California Primed For Banner Quail Season

California Primed For Banner Quail Season

Many areas of the Golden State received near-record amounts of precipitation last winter, and experts say that could make this year's quail and chukar seasons the best hunters have seen in years.

Author Michael Dickerson shot these valley quail near Lake Nacimiento. Habitat conditions throughout the state have left populations of valley, Gambel's and mountain quail in excellent condition for the 2005 hunting season.
Photo courtesy of Michael Dickerson

Add water, watch and wait.

That's the simple recipe for producing lots of quail in California. Unfortunately, Golden State quail-hunting aficionados have been watching and waiting for many long years -- watching less-than-average precipitation year after year, and waiting for bird numbers to show some sign of recovery to historic levels.

The waiting has officially ended.

With parts of the state recording the second-greatest amount of precipitation ever recorded in a single year, the entire food chain -- particularly in Southern California -- has leaped directly from a slow idle into overdrive.

"I'm not kidding when I say I think this season could be a season to remember," says Sonke Mastrup, deputy director of the DFG's Wildlife and Inland Fisheries Division. "If you're going to hunt upland game, you have to seriously consider this season."

If Mastrup thinks it's going to be a great season, you might consider getting in some serious practice on clay birds. Mastrup should know. He literally wrote the book on the subject. He's the author of the DFG-published Guide to Hunting Quail in California, which is updated every couple of years and serves as an excellent reference for locating public-land quail-hunting opportunities in the state.

The reason for Mastrup's optimism was clear to anyone who ventured afield this spring and witnessed the phenomenal wildflower blooms and a green-up that was off the scale in intensity. At one point, the hills of Death Valley looked more like the hills of Ireland -- an event that had never before happened in anyone's living memory.

"We're anticipating that this season may be one of the best we've ever had," says Dick Haldeman, western states regional director for Quail Unlimited. "Water conditions are excellent. We're coming out of a really drastic fire season, and we're into our second year of strong growth of early successional habitat, which is good for both nesting and brood rearing -- and it's also easier to hunt.

"This is one of the few years that I don't have a bad area to talk about," he adds. "Everything looks really good. One clue is when you're driving up and down the state and you have to stop at every rest stop to wipe the bugs off your windshield -- you know you're looking at a good season. We've had lots of bugs this year, and lots of wildflowers."

Quail, like wildflowers, require sufficient rain to reproduce. That's why it's axiomatic that good wildflower years generally translate into good quail seasons. Late winter and early spring rains create the green-up that's essential to quail reproduction. New green forage provides the body conditioning and energy reserves to see hens through the stressful process of laying their eggs. Experts believe that the vitamin A in green feed actually stimulates reproduction.

Moreover, precipitation is responsible for all of the food available to quail throughout the year. It produces both the green feed needed by adults and the insects required by chicks. As insects decline, young birds eat seeds produced by the spring green-up.

Although annual quail population surveys had yet to be completed as this issue went to press, the amount and timing of the rains in most areas of the state appear to have been nearly perfect to produce bumper crops of feathered buzz bombs. Here's a region-by-region breakdown of what upland gunners can expect this season.


From Bust To Boom

"If I were in Southern California, I'd be loading shot shells," says Mastrup. "When you get this kind of rain in the south with a good base population, you have the potential for an outstanding year. The signs are all good."

The devastating wildfires of the last couple of years are playing a significant role, he says. "That early successional habitat always helps, particularly with California quail. That's their forté -- their primary habitat -- and they make the most of those conditions. With the carryover and good nesting conditions, it should be pretty good. The nice thing about upland game is they're real responsive to a good year or two of weather. They can come back darn fast."

Quail Unlimited's Haldeman agrees: "Both Sand Diego and Riverside counties are looking really good. In my area, around Temecula, there's not a brush pile I can't find a covey in."

Scott Sewell of the DFG's Region 5 is optimistic regarding prospects in the Southern California mountain ranges, including the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests. As early as last May, he reported, quail in many areas had already hatched two clutches -- and were working on a third.

