I was behind the wheel an hour before sunrise, with the aim of catching a mob of corvids unawares by getting into position before they stirred from their roosting sites. Crows and magpies are notoriously wary and certainly among the most cunning of the airgun pest controller’s quarry – but they can be caught off guard at dawn and dusk.
Wild creatures are usually more confident at the times of day when they don’t expect people to be lurking. Walk the fields around midday, and wildlife – quarry species included – will probably seem distinctly thin on the ground. But head out at the times when most people are still tucked up in their beds, or when they’re thinking about slipping back into them, and the countryside can be positively crawling with life.
This particular morning, I’d specifically got my sights set on a pair of magpies which I’d encountered during a recent session in the woods. I was after squirrels when I spotted them and, although I didn’t manage to get a shot off, they seemed to have developed an attachment to an overgrown patch on the edge of the woods.
My guess was that the birds had paired up and become territorial as their thoughts turned to nesting. The scrubby tangle of trees and shrubs looked like just the place that magpies would choose to hide this spring’s clutch of eggs. Unfortunately for the magpies, this estate is managed for pheasant and partridge shooting, and the last thing the gamekeeper wants is a burgeoning population of nest-robbing corvids on his patch. I was thinning out the squirrels to protect the game birds’ vulnerable nests from predation, and locating a magpies’ nesting site presented me with another opportunity to take out a pest with an appetite for eggs.
It was still dark when I parked up in a gateway close to the woods.
I loaded myself up with backpack and gun and trudged off through the misty gloom that hung over the fields. I’d travelled less than 100 metres from the car when a roe deer slipped through from the opposite side of the hedge and froze just feet in front of me. The beast was broadside and, although it only lingered for a moment, I was close enough to see the steam spouting from its nostrils in the greyness of dawn. Realising that it was precariously close to a human, the deer turned and bolted, disappearing into the murky half-light as it thundered down the hedge. I continued along the route taken by the deer until I reached the woods and eventually my hiding place close to where I’d spotted the magpies.
I’d set up a hide along this woodland edge on the previous afternoon, so I could quickly get myself into position for the daybreak ambush. Bearing in mind the thick tangle of cover that the magpies were eyeing up for a nesting site, I’d opted for a spot on the margin where trees were flanked by a large, flat field. Rather than trying to weave my shots through the mesh of twigs and branches, I was hoping to lure the inquisitive birds to the outer boughs where they would offer me much clearer shots.
Using the trees as a backdrop and poles for support, I set up a hide net within range of a tall ash tree with wide, open branches that reached out over the field – a perfect sitty tree. Although I took the time to peg down the lower edges of my hide net to stop it flapping in the wind, I didn’t bother dressing it with natural cover. I often go to great lengths using branches and stems to help the hide blend in with its surroundings but, on this occasion, the bare net was suitably inconspicuous against the stark backdrop of leafless trees.
To draw the magpies where I wanted them, I set out a decoy with some ‘bait’ in the open field. My offering was a squirrel, with its belly cut open to reveal its intestines – a corvid delicacy that I expected to be particularly appealing following the previous week’s heavy snowfall. Crows and magpies actively seek out cold weather casualties after a covering of snow has melted away, and I hoped they’d find the squirrel irresistible, especially as the cold snap had probably put an edge on their hunger.
I added a magpie decoy to the arrangement for extra allure. The black and white bird would help to draw attention to the bait and also encourage the territorial magpies to bundle in for a closer look after spotting a rival helping itself to a free breakfast on their patch.
By the time I’d finished setting up, a dull amber glow was creeping across the sky from the eastern horizon. Sunrise was almost upon me, and I could hear the first distant croaks of the early-bird crows stirring in their distant roost, deep within the woods. I clambered into the hide and loaded the gun in anticipation. It’s a lovely time of day to experience…
The cawing of the crows grew louder, but they weren’t tempted by my ruse. Nor were the magpies! In fact, an hour passed and the only black and white bird I glimpsed was a greater spotted woodpecker hanging upside down from one of the limbs of the tall ash – a wonderful sight, but not what I had in mind.
As is often the case with our sport, my attention had drifted from the job in hand when my quarry eventually made its presence known. I was marvelling at the sight of a tiny goldcrest as it clung to a branch not four feet away from me when the peace was shattered by the rattle of an agitated magpie. I snapped back into hunter mode and the goldcrest disappeared into the trees.
Chaka-chaka-chaka-chak! The magpie called again, but I couldn’t see it. I counted no fewer than 14 rattles from the noisy corvid before it finally swooped into sight – and then it had the cheek to bypass the sitty tree and glide straight down into the field, only about a metre from the decoy.
However, I’d pre-empted the possibility of this happening and paced out the distance from hide to bait at 30 metres. Although I knew the exact range to my mark, a few tall stems close to the hide threatened to deflect a misguided pellet, so I jostled to the side to get an unobstructed shot.
What was probably no more than five seconds felt like an age as I eyed up the shot, and made tiny adjustments to my position and aim while praying that the suspicious bird didn’t rumble me and take flight. The angry magpie held station, though, stooping down and letting out loud rasps at the deek as it rose back up. I touched off the trigger and the shot connected solidly with the bird’s chest, bringing its villainous days to an abrupt end.
The rattles continued, though, as the fallen magpie’s mate emerged from the sanctuary of the woods. This one had read the script and flitted onto a branch in the sitty tree, but the branch was a low one that reached out close to the hide. Too close. The magpie couldn’t have been much more than 15 metres away from me – and it was on high alert.
Sharp-eyed magpies don’t miss much and this one was no exception. It spotted the movement as I pushed the muzzle of my Daystate through the hide net and flapped back into the woods. It’s doubly frustrating when you miss out on an opportunity that close.
And I didn’t see another sign of a magpie after those few frantic moments, but I did manage to bag a crow that obligingly swooped into the top of the ash about an hour later. Although a brace of corvids is a decent result, I was disappointed not to bag that second magpie. In fact, I’m planning to heave myself out of bed at some ridiculous hour for another go at it as soon as I get the chance. But I’ll be using a different ruse – because that magpie will no doubt be very suspicious the next time it sees a dead squirrel lying in an open field…