BAY-SNIPE SHOOTING

The various writers on the different kinds of sport in our country have
generally devoted their attention to upland shooting; to the quail,
woodcock, English snipe, ruffed grouse of the hills, dales, and meadows,
to the prairie-chicken of the far west, or to the larger game–the
ducks, geese, and swans of our coast; and the few suggestions to be
found in _Frank Forester’s Field Sports_, or _Lewis’s American
Sportsman_, are of little assistance in discussing the mode of capture
of their less fashionable and less marketable brethren called bay-snipe.
Having no guides to aid me but my own experience, and differing
frequently in my views from the opinions expressed by the scientific
ornithologists, I approach the consideration of this subject with
diffidence; and for the many errors that a pioneer must inevitably
commit, I crave the indulgence of the public.

The birds that are shot along our shores upon the sand-bars or broad
salt meadows, or even upon the adjoining fields of upland, are among
sportsmen termed bay-birds or bay-snipe; and although including several
distinct varieties, present a general similarity in manners and habits.
They are ordinarily killed by stratagem over decoys, and not by open
pursuit; different varieties frequent the same locality, so that many
species will be collected in the same bag; they are for the most part,
except the upland birds, tough and sedgy, and at times hardly fit for
the table; and they arrive and may be killed at certain periods in vast
numbers.

Although despised by the upland sportsman, who regards the use of the
dog as essential to the pure exercise of his art; and by the pot-hunter,
because they do not generally bring high prices in market;–to the
genuine lover of nature and the gun they furnish splendid sport,
requiring, if not as high a degree of skill as may be needed to cut down
a quail in the dense coverts, at least as many fine qualities in the
sportsman, and as thorough a knowledge of their habits as any other
bird. In upland shooting the dog does the largest part of the work, and
invariably deserves the credit for a super-excellent bag; and truly
glorious is it to follow the dog that can make that bag, and wonderful
to watch his powers;–but in bay-snipe shooting there is no trusty dog
to look to, who can retrieve by his superiority his master’s
blunderings. The man relies upon himself, and himself alone; he it is
that must, with quick observant eye, catch the faint outline of the
distant flock, and with sharp ear distinguish the first audible call;
his experience must determine the nature of the birds, his powers of
imitation bring them within gunshot, and his skill drop them
advantageously from the crowded flock. To excel in all this requires
long patience, much experience, and great qualities of mind and body;
and few are the sportsmen who ever deserve the compliment paid by old
Paulus Enos of Quogue, when he remarked, “Colonel P. is a werry
destructive man–a werry destructive man in a flock of birds.”

It is true that quail-shooting is almost a certainty; and day after day
of fair weather, with well-trained animals and good marksmen, will
produce nearly the same average, so that an entire failure will be
almost impossible; whereas, with bay-snipe everything, in the first
instance, depends upon the flight; and if there are no birds, the result
must be a total blank; but when the season is propitious–and this can
be determined by the experienced sportsman with tolerable accuracy–the
sport is prodigious, and the number of shots enormous.

Nor is it so easy to kill the gentle game that approaches the decoys
with such entire confidence, and often at so moderate a pace. The upland
sportsman, who can cover the quail through the thick scrub-oaks, or the
woodcock in the dense foliage of the shady swamp, and send his charge
after them with astonishing precision, and who will expect easy work
with the bay-snipe, will find himself wonderfully bothered by their
curious motions and irregular flight, till he has acquired the knack of
anticipating their intentions. He will learn that their speed is
irregular; that while at times they will hang almost motionless in the
air, at others they will dart past at the rate of a hundred miles an
hour; that although usually flying steadily, they will frequently flirt
and twist as unexpectedly as an English snipe; and that often they will
either suddenly drop from before his gun and alight, or, taking the
alarm, will whirl fifty feet into the air; and when one barrel has been
discharged into a flock, the rest will “skiver” so as to puzzle even the
best marksman. It is not enough to kill one bird with each barrel from a
flock, as in quail-shooting, but a number must be selected at the moment
they cross one another, so that several may be secured with each barrel;
to do this will require much practice and entail many total misses, and
is rarely thoroughly learned by the upland sportsman. It will not answer
to follow the example of an enthusiastic French gentleman, whom I once
left in the stand while I went to the house for dinner; and who, on my
return, in an excited way remarked:

“Ah! I have vun beautifool shot, I make ze lovely shot; tree big birds
come along–vat you call him?”

“Willet?” I suggested.

“No, no; ze big brown birds.”

“Sickle-bills!”

“No, not ze seeckle-bills.”

“Jacks?”

“No, no; not ze jacks.”

“Marlin!”

“Yes, yes; tree big marlin come close by, right ovair ze stool; zay all
fly near ze other; I am sure to kill zem, it was such beautifool shot. I
take ze gun and miss zem all!”

Moreover, the excitement of a rapid flight is intense; the birds arrive
much faster than the muzzle-loader can be charged, and a flock will
hover round the stand, returning again and again in the most bewildering
manner; as there are usually two sportsmen in each stand, and the stands
are often in sight of one another, a sense of rivalry is added to the
other difficulties of the position.

