Duck season opened briefly in Maryland and Virginia last weekend, not with a quack but a peep.
The peeps came from wood ducks, denizens of the deep forest whose call is unlike any other.
The Audubon book says a drake woodie calls "jeeee!" while his bride sings "hooo-eeek!" when contented and "krrek-krek!" when alarmed. Maybe so. To me, it all sounds like "peep" when it rings through the barren hardwoods.
"What I heard first was a whoosh when they went over," said Jim, who enjoyed his first wood duck hunt when the season opened Friday. "It was still dark. You could barely make them out against the sky. There must have been 15 or 20 of them, right over my head. I never saw them coming."
Every duck hunter remembers the first time he heard that whoosh. But how many have heard the peep of woodies?
You have to get out early in the fall for these birds, whose nickname is summer duck. They're off at first frost, gone without a trace for parts as far south as Cuba and the Bahamas, which is why the brief early season was started in the first place, to give local waterfowlers a crack.
Phil Million, who hunts in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, would attest to the suddenness of their departure. He said the season probably came a little late this year for his neck of the woods.
"They were already gone," said Million, who hunted two days along the South Fork of the Shenandoah last weekend and saw only seven ducks.
But in the flats of southern Maryland and over on the Eastern Shore, where cold comes a little later, woodies remained plentiful. In Chestertown, Dr. Rollin Sparrowe, waterfowl specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saw plenty, "but they were flying low and fast and they weren't easy to hit," said his wife, Bettina.
Down at the Double Eagle Creek Hunt Club, where I belong, the fellows who hunted Friday morning were overwhelmed by waves of woodies. They said they'd never seen anything like it. They did so much beating and banging, in fact, that by Friday evening when I turned up, the remaining ducks were scarce and wary.
It was a half-hour of hard work to paddle up the creek from the mouth, fighting a thicket of water grasses.
Then it was up and over one beaver dam and across the first beaver pond, up over the second beaver dam and finally over a third before clawing through the scratchy underbrush to a hiding place atop the beaver's house at the head of the creek.
Whew! But what food here. Everywhere you looked in this desolate place, bright green pondweed floated on the surface and tiny, granular green seeds hung suspended in the water. Coontail, milfoil and other submerged grasses were too thick to wade through, and around the perimeter of the pond stood high woods where acorns and hickories grew, another favored food.
A researcher in Minnesota once found 56 acorns in the throat and crop of a wood duck a hunter shot. A wonder the poor bird didn't choke; a bigger wonder it could fly.
I settled in and hid, awaiting dusk. Soon, wood ducks in small flocks began cascading into the pond to spend the night.
They were tricky. Move a muscle and they flared. Like Sparrowe on the other side of the Chesapeake, I found the shooting plenty challenging.
When darkness came, the ducks came faster. It was too late to shoot by then, but with nothing to go back to but a bed in the car, we stayed to watch.
Then it was pitch black. As we paddled down the creek, bumping from bank to bank, my partner, Manuel Munoz-Carrasco, turned in his kayak and said, "Do you see the moon that I see?"
I turned. A full moon had begun its rise, bathing the marsh in dim, fiery orange.
The woodies were safe on the pond, grazing on a groaning board of food. If you listened carefully, you could hear them:
"Peep! Peep! Peep!"
As plentiful as wood ducks are now, it wasn't too long ago they had nearly vanished from North America. They grew scarce in the early 1900s, victims of overhunting and loss of habitat as marshes and swamps were drained and woodlands cleared. Hunting wood ducks was banned in 1918, and changing land practices later helped spawn a revival. By 1941, a limited hunting season was permitted, and by the 1960s the population had risen to about 3 million woodies.
Part of the credit for the restoration goes to bird lovers who put up nesting boxes around swamps and woods ponds, which wood ducks have used extensively.
In Maryland and Virginia, there was some opposition to reopening wood duck hunting on grounds it was a species that had taken much to restore. But woodies continue to prosper despite the four-day early season in Virginia, during which hunters may take four woodies a day, and the two-day season in Maryland, where the limit is two.