DFG biologist Andy Pauli, who covers much of San Bernardino County, also expects a great season. "This year, we're even seeing valley quail in the western desert, where typically the chukars have out-competed them in the past," he says. "There should be lots of holdover birds this year and lots of reproduction. We've had three years in a row with relatively good precipitation in this region. The problem before was we had eight to 10 years of very low precipitation. The numbers were down, and they're finally getting back up to where they were in the 1980s."

He also expects improvement in Gambel's quail populations. "I'm finding them in areas where I haven't seen them before -- ever. I think they've expanded their range somewhat. I'm talking mostly on public BLM land or in the Mojave National Preserve.

Likewise, Gerald Mulcahy, a DFG Region 6 biologist, sees promising signs for Gambel's quail recovery along the lower Colorado River after several lean years. "The population got so low, but we had some recovery last year," he says. "Groups went from six to about 20 birds. This year, we'll have birds, but it won't be 150-bird coveys. It will probably be 30- to 35-bird coveys.

"The desert's in the best shape I've seen in 25 years," he adds. "Because the rain was so uniform, the birds will be where you find them." He stresses that hunters should obtain maps from the BLM in advance because many of the desert washes and mountain ranges are now designated wilderness areas where vehicular traffic is

banned -- and the ban is vigorously enforced.


More Good Action On Tap

The coastal ranges provide some of the most predictably reliable upland gunning for California quail of any area of the state. That's especially true of areas nearer the coast, which generally receive ample precipitation due to their proximity to the ocean. Areas located farther inland can be hurt by drought conditions, but that wasn't a factor with last winter's heavy rains.

The green-up was perfect this year for food development and growth of nesting cover. The Big Sur coast received almost double the normal amount of rainfall, while other parts of the region received half again as much rain as in an average year.

"From Santa Barbara County all the way up through Monterey County, we're looking at a really good production year, and Mendocino County looks to be really good for mountain quail," says Haldeman.

"When it gets pretty green, as it did this spring, it can be pretty outstanding," adds Mastrup. "This should be a great year."

That's doubly true for hunters who can gain access to private lands in the area, which include much of the region's most desirable habitat. The bird populations on these lands, which generally have permanent water sources, remain very stable assuming no drastic changes in land use patterns.

"We've been seeing a lot more development -- a lot of vineyards and two-acre ranch homes," says DFG biologist Jeff Cann. "That's not necessarily bad if it's not all clean-farmed or clean-capped."

While hunting on private lands in the region can be fantastic, there are plenty of public-land hunting opportunities for those willing to deal with the thick brush that blankets a lot public areas. Good places to start are BLM tracts and the Los Padres National Forest, from Ventura County to San Benito County. Other places to prospect include the Temblor and Caliente ranges as well as military lands, including Fort Hunter-Liggett and Camp Roberts. Be sure to check ahead at the military bases, as accelerated training schedules may impose more frequent closures than usual.


Scouting Equals Success

The rocky backbone of California called the Sierra should provide rock-solid hunting opportunities for California quail in the foothills and mountain quail in higher elevations this season. Reports point to good food production and good carryover for both species.

The one exception seems to be an area of western Fresno County, including the Panoche and Tummy Hills areas, which had been hammered by drought and had terrible reproduction for the last six or seven years.

Otherwise, quail populations up and down the Sierra crest and foothills are generally very stable. "The populations don't get real high or real low," says Mastrup. "It's consistently good if you've got the spots. Production just doesn't vary that much relative to Southern California."

In the foothills, hunters who know good California quail habitat when they see it always seem to do well, and with a little scouting, you can almost always find good mountain quail hunting in the national forests of the Sierra.

