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    Just Dovey

    Sometimes a good hide can be improvised, like this blind of tumbleweeds and netting.
    Sometimes a good hide can be improvised, like this blind of tumbleweeds and netting.
    With more time to set up, a hunter can place a screen of netting among ripe sunflowers to fashion a suitable hiding place.
    With more time to set up, a hunter can place a screen of netting among ripe sunflowers to fashion a suitable hiding place.
    The birds came in a rush, like a scatterbrained phalanx of fighter jets on low-elevation maneuvers. A dozen blue-gray bodies hurtled toward the neatly crafted blind behind which I crouched on a folding stool. When the birds approached within 40 yards, I arose. They veered as if possessed with some sixth sense that enabled them to detect fully hidden hunters. I discharged both barrels of a 12-gauge over-and-under, shot scattering harmlessly into the dusty field ahead of the blind and behind the birds as it had done on several previous encounters. My host had billed this as “some of the most challenging shooting in the world”; not a whiff of exaggeration sullied his proclamation.
    Here’s a familiar scene after a dove and pigeon shoot in the Bloemfontain area: more shells on the ground than birds.
    Here’s a familiar scene after a dove and pigeon shoot in the Bloemfontain area: more shells on the ground than birds.

    Bloemfontain, located in the Free State province of South Africa, is the country’s judicial capital (its administrative and legislative capitals are located in Pretoria and Cape Town, respectively). Its metro area is home to over 700,000 inhabitants who enjoy a relatively warm climate where winter highs are typically in the 60s, and overnight lows fall a shade below freezing. The city and its surroundings receive annual precipitation of 22 inches. Roses adapt so well to its climate that the metropolis is nicknamed the “City of Roses” for the abundance of the romantic flowers adorning its streets, parks and gardens.

    High above the action, a falcon keeps an eye on both pigeons and hunters.
    High above the action, a falcon keeps an eye on both pigeons and hunters.
    However, roses aren’t the only flower to flourish in the Bloemfontain area. Just outside the city lies one of the most productive areas in South Africa for sunflowers, crowned as the most important oilseed crop in the country. Peruse online listings for local vacation rentals, and you’ll encounter establishments such as the “Sunflower Place.” In 2015, a travel magazine listed the sunflower fields along the highway between Bloemfontain and Johannesburg as the second most impressive place in the nation to view flowers.

    Where there are sunflowers, there are birds. Where there are cities, there are pigeons. Another moniker for Bloemfontain might be “Pigeon Town.” Thousands upon thousands of pigeons and doves perch in the city’s trees, roost under its bridges at night and defecate freely on all manner of human habitation. Come midmorning, they wing from the suburbs or fly out from downtown to the sunflower fields to feed. Intermingled with the abundant speckled pigeon (also called African rock pigeons) are several other species of native pigeons and doves. Catching the birds en route to their feeding areas gives shotgunners the opportunity to swing on exceedingly swift and erratic targets in high volume.

    At the day’s final shooting location, large tumbleweeds make excellent natural blind material.
    At the day’s final shooting location, large tumbleweeds make excellent natural blind material.

    We arrived in Bloemfontain in late afternoon the day prior to our scheduled shooting and checked into the Hobbit Hotel. Esteemed author J.R.R. Tolkien was born in the residence, now converted to a bed and breakfast establishment. My wife Lisa and I were assigned to the Legolas Room, named for the handsome and athletic elf from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s most famous and enduring literary work, also the basis for a blockbuster trilogy of movies. My friend Ian and his son Max were similarly lodged in rooms bearing the names of famous characters, as were Carl and Malcolm, a father/son duo who managed Ian’s farm in another region and provided transportation.

    Lisa Ballard heads to her blind at the edge of a sunflower field.
    Lisa Ballard heads to her blind at the edge of a sunflower field.
    Dinnertime found us at the “Longhorn” where we met Kevin, the local organizer of the shooting. A tall, still muscular man of some age, he had been a rugby player of some renown as a young man. According to Carl, a chunk of tooth from a bar fight combatant was permanently lodged beneath a shock of white hair in the top of Kevin’s skull.

    We learned a bit about the morrow’s shooting program over fine steaks in an establishment diligently seeking to cultivate an aura of the American West. No need to arise before dawn, the pigeons and doves don’t begin flying until midmorning. Recent flights had included fewer birds than normal, but the shooting should still be okay. After dinner, we returned to the Hobbit Hotel, ducking into the basement for a nightcap. A cozy bar fashioned from a section of the massive trunk and lower branches of an ancient tree lent a mythical backdrop to laughter and conversation.

    A screen of empty feed sacks on stakes helps direct birds toward the shooters.
    A screen of empty feed sacks on stakes helps direct birds toward the shooters.

    After a leisurely breakfast and aromatic African coffee, we drove a short distance from town into a landscape increasingly dominated by sunflower fields. To prepare blinds, Kevin and a crew of two helpers set about driving sections of steel rebar into the dusty red soil at the edge of a two-track adjacent to a sunflower field. Bored with the proceedings, Max cajoled Malcolm into tossing what appeared to be tiny melons from a tangling vine at the edge of the sunflowers high into the air for target practice. On the third launch, the fruit exploded into a juicy pulp at the shot, much to the delight of the shooter and onlookers.

