The Quail Comeback

The Quail Comeback

The quality of the quail hunting west of Fort Worth this year serves as proof that our bird population can do a fast turnaround from drought. (December 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

One of my favorite places to hunt quail anywhere on the face of this earth is the area west of Fort Worth.

As far as sheer numbers go, I've probably seen more coveys per day in jungle-thick cactus in South Texas -- but down there the intimidating brush often limits my ability to hunt and to find kills after I do shoot. By contrast, the rolling hills and semiopen terrain around towns like Abilene, Albany, Haskell and Aspermont is better suited to watching dogs work and getting clear shots at flushed coveys.

The appeal of land around San Angelo is much the same. The birds are plentiful there: In the right year, 10- to 20-covey days are possible on well-managed ranches. And farther north, around places like Childress, McLean and Amarillo, similarly open terrain flanked by wooded creek bottoms makes for some worthy action. This whole area, from just west of Fort Worth up to Amarillo and even to the Oklahoma Panhandle offers excellent hunting for wild bobwhites.

Go even farther west, into the desert Trans-Pecos region, and you'll find primarily blue quail. In most years, the hunting's good throughout that part of Texas -- but 2006 wasn't like most years.

A severe drought bedeviled this region in 2006. Out-of-control wildfires, Texas' worst in recorded history, burned close to a million acres in the northeastern Texas Panhandle alone, and then the drought following the fires crippled the quail population. The absence of moisture resulted in the absence of nesting cover for hens, green grasses and weeds to eat, and insects for newborn chicks. Turkeys were similarly afflicted, with little to no hatch in the area for spring 2006.

Even though some of these areas received substantial moisture in the second half of 2006, it was too late to help that fall's crop of wild birds. For those reasons, the 2006-07 quail season was one many that Texans would just as soon forget.

The good news: Rain and snow started to fall at average to above-average levels in many of these western counties in late 2006 and into early 2007. In many counties, above-average precipitation continued through the late-winter and spring months, when ground moisture is so critical for the quail hatch. In the spring, this country's look differed from last year's desolate spectacle as much as desert from rain forest. Wildflowers were abundant, weeds everywhere, grasses tall: The stage was set for quail to make a comeback.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

In late summer, I polled several quail experts here in Texas. Ty Bartoskewitz, a technical guidance biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department based near Weatherford, was the first to comment on the effects of wet and dry years on quail, and on the prospects for a rebound west of Fort Worth this season.

"Good quail years usually have generous amounts of rainfall at the proper times," he began. "Too much rain at the wrong time can have negative impacts, too. Winter rains usually will set up conditions in the springtime for good forb (weed) and insect production. Continued rainfall in the spring will help perpetuate cover, insect production and nesting structure. An abundance of insects and seeds provide quail with energy and required nutrients to nest, lay eggs, incubate and successfully raise a clutch.

"Quail chicks feed heavily on insects during the first stages of their life cycle. Rainfall provides ground moisture used for grass and for forb growth. This herbaceous layer is important in food, cover and nesting structure. Additionally, cover provides an escape from predators and helps to shield against intense summer heat. Wet spring and summer months usually offer respite from the normal 100-plus-degree heat.

"Why are dry years hard for quail? The main reason is a loss of the opportunity to nest. Dry years will have fewer forbs available, which reduces seed and insect abundance and overall bird fitness. Dry years do not promote grass growth, which offers cover from predators, nesting structure in the form of bunchgrasses, and the thermal cover from hot summer days. Dry years generally decrease the number of times a hen will attempt to nest, and thereby decrease overall quail numbers. This is exactly what happened in 2006. Very little moisture in the winter, spring and summer of 2006 led to less than ideal conditions if you are a bobwhite.