As the birds approach, great judgment is required in selecting the
proper time to fire, both as regards the condition of the flock and
their position relative to the associate sportsman; they must be allowed
to come well within the reach of both, and yet be taken when they are
most together, and not allowed to pass so far as to endanger the success
of the second barrel. Each sportsman must invariably fire at his side of
the flock, and wait till it is well abreast of him, and never either
shoot over his neighbor’s corner of the stand or at his portion of the
birds. Nothing is so disagreeable as to have a gun discharged close to
one’s head, except perhaps to have it discharged at one’s head; the
noise and jar produce painful and dangerous effects, and unsettle a
person’s nerves for hours. No man who will fire by his associate without
presenting his gun well before him, can know the first principles of
gunnery–or who, if knowing them, wilfully disregards their effects, is
a fit companion. The concussion from the explosion is exceedingly
unpleasant, even if the gun is several feet off, and will produce a
slight deafness.

Of the number of birds which can be bagged, it is hardly possible to
speak within bounds–more than a hundred having been killed at one
shot–but probably a hundred separate shots are occasionally fired by
each sportsman in the course of a day, and with the breech-loader even
more. There have been times when twenty-five pounds of shot have been
expended by one gun, but those days exist no longer, and it is rare to
use more than five pounds where the load does not exceed an ounce and a
quarter.

The uncertainty of the flight is the principal drawback to bay-snipe
shooting, although experience can in a measure overcome the difficulty;
but to the citizen confined to certain days, a selection of time is an
impossibility. The height of the season extends from August 15th to the
25th for the bay-birds proper; and from August 28th to September 8th,
for golden plover; and if a north-easterly storm should occur at this
period, it will be followed by an immense flight.

Dry seasons are never good, and so long as the weather remains warm the
birds will tarry in their northern latitudes; when the meadows are
parched for want of rain, they become too hard for the birds to
perforate, and the latter, being unable to feed, must migrate elsewhere;
but when they are soft with moisture, the older snipe that have left
their progeny at the far north, linger on the feeding-grounds and wait
for the latter to arrive. They seem to make it a point to send back
portions of their number from time to time to look after the young; and
on such occasions, both the messengers and the young stool admirably.
Thus flocks of old birds will frequently be seen wending their way
towards the north, while the main flight is directed southward; and
these flocks will invariably come to the decoys, although the main body
will take no notice of them.

Of course when the meadows are too parched to furnish food, the birds
cannot return on their tracks, but must continue their flight to more
hospitable shores, and in this way one of the best chances for good
shooting is lost. There are probably, in addition, many ease-loving
gluttons among the troupe, who if they find the feeding-grounds well
supplied, stop for a time to enjoy the luxury after their long
abstinence in the inclement north; and in passing to and from their
favorite spots, are said by the native human species to have established
“a trade” to those places. These birds, of course, wherever they see a
flock apparently partaking of a plentiful repast, naturally pause to
obtain their share, and thus fall a prey to their appetites.

Bay-snipe fly during the day and night high up in the heavens, or close
to the earth, in rain or shine, but especially during a cold
north-easterly storm, which, from its direction, is favorable to their
southerly migrations; and they have a vigor of wing that enables them to
traverse immense distances in a short time. In proceeding with the wind,
it is usually at a considerable distance from the earth; but when facing
an adverse current, they keep close to the surface, and consequently are
apt to be attracted by the stools. They do not move much during foggy
weather, for the simple reason that they cannot see their course, but do
not seem to be troubled by a rain. Although clear–that is to say, not
rainy–weather is preferable on many accounts, for their pursuit, good
sport is frequently had, especially on Long Island, during a rain.

Their line of flight is peculiar. Except the plover, they do not follow
the entire coast, and are not found to the eastward of Massachusetts,
but appear to strike directly from their northern haunts to Cape Cod,
where, in the neighborhood of Barnstable, there was in former times
excellent shooting; thence they proceed to Point Judith, or even
somewhat to the westward of it, and then they cross Long Island Sound,
rarely much to the eastward of Quogue; from Long Island they make one
flight to Squan Beach, and so on along the bays and lagoons of the
southern coast to the Equator, or perhaps beyond it to the Antarctic
region. The plovers follow the coast more closely, and strike the
easternmost end of Long Island in their career.

It is very remarkable, that these birds which generally pass northward
in May, and require only three months for incubation and growth of
young, live the other nine months apparently in comparative idleness at
the south. This peculiarity has led to the suggestion that they may
travel to the Antarctic ocean during their absence from the
north–which, although probable, is as yet, from our entire ignorance of
their habits, a mere suggestion.

