, nor the sights and sounds
heard during the lonely hours of vigil be forgotten. Within
one hundred yards of the damp hole where we lie hidden
are three or four separate packs of Grey Lags swimming on
the silvery water, while fresh parties constantly keep
arriving to join the assemblage, sailing with lowered
pinions and cautious croaks towards the fatal decoy.

The geese of the Spanish marismas are principally
the Grey Lag {Anser ferns) and the Bean-goose {Anser
8e(/etum) in much less numbers. The latter usually flight
singly or in small trips; their note is also different —
like that of a large gull. The Lesser White-fronted Goose
(Anser erythropus of LinnsBUs), appears also to occur in the
marisma. Lord Lilford mentions having observed a single
example in company with Grey Lags, and has skins of
this small species obtained at Seville. As regards the
other European species, there is no evidence of their winter
range extending to Southern Spain, though it is possible
that stragglers of both the Pink-footed and White-fronted
Geese may occasionally do so. Of wild Swans we have
only once met with a bunch of four, as elsewhere related, and
one of our pateros told us he had killed two or three during
an exceptionally severe winter several years ago. He
regarded them as extremely unusual, and in fact did not
know what they were till he took them to San Lucar for
sale.

Ducks and geese are not the only denizens of the wilder-
ness. The genus of wading birds is a natural complement,



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880 WILD SPAIN.

and their beauty and variety almost always lend an
additional charm to shooting-days by marsh, mere, and
coast ; but this winter they disappointed us. The simple
fact was that the whole of their wonted haunts were
submerged, and they had sought their desiderata elsewhere.
Whether they had passed on southward through the
tropics or eastward towards Egyptian lagoons, or returned
whence they had come — at any rate, in Spain they were



not. During the days spent behind our cabrestos we saw
hardly any of these birds.

Another loss caused by the adverse season was the
absence of snipe ; they had arrived as usual, in October
and November, but during the rains of the following
month had disappeared — and not without reason, since
nearly the whole of their favourite haunts now lay sub-
merged. Among the birds which remained may be men-
tioned curlews, and peewits in large numbers, a few



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 381

golden plovers, redshanks, dunlins and Kentish plovers ;
on several occasions, chattering packs of stilts were met
with, and on January 80th a large flock of avocets were
feeding on the slobby mud-flats — these the i)atero8 assured
us had just arrived, which probably was the case. Once,
by night, we recognized the well-known note of the green-
shank, and at intervals a green sandpiper would spring
from some muddy pooL Beyond the fringe of rushes
stood sedate herons ; here and there a party of storks, and
further out still, the flamingoes, whose rosy ranks impart
a thoroughly southern character to the scene.

There was, therefore, no lack of bird-Ufe, though many
of the more interesting species were gone. Amidst the
feathered population, apparently unnoticing and unnoticed
by all, the Marsh-Harriers ceaselessly wheel and drift. After
watching them for hours we have never seen them take a
bird on the wing, or pursue anything at all, unless
wounded. Now and then a harrier would pounce fiercely upon
some object — we could not see what — among the rushes,
and remain poised on outstretched wings for some minutes,
evidently struggling with some victim — perhaps a frog or
wounded bird — and then quietly resume his hunting. The
Hen-Harrier in dry seasons we frequently observe while
snipe-shooting — now, the few seen were all on the dry
plains, and not on the marisma.
• One day, towards the end of January, while endeavour-
ing to circumvent the greylags, we fell in with a pack of
some forty Sand-Grouse — the Pintailed species — Pteroclcs
alehata. They were intensely wild, and at the end of two
hours' stalking, the end of the operation seemed as far
off as ever. One point in our favour was that the Gangas
had a strong haunt at that flat, sandy spit — perhaps it
was the only ground suitable to their habits that remained
uncovered by water. At any rate, they refused to leave it
entirely, and though at times the pack would soar away
up into the blue heavens till lost to sight, and we could
only follow their course by the harsh croaking notes, yet
they invariably returned, descending direct to earth with
superb abruptnesses, headlong as a shower of falling stars.



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882 WILD SPAIN.

