Greywing Safari By Ken Bailey
The Stormberg Mountain region is at once rugged yet welcoming. At a distance, the rolling, grass-carpeted hills are inviting, appearing gentle and serene. Three hours in to hiking them, however, I was discovering that their true identity was somewhat different. Up close and personal the terrain is rough and uneven, and while the landscape can accurately be called “breath-taking”, so, too, is the effort required to hike the uneven slopes. Of course, that’s the way it should be when you’re hunting greywing partridge; a toll must be paid to merit the privilege of hunting these legendary birds.
Greywing partridge have long been considered by knowledgeable wingshooters to rank in the highest echelons of upland bird hunting, spoken in the same sentences and with an equal reverence as the renowned red grouse of the Scottish highlands or the robust capercaille of Eurasia. Greywings are a high-altitude bird about the same size and similar in appearance to a Hungarian partridge, and are generally found in montane grassland habitats above 5000 feet. While relatively common wherever there’s suitable habitat, they’re rarely seen because of their naturally secretive nature and the fact that they occur in widely dispersed coveys in relatively remote, mountainous landscapes. Hunting greywing partridge is defined as much by their surroundings as by the hunt itself, and any greywing in hand is a prize well-earned.
Fortunately, I was hunting with Robbie Stretton, a fifth-generation owner of the exquisite colonial-style Buffels Fontein Lodge, south of Jamestown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Robbie is a rancher, game breeder, PH and lodge owner, but I suspect all that is simply a cover story that allows him to pursue his personal passion for hunting, particularly greywing partridge, over his beloved English pointers.
We’d arrived at Buffels Fontein early on a cool May evening after several days of high-volume dove and pigeon hunting near Bloemfontein. I was hunting with African Hunting Gazette publisher Richard Lendrum and long-time friends T.J. Schwanky and Vanessa Harrop, co-hosts of the popular television hunting show The Outdoor Quest. Over an eland dinner (and as veterans of African cuisine know, it simply doesn’t get any better than eland!), Robbie and his wife Angela related the history of their lodge and the surrounding countryside. The Stretton family first acquired the 11,000 hectare (27,000 acres) ranch in 1840. In the early days it served as a post office, a trading post and an inn, providing a welcome respite for travellers to rest their oxen, their horses and their own weary bodies along the strenuous route between the diamond and gold mines to the north and the docks along the Indian ocean to the south. These days the farm is home to sheep, cattle and an array of big game and game birds, and serves as home base for Robbie’s hunting operations. But the fascinating history of the lodge is well-preserved through the wonderful collection of antiques and the books and firearms that adorn the walls.
After a much-needed rest in the well-appointed guest rooms, our group reassembled for an early breakfast before heading afield. To the untrained eye, locating greywings in this vast, undulating landscape seems akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, but Robbie knew with unfathomable clarity where we could expect to find coveys. He is careful about his management practices, insisting that hunters take only a small handful of birds from each of the far-spread coveys. It turned out that limiting our harvest wasn’t going to be an issue, though certainly not because of a lack of birds.
Through the cool morning hours we walked up and down the open hillsides, hunting between 6500 and 7000 feet above sea level. As is demanded of this pursuit, Robbie’s English pointers were fit and disciplined dogs that could hold a point until we were in position. Greywings have a tendency to fly downhill for long distances when flushed, so finding and reflushing scattered birds is an iffy proposition. If a dog flushes a covey at a distance it’s highly unlikely you’ll get a second crack at them, so well-trained dogs are a must.
Greywing coveys range from just a couple to as many as 30 birds, but most often number from five to ten. As it so happened, the first point of the morning was a pair, and at the flush the birds broke in separate directions. One exploded straight away before veering sharply left to take full advantage of the high winds that seem to be the norm in these hills. Astounded at how quickly it was getting out of range, I shouldered my gun and swung without thinking, holding just below the bird as it sailed down the grassy slope. At the report the bird tumbled into the grass, while to my right a quick pair of shots told me that T.J. was on the second bird. As it turned out he’d wing-tipped his and we were unable to recover it, but in short order mine was collected and I held it aloft triumphantly. As history now shows, my shooting prowess was short-lived.
Over the next three hours we traversed the hillsides under Robbie’s tutelage. He knew roughly where to expect the dogs to locate another covey, and more often than not he was right on the money. On some flushes only two or three birds would erupt from the grass; regularly it would be five to eight, and we put up one covey where 14 or 15 partridge rocketed out. In total we flushed 10 coveys totalling 84 birds. Our in-the-hand tally at morning’s end was a relatively meagre seven birds. Robbie advised that on most shoots gunners can expect to see in the region of 60 birds, with an anticipated bag of about 15, depending on the shooting ability of the hunters. While the dogs more than held up their end of the bargain, our numbers reveal that, clearly, T.J., Vanessa, Richard and I fell short of the targeted 25 per cent success rate.
Under the authority of editorial license, I feel compelled to offer a little defense of our less than stellar performance. To wit, we were shooting guns unfamiliar to us, (stunning F16 over/unders graciously on loan from Blaser) that were choked for the waterfowling and guinea fowl hunting we’d planned, when I would have preferred improved cylinder chokes, and the #5 loads we were flinging were probably not the best option; #8 shot would have been a better choice. Further, as I came to learn, as often as not you’re on rocky, uneven ground when a covey flushes (Murphy’s Law), so you’re seldom shooting from a stable position. Not to mention that the greywing partridge themselves, those taupe-clad little beauties, have a combination of natural flight skills and a game-to-the-core survival instinct that all but ensures their escape.
If I sound a little defensive, understand that it’s largely in jest. The fact is, we had a wonderful morning in an unbelievably pristine landscape pursuing one of the world’s premier game birds. How can that not be a rewarding experience? Whether we shot well or not is a relatively small part of the equation; it was the experience we were seeking.
At about noon we stopped for a well-earned lunch break and reflected on our morning. Someone’s Fitbit revealed we’d walked 15 kms (9.5 miles) since we’d left the trucks, so we enjoyed the cold drinks and sandwiches with unusual zeal. As advertised, we’d learned that greywing partridge hunting is not for the faint of heart; a reasonable level of fitness is a must, especially at these altitudes.
As we relaxed in the midday sun, a small covey of greywings flushed from cover on the steep hill above us. T.J., Robbie and I just looked at one another with knowing shrugs. So Robbie collected a couple of his pointers and up we went, at times having to climb hand over foot up the sharp incline. Eventually we got to the elevation and general vicinity of where we thought the birds had resettled, with the dogs’ no-nonsense attitude confirming there were birds close by. With every step I took care with my footing to ensure I was on stable ground should a partridge lift. That didn’t give due respect to our pointing companions, however, because in short order they had a bird locked down and when they flushed I was ready.
Three birds burst from beneath the thorny brush and I swung on the first as it flew straight away, paralleling the hillside. When the picture looked right I squeezed and the greywing dropped. Meanwhile, T.J. swung on a brace of birds, dropping one before the second disappeared safely over a crest. Two shots and two iconic greywing partridge in the hand.
Our doubleheader served as a spectacular finish to a hunt that will be etched in a special place in my memory reserved for only the most revered experiences. We’d been treated to a first-class experience in pursuit of one of the world’s great game birds, hunting up top in storied terrain, accompanied by fine people, fine dogs and fine shotguns. Sometimes I think I get more than I deserve. But I will go back, if for no other reason than to test that hypothesis.