During the northward flight in May, there is often good sport, but the
time is more uncertain than in August; nor do the birds, which are old
and wary, stool quite so well as on their return. In the spring they
pursue the same course as in the autumnal flight; which, although it is
the most direct line, and follows the principal expanse of salt meadow,
necessitates considerable journeys far out at sea. But it is doubtless
the fact that these birds, in consequence of their stretch and power of
wing, could sustain an unbroken flight from north to south, and
accomplish the distance in a wonderfully short space of time. Unabated
speed of one hundred miles an hour is equivalent to twenty-four hundred
miles in a day, and portions of the flock may not pause between Labrador
and the swamps of Florida.

When the wind is strong and continuous from the westward, it is supposed
that they pass far out to sea; and during these seasons there will be no
flight of birds either at Long Island or on the Jersey coast. At such
periods sportsmen often conclude that the entire race has been
destroyed, till the easterly winds and soaking rains of the following
year, bring them back more numerous than ever. As they must migrate, and
are not to be found anywhere on the land, it is clear that they must
have the power of completing their journey in one unbroken flight.

The principal varieties are the sickle-bill, jack-curlew, the marlin and
ring-tailed marlin, the willet, the black-breast or bull-head, and
golden plovers, the yelper, yellow-legs, robin-snipe, dowitchers,
brant-bird, and krieker. The upland or grass-plover is pursued in a
different manner, and the smaller birds are not pursued for sport at
all.

The sickle-bills, so named after the beautiful sweeping curve of the
bill, which has been known to measure eleven inches in length, are the
largest of them all. They are colored much like a marlin, have a
beautiful bright eye, a short reed-like call, and a steady, dignified
flight. In stretch of wings they exceed three feet, and nothing can be
more impressive than the approach of a large flock of these birds with
wings and bills extended and legs dropped in preparation for alighting
amid the stools.

They are often shy in the first instance, but as soon as one of their
number is killed, they return again and again to the fatal
spot–apparently in blind confidence that he must have alighted instead
of fallen, or out of brotherly anxiety for his fate. I have on several
occasions attracted a large flock that was hesitating whether to
approach or not, and almost resolving to depart, by killing one of their
number that incautiously ventured within long range–for immediately on
seeing him fall, they approached, in spite of the report, with full
confidence.

They are easily killed, by reason of their moderate speed and customary
steadiness, although they can dart rapidly when alarmed, and will often,
like all the bay-birds, carry off much shot. Their flesh is tough, very
dark, and scarcely fit for the table, except perhaps when they first
come on from feeding on the more dainty repasts furnished by the
uplands of Labrador.

The jack-curlew is a still more wary bird, and although he comes to the
stools, rarely pauses over them, and never returns after being once
fired at. He is seldom seen in large flocks, and flies rapidly and
steadily. His cry is longer than that of the sickle-bill, and, like it,
easy to imitate. From his wariness and rarity he is regarded as the
greatest prize of the sportsman, although his flesh is little better
than that of the sickle-bill.

The marlin is quite common, very gentle, stools admirably, and goes in
large flocks. In color it is similar to the sickle-bill, but it is much
smaller and has a straight, if not slightly recurved, bill. It is
attracted by the same call, and is equally tough and sedgy as food. The
ring-tailed marlin differs from it entirely in color, resembling a
willet–except that its wings are darker, and its tail black with a
white ring–but it has the long, straight, marlin bill. It is a rare
bird, seldom collects in large flocks, and is often fat and tolerable
eating. It does not stool as well as its plainer brother, but from its
scarcity and higher gastronomic claims, it is more highly prized.

The willet is greyish in general color, with a white belly and broad
bands of black and white across its wings. It has a loud, shrill shriek,
stools well, flies steadily, congregates in large flocks, and when fat
is quite eatable. It often associates with marlins and sickle-bills,
where its light colors make a beautiful contrast.

The last four varieties are nearly similar in size and greatly exceed
the following, but are far less desirable in an epicurean point of view.

The golden plover is one of the finest birds that flies; it associates
in flocks of a thousand, stools well, is extremely fat, is delicious on
the table, and has a peculiarly musical whistle. It frequents the
uplands, and feeds on grasshoppers. Its back is marked with a greenish
red that faintly resembles gold, and gives rise to its name. The young
are quite different in plumage.

The black-breast or bull-head is a shy and rather solitary
bird–although it occasionally collects in large flocks–but it is quite
fat, and frequently killed in the salt marshes over the stools used for
the ordinary bay-birds.

The yelper has a strong, rapid, and often irregular flight, and a loud
cry. It stools well, but escapes rapidly as soon as shot at, darting
from side to side in a confusing way, and returns less confidently than
the willet or marlin. It pursues its course generally high in the
clouds, whence it will drop like a stone when coming to the stools. On
Long Island it goes by the name of big yellow-legs; its call can be
heard at an immense distance, and is repeated continually as it flies.
Gastronomically considered, it is passable, and, when fat, really
excellent.

The yellow-legs, or little yellow-legs, as it is termed on Long Island,
is similar in appearance to the yelper, but has a softer and more
flute-like note, and congregates in larger flocks. It stools admirably,
and is killed in immense numbers. Its flight is rapid and irregular,
especially when it is frightened; and, as food, it ranks with the
yelper.