    Preparations completed, we took our stations behind a series of four blinds arrayed in a row along the berm and trail separating the fields. Along with the iron stakes and camo netting for the blinds, the crew had arranged a series of empty white feed sacks onto stakes in a loose “V” configuration at the ends of line. Kevin informed me that the sacks, wafting in a light breeze, would help funnel birds over the shooters.

    “Over,” however, poorly described the first rush of pigeons. They came toward us head-on, hurtling not more than five feet above the barren red soil in front of the blinds. So swift was their passage, I had scarcely thumbed the safety on the 12-gauge before they had whizzed past. Ian managed a couple of shots from the blind on my right. When I peeked from the back of the netting to my left, Lisa, also caught off guard by the speed and trajectory of the incoming birds, caught my eye with a smile and shake of her head.

    Bang, bang!” went the gun on my shoulder as another ragged flock bombed between us. Nothing. Ditto for Lisa, though Ian managed to drop a single pigeon in front of his hiding place. Thus passed the next hour in similar fashion with ample targets but a skinny bag.

    Finally, on a second shot, I dropped a bird that plopped within feet of the netting on the left side of my blind. A short time later, Kevin called for a halt and relocation. I counted the blue cartridge hulls in the dust behind my stool: 30. Just one other pigeon had succumbed to my shooting.

    Lisa Ballard sets up on a flock of fast birds crossing low over a bare field.
    Lisa Ballard sets up on a flock of fast birds crossing low over a bare field.

    As Kevin and his helpers moved our blinds across the two-track truck trail just into a field of standing sunflowers, I chatted with Carl about our quarry. One female pigeon can account for at least 50 offspring per year if you tally her young and those of her daughters, he told me. Although a single pigeon weighs less than the weighty head drooping from the stiff stalk of a ripening sunflower plant, the birds can cause considerable damage to the harvest.

    A speckled pigeon eyes the photographer from a tree outside the Hobbit Hotel.
    A speckled pigeon eyes the photographer from a tree outside the Hobbit Hotel.
    The speckled pigeon gets its name from the triangular markings on its feather tips.
    The speckled pigeon gets its name from the triangular markings on its feather tips.
    The additional concealment provided by the sunflowers resulted in more airborne missiles zipping past our blinds. My shooting began to improve as well. Rather than taking the first shot at directly incoming birds, I found better success quickly swinging the gun and firing just as they flared. By the time Carl and Malcolm delivered sandwiches and soft drinks for lunch, I’d dropped around a dozen birds, some notably smaller than the first two. When time was called to move to a different location, I took a moment to more closely examine my feathered harvest.

    Most of the birds were speckled pigeons. With a size and shape similar to the feral rock doves ubiquitous around city parks and farmsteads in the United States (and also found in South Africa), their plumage was quite different. Feathers the color of rust with bluish undertones adorned the upper portions of their wings and back, fading to gray-blue along the tail and the primary feathers of the wings. Some of the wing feathers were tipped with tiny white triangular markings, giving the birds a decidedly speckled appearance, hence their name. The extent of the trademark dotting varied widely from bird to bird. The eyes of the speckled pigeons were haloed with bare, wrinkled red skin somewhat similar to the comb of a barnyard chicken.

    Lisa Ballard stretches skyward to drop a rare, high bird on an overhead shot.
    Lisa Ballard stretches skyward to drop a rare, high bird on an overhead shot.

    In addition to the speckled pigeons, I’d also downed a handful of laughing doves. A much smaller bird, the doves sported a mottled salmon and blue appearance on the back and wings with softer salmon tones on the breast and neck. A faint checkering of black dots was visible on the neck of the laughing doves just above the breast.

    Thousands upon thousands of doves and pigeons are attracted to sunflower fields in the region.
    Thousands upon thousands of doves and pigeons are attracted to sunflower fields in the region.
    Our new location secreted the shooters along a wire fence behind blinds of netting and tumbleweeds. A long shelter belt of trees grew perpendicular to the line on my left, most of them to the rear of our blinds. Some distance ahead of us was a horse pasture with a stock tank. After our relocation and a short time of observation, Kevin’s ingenuity became apparent. I could faintly see birds stopping off to drink at the tank before flying in our direction to rest in the shelter belt or sail above us to the endless sea of sunflower fields.

    We shot for just over an hour at this final location. I hit my first double on a brace of laughing doves, catching the first on an 11 o’clock trajectory from the front of the blind and the other as it passed at 9:30. Another brace of speckled pigeons fell within a stone toss of the doves a few minutes later. Notably more birds were dotting the earth around Lisa’s blind as well. It seemed we had finally mastered the velocity and erratic flight of the targets.

    I’d counted my empty shell casings and birds from the previous placements. A mixed bag of just over a dozen pigeons and doves from the current blind brought the total to 30 birds in 173 shots on what Carl pronounced as a “low average” day in relation to the flight. After a slow start, I was pleased with my shooting but even more grateful for the chance to experience a unique day on a faraway continent. As Kevin’s helpers collected the birds, I was informed our efforts would, in a small way, contribute to the local farming economy and provide some meat entrees for laborers’ families. What a great way to finish an adventure I fondly recall as “just dovey.”

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