Southwestern Quail Outlook

Southwestern Quail Outlook

Precipitation has improved across much of New Mexico and Arizona, leading to high hunter hopes for a superb quail hunting season. (December 2005)

Photo by Lance Beeny

For good reason, in most years, it's the big-game critters that get all of the hunting attention in the Southwest, as anyone who has ever chased elk, mule deer or antelope in either Arizona or New Mexico can attest. But while such attention might be well-deserved, it also keeps the spotlight from shining on what might well be the region's best small-game claim to fame -- some mighty fine quail hunting.

That's just fine for the wing-shooting enthusiasts who are eagerly anticipating another solid season of quail hunting this fall and winter.

What do biologists in the two states have to say about this year's upland bird hunting prospects? Well, let's just say that hunters should keep plenty of shotgun shells handy!

ARIZONA

After a winter that saw ample rains and high country snows descend upon the Grand Canyon State, moisture has certainly been on the upswing across Arizona.

That comes as bona fide good news for the state's three species of quail -- the Montezuma quail (also called the Mearn's quail), the scaled quail (also referred to as the blue quail), and the Gambel's quail -- not to mention the bird hunters who chase them each year.

"It's a good time out here," said Mark Zornes, small game biologist for the Arizona Game & Fish Department. I'll give it a 'B' (grade) overall with some pockets of 'A' out there and probably some pockets of 'C.' "

According to the biologist, the Gambel's quail has, without a doubt, the brightest outlook of the three species for the 2005 season.

"Their population is going to be pretty darn high," Zornes said. "With the hunting opportunity we have here -- we have a long season -- there is going to be some pretty good hunting out there."

Zornes is certain of his prediction because of one simple reason: Supply the right moisture at the right time and the birds will respond. They got that type of moisture this year.

"Gambel's quail annual production is tied to winter moisture," Zornes said. "Throughout the western half of the state, we had way, way above normal precipitation from last October to March. Some places had 400 percent of their normal precipitation. If that country doesn't all burn up this summer (at press time, some fires were burning), there is going to be some fantastic Gambel's quail hunting."

As a quail hunter, Zornes admits that he is like a kid waiting on Santa Claus for this year's season to unfold, which typically does so between October and early February. "We're seeing really large broods out there and I'm excited, my dogs are excited, and I'm loading up shotgun shells. It's kind of like waiting for Christmas."

Where exactly do you look for Gambel's quail when you turn the dogs loose?

"This is a desert bird," Zornes said. "These birds don't ground roost like bobwhites do. Instead, they roost in desert shrubs like desert hackberry and desert wolfberry.

"I'd start in the morning looking for an island of green out in those desert washes," he added. "Find where the birds were roosting the night before. If you do, you'll get into birds relatively quickly doing that."

Zornes says the birds will move upslope as the day progresses, feeding up and out of those wash bottoms. The washes, however, are always real good places to start."

How about hunters interested in targeting Arizona's scaled, or blue quail, population?

"Those are the track stars," Zornes said with a laugh, noting the bird's propensity to run.

"They're probably going to do fair, primarily because scaled quail numbers have been depressed for so long," he added. "Most scaled quail are in southeastern Arizona and there has been a drought down there for a long time. It did turn around a bit this year, and there are some big broods out there. It won't be fantastic, but it will be OK. A guy who does his homework, who has dogs, and puts his miles in, will kill scaled quail."

Where will hunters find these desert sprinters? "You want to look for desert grasslands," Zornes said. "Look for grassland habitat in fairly flat country with some shrubs out there."

As for Montezuma quail, the biologist hedged his bet somewhat at press time, saying that late summer rains would ultimately spell the fate of fall and winter hunting efforts for these higher-elevation birds.

"I would say it would be OK, but this hatch will depend on what the monsoon looks like," Zornes said. "It is not going to be a banner year, but it should be a good year of hunting for Mearn's quail."

As of early August, summer rains fell all across the state, indicating that Arizona's wet fortunes did indeed continue.

