By Craig Springer
They call Montana the Big Sky Country, but the fine folks up north don’t have a lock on the actual commodity of open skies. Southeast New Mexico is broad and open, and with gentle features pleasing to the eye.
The horizon is always a far, distant feature, never seeming to come closer. And by the time scaled quail come into season, hawks from the north adorn the skies aloft on thermals, heading to more southerly climes. With their characteristic white rump, these harriers waft effortlessly low over the bunch grasses without flapping a wing, always looking down. They turn their heads side to side, never seeming to tire. They ride the ever-present breezes and stiff winds that seem endemic to the place, while they search for an unsuspecting mouse or snake, or maybe even what I am after. And I don’t mind.
I’m walking with a 20-gauge Weatherby over my shoulder in the wide-open shinnery oak flats somewhere between Portales and Milensand. The oaks clip my brush pants at the bottom of my shins. I’m capped by a dome of cloudless sky, dark blue straight up, grading to powdery pale on the horizons. The landscape is immense, but nearly featureless, save for a gentle hill or two and a few distant farmhouses. An ancient windmill, probably not used since I was knee-high to a Labrador pup has the word “Chicago” stenciled on galvanized metal. The blades are partly covered in windborne dirt that came from somewhere west of here. I’m hunting birds, scaled quail and bobwhites, in about the only place in New Mexico where you can potentially bump up a covey of both from the same covers.
An easterner might be taken aback at what bobwhite quail will use for cover in this harsh place. You won’t find raspberry thickets, hedgerows or hawthorns. Weedy draws of the eastern uplands are nonexistent here. The smallest of hummocks and swales, the bunch grasses, mesquite and yucca provide cover the birds need from the wind, harriers, bird dogs and shotgunners like us.
My hunting companions came from points well beyond the area. Bill End, founder of Land’s End, and buddy Joe Wishcamper came from Maine to hunt birds – a stopover on their way to hunt Coues white-tailed deer. End retired and hunts two months out of each year. Like most of us, Wishcamper still labors to put beans on the table. Gene LeBeouf, a bird biologist, and Wayne Wolf are down from Albuquerque.
Wolf is no stranger to this place; he learned a fair bit about southeast New Mexico quail hunting in his youth in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He spent autumn seasons chasing birds in this country. That was before he rambled off to the University of New Mexico on a Ford Foundation scholarship; he had the starting QB slot for coach Marv Levy’s Lobos. He handed the ball off to some future NFL starters, but the future handed him a different course. At 175 pounds, he was on the small side for professional football, and instead started a law practice in Albuquerque. Now semi-retired, southeast New Mexico continues to draw him back to hunt birds. He may have left southeast New Mexico behind, but it never left him.
“The flat land is peaceful,” said Wolf. “Coming here is like getting back to nature. It still feels a little like home to me.”
But Wolf has seen a lot of changes since the 1950s.
“It was nothing to pick up a limit of quail, and we hunted without dogs; we had mongrel farm dogs, not polished retrievers, but still we bagged a lot of birds,” said Wolf.
Quail populations over time seem quite cyclic. Probably any avid bird hunter would agree. The numbers are up for a spell, then bottom out. The ups and downs are easily tied to moisture, and especially when it arrives. The young quail in particular need moisture delivered at the right time. But Wolf thinks the lows in quail numbers could be from another matter: too many people.
“Farmers farm to the fence – and who can blame them? But there’s no fence rows left – there’s less cover for birds,” said Wolf. “It’s habitat encroachment; you can look across the land and see more and more houses popping up – there’s more people here than there used to be,” he added in a plaintive tone.
Numbers of quail may be down over time, and the reports have been consistently dismal; the prolonged drought has been tough on wildlife. But you’d never know it based on our two-day hunt; we experienced no shortage of birds. And that might relate to the stewardship of rancher George Hay, whose land we hunted.
Hay is a third-generation Roosevelt County rancher. His grandfather emigrated from Ohio. “Granddad was seeking opportunity,” said Hay with the hint of a draw distinctive to a place so close to Texas. “Wanderlust had something to do with it, I’m sure, him coming west.” The Hay Ranch was in operation by 1916, and today Hay is not only concerned about turning a profit on his cattle operation, he’s also concerned about a little grouse on the prairie – the lesser prairie chicken.
Hay intensively manages his livestock and pastures, a true conservationist. He’s fenced off chunks of grassland to keep cows out, just for prairie chickens. Bob King of the Santa Fe Guiding Company is partnered with Hay on the cow fence-outs, and helping to develop permanent water sources. It’s a great example of good stewardship on private lands, influenced by the invisible hand of the private marketplace. Motivations of both men benefit birds and hunters in a place where public lands are lacking.