"It's just about the same habitat types from Kern County right on up through Stanislaus County," says DFG biologist Doug Bowman. "You just have to get out and find the better spots. Look for damp areas. Mountain quail have to have water like all quail. I'd hunt them above 5,000 feet, up to 7,000 feet. A lot of people drive the roads early in the morning and look for quail crossing the roads, and then get out and hunt them. That's probably the easiest way to find places where the birds hang out."

Oddly, mountain quail don't seem to be affected by fluctuations in precipitation as much as the other quail species. Not much is known about what drives mountain quail production. It's largely a mystery.

Chukar, chukar, and more chukar. That's what hunters can expect to see this year following substantial carryover of adult birds and optimal condition's throughout much of the birds' rang in California.

"We're going to have a really good chukar season," says Dick Halderman, of Quail Unlimited. "I think the heavy rains of last winter kept a lot of guys out of the field."

"We've been seeing tons of chukar this year," echoes DFG upland game specialist Scott Sewell.

Chukar are fond of steep, arid, rocky habitat, usually associated with cheat grass and within a mile of water. They can often be located by the sound of their nervous chatter, and will readily answer a call. When flushed, they generally run uphill and fly downhill. California hunters shoot about 30,00 chukar annually, mostly within eastern Modoc and Lassen counties, Inyo County, San Bernardino and Kern counties.

Historically good areas in the Lassen area include the Sledaddle Mountains, Shaffer Mountain, Five Springs Mountain, Cherry Mountain, Shinn Peak, Black's Mountain and Rush Creek Mountain as well as the Fort Sage and Peterson Mountains areas.

In Southern California, good numbers of chukar can be found in the Ridgecrest area and many parts of the Mojave Desert, including Stoddard Mountain, Dagget Ridge, Opal Mountain, Black Mountain and Red Mountain. The birds are most numerous in the western desert, and biologists also report seeing lots of birds along Highway 395 all the way to Bridgeport.

Chukar hunting is one of the most physically demanding hunts imaginable due to the extremely rugged terrain the birds inhabit. Its wise to get in shape before the season and to be properly equipped with maps, water and emergency supplies for you and your bird dog. -- Michael Dickerson.

What is known is that once you find good spots for mountain quail, you can go there year after year and find birds. Just remember that the birds live below snow line and will migrate accordingly. As a result they can be found anywhere from 3,500 feet up to 9,000 feet in elevation. Once you find birds at a particular elevation, keep hunting at that general level.

Historically, top-producing counties include Siskiyou, Trinity, Kern, Tuolumne, Plumas, El Dorado, Tulare, Fresno, Shasta and Lassen. Huntable populations of mountain quail can also be found in other "montane" regions of the state, including parts of the Coast Range and Southern California mountains.


Primed To Repeat?

Far northern and northeastern California, specifically the areas within Lassen, Modoc, eastern Siskiyou and Shasta counties, differs from other parts of the state in that quail reproduction is more dependent on spring and summer rains than midwinter precipitation. Given that scenario and the active storms that hit Northern California in late spring, reproduction should be excellent this year. It is worth noting that midwinter precipitation in this region was about 100 percent of normal in the southern part of the area and 60 percent of normal near the Oregon line. It's also worth no

ting that 2003-'04 and 2004-'05 were near-record years in terms of bird populations and harvest.

"The northeastern part of the state does well when it doesn't get too wet in winter, or have too many heavy snows," says Mastrup. "It was relatively dry there this winter, which could be good."

"We had some heavy snow in January, but minimal mortality," says DFG biologist Frank Hall. He notes that near-record thunderstorms in May and June of 2004 produced excellent numbers of California quail, and an apparent repeat of such storms this year, combined with good carryover, bodes well for the coming hunting season.

Since this area includes some 10 million acres on four national forests and five BLM field offices, it's tough to list specific locations. Hall recommends that hunters do their homework and look for quail in specific habitat types. Valley quail, for example are found near riparian, valley and mixed shrub areas. For mountain quail, find brush patches in mountain conifer stands west of and near the Sierra crest. For maps and up-to-date information, contact Forest Service and BLM offices.

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