Yesterday evening, we were photographing Snow Geese and didn’t realize that we (along with at least 10 other photographers) had chosen a field where hunters were lying in camo. I promised myself I would wait until hunting season was over before I ventured into the wilds beyond Seattle — just as I did last year. But, we were in the area, and we heard the clamor of a Snow Goose flock. I listened for shotguns — all was quiet. With just 20 minutes before the end of shooting hours, I thought we were clear of gunfire. But, it’s the last weekend of waterfowl hunting season here in Washington, so I should have known better.

Most of these photos aren’t graphic — they are too distant and dark to be graphic. But, I have a few images of a hunter retrieving an injured bird. Don’t click through if this will bother you. It certainly troubles me deeply to witness it in person … every time.

We photogs were lined up on a rural road, most of us using our cars as blinds — catching the last rays on the white plumage of Snow Geese. In my experience, Snows in this area aren’t fazed by photographers. And, a lot of birds are calm around automobiles as blinds. As we clicked our shutters, squadron after squadron of Snow Goose burst over the peaks of Devils Mountain, then flapped to a halt in this field, to graze on the greens.

The last group of geese flew toward us, then — boom, boom, boom! — multiple blasts of shotguns. Geese tumbled to the ground. Shotgun fire is a rancor I’ve come to identify with my worst moments in my life. It shatters the natural silence and always brings on disruption and chaos, death and injury.

Flushed by the hunters, the Snow Geese erupted in their characteristic way, then swarmed toward us, away from the area where the hunters sprang from their camo trenches.

The hunters walked away with a few injured geese which they promptly killed and carried off the field. They sometimes call the process of killing a bird by hand “helicoptering.” If you don’t know what that is, I’m sure you can figure it out.

But they left one wounded juvenile goose standing in the field. From what I could tell through my telephoto, the goose was bleeding around its legs and backside. As his flock-mates moved toward us and away from the trenches, this goose was immobilized in the background, as this photo shows.

I am hard-wired to help animals. I avoid hunting areas because of this very thing … because, more often than not, there’s little I can do except stand by helplessly as animals fall injured. It is pure agony to witness.

Almost every state has hunter harassment laws that penalize persons who interfere in any way with a hunt. This precludes retrieving fallen birds that are still alive on a hunter’s turf, or rescuing an animal dying slowly from a bowhunting wound as the hunters wait out the poor being’s demise. Still, we opted to stay and watch for stranded geese. We had our mud boots and some rescue gear, determined not to leave any disabled birds behind (known by hunters as “cripples” or “crips.”)

Hunters, legally, can’t shoot toward the road where we photographers were standing. So, after the last flush-and-landing, the geese were now grazing safely out of range, near our cars. With the birds at our sides, the risk of flushing them toward the hunting trenches was too great to do anything but remain steady and innocuous.

For reasons only Snow Geese can identify, they burst into whirlwinds of flight at various provocations. Some of those are obvious, like shotguns. Others are more subtle … distant aircraft engines or raptor calls, human snow-goose calls, and probably a host of other stimuli of which I’m not aware. So, although the air seemed silent to me in the aftermath of the hunt, to the Snow Geese it wasn’t. At once, they raised their necks in alert and promptly flushed again to the far side of the field, away from the hunters.

But, again, as they fluttered down to the field, wings and feet poised for landing, shotguns boomed even louder to our right, in the area of the field where the geese were landing.

Two more hunters bolted from their camo ditches and fired repeatedly into the flock. They were shooting two minutes before legal shooting hours ended.

The flock raised up again and disappeared from the field so quickly that we went from the murmur 10,000 geese — to a barren field, all within two minutes.

The hunters downed several live birds, killed them, and walked to their car, leaving these two geese, disabled in the field.

One hunter decided to turn back to the field. He grabbed the first injured goose and killed it. But he walked away from this obviously disabled goose left in the mud.

Through my lens, in the dark, I could see the goose had a bloodied right wing and was unable to fly.

As as the light disappeared and hunters de-robed at their trucks, Hugh and I had to figure out quickly how to rescue the two geese left behind and then, where we would take them late in the evening. Our 600-square-foot apartment is, unfortunately, not an option.

