Paloma shooting in Argentina by Australian Guest

June 2010 (Unpublished)

Paloma shooting in Argentina
Paloma in Argentina is probably the most accessible high volume game shooting available in the world today. The birds are prolific and challenging and the cost of shooting them is relatively affordable. This article describes my recent trip to a Paloma shooting estancia near Cordoba in Argentina.

The bird
Paloma is a dove indigenous to much of South America and it is very common in the grain growing areas of Argentina. They are considered to be an agricultural pest due to the amount of grain they consume, particularly during the planting season. Paloma can be shot throughout the year without limit under a game licence.

Paloma is the common name given to the Eared dove (Zenaida auriculata). It is a small slate grey bird 24cm long weighing about 110 grams. It has a fine black line extending behind its eye and a blue black mark in the lower ear coverts. The wings have large black spots. The tail is long and wedge shaped. In the hand the chest and vent have a rosy grey tint. In the air it is a neat compact bird resembling a small blue rock dove (common feral pigeon) in profile and flight. It is very fast under power and is even faster with its wings set in descent or with the wind behind it. This speed and its ability to rapidly change directions make it a challenging game bird.

The Estancia
The ranch I shot at is called Los Chanares. It is named after a small tree with distinctive green bark that is a favored roosting tree for Paloma in Cordoba province. Los Chanares is sited on 10,000 acres of a major Paloma roost, hence the name. In fact much of the roost is covered in a thorn bush which is even more favored by the Paloma for resting, nesting and roosting.

Los Chanares is a purpose built shooting estancia (ranch). It is organized around shooting. The 10,000 hectares are mostly covered in thick scrub ranging over low hills. Adjacent to the lodge is a large field of around 60 hectares which is used to grow sunflowers in the summer. The crop is for the birds. The remainder of the property is natural scrub with roads pushed through it to provide access to the shooting sites. Where soil conditions allow these roads have been widened or extended into small fields for additional crop areas. Shooting stations are sited throughout the property to take advantage of the cover of larger trees, ridge lines etc. Many have had small blinds built in front of them to provide additional cover for the shooters. There are over eighty shooting stations on the property to accommodate shooters and to provide adequate rotation so the birds do not avoid heavily shot areas.

A recent scientific estimate puts the Cordoba dove population at around 32 million birds. Los Chanares estimates that there it has around a million birds resident on its 10,000 hectares. Walking around and seeing the large numbers of birds in the air and on the ground feeding would seem to suggest that this is a reasonable estimate. The birds have two young per breeding cycle and have around four breeding cycles per year. The birds are fed year round with the sunflower crop and, in winter, the daily spreading of corn. A small stream and an artificial pond provide water.

My visit to Los Chanares was at the start of the shooting season. There is a short break of around three months from March to June and my visit was in mid June. This meant that I had the property to myself. I was accompanied on my visit by my wife, Megan, who took a short break from our three week tour of northern west Argentina to allow me three days of shooting. The accommodation and services are truly luxurious. The food was excellent and far too plentiful for someone my age. The service warm and attentive and our hosts organized a day tour of the local historical sites for my wife for one day of our stay. We both found Los Chanares a very pleasant place to spend a few days even without the shooting.

The shooting
We arrived at Los Chanares around lunch time and after introductions, a very large steak for lunch and a short rest, I was taken by truck to my designated shooting station for my first session. In the back of the truck was my loader, Franco, two 28 gauge Berretta silver pigeons and case of shells.

Martin the game keeper at Los Chanares has made intelligent use of the terrain and selective clearing to create of wide variation of shooting experiences. Some stations offer short range rapid fire shooting, others high fast passing shots, while others offer overhead birds. Collectively they provide the full range birds likely to be encountered on a driven game shoot. The sheer number of birds ensures there is a steady stream of targets that would approximate or exceed the high volume British driven game shoots of the late 19th century. However, the Paloma are not driven, they are simply moving in and out or around the roost in their daily cycle of movements.