The brant-bird is a beautiful bird, and stools well; it rarely consorts
in large flocks, and is quite acceptable on the table.

The robin-snipe is a graceful, beautiful, and delicious bird; its
favorite localities are the meadow-islands of the salt bays and lagoons;
its flight is steady, and it does not collect in such immense flocks as
the last named variety. Its whistle consists of two clear shrill notes,
by which it is readily attracted; and its predominant colors are grey on
the back and red on the breast.

The dowitcher, which is considered ornithologically as the only true
snipe of them all, has the habits of the sandpiper and the distinctive
attributes of the _scolopax_; it is abundant, extremely gentle, and
excellent eating. It stools admirably, coming to any whistle whatever;
and although it can skiver when alarmed, it usually flies steadily. It
associates with the smaller birds.

The krieker feeds on the meadows, remains till late in October, becomes
extremely fat, and is an epicurean delicacy; it utters a creaking cry,
but will not stool at all. It also flies with the smaller snipe.

Having thus mentioned the peculiar distinctive qualities and
characteristics of each bird, of which a fuller description will be
given in another place, we will now pass to a consideration of the best
mode of their pursuit. This being by stratagem, the more thorough the
deception, the more favorable will be the result; and although they can
frequently be attracted by an accurate imitation of their call within
reach of their destroyer, crouched in the open field and unaided by
decoys, they will approach much better to the concealed sportsman and
well made stools. A stand is usually erected near some pond or bar where
the birds are in the habit of alighting–and this can be built in half
an hour of bushes or reeds–high enough to conceal the sportsman
comfortably seated in his arm-chair; and as the grass has become by the
latter part of August a dull yellowish green, he may even shelter
himself from the sun’s rays by a brown cotton umbrella, if he be
delicate or ease-loving. His clothes should assimilate to the color of
the landscape, and be as cool as possible–for the temperature is often
oppressively hot; and a waterproof should always be at hand in case of
rain, to cover, not so much the sportsman as his gun and ammunition,
which may be seriously injured by dampness and salt air combined.





If it is impracticable to build a stand, and the locality is sandy, a
hole may be dug, with the excavated sand banked around it, and the
sportsman may deposit himself upon his Mackintosh at the bottom.
However, to one unaccustomed to the posture, it is difficult to rise and
shoot from such a position, and a comfortable seat is far preferable;
and besides, the mosquitoes are thicker near the earth; the breeze has
less effect and the sun more.

The stools should be so placed that they can be readily seen from the
line of flight, not too high above the water, and the farthest not more
than thirty-five yards from the shooter. If too near a bank, they will
be confounded with the grass, and be invisible even to the keen eye of
the snipe. They should be scattered sufficiently to allow each one to be
distinct, and must be headed in different directions, so that some may
present their broadsides to every quarter of the heavens. They should
tail down wind, in a measure, from the stand, as the birds, no matter
what direction they come from, head up wind in order to alight, and will
make a circle to do so. In this way they reach the lower end of the
imitation flock first, and are led safely close to the sportsman, giving
him an admirable opportunity to make his selection from their ranks.

As the tide varies according to the wind and moon, and will often cover
with several feet of water places usually dry, it is well to have two
sets of sticks–one set for deep water much longer than those for
ordinary use; otherwise, it will occasionally be found impossible to set
out the stools at all, or they will stand so high above the ground as to
resemble bean-poles more than birds.

It is customary to have in the flock, which should not be less than
forty, imitations of the different species–some being brown to
represent marlin, others grey, with white breasts and a white and black
streak over the tail to stand for willet, and so on; but a more
important point is to have them large. Small stools cannot be seen far
enough to attract a yelper sailing amid the clouds, or a marlin sweeping
along the distant horizon; and although it is pretty and appropriate to
have them of suitable colors, size is more necessary. A sickle-bill is a
large bird, and I have seen one tethered among the stools towering above
them, so that the imitations looked puny by comparison, although larger
than they were usually made. The word stool is derived from the Danish
_stoel_, and signifies something set up on less than four legs, but of
the mode or reason of its adoption we have no record; it is in universal
use, to the exclusion of the more elegant and appropriate term, decoy,
which is confined to imitation of wild fowl. Stools are ordinarily made
of wood, and occasionally painted with great artistic care and skill;
and although a rough affair, coarsely daubed, seems often to answer
nearly as well, there are times when the birds, rendered wild by many
hair-breadth escapes, look sharply ere they draw near, and will not
approach unsightly blocks of wood, no matter how sweetly they seem to
whistle.

As wooden stools take up much room and are troublesome to carry for any
distance, tin ones have been made that will pack together in a small
space. By heading these, different ways, they present a good view to the
snipe, except when the latter are high in air, from which position they
are invisible. To remedy this defect, it has been suggested that a strip
of tin of the width of the body may be soldered along the upper edge;
and thus, while they pack snugly, a section of the object is presented
in every direction.

