FRENCHTOWN, Md. -- It was lonely and dark on the little sand road. "Stop here," Colin Quinn said. He stepped out into the night and bent an ear toward clumps of needle grass bowed to the breeze.

"God, I love that smell," Quinn said as the rich odor of the marsh wafted in. "There, can you hear 'em?"

A vague, melodic whistling carried in the night air. Listen long enough and it grew, multiplied a thousand times, until it was a contented, chaotic, sweet, whistling wilderness chorus.

"Baldpates," said Quinn, using the colloquial name for widgeons, wild wintering ducks newly arrived from nesting grounds in the far north. "Now we can go. I know where we'll be hunting tomorrow."

The dozen-odd houses of tiny Frenchtown lay 30 miles away across a featureless salt marsh on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore, 100 miles and three hours drive from Quinn's home near Annapolis.

It was a haul, and after the drive and a spectacular duck dinner he would sleep but three hours on a lumpy couch at the home of host and fellow waterfowler Chris Clarke, then rise at 3 a.m. for a day in the duck blind.

The red-bearded Quinn, 30, would pole, pull and paddle an overloaded canoe across muddy shallows for an hour by the light of a crescent moon to the place where the widgeons whistled, then spend an hour more arranging a huge spread of 100 decoys.

While he did that, his younger sister, Tara, and an invited guest, having slogged in by separate canoe, would stalk the marsh for materials to build a temporary blind. "The only thing I ask," Quinn said by way of instruction, "is that you make us invisible when the sun comes up."

At 6, the eastern sky would light orange from border to border and the flights would begin.

Duck season!

In truth, duck season officially opened last month when Maryland offered a two-day and Virginia a four-day early session for fair-weather wood ducks and teal.

But that was an appetizer. For diehards like Quinn, it isn't really duck season until cold winds and the big birds from the north arrive: Widgeons, gadwalls, pintails, black ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, greater and lesser scaup, Canada and snow geese -- the more the better.

Young as he is, Quinn is old enough to remember when Chesapeake Bay tributaries nearer home were awash in aquatic grasses that lured ducks by the thousands to the Severn and Magothy rivers, where he duck-hunted as a kid.

Now, the bay grasses are mostly dead and gone, victims of land development, sewage treatment effluent, excess fertilizers and runoff.

But Quinn's vision of how a duck marsh should look hasn't died. And in a few places like Fairmount and Deal Island wildlife management areas near here, the state has diked off a section of marsh, locking the foul tidewater out. Here, the shallows remain choked with vegetation and the ducks still come.

Quinn was lucky to be one of 20 applicants picked in a drawing to hunt the Deal Island impoundment on November's opening day Tuesday, and he was allowed to bring two guests.

"Hunting Deal Island on opening day with only 60 people," he mused before drifting off to brief and agitated sleep, "is the chance of a lifetime."

And so it was.

Black ducks came first. These wary denizens of the deep salt marsh sped by alone or in pairs just as it grew light enough to see them.

Blacks are among the many species in decline these days, and as a result are protected and off limits in the early season. "Don't shoot," Quinn would say. "Black duck."

Pintails came next in slightly larger flocks. You had to be careful with them, as well. Not long ago, the limit was 10 pintails a day, which was ridiculous. Now it's one per day, which leaves no room for flock-shooting.

It wasn't until clear daylight that the widgeons began to move, making the wonderful whistling sound as they flapped hell-for-leather across the sky. Why are ducks always in such a hurry? Racing to oblivion?

The widgeons were not hard to identify and with a limit of four per day, you could pick your shots.

Quinn made a fine shot on a decoying drake. His sister swung on a hen that buzzed past at breakneck speed, dropping it cleanly with a superb shot.

It was dizzying. Here came some speedy teal, left over from before the first frost. Here came a helpless pen-raised mallard, one of 40,000 the state puts out each year to supplement the dwindling supply of wild ducks. "We don't shoot state birds," said Quinn disparagingly.

Here came wild gadwalls, here more pintails, and now a flock of swans, making their eerie "whoo-whooo" calls. Mustn't shoot at them.

Here came a flock of Canada geese, far too wary to fly in range; here a trio of protected canvasbacks with their characteristic sculpted heads, and here a pair of blue-billed scaup.

In the days of plenty before 1972, when wild bay grasses still prospered, it was a challenge to waterfowlers to identify ducks before they shot.

Nowadays, except in rare places like this, you don't have to know much. Mostly, you see "popcorn" mallards that feed on what suburbanites dole out.

Diversity is the trademark of a healthy ecosytem, the biologists will tell you. Here at Deal Island, the marsh is abundant and diverse. Unfortunately, they had to lock the real world out to make it that way.

Here, the wind comes through the needle grass bearing the rich stench of life and the cries of creatures that come from places civilized man hasn't wrecked.

Not yet, anyway.