We were dropped on the side of a dirt track with our gear and walked about 25 metres down a rough track to the shooting position. Station one was on the side of a small gully in heavy scrub. We had some high scrub behind us and two larger trees with dead branches to our left. To the right was more thick scrub which limited visibility. Down slope and to the right I could see around 70 metres over low vegetation. Franco put the gun together, loaded it and handed it to me clearly expecting me to get on with it. I had a quick inspection of the gun, moved the selector to fire the lower barrel first and out of habit put the safety catch in the on position.

There were birds moving all around us and I fired off my first two shots at Paloma. I didn’t hit anything but it didn’t matter much since there were birds in the air constantly. I broke the gun and handed the empties to Franco who seemed a bit surprised I didn’t eject them but quickly inserted two more shells into the empty chambers. After a few more shots I started to drop a few birds, most of which fell into thick scrub. I wasn’t sure whether we supposed to retrieve as we went but since Franco kept reloading the gun I kept shooting. It took a little while to get a sense of the range since I had no real idea how large or small the birds were and what they should look like when they were in range. But after some trial and error things started to come together and hits started to become a bit more regular. I quickly learned that one shot at a time was prudent except where a wounded bird needed a follow up second shot. I found it difficult to track two birds at the same time.

The birds were small but they were very fast and highly mobile. A Paloma under power is faster than a clay target and a dropping bird with its wings set is very fast indeed. I missed many birds by not giving them enough lead. Range estimation was an early problem. Subtending was not much use because the birds were too small to extend beyond the barrel width even when they were well within range. I eventually found that a useful benchmark was that if I could see their eye and if they looked three dimensional they were around 35 metres away. This did not mean that they were easy to hit though. I missed many incoming birds because they shifted course after I had blotted them out with my barrels. The passing birds required a lot of lead and a smooth follow-through.

About 10 minutes into the shooting several large eagles arrived and positioned themselves in the dead trees around 30 metres to my left. When a bird fell in an accessible position one would drop down and pick it up. Franco was unperturbed by this so I figured it is part and parcel of Paloma shooting. After a few more minutes a grey fox arrived and picked up a dead bird around thirty metres in front of me. Fascinated by the exotic wildlife I took time out to watch an eagle juggle and swallow a dove whole and kept an eye out for the fox. In the undergrowth around me I could hear the sounds of animals moving.

Franco explained that there were both eagles and hawks attending our hunt. After consulting a bird book back at the lodge I decided that I had observed Black Chested Buzzard Eagles (Buteo melanoleucus) and a Crested Caracaras (Polyborus plancus). The former is stout bird about the size of a Little Eagle, the latter a bird allied to the falcons with a buoyant wing forward flight like a black cockatoo and distinctive white window on each under wing. I also saw another large red eagle which I could not clearly identify. All have adjusted well to life on Los Chanares and like the fox had learnt to associate gun fire with food.

This station provided shots from all angles but the most regular shots were birds coming up the gully at an angle of around 25 degrees. I tried to vary the shots I took but found the overheads from behind particularly difficult because the birds were out of range if I did not pick them up very quickly. I also found the eagles baulked my swing. I assumed it would be bad form to bag an accidental eagle. I shot around five boxes over the course of around two hours before indicating to Franco that I had had enough for the day.

I should introduce Franco at this point. Franco was a friendly young man in his mid twenties. He knew his business and he applied his skills with professional pride. He spoke little English and I spoke no Spanish so our oral communication was limited but these limitations did not impede our partnership and my experience was much richer for his presence. His equipment included a folding shooting chair with integral cooler box with drinks inside it, a bag for birds and empties, a magnetic shell picker upperer, and a click counter to keep track of the birds I shot. He was very attentive, watching closely my every move, and always ready with two new shells when the gun had been fired. As each pack of shells went into his vest Franco carefully folded the empty pack and placed it into the first empty pack to keep track of the shell count. The balance at the end of each shoot was kept aside for the next session. When I needed a break Franco would produce whatever I wanted from the cooler and offered me the chair.

