It was a cold drizzly day in early April. Dark clouds hung low in the leaden sky and three men huddled in Bob Wilkinson’s boat as it drifted off Emerson Rocks.
Bob tweaked a line tied to several live brant swimming ahead of the boat. Some of these live decoys had been wounded in last year’s hunt and Bob had cared for them all winter long. Now they were fat, happy and ready for the spring shooting season.
Bob tweaked the line again and the live decoys gave their inviting cc-cronk, cc-cronk, cc-cronk feeding call. The wild birds took notice.
Now came the hard part. Bob could see his sports were getting excited as hundreds of large birds swam toward their camouflaged boat.
“Stay down! Stay down! Wait until the first ones swim right up to the boat.”
“They will be right in our laps.”
“That’s the idea. Now wait, wait.”
Bob finally pulled sharply on the line and the live decoys scurried to the side.
“Why those dirty little traitors to their breed do exactly what they are told.”
“Now, Now! Shoot! Shoot!”
Bob bagged 40 of the small geese on his first shot. John Phillips and the “sports” shot a satisfying 30 birds each. They had killed 375 brant in the last nine days, a pretty good draw for the month long hunting season.
Back in camp, Phillips recorded the temperature, weather conditions and how many old and young birds they had killed. It was easy to tell the young brant because they still white edging on their coverts and secondary feathers.
Professor Phillips taught ornithology at Harvard, lived in Ipswich, and was the world’s expert on black ducks. At night he and Bob would discuss what the numbers meant.
“Well I’ll be God damned. Last year we only shot a few dozen birds and we thought they would never recover, but this year we shot hundreds again.”
“It must be those bloody confederates who overshoot them in the Carolina’s.”
“We can’t blame everything on the Southerners. No, I think the problem lies in their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle.”
“ Have you noticed that we always seem to shoot more young birds during the plentiful years?’”
“Good God, you know I think you’ve got it.”
“The answer! Some summers the Arctic must have more storms than the others and they must kill off all the young chicks.”
John Phillips had it half right. The cause of the rise and fall of brant did lie in their Northern breeding grounds. But the problem was lemmings, not storms.
The lascivious little rodents would reproduce prolifically every summer until they outstripped the tundra of grass seeds. Then the entire population would be gripped with a suicidal mania.
Swarms of lemmings would race across the tundra until they reached the Arctic Ocean where they would plunge in and keep swimming, until they were exhausted and drowned. The surface of the ocean would be covered with their lifeless bodies for miles at a stretch. This happened regularly on a four-year cycle.
The absence of lemmings would reverberate through the food chain. Arctic fox numbers would increase during the summers of lemming abundance. But, after the lemmings committed suicide the foxes would move off the tundra to try to find other sources of abundant food. This left the tundra without one of its most efficient predators, making it possible for the brant population to rapidly swell, because almost uniquely among bird species, they could lay as many as 30 eggs a summer.
If Phillips had had access to the pelt records of the Hudson Bay Company he might have seen the distinct four-year cycle. Today bird watchers know that in the winters after the lemmings’ collapse they are far more likely to see irruptions of large Arctic predators like snowy owls coming south to look for food.
By the time Phillips wrote up his findings in the 1930’s, however, birders were far more concerned about regulations. Spring shooting of ducks and brant had been banned in Massachusetts in 1909, and in 1912 market hunting was made illegal along with the use of live decoys.
As early as 1879 a well-known egg collector and ornithologist had led birding trips to Plum Island aboard the Carlotta out of Ipswich. His walks became highly popular attracting birders from all over New England. Then as now, there was a spirited rivalry between the different groups of bird clubs. But the walks also made it apparent that Plum Island was a crucial link in the Atlantic flyway, and one of the best places on the East Coast to see up to 300 different species of migrating birds.
Edward Forbush, the state ornithologist for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts wrote, “Secure Plum Island and make it a bird sanctuary, for in my opinion, it is the most important region on our coast.”
So it was no accident that when Annie Brown bequeathed a large sum to the Federation of Bird Clubs, they decided to use the money to purchase the southern end of Plum Island to make up the Annie Brown Wildlife Sanctuary.
And whom did they hire to protect birds from poachers? The former market hunters Clifford Brocklebank and Charles Safford who used to love to gallop up to island visitors and read them the riot act about poaching and gunning.
The only hunter they never caught was Bob Wilkinson. After suffering a severe stroke, his friends still took him out so he could see sit on the running board of the car and watch them hunt pheasants. But one day they heard two shots and ran back fearing the worst. Bob sat in his chair smiling and because he couldn’t speak pointed to the left and the right. His friends released their hunting dogs and each came back with a pheasant in his mouth.
This is an excerpt from William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingram.content.com.