In the early stages of hunting it is the destination, achieving the intended goal that is paramount. As hunters mature, they learn it is the journey that matters most. One of the things that makes and keeps hunting interesting is that no matter how many years you’ve hunted and how many days you’ve logged over those years you can still learn something.

Even after nearly a half century of waterfowling, I still occasionally encounter something novel.

Fishing came first in my outdoor education but there was always a curiosity for all things wild. Motoring out of Gloucester Harbor for the tuna grounds one October day two scores ago, we passed several groups of hunters in small boats positioned by what looked to me (and were) strings of Clorox bottles painted black. My father explained that they were shooting coots.

I later learned they were actually shooting scoters, sea ducks that some old timers still refer to as coots. It turns out coots are not ducks at all but large members of the rail family. I learned that the following spring when temperatures plummeted after an early rain, freezing coots to the surface of a local pond.

Early in my hunting career I was jump-shooting a salt marsh one day when I came upon an elderly couple in a blind overlooking a salt panne. As the hunting was slow they waved me over and asked if I’d killed any red legs. Recognizing my confused look they explained how every year, in early December, migrant black ducks with bright orange legs and feet migrate down from the north. I’ve since consulted several biologists about this phenomenon and they claim it’s a myth and these birds are no different than the local stocks. However, every year in early December black ducks with bright orange legs and feet still show up in the marshes offering a few days of hot gunning.

It was enough years ago that when my gunning mates and I finally took the initiative to hunt coots (sea ducks) on our own we too built our decoy spreads mainly from bleach and milk bottles painted black. Real sea duck decoys didn’t exist back then. In the intervening years I’ve had an opportunity to shoot every species that occurs in New England waters; at least I thought I had until I heard someone refer to a pair of gandies they had shot. Further investigation revealed they were referring to long-tailed duck.

Some lessons must be learned the hard way and one is that not all targets of opportunity should be taken advantage of. We seldom passed up a shot at any legal duck in those early years, which meant the daily bag sometimes contained mergansers. I’d been warned about shooting the sawbills, so called for their narrow, toothy beaks, which are ideally suited for catching and eating the fish that give their flesh a very unpalatable flavor. They now get a pass and we refer to them as lawn darts.

We don’t see many wigeon in Maine, which is my excuse for why I had never heard the term “storm wigeon” until recently. It turns out the storm wigeon is rare color phase of the American wigeon (also once called a baldpate), so rare it’s not even described in most ornithological identification guides. Instead of the more typical speckled gray, the cheeks and neck are white or a light buff color. Hunters attribute the variation to age or region. Meanwhile, the scientific community remains silent on the issue.

Each season provides some new mystery to be solved. I have yet to learn why pintails are called “sprig,” but it’s fairly obvious why goldeneyes are referred to as “whistlers” and surf scoters are assigned the unflattering title: “skunkhead.” Perhaps one day I’ll get to hunt out west and learn first-hand why sandhill cranes are referred to as “rib-eye in the sky.”

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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