Franco quickly accommodated my habit of extracting the spent shells (rather than ejecting them) and of helping him carry the equipment back to the pick up site at the end of the shoot. He complemented me on the odd good shot and he agreed when I told him I had missed too far behind. Franco sensed my interest in the local wildlife and told me the common name of the birds we saw and heard. I was particularly pleased when after a few sessions he called me amigo. At the end of the shooting session Franco would use his radio to summon the truck to come and pick us up and alert home base of my imminent arrival. On my arrival back at the accommodation I was greeted at the door and handed a cool towel to freshen up.

Next morning around nine I was taken to my next shooting assignment. There was a lifting fog and the shooting station faced west on the side of a hill. I had a large tree behind me and a road on my left although this did not extend my line of sight all that far. Birds were coming towards me out of the fog or quickly from my right. These latter birds often had their wings set descending from the ridge above. The fog amplified the sound of the bird’s wings and the sound they made reminded me of grey teal. There were around 20 birds visible in my shooting window most of the time and range was difficult to estimate in the fog. The birds came out of the fog thick and fast and I managed to knock a good few of them down. Later in the morning a tractor came up the road and I stopped shooting until they had passed. The guys on the tractor threw a dead bird up over the bushes from behind us. They thought that was a great joke and we all had a laugh. A few minutes later Tango the estancia’s resident Great Dane came up the road and helped himself to a few dead doves for breakfast. I was not keeping count but felt that my shooting was steadily improving. When I had had about two hours shooting I called a halt and helped Franco gather up the birds.

Station 3 in the afternoon was at the corner of an overgrown field on the side a hill facing north. The birds flew very high here with the dominant flow being incomers at my extreme left. It took me a while to get their measure but I managed to pull down some very high and fast birds. There were fewer birds in the air and most were at extreme range. At one point three horses walked out of the scrub and crossed the field in front of me. Franco radioed back to the estancia and explained to me that they belonged to workers on the estancia and shouldn’t have been there. That night we had delicious dove breast nuggets for appetizers before dinner from the birds we had gathered that morning. The breasts had been soaked in milk then crumbed and deep fried. They were delicious and Megan and I made a good show of eating them making a substantial dint in our dinner appetite

Station 4 was under a large tree in a flat field adjacent to a major gully. There were two other trees nearby. Between me and estancia was a heavily vegetated gully but I could see the top of a grain silo about 150 metres on my right. Directly in front was another tree about 40 metres away which was a useful range indicator but immediately beyond it was another tree with a saddled horse standing beneath it. Immediately beyond the horse a service track emerged from the gully and ran to my right. Since I was under a large tree most of the shooting window contained an obstacle or two. I did not feel all that comfortable lobbing shot on the Estancia roof, the silo, or the horse. I therefore kept my shooting as high and to the right as I could manage. The main flows of birds were high passing shots in both directions. I shot well all morning with a double on my first and last two shots of the day. Tango came over when he heard the shooting and had a couple of birds for breakfast. An eagle turned up as well and ate a few birds. The tractor appeared from the gully about mid morning and little later Megan came up the road on her morning walk. I called her over for a quick range safety instruction before she continued her walk. At this station I shot the one and only following bird for the trip. Remarkably over three days shooting this was the only bird I shot that I was not aiming for.

Station 5 that afternoon was facing a 20 metre ride. We were on the up hill side of the road with birds coming across the road towards me. There was also a lighter traffic from behind. The incomers were coming into view across the road at around 40 metres. To get a shot in required quick target acquisition and no hesitation. This station approximated my idea of driven partridge shooting with birds suddenly appearing over a hedge in front of me. I found the best way to shoot it was to concentrate on a narrow part of the hedge, make a quick range assessment, and blot the bird out for a very quick shot. The neighbourhood eagles and hawks came in quickly for breakfast and a small grey fox came out the scrub opposite three times to pick up downed birds. At one point a guy came up the road on a horse. He waved a quick hello as he passed.