American pronghorn, iconic denizens of the open, gather in loose herds here. They may give you a sideways quizzical glance. They look at you with caution, yet they’re confident, seemingly never in fear as if they know they can outrun you. They can. Pronghorn look odd, like an animal put together by a committee that couldn’t agree on much. Willowy legs hold up a barrel-shaped body, and their eyes, like a woodcock’s, can see all around. More often than not, they can see you long before you can see them. It strikes me odd, giving pause, wondering why pronghorn run so darn fast when no predator can even come close to catching it. They can outpace a coyote by about 25 mph; seems like the odds are unfairly stacked. Pronghorn grizzle their white rump hair and scurry over the knoll to eat some more weeds in private.
Quail nest when the time is right: with the onset of summer rains. Late June and early July bring monsoon air up from Mexic
o, and with it relief from the prolonged searing heat and a signal to breed. The rains green up the brown grasses. The fresh grasses, seeds and bugs provide a source of Vitamin A, necessary for birds to breed. Both the male and female set about building a nest, typically in a tussock of grass or in a stand of yucca or prickly pear; even the remains of old farm machinery give birds a secure place to nest.
Downy chicks set about immediately eating bugs and seeds, and the rapidly growing birds need water. In a matter of days from hatching they are capable of flight. They flit about for short distances. They still rely on their parents for protection, who in the face of danger feign injury to draw away attention. Rain, the provider of a universal need, is also a natural enemy. Though not common, heavy prolonged summer rains can cause hypothermia and mortality in the young, vulnerable birds.
The families stay together until about early October; the family bond weakens and the birds become more social and start to covey up. By late autumn, the young have taken on the appearance of their parents and have achieved their maximum size, about half a pound, and that’s when bird, dog, and hunter might meet.
The habitat improvements that Hay is making to benefit mostly young prairie chickens will help quail, too, there’s no doubt. “Anything you do for one species, it splashes over to other species,” said Hay with a countenance of confidence cultivated by living a lifetime on the range. “More grasses in the fenced-off areas mean more bugs for prairie chicken and quail.”
As more bird habitat is improved, the bird hunting is bound to improve, too. But in a way, I’m wondering from this weekend’s experience how you’d make a great thing even better. Pointers and flush dogs worked in front of us, quartering from side to side, filling their noses with scents. To a dog, the world is a smell, and to a bird dog, bird scent is exhilarating. You can tell when a dog’s scented a bird.
“They’re getting birdy,” warned Bob King, as he trilled commands to his brown pudel pointers on a distinctive whistle. “We got a point.” The unusual flat-coated breed of German stock is ideal for desert bird hunting. Their endurance is incomparable, and they are equally versatile.
The two dogs locked up on point, their heads laid low and nearly tucked into a yucca. Wayne Wolf started to walk in on the point, but our two black Labs, Claire and Catfish, beat him to it. Despite all the warning in the world, I got a start when a covey of some 25 birds took to the wind in a whir of wings. The air space between us got wide quickly, and only Wolf had a shot. He was right on, fluid, probably not unlike a caught pass in the end zone of yesteryear. The black Labs competed for the right to retrieve.
It’s easy to see why, despite the benefit of a modern firearm and bird dogs with all the heart in the world, hunting has a minimal impact on quail numbers. I got a remedial course in the predator-prey relationship when large coveys got up. A single bird getting up by itself is a lot more vulnerable to the shotgunner than any bird in a large noisy covey getting up in any and all directions. You have a harder time drawing a bead on any bird in the latter case.
You’d have the hardest time drawing a bead on a bird that isn’t there. Bobwhites were never a dominant species in southeast New Mexico, but things have been worse than what they are today. Biologist J. Stokley Ligon wrote in his 1927 report to the New Mexico State Game Commission on the status of bobwhite quail:
“The birds evidently were most numerous in the extreme southeast corner of the state and in the Canadian River Valley, near Logan. Today there is hardly more than a trace of the native birds in this habitat. Their disappearance is wholly due to the destruction of ground cover – weeds and grasses. I was able to learn of three birds having been seen in the sandhills east of Portales, near the Texas line, in April 1926, and a few have managed to exist along the lower Dry Cimarron in Union County. Much of the eastern and southern sections of the state is suitable in altitude, topography, and climate to the bob-white, but nowhere does favorable protective cover exist continuously … such areas are exposed to grazing abuse.”
Ligon knew the cause and effect on bird numbers. King and Hay have a cause, and are trying to effect a change – and it seems to be working. That is, if the number of birds flushed and the number of missed shots are any proxy measure of bird habitat.
As our hunt drew to a close, the wind whipped hard over the plains, putting dust everywhere. I broke open my over-and-under; wind in the barrels sounded like an out-of-tune symphonic wind instrument. The plains of the east are harsh to man and birds. Cat’s claw, prickly pear, snakeweed, and Spanish dagger – the plant names speak of harshness, of unpleasant human experiences – but the birds survive, and my less-than-stellar performance with a .20-gauge doesn’t present too much of a problem for them.
Santa Fe Guiding Company, Bob King, www.santafeguidingco.com, 505-466-7964.
Outdoor Adventures, Bob Gerding, www.bobsoutadv.com; 505-299-5204.
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