Wooden stools are decidedly the best, especially where it is desirable
that the birds should alight, and are in general use. They are made of
pine, and painted the distinctive colors of their prototypes; thus
sickle-bills, marlin, and jacks, are all brown with dark spots on the
back and wings; willet, as heretofore described; yellow-legs, dark
mottled grey on the back and wings, and white beneath; dowitchers brown
on the back and wings, and yellowish-white below; bull-head plover light
on the back, with dark breasts; robin-snipe light grey on the back and
side, and reddish beneath. But the snipe are not always discriminating,
and a few varieties will answer every purpose.

Stools are easily made and moderate in cost, and every sportsman should
have not less than twenty-five of his own, so that in case those that he
finds at the country taverns for the public use are engaged, he may have
some to fall back upon–although twenty-five are not a full supply. They
may be carried in a bag or basket, with their feet and bills removed;
and the basket will be useful to hold lunch, ammunition, or game.

Extempore representations can be made from the dead birds, although they
are not quite so good as the wooden ones, by cutting a forked stick with
one end much longer than the other, and thrusting the longer point into
the bird’s neck and the shorter one into its body. It may then be stood
up in the sand, and will make a decoy scarcely distinguishable by man
from the living prototype, but apparently more unnatural to the
birds–which are sometimes alarmed at its ghastly appearance–than the
ordinary stools.

Very perfect stools are made of India-rubber, which, being compressible
and light, can be readily transported, and are a deceptive imitation;
their principal defects are their liability to injury from shot–which
is also the case with wooden ones–and the facility with which the hole
where their long leg is inserted becomes torn–an accident that entirely
destroys their usefulness. They can be packed in a small compass, and
are infinitely the best article where they are to be carried long
distances. Although of necessity undersized, their full plump shape
makes them visible at a considerable distance.

To prevent the bills, which are the most delicate part, from being
injured, it is necessary to make them rather thicker than those of the
living bird; they are to be painted dark-brown, blue, or grey, according
to circumstances; and their loss, although it may not diminish the
attractiveness, destroys the beauty of the fictitious flock. More
important than perfection of decoys, is accuracy in whistling; this
should be a perfect imitation and answer to the call of the bird, and
will often allure him to the fowler without any decoys whatever. It is
impossible to describe the calls on paper, and long practice will alone
give a thorough knowledge of them; they are generally shrill and loud;
the shriller and louder the better–for man’s best efforts will rarely
equal the bird’s natural powers. The yelper has a clear, bold cry, and
the willet a fierce shriek that can be heard for miles; and if listened
to from a distance, it will be found that the bird’s call can be heard
twice the distance of the man’s answer. It is true that when the snipe
are near at hand and about alighting, a lower whistle is better, for the
reason that it is more perfect, and because the cry changes to a note of
welcome when the flock receives its fellows. And often, when the birds
once head for the stools, if not distracted by neighboring stands, or
alarmed, they will come straight on without any whistling, although this
is by no means invariably the case.

Many persons find insuperable difficulty in whistling the clear, shrill,
sharp calls; and for them artificial whistles have been manufactured
with a hole at the lower end, which, being opened or closed by the
finger, like the holes in a flute, regulates the sound. These artificial
whistles are not so good as a perfectly trained natural one; the sound
is not sufficiently reed-like, and they occupy and confine one hand when
it should be free to seek the gun. They are suspended from the
button-hole by a string, so that they can be dropped in an instant; but
are only used out of necessity.

A curious one, to be held in the mouth, has been invented of a
wedge-shaped piece of tin in the form of an axe-head, with two holes
through the sides. The sound is regulated by the tongue, and is
altogether more correct than that of any other whistle; but more time
and patience are required to learn the use of this invention than of the
lips. It will be far better for the sportsman who intends to pursue this
sport, to practise with the organs that nature has given him, however
much time or perseverance may be necessary, and then there will be no
danger of leaving his whistle at home.

As before remarked, the great drawback to the sport of shooting
bay-snipe is its uncertainty; if the flight has not come on, or a
westerly wind has driven the birds to sea, or a heavy north-easter
carries them with it high in air and prevents their stopping–there will
be no shooting; and the most experienced hand will often receive the
comforting assurance which is always bestowed upon the inexperienced,
that if he had only come two weeks sooner, or deferred his visit two
weeks longer, he would have been sure of fine sport. There are
nevertheless certain general rules that furnish a tolerable criterion;
and laying aside the spring shooting, which occurs in May, and is
extremely uncertain, the main flight of small birds–such as dowitchers
and yellow-legs–commences about the tenth of July, and of large birds
about the fifteenth of August. Each lasts about two weeks.

The flight of large birds usually terminates with a short flight of
yellow-legs, and is followed by the plover, which are succeeded by the
kriekers. An easterly storm generally brings the birds, either by
bearing them from their northern homes, or by forcing them in from the
sea, where the main body is supposed to fly; and if such a storm occur
at either of these periods, and be succeeded by a south-westerly wind,
it will surely be followed by an abundance of the appropriate birds.