As for where hunters can target these birds, Zornes says their range is pretty much restricted to the higher terrain "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona south of Tucson and between there and the New Mexico border.

"Look for these birds in the higher elevations, although sometimes you will occasionally find them on the fringe out in the mesquite," Zornes said. "They like real dense and tall grass cover and you'll typically find them in canyon bottoms and on slopes. The two components to look for are some kind of tree cover, usually oak, but not too much, say 25 percent canopy cover is perfect. Add in a good understory of tall grass species and you'll be in Mearn's quail country there."

While the habitat that these particular birds inhabit can be rugged, the AGFD biologist says that these quail don't run, instead acting more like "Gentleman Bobwhite" as they hold reasonably well for dogs. That helps to make the Mearn's a favorite of more than one Arizona upland bird hunting enthusiast.

"Their defense strategy is to hunker down and hold," Zornes said. "It's pretty tough to hunt these without a dog, although it takes a dog a bit to figure them out since they don't move around as much (as other quail)."

"With a dog that works that country well, they're a very challenging target that (is) good at flying and hugging that cover. They are good at using cover to evade whatever has flushed them and they're pretty fast flyers, although they generally don't fly very far."

Since Mearn's coveys are usually pretty small -- typically eight to 10 birds -- the Arizona biologist recommends that once a hunter has flushed a covey and kills a bird or two from it, consider backing off after that and leave the rest.

NEW MEXICO

Across the border in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment hunters are also being greeted with upbeat quail forecast news. "It's supposed to be pretty good," agreed Marty Frentzel, Public Affairs Division Chief for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish.

"We had good winter moisture, and winter moisture is what keeps the bugs alive," he added. "Little chicks need a good source of protein once they hatch, and bugs provide that. On an anecdotal note, those same bugs often hurt our chile crop in the state, so I guess when the chile crop is bad the quail crop is usually pretty good."

While Frentzel's comments center on overall quail hunting prospects across the state, Mark Madsen is excited about quail prospects in southeastern New Mexico.

"It looks as good if not better than last year," said Madsen, the NMDGF public information outreach officer for the southeastern region. "The reports I'm getting around the southeastern part of the state, the guys are seeing lots of quail out there, especially scaled quail. They're doing very well."

Keep in mind that comparing this year's quail forecast with last year's superb quail campaign is saying a lot -- a whole lot in some cases.

"Last year," said Madsen, "was very good before the coveys were broken up and scattered. It was not unusual for guys to get out and get into six to eight coveys depending on the area, and a lot of that was just in the afternoons."

"In fact, I worked one ranch during deer season where I saw 12 coveys in one day. Keep in mind that the coveys were at times ranging in size from 20 to 50 (birds) around the start of the hunt. Towards the end of the season, the numbers obviously weren't quite that high since they had been hit pretty good."

So good are quail prospects in southeastern New Mexico this year -- as of press time, that is -- that Madsen believes the area may actually be experiencing a couple of hatches this year, something that would obviously bode well for hunters taking advantage of the season that normally extends from mid-November and well into the New Year.

Madsen also believes that the good quail news in his part of the state involves bobwhites, too. "Bobwhites are probably going to be pretty good too, although (they are) a little tougher to find," Madsen said. "Most of our good huntable numbers of bobwhites are found on private property around places like Clovis and Portales, although there are some scattered bobwhites around Hobbs. A lot of that country is in agriculture, so it's maybe a little bit better for bobwhites."

While perhaps not quite as upbeat as his southeastern counterpart, New Mexico Game & Fish area game manager and habitat specialist Pat Mathis is still optimistic about this year's quail hunting prospects in the southwest.

"We've had some pretty good quail-rearing weather up until (early August)," Mathis said. "I think prospects will be good in the Rio Grande Valley, and everywhere else (they) will be just fair."

