The tearing sound of air rushing through pinions startles us as a formation of more than a dozen mallards sails overhead. They turn to our pleading calls and follow a flight path almost identical to the previous flock's. Beaten down by the wind, the birds make their final approach right against the shoreline. This time, all three of us come up shooting as they pitch into the rig. Sidney, who is a bit outgunned with his 20-gauge double, cleanly takes a drake mallard over the decoys, while Tim and I claim two more that are flaring upward against the sky.
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The mallards keep coming, and it soon becomes apparent that we are in one of those perfect spots that duck hunters dream about. The side channel, surrounded on either side by tall timber, acts as a funnel for flocks working upstream against the wind. Any birds that turn to our calls and come up the channel are ours.
Throughout the morning, waves of giant Canada geese trade along the river, their melodic calls echoing off the surrounding timber. More than 50 years ago, thousands of migratory Canada geese wintered along the lower Mississippi River. Today, these birds rarely venture beyond southern Illinois, but growing flocks of resident Canadas are helping to revive the grand sandbar goose hunting that Nash Buckingham wrote about so many years ago.
A low, guttural honk betrays the approach of a pair of giant Canadas cruising down the channel with the wind at their tails. Tim hits them with a series of double clucks, and they make a wide, looping turn directly toward us. As they hover to land outside the decoys, we swat them down with a barrage of steel 2s. Belle gets a workout retrieving the big geese drifting in the middle of the channel. Weighing more than 12 pounds each, they make impressive additions to our large bag of mallards. We round out the day's shooting with an errant drake bluebill that bombs into the rig before we can shoulder our guns. When the diver flushes from the water, Sidney instinctively snap shoots the bird, displaying his quail hunting roots.
As I have the good fortune to see firsthand, Tara supports great numbers of wintering waterfowl and a rich diversity of other bird life. This past summer, participants in a birding tour hosted by Tara counted more than 115 species. The main attractions were a resident pair of nesting bald eagles, and several thousand wood storks, white ibis, and roseate spoonbills that migrate north from the tropics to spend the summer on the property.