The goose was moving toward the road, so we drove to a spot where we thought we might be able to intercept, if she was so weak we could actually grab her. We could hear her flock landing in a distant field, and she was calling out — either to them, or because she was alone or in distress.

Just as we were deliberating on how to best capture this goose if necessary, a hunter peeled onto the shoulder, leaped out of his car, and went chasing the goose to the other side of the road.

Honestly, I was relieved that this hunter at least showed a shred of responsibility in chasing down a bird he crippled, but it doesn’t make the situation any less horrifying. Some hunters don’t pursue fallen birds, even though hunters are legally bound to avoid “wanton waste” which is:

“… making a reasonable effort to retrieve all waterfowl that you kill or cripple and keep these birds in your actual custody while in the field. You must immediately kill any wounded birds that you retrieve and count those birds toward your daily bag limit.And by ethical hunting standards, if you shoot a bird, it is your responsibility to make sure you retrieve her. ~ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The hunter reached the goose, and right at that moment, she collapsed into a heap of white feathers and blood, in a mud puddle at his feet.

He picked her up by the neck, and although she was still alive, he waited until he got back behind his truck before he killed her.

The hunter then noticed the injured juvenile goose I photographed earlier — with the blood on its backside. He took off into the field, trying to get this goose as well. But, as he got close, the goose could fly just far enough to evade capture … but not well enough to rejoin the flock. The hunter gave up on the goose, but the goose remained alone in the field as darkness overcame us. I give this hunter credit for doing what he was supposed to do. But, of course, he was in full view and knew it. And, these last shots were fired after sunset, when visibility was low. All of the birds they downed were maimed, not killed. And the possibility of leaving a bird in a bad condition is much higher when you’re shooting in those conditions.

We couldn’t get the goose either. It’s the classic case of a bird flying just well enough to escape you, but not well enough to be safe and sound. If we’d had a few other people to help — a better net — I’m not sure. Trying to wrangle an barely-able bird and failing is heartbreaking … like the oiled gulls after Cosco Busan, who were clearly headed for hypothermia and death because of their oiled plumage, but were still well enough to leap to a light pole when rescuers tried to reach them.

I write about it every duck hunting season, about how many millions of ducks and geese are injured and never retrieved, left to suffer on their own, during waterfowl hunting season. It’s a number that’s difficult to verify, for a lack of study. But the studies that have been done, like the one in South Dakota, indicate that injury numbers could be as high as 25 percent, which means 3.4 to 3.7 million waterfowl are injured and not collected each year in the United States.

Keep in mind that Snow Geese are large, white birds on dark terrain … dark, flat terrain that’s easily navigable if you lose a bird. But, if you add in the complexity of marshes and wetlands, bad weather and reckless behavior, injured birds are easily lost. These are situations where an injury might sail a bird into thick clusters of reeds that even dogs can’t reach … or graze a bird so lightly that it can fly for several miles before succumbing to its injury. Some ducks like divers will submerge themselves after getting shot, and will even drown themselves as they cling to underwater reeds to escape their predator. Hunters, even if they are candid about the numbers of birds they’ve crippled, honestly don’t know how many birds they’ve injured. I hear enough hunters say, “I could swear I hit that bird but it kept flying,” to which my response is, well, you may well have hit him or her.  You just don’t know it.

The waterfowl hunters I know will say that the injury rate is one of the risks they accept in the sport. We’re not asking the geese and ducks how “acceptable” that risk is to them. And I say, the injury rate is too high to be acceptable. There are too many freedoms and variations in how wing shooting is undertaken, to make it an ethical sport where avian welfare is concerned.

Edited to add (2/4/12): I neglected to add to this piece that beyond the injured waterfowl, there is considerable cruelty toward live birds that are used in training hunting dogs. Birds like pigeons and domestic ducks, and game birds, are used to train hunting dogs to retrieve. In many cases, the birds are disabled in one form or another. I’ve seen video of dog-training pigeons with their wing feathers brutally pulled out by the trainer, so that the birds can’t fly to escape the retrieve. The whole endeavor of wing-shooting entails inhumane practices toward birds, both on and off the hunting fields. Some find it all acceptable. I personally don’t.