Keep in mind that such a forecast is somewhat relative, depending on which quail species a hunter is targeting in southwestern New Mexico. This could be a caveat especially for scaled quail, a species whose base population was severely impacted in some areas because of drought conditions in recent years.

"For scalies, I'm probably not even going to go hunting for them myself," Mathis said. "There are so few (now) and I'm hopeful they'll come back a little bit more for next year and we can get the population going again. Even though the (scaled) quail seem to be successful (this year), the drought affected them badly. If we get some good monsoon rains and decent moisture next winter, maybe we can start building these quail populations back up."

Mathis says that some of the older hunters in the region have told him of previous drought cycles, including one back in the 1950s, in which it took scaled quail populations in the neighborhood of five to 10 years to fully recover.

The key then, as now, is consistent rainfall and improving habitat conditions. "If the habitat improves and we get the grasses back, the quail will recover," Mathis said. "It's just how long it will take that habitat to get better, but it's going to take more than a year or two of rain to get that back."

For those who choose to get out and hunt scaled quail this year, Mathis suggests that they look around the region's somewhat open grasslands that are intermixed with shrubs and small choya cactus forests. He also suggests that hunters have their track shoes on.

"Scalies are going to run," Mathis said. "And once they get scattered, they're going to keep running. I've seen times where we've busted coveys of 40 to 50 birds, went to where they landed, and never found them again. They can do a really good disappearing act."

While southeastern New Mexico's quail forecast would seem to gravitate towards the upper end of the grading spectrum (perhaps a 'B+'), prospects are a bit lower in the southwestern part of the Land of Enchantment.

"I'd say a 'C' or 'C-' particularly for scaled quail," Mathis said. "Actually, they're probably closer to a 'D+' to be honest. For Gambel's, I'd give them a good, solid 'C.' "

Why the better forecast for Gambel's quail?

"Gambel's seem to be doing pretty well around the Hatch, Socorro and Las Cruces areas," Mathis said. "They're more responsive to winter moisture and we've actually had a good couple of winters in a row. Scalies typically do best if we get good rain in March, April and May, and we haven't been successful in getting rain at that time of the year in several years now, so their habitat is in pretty bad shape right now."

Since Gambel's prefer more of a thicker, brushier habitat than scalies do, Mathis said that hunters will need to look for them in such places as arroyos, upland regions above river valleys and brushier draws in mountainous areas.

While having less of a "track star" reputation than their scaled cousins do, Mathis tells hunters to still be prepared for a very mobile bird when hunting Gambel's. "They can hook it up and run pretty good too, depending on the cover," he said. "If there is a lot of grass and cover, the better they'll hold."

As for Montezuma quail prospects this season, the NMGF biologist was somewhat upbeat. "Montezumas look fair," Mathis said of this higher elevation quail that can be found in the San Mateo's and the Gila. "With the winter moisture we've had recently, they've done pretty good. I'd give them a grade of 'B-' -- that sounds about right."

The reason for Mathis' optimism about Montezumas is once again tied to this particular quail species' habitat needs and the effect of recent weather upon it. These birds will often be found in grassy open areas near ponderosa pines and canyon bottoms, according to the biologist. Of course, that same habitat can make Montezumas a challenge to hunt, too.

"They're called 'Fool's quail,' " Mathis said. "They love to freeze up as a method of predator avoidance. You can almost step on them before they'll fly right out from under your feet. They're hard to locate and it certainly helps to have a dog."

Despite his somewhat mixed forecast for southwestern New Mexico, there's still one great thing that all three quail species hold in common, according to Mathis. They're all excellent table fare for hunters who bag them!

"They all taste good to me," Mathis agreed.

And that just might be the best reason of all to grab a shotgun, your upland game vest and a box or two of No. 6 shot shells for this quail hunting season. With a fair to good quail forecast in place across most of the Southwest, this season looks to be one of golden opportunity for Arizona and New Mexico quail hunters who are intent on getting out, turning the bird dogs loose, and bagging a limit of fast-running, hard-flying birds that turn into some serious finger-licking good eating!

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