Duck Hunters in the San Jacinto Wildlife Area

Where conservation efforts and grocery lists meet.

Photography by Abraham Navarro


The wild birds of North America, both migratory and resident, are an important part of their respective ecosystems. Some act in providing food for predatory animals, others help control the populations of insects that otherwise would run wild, while some are heavily depended upon by different plant species to disperse their seeds or for pollination.

Robert Hartman loads his shotgun before starting his march through the reeds in search of ducks to eat with his family.

Shotguns and rifles don’t seem like the best tools when it comes to conservation, and that’s because they really aren’t. At least not on their own — the hunters pulling the triggers and taking game for food and sport are a vital part of the conservation of what remains of California’s wild.

The Pittman Robertson act of 1935 is a federal act that takes an 11% excise tax on long guns and ammunition and the 10% tax on handguns as well as archery equipment and apportions it for state wildlife agencies for conservation efforts. Since its implication, the act has raised over $12 billion and those funds has been used to make massive strides in conservation efforts.

“Every hunter has to have a wildlife stamp in order to hunt,” Said California hunter James Clendenen. “All the money from permits, wildlife stamps that we buy, pays for buying land, the upkeep for that land, the land where San Jacinto sat was bought with that money, it was made into a place where migratory birds can land and rest and move on.”

Marching through the dank wetlands at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, hunters trudge to their blinds in search of their preferred ducks. Long-time hunter Robert Hartman, 42, was in search of Gadwall ducks in the deep green corridors of tall reeds near his blind that Wednesday. The earthy smell of the disturbed underwater soil and the waterfowl scattering high overhead were reminiscent of earlier times when humankind relied more heavily on the land for survival, food, and sustenance. The gentle ambiance of the wetlands was peppered with the popping of far off shotguns being fired at passing ducks, geese, and other fowl resting in the reeds.

Hartman scans the reeds for the ducks on his grocery list, Gadwall for him, Redhead for his daughter.
Hartman scans the reeds with binoculars, shotgun resting in the crook of his arms. With the eyes of an eagle, he is able to see and identify birds from yards away with startling accuracy — almost as good as his shot.
Marching through the thick reeds and their roots like a stealthy steam engine, Hartman sneaks up on his prey: two spoonbill ducks, a hen, and a drake just around the corner of the dark green corridor.
Leveling his shotgun with a duck for a followup shot, the deafening crack as he pulls the trigger awakens the steel bb’s resting in the cartridge with a whizzing sound of hundreds of red hot hornets dive-bombing the prey at the end of the long shotgun barrel.
In a flurry of motion that lasted seconds, the pair of spoonbills rushes away in to escape the hail of shotgun pellets that came raining down on them.
In the silence following the three shots that rang out for the ducks, Hartman retrieved the hen he had just shot and shows the telltale spoon-shaped bill of the spoonbill, which he says isn’t the best tasting duck but provides a decent amount of meat.
Robert Hartman wades through the water in search of his next duck near the edge of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, one bagged spoonbill hen in tow, shotgun at the ready.
Hartman reloads his shotgun after a wet shell fails to go off, scaring away his second duck of the day, leaving his spoonbill to be his only duck.
James Clendenen holds a Gadwall Drake’s wing open to show its telltale wing pattern used to identify its species.
A careful hunter makes sure to retrieve his ducks after he shoots them or they might be taken by a hawk or another raptor in the area. Here Hartman hold up the wing of what might have been a mud hen on the side of the road: the unfortunate meal for a hawk that flew away just seconds before.
A hen gadwall rests on the metal table at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area check station where the California Department of Fish and Wildlife checks duck species and ensures hunters stay within their daily bag limit for ducks.
Hunters leave the wildlife area during some of the heaviest rains of the day after meeting their bag limit. The hunter on the left wears a necklace bearing his duck calls and some leg tags from ducks bearing the marks from other efforts of conservation.

With the ever-growing human population and expansion of cities, towns, and highways, it is important that these bird’s habitats are protected. The duck hunters at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area play an important roll in observing and reporting the population and health of the local waterfowl species population, and it’s safe to say that without them, conservation efforts might be all for naught.

Hartman scans the water one last time for birds before sunset, the last of the shots went off in the distance long before.