I leave a slight crack open at the top of the bedroom window because I like fresh air when I sleep. Even when it’s cold, it’s nice to snuggle down under the Hudson Bay blanket with the down duvet on top. In December, sometimes the Arctic Clippers cause the curtains to swish wildly against the glass pane. Frequently, this will awaken me even during a deep sleep. I will often roll over, pull the covers up higher and seek warmth against the body of my mate. It’s my legs that feel the cold most. They seem to tingle with the cold, my capillaries expanding to allow for easier blood flow.
I am thinking of human comforts as I sit under the canvas spray curtain of my duckboat, huddled next to the propane heater. I can hear the northwest wind pounding wavelets against my hull as the boat rocks gently to and fro. The sky is just beginning to show reluctant signs of awakening to another brisk morning. The blue-greens give way to salmon and purple streaks highlighted against the cirrus clouds. The sound of whistling wings rises to a crescendo above me.
The Arctic blast has locked up most of the swamps and now the only food and open water is in the bay, where the wind blows wild celery into the shoreline, where I sit waiting amidst my bobbing decoys. Silhouetted by the backlight of the sky I can see large flocks of birds seeking shelter and food. They have come in during the night riding the wave of the cold front.
I pour a cup of french roast coffee and munch on a frosted cruller while I wait for the legal shooting hour to begin. I am surrounded by the wild quacking and raspy “mmmphs” of big drake mallards as they survey my spread. My heart beat quickens. I keep my head low, hugging the side of the canvas blind covered in grass.
I can hear slush ice rubbing on the starboard hull as it builds. This will likely be one of the last days I can access this spot. The season is coming to a close and the big redlegged mallards and black ducks are just getting here. These are the hardiest specimens of their species. They thrive in adversity and pride themselves on outlasting the fair weather hunters of early fall. Their cheeks bulge at the sides, their magnificent iridescent green heads strike bold poses. Their auburn chests are puffed out proudly and their tail feathers have the regal triple curl. Affixed to their necks are clean white bowties. But the most noticeable characteristic of these late migrators is their beet red legs.
Some folks claim it’s because the capillaries of their powerful feet are expanded to allow circulation while swimming among the ice floes. Biologists tend to discount this but offer no good reason for the anomaly.
As the minutes tick by toward legal shooting time, I am preparing for the moment. I load my old autoloader shotgun and the “click” from the shell passing into the chamber sends a dozen birds clawing for altitude from my decoy spread. They’ve heard that sound before, somewhere way up north when the last hunter tried to take them.
At last, my watch alarm signals it is time.
I spot a flock of 20 birds to my south, swinging over the bay, fighting the wind. I take a deep breath and bear down on my diaphragm to blow a powerful hail call. They turn. The flock is now winging their way toward me with abandon. I utter a feeding chuckle and a lonely hen “quack” inviting them down.
They turn over the frozen swamp and set their wings in cupped formation. They wiffle from side to side, spilling air from their mighty pinions. Red legs drop down from their flanks and as they hang over the spread ready to light, I rise and do what humanity has done for generations.
In the moment I am living, breathing and feeling all my senses heightened by the connection.
It is the end of the season and the redlegs are in.