They come on whistling wings in the gray light of dawn, inundating the estuaries and rocky coastline from central Maine to Cape Cod. The redlegs are coming.

Many casual hunters have hung up their waders and favorite fowling piece for the year, and moved on to more terrestrial pursuits like deer or snowshoe hare. The more dedicated waterfowlers however, know some of the best shooting has yet to arrive. When it does, word spreads quickly among the late-season fraternity.

September is the time of the teal, dainty little fighter jets arriving on the first whispers of a northern breeze, when the wild rice is ripening on the brackish bays. The blue-wings are usually gone by the time October’s opening day rolls around. Their slightly more hardy green-winged cousins will linger a bit longer; long enough to provide some sporty wingshooting for early-season wildfowlers.

Wood ducks, too, are early-season birds. Most resplendent of the winged, web-footed tribe, their eerie wails and whistles haunt the flooded timber and inland marshes through much of October, but most will be on their way ahead of the first hard frosts.

All the while there will be big ducks like the ubiquitous mallards that seem to show up just about anywhere, from slow creeks and rivers to big waters and urban park ponds. Drab, mottled suzies and green-headed drakes provide abundant opportunities throughout the fall season.

And then there’s the black duck, the standard bearer of Maine waterfowling. Early on it’s mostly locals, secretive, elusive phantoms raised in the backwaters, beaver ponds and flooded swamps. Those early- season birds seem drab and thin with pale salmon legs. They are wary, wheeling and circling high overhead time and time again, while the more foolhardy mallards pitch in to even a modest spread of decoys. The locals and the early migrants push on south but a second wave will come.

By early December most of the inland waters have frozen over, pushing birds south and toward the coast. They seem to arrive en masse, big, robust birds with vibrant orange legs and feet. Old-timers call them redlegs.

The experts will tell you they’re a myth, but over 35 years of waterfowling I’ve seen different. It’s an annual phenomenon. One day they’re scattered here and there, the next they’re everywhere, offering some great late-season action.

Late-season hunters employ a variety of methods, depending on preference and equipment. One of the most popular modes is shooting over a spread of cork floaters along inshore waters, rocky headlands and peninsulas. Another involves jump-shooting the ditches and salt pannes of tidal marshes.

The hot action is ephemeral. Eventually most birds will move on south to the big waters of the Narragansett and Chesapeake, but some will remain as long as open water allows access to their preferred diet of tiny littorina perriwinkles exposed by receding tides. And there you’ll find the most dedicated of waterfowlers, like the birds they pursue, eking out the last vestiges of another fall season.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]