BIRDS LANDING -- Father and son, Bob and Brian Hansen, walked a long grass field under windmilled-hills outside Rio Vista while their black lab, Belle, worked overtime -- her nose huffing and snorting along the damp earth.
Belle's body changed. Her front went low and her back end went up. Her tail twirled a fast circle. She bolted a quick five yards then stopped, pounding the ground with her nose.
"She's getting birdy," Bob Hansen said.
Belle snapped up another five yards and paused on some scrub brush. Her tail went into overtime. She pounced.
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The bush rattled and popped. A ring-neck pheasant with that telltale red face exploded from the scrub. Brian Hansen raised his gun, but his dad was closer. Bob Hansen's Benelli Super Black Eagle II sent off a load of No. 6 lead and the pheasant was no more.
Belle was on the bird fast and brought it back to her master.
"That's a good girl. Good girl," Bob Hansen said.
"You'll never see that dog happier," said Brian Hansen.
There was a time when wild pheasants roamed most of California, but with the demise of pasture dairies, other agricultural changes and rapid urbanization, most pheasant hunting is confined to private land such as Birds Landing Hunting Preserve and Sport Clays between Rio Vista and Fairfield on Highway 12. There, farm-raised pheasants are planted for hunters and their dogs.
There also are clubs all along the San Joaquin Delta and closer to home in Escalon and Newman.
"If you plant hundreds of thousands of acres of grapes, you just eliminated a lot of pheasant habitat," said Harry Morse, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. "Pheasants need food, water and space, and now there's no space."
Hunters still take about 150,000 wild pheasants each year, according to the habitat preservation group Pheasants Forever, mostly on private land and in state wildlife refugees, but that represents just a fraction of the wild pheasants taken 30 years ago.
"As farming practices change, there are some winners and some losers," Morse said. "Pheasants just happen to be on the losing side."
The 1,200-acre Birds Landing is just north of Suisun Marsh, the largest contiguous brackish water marsh left on the West Coast, formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Just across the slough is Grizzly Island Wildlife area. Club land like isn't limited to planted pheasants. Waterfowl, hawks, sea birds and other fauna that aren't hunted use the land to breed and feed.
"One of the things I like about this club is it's fairly hard hunting," said Bob Hansen, 59, who is retired from the Modesto Irrigation District. "It's about as close to hunting wild birds as I've come on a preserve. They have some excellent cover and excellent birds that fly really well. It's not always a sure thing."
Hunting runs deep in the Hansen family. Brian Hansen, 32, a lab tech at Bronco Winery, got his license at 7 -- his dad is an avid duck hunter. He prefers deer hunting and fly fishing in Tuolumne County. Walking the fields with gun and dog, father and son share a bit of the sport they appreciate from different angles.
"You walk around with friends and family, just about anyone, and you meeting people from all walks of life," Brian Hansen said. "It's a good group hunting sport, pheasant hunting."
Not to mention it provides a good meal.