During an easterly blow they will be seen passing by Point Judith in an
almost unbroken line; and after it, they abound throughout the whole
length of the coast, as though they had been carried to all parts of it
at once. But if no such storm occur, the catching the flight is a mere
chance; and where the summer has been dry, the snipe will be scarce. If
the meadows have been kept moist by continual showers, there will be a
moderate supply of game the summer through; but if there has been a
drought, the surface becomes too hard for the snails and insects to
inhabit, or for the birds to penetrate; a scarcity of food results, and
there will be no flight whatever.

Scattering birds, wandering away from their fellows and exhausted with
hunger, delighted at beholding their friends apparently feeding, will be
killed perhaps in numbers sufficient to make now and then a decent bag;
but what is known as the “flight”–when the great army moves its vast
cohorts, division after division, regiment after regiment, company after
company–will not take place. How they reach the south no one can
accurately tell; they either fly inland or out at sea high in the air,
or late at night; but their returning myriads in the spring following,
prove that in some way they did reach their southern winter homes.

Notwithstanding the greatest experience, and despite the most favorable
signs, the oldest gunner will find that more or less uncertainty exists
in obtaining sport, and that his unlucky expeditions generally outnumber
his lucky ones. Often a flight will commence unexpectedly and without
any apparent reason; and a change of weather, after a long continuance
of wind from one quarter, will be followed by good shooting for some
days, although such weather is not intrinsically favorable. The follower
of bay-birds must therefore make up his mind to disappointment, and on
such occasions live on his hopes for the future, or his recollections of
the past.

For this sport a heavy gun, such as is commonly employed for ducks, is
not at all necessary; inasmuch as many of the birds are small and the
flocks frequently scattered, it is rarely desirable to use two ounces of
shot and five drachms of powder; and to fire such a charge at a solitary
dowitcher, as is often done, is simply ridiculous. A light field-gun,
with an ounce and a quarter of shot and three drachms and a half of
powder, (or, as I prefer, an ounce of shot and three drachms of powder,)
is amply sufficient–will confer more pleasure and require more skill in
the use, will cut down a reasonable number from a flock, and will kill a
single bird handsomely.

The gun should be kept at half-cock, and may be laid upon a bench beside
the sportsman; there is always time to cock it, even if a flock is not
seen till it is over the stools; and a gun at full cock in a stand, is a
danger that no reasonable man will encounter. In field-shooting, I do
not approve of carrying the gun at half-cock, believing, for certain
reasons unnecessary here to repeat, that it is less dangerous at
full-cock; but in a stand or in a house, or in fact anywhere but in the
field where it is always in the sportsman’s hand, it should be never
otherwise than at half-cock. It is common to pass in front of guns lying
on the bench in the stand, and they often fall off, and are usually
reached for by the sportsman while his eye is on the advancing flock,
and does not note whether his hand grasps the barrel or the triggers;
and there is an excitement, when the flight is rapid, sufficiently
perilous of itself in connexion with fire-arms, without uselessly
increasing it. Every precaution should therefore be taken; and if by
accident the gun which cannot go off at half-cock shall be discharged in
cocking or uncocking it, it will point forward, away from the stand, and
in such a direction that injury to human life cannot follow.

Next in importance to care in preventing the gun’s injuring a
fellow-creature, is care in preventing its being injured. The least
dampness, whether from fog or rain, and even the salt air alone, will
rust the delicate steel and iron, and, penetrating farther and farther,
make indentations that will spoil its beauty and injure its
effectiveness permanently. To prevent this, oil frequently applied is
the only remedy; a rag well oiled, and a bottle to replenish from,
should be among the ordinary equipments, and invariably taken to the
shooting-ground; the first symptom of rust or even discoloration should
be removed, and every portion of the iron-work kept well lubricated. At
night a waterproof covering should be used, and the charge invariably
left undrawn, as the dirt prevents oxydization for a time; and during a
rain the utmost care should be taken to protect, if not the entire gun,
at least the locks and trigger-plate. Kerosene oil is excellent to
remove rust, but is too thin to form a coating, and not so good a
protection as sweet or whale oil. Varnish is highly recommended, but I
have never known any one to try it; and in case no oil can be obtained,
the gunners on Long Island are in the habit of shooting a small snipe,
which is often extremely fat, and using its skin as an oiled rag.

Of course with a breech-loader the charge is withdrawn, and the cleaning
apparatus may be forced through every evening, although this is
unnecessary, as the dirt is rather a protection; and after the cleaning,
whether of the muzzle-loader or breech-loader, the barrels should be
well oiled both inside and out. If, however, the gun is to be left for a
long time unused and exposed to salt air, a piece of greasy rag wound
upon a stick may be thrust into the barrels to the bottom, and oil
should be liberally applied to the exposed parts. Moreover, the locks,
however well they may fit, will be injured after a while, and should be
removed and examined occasionally. The size of shot used should be
changed according to the season and character of the flight; in July,
when the yellow-legs and dowitchers are the principal victims, No. 8 is
abundantly large; but in August, when curlews, marlin, and willets are
flying, all of which are able to endure severe punishment, No. 6 is
preferable. Eley’s cartridges are often useful with grass-plover,
although they ball so frequently that the majority of sportsmen have
lost faith in them.