"TPWD roadside quail counts show a boom-and-bust cycle that mirrors habitat conditions and rainfall," Bartoskewitz continued. "Roadside counts in 2005 showed an average of 37.37 birds per 20-mile route while 2006 counts showed a paltry 14.02 birds per 20-mile route in the Rolling Plains area west of Fort Worth. The long-term mean is 22.57 birds observed per route. Most ranches west of Fort Worth had very few quail last season due to the dry conditions and subsequent loss of nesting opportunity.

"In dry years, quail and ranch managers should be mindful of grazing regimes. If possible, try to leave suitable amounts of nesting and screening structure (bunchgrass clumps) so that quail at least have a chance to survive and attempt to nest when habitat conditions become suitable.

"Quail hunters and landowners in Texas have enjoyed generous amounts of rainfall in 2007, with most areas west of D/FW near Albany and Throckmorton receiving 20 inches of rain by June. Average annual rainfall in those parts is about 22 inches a year. The 2007 rains have been timely, and in the right amounts. Several land managers and ranch owners have commented this is the best grass (habitat) conditions they have seen in 30 years.

"Will quail return to 2005 numbers? It depends on continued moisture the remainder of the summer and the number of hens in the populations that survived the below-average 2006 season. There is no question that 2007 should be much better than 2006 when it comes to habitat conditions and the opportunity for a quail to nest and raise a clutch."

Jeff Bonner, a TPWD technical guidance biologist based out of Pampa, is optimistic that quail can rebound on the edges, and even in fire-devastated interior areas of the Panhandle. I asked his opinion on the 2007-08 quail outlook in the northeast Panhandle.

"Since 2006 was such a dismal year for quail in this region, anything would be better," he observed ruefully. "Anytime you get an abundance of fall, winter and spring moisture, ground-nesting birds do very well. We've had great moisture over the last seven months, and we're currently cocked and loaded for a great quail year. Pheasants, turkeys and deer should also do well because of the moisture.

"Quail are boomers and busters, depending on rainfall and habitat conditions. If you graph out population estimates from our surveys it comes out looking like the skyline of the Himalayas: up and down with tall peaks and deep valleys. The peaks do not require a buildup over multiple years -- they just shoot up and then back down again.

"I've been asked by a multitude of people, hunters and ranchers how many years will it take for the quail to come back from the dismal production of 2006. Based on the moisture we've had through the first half of 2007, I'd say one year. Will it be as good as 2005? Maybe; maybe not. But it will definitely be a year to get the old pointer in shape and ready to hunt.

"As for the country burned in the wildfires last year, it's not quite that simple. When three-quarters of a million acres burn off -- and I mean completely burn off -- and is then followed by a severe drought, there's nowhere for a ground-nesting bird to make a nest and nowhere to hide from predators for about two months, and no forage available.

"However," Bonner continued, "it's important to remember that quail have been around this country a lot longer than we have, and the landscape has been burning during all that time. Just to demonstrate the resilience, I heard multiple quail calling last month in central Gray County -- about smack-dab in the middle of the I-40 fire.

"An abundance of weeds is going to help, but the drought that followed did not produce much grass, which is critical for spring nesting the following year. Hats off to the NRCS for the quick development of a prescribed grazing incentive that offered $5 per acre to landowners who would rest their pastures from grazing for one to two growing seasons and allow the country to recover. Around 60 to 65 percent of landowners in the burned country enrolled. Since residual cover -- grass from last year -- is still relatively low, I don't think quail numbers will be quite as high in the interior of those burned areas; just my guesstimation.

"However, I would also say that quail numbers should be higher in the burned area within the next 2 to 5 years. Fire is good for quail at the right intensity and size because of the increase in plant production and diversity. The areas along the edges of those wildfires should be phenomenal for quail this year. The Texas Ag Extension Service is conducting some research on quail abundance outside the burn, along the edge and into the interior."

BLUE QUAIL COUNT TOO

Dr. Dale Rollins, a wildlife specialist with the Extension Service in San Angelo, gave his thoughts on the coming year, and on the reaction of blue quail to wet and dry years.

