01/16/09 — Marine finally bags his swan on a hunt

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Marine finally bags his swan on a hunt

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on January 16, 2009 1:46 PM

The music made by swans is eerily haunting. Once heard, the sound of the vocalizations of the largest waterfowl in North America never leaves a hunter's memory.

So distinctly different and yet so many sounds emanate from a flock of swans, it's difficult to mimic them. The adult birds make a whooing sound. The juveniles constantly "beep" and the "in-between" swans have octaves of whistles.

Added to flapping wings sounding like sheets hanging from a clothesline billowing in a strong wind and the buzzing of their primary feathers as they brake the air to land, the sound of a flock of swans decoying is only rivaled by the sight of them.

A hollow plastic whistle made of PVC pipe or a properly-educated human voice can mimic their cries enough to turn them toward the decoys. But nothing can duplicate the vision of a flock of swans moving low against the clouds.

Culley Wilson guides swan, bear and duck hunters in the northeastern counties of North Carolina. The area around Pungo Lake, Lake Phelps and Lake Mattamuskeet is considered "Swan Central" because more swans spend winter in the surrounding counties of Hyde, Tyrrell, Beaufort and Washington than anywhere else in the world.

"I lease land in several counties for hunting swans," said Wilson. "Hunting helps move swans off farmers' fields. Their feet are large and flatten large areas of winter wheat if they stay on one place for too long."

A large party of hunters had gathered overnight at Shipyard Landing in Windsor. One of them was Dave Owen, a 39-year-old Infantry Operations Officer stationed at Camp Lejeune.

"This is my first swan hunt," said Owen. "I found out about Culley's Wild Wing Adventures Guide Service through the Internet. Once I received my permit. I wanted to get a permit for a migratory Canada goose as well. But I only received the swan permit."

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issues permits for tundra swan and migratory Canada geese for the Northeast Hunt Unit through a lottery system. Hunters have reasonably good odds, better than 50-50, of being drawn for a swan permit. Currently 5,000 swan permits are issued annually. About half of them are attached to swans by successful hunters.

"I have had swan permits in the past in Virginia and North Carolina, but I've never been able to hunt them before," said Owen. "It's something I've always wanted to do. I am a dedicated waterfowl hunter and it seems like getting a chance to hunt the largest of all waterfowl is only natural for a waterfowl hunter.

"The opportunity is right here and there's a better chance for taking a swan here than anywhere else. So why not give it a try?"

The hunters settled into a field with most of them hunkering down in a farm ditch wearing waders and hip boots to keep their feet dry. Owen was designated as the first shooter because he had to get back to his duties.

Wilson settled him into an Avery ground blind. It took a few tries for Owen to learn how to flip the top open and swing up his 12-gauge shotgun to shoot. But once he felt comfortable, Wilson watched the sky.

He listened and waited.

Several flocks of swans flew by in the distance as clouds gathered. Wilson had to alter his spread of 20 plastic shell swan decoys several times to align them properly to make a landing area for the huge birds, which can weigh more than 25 pounds because of shifting wind accompanying a weather front. He called to several flocks that paid no attention.

But about mid-afternoon, a flock of swans answered his calls and cupped their wings. With black feet the size of saucers outstretched for a landing, the huge birds started gaining altitude when Owens flipped open the top of his blind.

The bird on his side required that he roll to the right and he is a right- handed shooter. His volley of shots missed because of the difficult shooting position. He chuckled a little at the miss and slid the blind cover back in place.

"That was really exciting," said Owen. "I'm ready to try it again."

It wasn't long before he had another opportunity.

This time, his shot was true and the tundra swan fell to the soybean stubble. Owen's hands shook as he tagged the bird. His big smile could be seen through the semi-transparent, camouflage face net.

"That was about as exciting as hunting gets," said Owen. "It was a beautiful hunt."