At length patience and perseverance prevailed, and a
couple of raking shots produced just half a score, seven
males and three females. Some of the former were already
assuming the black throat of spring-time, but otherwise
they were all in full winter-dress, the males having few,
or none, of the large pale yellow spots that, later on,
adorn their backs and scapulars, and both sexes being
paler and less vivid in colouring than at the vernal
season.

The carriage of these birds when on the ground is
very game-like and sprightly ; they sit half-upright, like
a pigeon, and on our final (successful) approach we
observed several of them l3ring down on their sides nestling
in the warm sand. Their flight resembles that of golden
plover, but is bolder, and the narrow black bordering
to the under-wing is conspicuous when passing near. At
times, when high in air, they might be mistaken for teal.
We found them excellent eating; their crops contained
small seeds and shoots of the samphire aud other bog-
plants; their flesh is dark brown throughout (that of
Syrrhaptes paradoxus is half white, like a blackcock), and
was as tender and well-flavoured as that of a grouse.
The Spanish name of " gang a,'' signifying a bargain, goes
to corroborate this opinion.

At length our sojourn amidst these desolate scenes came
to its close. The pack-mules set out, literally, by the way
of the wilderness, while we took a longer route by the
shore for a final attempt on the ducks, and had a pretty
Jinale to our sport. A pack of forty mallards were descried,
and as the cabrestos drew up to the deadly range, there
caught the writer's eye what might have been a bed of
stones amongst some rushes, but which were in fact a fine
spring of teal huddled together as close as they could sit.
Towards these, when the signal to open fire was given,
one gun directed his cartridges, while the other remained
faitlifuL to the patos reales. The result, seven mallards
and eleven teal, was a satisfactory climax to a pleasant
campaign under adverse conditions. For if heavy shots
were scarce, the scenes and sounds we have feebly en-



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 883

deavoured to describe — the clouds of ducks and geese,
the soaring flight of the harriers, or graceful forms of a
passing trip of pintails, the stately flamingoes, or the bark
of an eagle overhead — all these are essentially exotic —
they breathe the spirit of wild Spain, and are full of fasci-
nation to a naturalist.



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884 WILD SPAIN.



CHAPTER XXXIV.
WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS.

II. — ^A Dry Season (Flight- Shooting).

For days the report had reached us of the myriads of
aquatic birds that had settled in the marisma. The
keepers at the distant Betuerta had passed the word along
to those nearer the boundary, and from these the news
was transmitted by boatmen to our factotum at San Lucar.
Every day the exhortation to come became more and more
urgent— *' come at once, or in a few days the geese will
have devoured every blade of aquatic weed, every green
thing that remains, and will perforce be obliged to shift
to other quarters." But come we could not. The 29th
November was the day previously fixed for opening the
campaign, and to cross the Guadalquivir before that date
was not possible. Some of our party were coming out
by P. and 0. to Gibraltar, others by the quicker route of
the Slid express. With that malignant perversity of fate
that ever seems to snatch from us the realization of one's
ideal, we had, this year, fixed the day a week too late,

Mid-November was already past ; autumn had given
place to winter, yet not a drop of rain had fallen. Since
the scorching days of summer the fountains of heaven had
been stayed, and now the winter wildfowl from the north
were pouring in only to find the marisma as hard and
arid as the deserts of Arabia Petraea, They found not
what they sought — instinct was at fault. True to their
appointed season came the dark clouds of pintail, teal, and
wigeon, the long skeins of grey geese ; but where in other
years they had revelled in shallows rich in aquatic vegeta-



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WILDFOWLING IN THE WILDERNESS. 885

tion, now the travellers find in their stead a calcined plain
devoid of all that is attractive to the tastes of their tribe.
For the parched-up soil, whose life-blood has been drained
by the heats of the summer solstice, whose plant-life is
burnt up, remains panting all the autumn through for the
precious moisture that comes not. The carcases of cattle
and horses that have died of thirst and lack of pasturage
strew the plains ; the winter-sown wheat is dead ere germi-
nation is complete.

In such years of drought many of the newly-arrived



Online LibraryFrancis WhartonWharton and Stillé's medical jurisprudence .. → online text (page 29 of 36)