"Quail season is poised to rebound nicely across most of West Texas from last year's disappointing showing," he offered. "I've been receiving numerous reports of broods since early June, and June hatches make or break a quail season in North Texas. Our simulated (dummy) quail nests at Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch enjoyed a 90 percent survival rate at 14 days, suggesting that hatch rates should be high, at least nesting where cover is good.

"My research in the Trans-Pecos suggests that blues enjoy higher survival rates than bobwhites, but I don't think 'boom' quite as well during good times as bobs do; however, they don't 'bust' as poorly as bobs during hard years. As a rule, I don't think desert habitats (more prone to blues) have the predator 'context' (number and diversity of nest predators) as bobwhite range does; hence, hatching rate tends to be greater."

Greg Simons, owner of Wildlife Systems Inc. in San Angelo, directs a variety of hunts on ranches around west-central Texas and in the Trans-Pecos. He thinks the 2007-08 quail season should be a good one.

"We could not ask for a better rebound year for quail," he said. "Conditions since April have been exceptionally good. There are more pairs and more birds calling than I anticipated we would have, considering such few sightings last fall. We are already hatching a good many blue quail in the Trans-Pecos, and I suspect we will have a boom year out there. Our seed supply of blues was a bit better than bobs, so I expect to see a greater rebound on blues than bobs."

Wayne Zachary, owner of Trans-Pecos Guide Service out of El Paso, also shared some views on blue quail hunting prospects in far West Texas. "At the Circle Ranch near Van Horn, one of the properties where we hunt, habitat improvements along with late-winter and early-spring rains have really benefited the quail populations," he stated. "Even in dry years we have huntable populations of blues, but this year should prove exceptional. We anticipate increased quail numbers for this fall, which will result in some tremendous quail hunting action this season."

We've obviously established strong grounds for asserting that the 2007-08 quail season could be a fruitful one in areas that received decent levels of precipitation. What will it take for the 2008-09 season to be another boom quail year? Given the ideal conditions in spring 2007, solid numbers of birds should have hatched and survived into the fall. If a substantial number of those adult birds survive through early 2008 to breed, the stage is set for another great year to follow. Then, the final ingredient will be moisture: If we get more moisture in winter 2007 and at the right times in winter and spring 2008, that could make for another excellent hatch -- and a season with above-average quail numbers.

But if 2008 turns out hot and dry with low precipitation -- such as that we suffered through in 2006 -- expect quail numbers to dip again. The boom-or-bust cycle makes sense when you look at the direct connection of rainfall to the conditions needed for success of ground-nesting birds in the spring.

CONCLUSION

Judging from the response of the experts and other landowners and outdoorsmen I've talked to across West Texas, and from my own observations on family land near Amarillo, the region's 2007-08 quail season should be memorable. Above-average rain in the winter and spring greatly benefits ground-nesting birds like pheasants, turkeys and quail, enabling a rebound after a poor year. This year certainly will be more profitable than was 2006. So make sure to set aside a few weekends this winter for chasing quail. Great bird years come along only so often, and you'd best take advantage of them when they do!

GEAR FOR THE HUNT

A few essentials go with me on any quail hunt. I typically shoot a 20-gauge over-under Beretta Silver Pigeon fitted with improved and modified choke tubes. Winchester 2 3/4-inch shells in 7 1/2 or 8 shot round out my arsenal. Other gear includes well-broken-in hiking boots with good ankle support, brush pants to fight through mesquite and cactus, a bird vest, leather gloves, Leatherman multitool, sunglasses and lip balm.

For half-day hikes I wear a daypack stuffed with snacks, extra water for the dogs and myself, tweezers, bandages and other dog care items, and camera equipment. I always wear some sort of blaze orange or other bright color, whether it's a cap, vest or jacket. At the truck is a small cooler filled with cold drinks, extra snacks for me and the dogs, dog leashes, water bowls, dog kennel

s, extra jacket and (just in case!) my veterinarian's phone number.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For more great photos and details about the author, visit his Web site at www.brandonrayoutdoors.com.

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