The last shooting station on my final morning was on the edge of the gully facing the entry road and the 60 hectare field. The station was only around 50 metres from the lodge. This field was spread with corn (maize) each day to feed the doves. There was therefore a constant stream of overhead and incoming birds. I shot 7 boxes on this station and the most I had shot on any session so far. Tango and the eagles had a good breakfast. Megan walked down to watch me shoot but pronounced that it was not a very appealing spectator sport as I dropped incoming and passing birds with some efficiency. Towards the end of the morning a number of Crested Caracara came down to gather some of the fallen.

I did not set out to shoot a large number of birds at Los Chanares. My goal was to enjoy the shooting rather than test my physical endurance and from experience I knew that my shooting would deteriorate when I become fatigued. I therefore chose to use a 28 gauge over and under rather the 20 gauges and semi autos on offer. I set myself a notional quota per session of around six boxes of shells. This gave me around two hours of unhurried shooting and approximated a full day of simulated field shooting twice a day.

I tried to vary the targets I selected and to shoot only challenging birds. I avoided shots at slow moving and close birds and I fired a follow-up shot on any bird I did not consider a clean kill wherever possible.

I did not count the birds I thought I had hit preferring to keep my concentration on the next bird. Franco on the other hand made a very careful count using the click counter in his kit. He had a keen eye and a lot of experience in Paloma shooting so I can only assume that he made an accurate count as he saw it.

I did not ask Franco for a count each day and he did not offer one but at the end of my trip I was presented with a statistical analysis of each shooting session when I paid the shell bill. According to Franco I shot around six birds for every ten shots fired. This stuck me as a good bit higher than I would have estimated. I would have said around four. Martin the game keeper had told me that the real overall success rate at Los Chanares is more like one bird for every four shells fired so even allowing for a healthy amount of own side bias I felt I had shot pretty well.

I used one of the Estancia’s guns rather than importing my own gun. The gun I chose to use was a 28 gauge Beretta silver pigeon. I found the gun almost identical to the one I own and more than adequate to the task. It was choked ¼ and ½ and this seemed an effective choking even on the higher birds (if I estimated the required lead correctly). The gun was fairly new and well maintained. Martin told me that the over and unders are fully serviced annually with the replacement of firing pins, ejectors, springs etc as required. He also told me the Bennelli semi autos worked very hard and parts were replaced much more regularly. Los Chanares’ choice of these two makes is a powerful recommendation given the amount of use their guns get.

The cartridges were of local manufacture, 21 grams of 71/2 shot. They were loaded with a clean burning powder and used an Italian style wad. Over a case and half I had only three misfires caused by hard primers. They all went off when reloaded into the bottom barrel.

When I was on target I had no trouble killing birds in the air. Paloma did not seem that hard to kill but they a small bird and they needed to b centred in the pattern to ensure multiple pellet strikes. I measured instant kills out to 45 metres from the muzzle. I imagine that a 20 gauge would extend the range a little more but there seemed little reason to go up a gauge given the abundance of birds.

Overall assessment
My game bird experience has been limited to ducks and walked up pheasants and partridge but based on my reading I would say that Paloma shooting is a good approximation of high driven pheasant and partridge shooting.

Clay target shooting is a lot of fun but there is no comparison between the challenges presented by a predictable clay target and an unpredictable live bird. Los Chanares provided a great opportunity to hone my game shooting skills and to master the full range of shots almost under the controlled conditions of a clay target range. This was a rare and unique opportunity. Shooting the birds was preferable to alternative pest control methods such as poisoning and the dead birds were put to good use by the local wildlife, the chef and the employees.

The other wildlife encountered while shooting was a real and unexpected highlight. I saw eagles, hawks and foxes at close range. I saw perdiz (Tinamou), Chaco Chachalaca (a large pheasant like bird with a stunningly raucous dawn call), great flocks of blackbirds, siskins, ground doves, monk parrots, (individual) hummingbirds and quwi (wild guinea pigs). The range and abundance of birds was beyond anything I experienced before. I saw the tracks of white collared peccary or perhaps small deer and while I saw no sign of a puma I was assured that there were puma living in and around the Estancia. Perhaps they were silently eating the Paloma while I shot nearby.