Favorable seasons for snipe, when heavy or repeated rains have saturated
the meadows, and filled every hollow with stagnant pools of dirty water,
are also favorable for mosquitoes. Persons who suffer from the bites of
this pestiferous insect–and the difference between individuals upon
this subject is remarkable–should prepare themselves with mosquito-nets
and ill-scented oils, as they would for a visit to the wild woods; while
those who are much affected by the sun should bring unguents with which
to temper its intensity and assuage the pain that its burning rays
inflict.

Shoes are the proper things for the feet, as boots become heated and
uncomfortable; and a brown linen jacket with white flannel pantaloons,
thick enough to resist the attacks of a mosquito, and with the necessary
underclothes for an exceptionally cold day, constitute the most
practical rig.

If the sportsman use a muzzle-loader–which he should not do if he can
afford to buy a breech-loader–he must have a loading-stick which he can
extemporize from his cleaning-rod by substituting a ramrod head for the
jag. This he does by simply having a piece of brass of the proper size
and shape to screw into the place of the latter. He should also have two
guns, or he loses the chance at the returning flock, which is the most
exciting, as it is often the most successful shot.

The powder should be coarse; the large grain of the ducking-powder being
alone fitted to withstand the deleterious effects of the moisture that
is an invariable concomitant of the salt atmosphere of the ocean.

One great difficulty that the writer has encountered in preparing this
work, is a proper selection of names–the natural history of our country
is popularly so little understood; to copy English names and apply them
to creatures bearing a faint resemblance in general coloring, though
neither in habits nor scientific distinctions, was so natural to the
first immigrants, and the introduction of a proper appellation is so
nearly impossible, that the confusion in nomenclature of our birds,
beasts, and fishes is hardly surprising. This confusion existing in
every department of natural history–confounding fish of all varieties,
leaving birds nameless, or giving them too many names–culminates among
the bay-snipe.

Although the bony-fish or mossbunkers of New York become the menhaden of
the Eastern States, and king-fish are transformed into barb in New
Jersey, and perch become pickerel in the west–there are rarely more
than two names, and every fish has some designation; but with bay-snipe,
after an infinite multiplication of names for certain species, others
are left entirely unnamed. Many that are frequently killed are without a
popular designation, and more still are called frost-birds, and
meadow-snipe, and beach-birds–names that might with justice be applied
to the entire class, and which are so utterly confused, that persons
from different sections of the country do not know what others are
talking about. To make matters worse, the scientific gentlemen have
stepped in, and after indulging in plenty of bad Latin, have added fresh
English appellations, more unmeaning and less appropriate if possible
than the common ones.

From this mass of incongruities the writer has endeavored, while
preserving the best name, to select the one in general use, bearing in
mind that names are mere substitutes, and not descriptive adjectives.
The name frost-bird or frost-snipe–which belongs to entirely different
creatures–is applicable to every bird that appears after a frost, and
as nearly a hundred varieties are in this category, it is not
distinctive; the names meadow-snipe and beach-bird are ridiculous, but
the latter, being applied to an unimportant class, is allowed to stand.
The snipe that is herein called a krieker, or, as it may be spelled,
creaker, which utters a hoarse, creaking note, is called in various
places meadow-snipe–although most of the bay-birds haunt the meadows;
fat-bird, whereas others are equally fat; and short neck, in spite of
the fact that its neck is longer than some species; while ornithologists
call it pectoral sandpiper, probably because it has a breast. So also
with the brant-bird, which is called on the coast of New Jersey
horsefoot-snipe, because it feeds on the spawn of the horsefoot;
notwithstanding that the yellow-legs and several others do the same.
The name, however, is not satisfactory on account of its similarity to
the brant or brent-goose; and probably the scientific designation,
turnstone, if it were at all in common acceptation, would be better. It
is to be hoped these names will at some day be harmonized by universal
consent, and these pages will at least make mutual comprehension open
the way for that desirable result. The sickle-bill, jack-curlew, marlin,
willet, golden-plover, yelper, dowitcher, and krieker, are excellent;
and the ring-tailed marlin, black-breast plover, yellow-legs, and
robin-snipe, are at least descriptive. Were these generally accepted, a
simple and tolerably accurate system of nomenclature would be obtained;
and it has been my effort, while placing the preferable name at the head
of the description of each variety, to collate all the other names that
in any section of our vast territory are applied to the same bird. In
this attempt I can only be partially successful; for the ingenuity of
the American people in coining new names, added to a profound ignorance
of ornithology, has produced a confusion that no one man can reduce to
order.

