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Region's duck hunters owe their pastime to the secret life of H.

Byline: Mark Blazis

COLUMN: OUTDOORS

To the disappointment of all who live to call ducks into decoys at dawn and find magic in the world of marshes and retrievers, duck hunting in our Central Zone ends tomorrow. The dramatic flights of mallards, wood ducks, canvasbacks, black ducks, hooded mergansers, whistling ducks, redheads, scaup, mottled ducks, teal and pintails are to a great degree a credit to the biologists who work behind the scenes to ensure their productivity and survival.

MassWildlife's waterfowl project leader, H Heusmann, is a nationally respected wood duck authority, directing their nest box program. He also annually censuses waterfowl that his team captures and bands.

H's (H is his real first name) team banded 1,158 birds in 2010 - the highest total since 1994 but well below 1985's record 1,496.

The 2010 totals included 799 wood ducks, 198 mallards, 76 American green winged teal, 21 blue winged teal, 7 black ducks, 2 hooded mergansers, 1 American wigeon, 1 American coot, 6 soras, 2 Virginia rails, 1 pied billed grebe and 44 recaptures.

I tagged along with the master in 2011 to learn his airboating techniques and chronicle his scientifically renowned but locally unheralded efforts. Heusmann's team included biologists Trina Moruzzi and Dave Scarpitti. Their skills could have made them successful in rodeo or racing careers.

H - his name sounds like a planted CIA operative - flies under the local radar, leading information-gathering operations that are little known and conducted secretly at night for a very special short period each year before hunting season. But it's really impossible for this waterfowl giant to hide completely, nationally or locally. Airboats are deafeningly noisy, and their high-power spotlights illuminate a marsh, inadvertently attracting unwanted attention from concerned neighbors and even befuddled local police.

Catching ducks requires operating in total darkness typically until Sept. 30. We launched well after sunset at Lackey Dam in Uxbridge, just after Tropical Storm Irene. Any flooding and high winds from the storm made success uncertain as the ducks could have been flooded out of their roosting cover and driven elsewhere. We jetted off with tempered expectations.

Precariously gripping a metal support next to the airboat driver is taxing, considering erratically wild maneuverings and bumps. Water may appear flat, but we hit numerous clumps of vegetation and took many sharp turns at full speed to capture elusively fleeing ducks spotted in our lights. They invariably swam or dived rather than fly in darkness. Moruzzi and Scarpitti were highly adept at scooping up the evasive birds. I initially had doubts about Trina, though.

Petite and attractive, she proved deceptively tough and talented. I realized how tough she was when she reflexively reached out to net a supposed wood duck - and without flinching, fearlessly pulled out a muskrat instead.

During the exhausting night, Moruzzi and Scarpitti deftly placed dozens of ducks in a holding box positioned between them as we cruised through every hiding place in the marsh. Netting a duck and twisting the net so it doesn't fly out before it's put into the box isn't easy.

There's obvious pressure on the netters. One can't hide a lack of skill here. Considering team efforts and time constrictions, misses aren't appreciated. Over the years, H has memorably enshrined his best netters - as though each had a hall of fame batting average - on his A-team. Both Moruzzi and Scarpitti were good - really good.

Tough as cowboys and holding no regard for water depth or mud, they several times jumped from the airboat to free it from shallows, the tentacles of elephant-high phragmites, or other quagmiric marsh vegetation. Partial submersion is all in a night's work for duck-banders. My mistake was not wearing waders.

This work is impossible in extremely low water, as the boat gets too bogged down. And mechanical problems can stop everything, as well. Each of the biologists this evening addressed mechanical malfunctions of the airboat or its lighting system, obviously having experienced technical difficulties in the past with equipment nursed and patched in times of limited funding.

Despite years of leadership, H - a former body builder - remains tough and uncommonly devoid of administrative fat. Though eligible for retirement, he remains driven - and not averse to driving his team to their limits to get the job done in the limited time they have each night and each brief banding season, ending in late September. He obviously cares much for waterfowl - and based on his treating them to 2 a.m. ice-creams at Harry's in Westboro after a particularly hard night banding - he cares for his research team, too.

Mark Blazis can be contacted by email at markblazis@charter.net

Calendar

Today - Register kids now through Feb. 10 for Youth Winter Outdoor Adventure Clinic, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Feb. 21-24, Grafton Lions Club. Winter survival, tracking, shelter building, snow shoeing, ice fishing, cooking over an open fire, camp fire building. Info: www.finandfeathersports.com, ffsadventure@hotmail.com, or (508) 529-3901.

Today - Register for the Richard Druzbicki Memorial Ice Fishing Derby, Feb. 11, Lake Whitehall, Hopkinton. Info: contact Rob at (774) 696-3701.

Today - Register for Rutland Sportsman's Club annual Ice Fishing Derby, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 21, and 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 22. Cost: $20. Info: (508) 886-4721, www.rscma.org.

Tomorrow - Deer Processing Seminar, demonstration of skinning, quartering, properly cutting roasts, steaks, stew, and burger and making sausage, 2 p.m., Bellingham. Info: Gerry Lemire at www.theelusivewhitetail.com.

Tomorrow - Safari Club International NEF Holiday Social to support Sportsmen Against Hunger, SCI Wildlife Education Center, Lancaster. Game meat will be collected for the hunger program. Game dinner. Cost: $25 for members. Info: Garrett Chace (860) 428-6800 or garrett@scinef.org.

Tomorrow and Sunday - Fishing and Hunting Expo, Rockingham Park, Salem, N.H. Cost: $8. Info: www.RockinghamExpo.com.

Tomorrow and Sunday - East Coast Fine Arms Show, investment quality arms from all eras, Stamford Plaza Hotel, 2701 Summer St., Stamford, Conn. Info: www.northeastgunshows.com, (914) 248-1000.

Monday - Indoor archery begins at the Leicester Rod & Gun Club. Monday early evenings are for kids, followed by traditional shooters. Handicapped leagues will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. Following the 11 weeks of shooting, there will be a prime rib banquet. Info: Bob Small (508) 892-3527.

Monday - New England Fly Tyers weekly meeting, featuring William Krousis and the Herring Fly, 7-9 p.m., American Legion Post 204, 159 Hartwell St., West Boylston.

Wednesday - Predator Hunting Seminar, featuring Foxpro Calls nationally acclaimed predator authority Brian Downs, 6:30 p.m.,Mahar Fish & Game Club. Free. Info: Mike Roche (978) 544-7059, mikeroche3@msn.com.

Thursday - Central Mass Chapter of Trout Unlimited meeting, 7:15 p.m., Broad Meadow Brook preserve, 414 Massasoit Road, Worcester. Nonmembers welcome. Admission is free. Info: www.massaudubon.org.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: H. Heusmann, MassWildlife's waterfowl project leader, is a nationally respected wood duck authority.

PHOTOG: BILL BYRNE
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jan 6, 2012
Words:1155
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