We currently seem to have a foot in both camps; this is an odd middle-ground between autumn and outright winter. The leaves are off the trees but the grass is still growing. We’ve had two frosts, but both have been burnt off before seven o’clock in the morning. It was possible to head out to the hill for a day’s stalking last week in just a shirt and pullover, but as I found last night flighting wigeon, the dusks now belong to the winter woodcock.
Invited to shoot in Aberdeenshire earlier in the week, the grouse were neither in packs nor pairs, but more often in small groups of three and six. They were as wild and as jumpy as late season birds, but there was none of the massing gangs we often associate with the end of November. Behind the scenes they have begun to move en masse in secretive ways, but to a day-tripper like me, it would have been easy to imagine that these were the birds of a month ago.
Walking in line, white hares leaped out of the dark heather at my feet like absurd teddy bears, as garish and conspicuous as a cuddly toy that you might win at a fairground. Some of these hares made for exciting shooting, particularly as they ducked and weaved between the haggs and over the dead grass. Great gouts of white floss sprayed off them as they were brought somersaulting to a halt, and each one was worth the carrying in anticipation of that dark, fantastic meat. Dozens rose up or doubled back unmolested, and on some of the higher ground they scattered through the peat in disparate gangs of twenty and more. How they must have sweated to bolt and sprint in their heavy winter coats while we walked after them in shirtsleeves.
And waiting for ducks by the splash of water last night, I saw mild-summer bats flickering among the woodcock in the half dark, stooping down to sip droplets of water from the reflected sky. The first two wigeon came down with a plop, and as the dog puffed out to pick them, I folded up the gun sleeve and fell back from the lip of the water. Rather than take them as they came, I didn’t want to unduly rock the boat on this promising dub, and preferred to wait and see what came in from behind a bank of darkly flowering whin.
For all that there is a huge market for American “duck-hunting” camouflage, there has never been a technological improvement on the simple art of standing still. Over the next quarter of an hour, more than thirty wigeon came slashing in a few feet over my head as I stood in plain sight against the undergrowth. They landed on the water with a saucy plop and commenced to growl and squeak like bossy little tyrants. I came away when the filmy surface was creased and wrinkled with the self-important whirr of clock-work paddles and strolled back down to the house with the dripping dog.
Once in the light, I saw that the ducks in my hand were still moulting out of their eclipse plumage. Early in the season it is not uncommon to find a few barred brown feathers here and there on necks and rumps, but one of the birds in particular was thickly marked with rusty reds and caramel browns where I would usually expect to see pristine pinstripe grey. It would be foolhardy to gauge the passage of the year by the date alone, but until this mildness breaks into real cold, it is easy to imagine that autumn is stuck like a scratched record.