Bay-snipe, except the plovers, kriekers, and a few others, are not
considered delicate eating, contracting along the salt marshes a sedgy
flavor; but on the shores of the western lakes, where the fresh water
appears to remove this peculiarity, the yellow-legs and yelpers–which
are often found in considerable numbers, and are called by the general
appellation of plovers–are almost equal in tender, juicy delicacy to
the English snipe. Whether the same change is noticeable in the larger
varieties, I cannot say of my own knowledge.

The gunners have an ingenious way of stringing them in bunches of a half
dozen each, on the longest feathers taken from their wings, a pair of
these being tied together by the feather ends, and the quillpoints
thrust through the nostrils of the birds. It is desirable to put them up
in small bunches, as under the warm temperature of summer they will,
unless every precaution is exercised, soon become tainted. To prevent
this, the entrails should also be carefully removed without disturbing
the plumage; and a little salt, or, as many persons recommend, coffee,
rubbed inside, and they should be at all times carefully protected from
the sun. Their sedgy flavor grows stronger with every day they are kept;
and being extremely oily, the least taint renders them, together with
all the wild inhabitants of the coast, unfit for food.

Bay-snipe are essentially migratory, rarely stopping on our shores to
build their nests and rear their young; during the spring months they
pass to or beyond the coast of Labrador, and attend to the duties of
maternity in the vast levels and swamps that surround Hudson’s Bay, and
constitute a large portion of the northern part of British North
America. In my ramblings through the Provinces, I was frequently
informed that they abounded during the latter part of summer on the
marshes near the Bay Chaleur in New Brunswick. This must evidently have
been during their return flight; but whether they were our bay-birds in
their vast variety, or whether they were merely the flocks of golden
plover that follow the winding of the coast and subsequently visit
Nantucket and Montauk Point, I had no opportunity to determine by
personal experience.

With us they make their appearance in the neighborhood of Boston Bay,
and thence they are found, with various intermissions, caused by the
nature of the ground, all the way to the State of Texas. The innumerable
bays, sounds, and lagoons of our Southern States, inclosed by broad
meadows and including thousands of marshy islands, are their favorite
feeding-grounds, and are visited by them in unnumbered thousands. The
larger varieties may be seen there all through the fall quietly feeding,
and scarcely noticing the approach of man. In Texas they seem to
congregate in vast bodies, and probably move off to or beyond the
equator in the early winter months, although this has never been
positively ascertained.

They are not killed as game south of Virginia, and rarely south of New
Jersey; in fact, it may be said that only on Cape Cod, Long Island, and
the shore line of New Jersey, are they scientifically pursued. At these
places the sport has greatly diminished of late years; a few years ago
Barnstable beach was a celebrated resort; and at Quogue, parties used no
stools, but stationed themselves along the narrow neck that connects the
beach with the main land, and fired till their guns were dirty or their
ammunition exhausted. Then it was no unusual thing to expend
twenty-five pounds of shot in a day, where now the sportsman that could
use up five would be fortunate.

Of all the locations on this extent of meadow and beach, no place is so
famous, from its natural advantages and its ancient reputation, as
Quogue. It is true that the best pond is permanently occupied by a
famous Governor, a still more famous General, and a notorious
Colonel–although the latter is not “in the bond;” but there are other
good stands, and for small birds–yellow-legs, dowitchers, and
robin-snipe–it has no equal. Although many flocks pass it high in air,
all those that follow the coast, low down to the earth, must cross the
meadows that are compressed to a narrow strip at this point, which is
the dividing-ground between the two great bays on the south side of Long
Island.

Unfortunately, a watering-place for the summer resort of the exquisites
of New York has been established in the vicinity, and the consequent
advantages of comfortable beds and a good table are more than overborne
by the annoyance of such companionship. If there be a flight of birds,
every unfledged sportsman takes out his elegant fowling-piece, and,
daintily dressed, proceeds to the meadow, where he would be
comparatively harmless, and dangerous only to himself, were there room
for him and his fellows. But as the ground is limited, and the favorable
points few, he is sure to interfere; and, while killing nothing himself,
ruins the prospects of those who could do better. At Quogue, decoys
were first used about the year 1850, and the best day’s sport of late
was one hundred and thirty-eight birds.

West of Quogue there are some snipe, and occasionally a good flight at
South Oyster Bay, and more rarely still at Rockaway; but the large birds
are not numerous north of New Jersey. Squan Beach, Barnegat, Egg Harbor,
and Brigantine Beach are famous for the large birds–the sickle-bills,
curlews, willets, and marlins–that visit them; the same number of shots
cannot be obtained as at Quogue, but the bag is larger. At the former
places there is also a flight, of greater or less extent, of dowitchers
and yellow-legs, but these are not so abundant as along the margin of
the Great South Bay of Long Island. On the other hand, a bag of one
hundred of the larger varieties is not unusual; while at Egg Harbor the
robin-snipe, which affect marshy islands are exceedingly numerous.