The December sun had climbed high enough to knock off the morning’s chill, as the dogs quartered in front of the party like a metronome keeping time. Back and forth across the field they searched for bobwhite quail. Only 300 yards from the truck, their casts from left to right began to get tighter. The arc of their tails followed suit.
“They’re getting birdy,” warned Andrew Driggers, the dog’s owner.
Suddenly they stopped and pitched forward, as if the slightest nudge might knock them over. Their tails at two o’clock, and their front paw lifted in mid-step in point.
The group spread out and prepared before walking up to the point. In a thunderous explosion, 25 sets of wings sounded off in unison before shots rung out.
That was 1967. A lot has changed in South Carolina since then. The area that covey flushed is now College Park Road, a stretch of busy highway dotted with neighborhoods connecting Goose Creek to Ladson and Summerville. Family farms, once a South Carolina staple, have given way to factories to support the state’s growing automotive and aerospace industries, taking with them the quail that used to call hedge rows and fallow fields home. However, through it all there has remained a small contingent of dedicated quail hunters that continue to chase the illustrious bobwhite despite their documented decline.
Kenneth Shuler, a veterinarian from Holly Hill, started quail hunting on the family’s peach orchard alongside his grandfather.
“That was just the ultimate for a 10-year-old boy — to walk up on dogs pointing, not knowing where the birds are, and then the flush,” said Hill. “That gets in ya, and then you’re done.”
Others, such as Mark Coleman of Spartanburg, followed a different path, by going with some friends on a preserve hunt.
“I think for most people it only takes that one time, and you either like it or you don’t,” said Coleman. “Well, I loved it. That was 27 years ago, and I’ve been quail hunting ever since.”
It takes a lot of persistence and dedication to hunt quail in South Carolina. Most hunters typically take multiple dogs and walk quite a ways to find a bird that has greatly reduced in population. These dedicated bird hunters still hunt quail, instead of moving to more plentiful species, because they love to watch dogs work.
“I like the fact that you’re moving and walking around instead of sitting still for long periods,” said Coleman. But in terms of success, I don’t consider it that much different from deer hunting. I know plenty of people that go deer hunting three to four times a week, and they don’t come back with a deer every time. In fact, there are several times when they don’t even see a deer.”
South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative
Fortunately, there are brighter days ahead for quail in South Carolina. In 2014, a group of 31 partners, consisting of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, sportsmen and private landowners, formed the South Carolina Quail Council and became the driving force behind the South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative.
Developed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the SCBI aims to restore quail to their early 1980 levels by providing education opportunities and financial assistance to private landowners, as well as by establishing four focal regions on which to concentrate conservation efforts. These regions were hand selected by wildlife biologists as having the most potential for growing coveys of quail. It is estimated that they currently hold a combined 23,000 coveys. It is also believed that there is the potential to grow this number to 74,000.
Focal areas, defined as public lands within a region on which state and federal officials act as land managers overseeing conservation efforts, include Indian Creek in the Sumter National Forest, Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, Oak Lea WMA, and Webb, Palachucola and Hamilton Ridge WMAs.
Efforts include prescribed burns, along with timber removal specific for promoting early successional habitat. Marked by native grasses, shrubs and thick underbrush, this type of habitat is conducive for maintaining and growing a healthy quail population because it provides them with food and cover.
“Everything loves to eat quail, but by expanding this early successional habitat, we give them good cover and help increase their odds at survival,” said Michael Hook, South Carolina Small Game Program Leader and member of the SC Quail Council Technical Committee.
Some of the educational opportunities established by the SCBI include prescribed fire training and timber management assistance. Through its 31 partners, the SCBI provides services, such as equipment rental and financial subsidies for private landowners seeking to manage property for quail. According to Hook, the SCBI has already helped to provide approximately 30 South Carolina landowners with funding to restore upland habitat to their property. An additional 200 landowners have received written management plans for habitat improvements.
And while the SCBI is the largest initiative in South Carolina history aimed at early successional habitat restoration, it doesn’t happen without the help of state and federal officials, along with volunteers from organizations such as Quail Forever, a group dedicated to the conservation of habitat required to support quail and other small-game species.
Volunteers at work
Harness and Shuler have each logged countless hours working with the Charleston chapter in the Francis Marion National Forest. While not a focal area, there is an intensive effort by SCDNR and forest service officials to restore early successional habitat to the FMNF.
Volunteers like Harness and Shuler work with these agencies to plant brooding areas and food plots, as well as provide boots on the ground to help determine the best locations for fire breaks. These breaks keep prescribed burns contained and help to ensure the maximum benefit for quail and species.
“I like to find a piece of high ground with a good understory flanked by dense swamps,” said Harness. “This setup seems to provide quail with everything they need to survive.”
Those wanting to get into quail hunting, according to Harness, need to start by modifying their expectations. Hunters often have to walk a long way to find a single covey, with some days birds being almost impossible to find. Fortunately, the migratory path of the American woodcock runs through the eastern edge of South Carolina, providing work for dogs and shots for hunters.
“If you know somebody who quail hunts, raise a hand and let them know you’re interested,” said Coleman. “Most guys — I won’t say all — are happy to have someone tag along with them and kind of show them the ropes.”
He also suggests, for the folks that have a dog and are looking for places to go, they contact their local chapter of Quail Forever, which is the quickest way to get up with like-minded people in regard to quail. Folks can also check out the SCBI website to learn the focal regions.
The Webb Wildlife Center is one such area. Located on the Savannah River in Hampton County, the center is known for its prime upland habitat and beautiful blackwater swamps. This site is owned and managed by the SCDNR and includes acres of brood fields, fallow fields and pine savanna. According to Hook, its neighboring property, Hamilton Ridge WMA, is also an “up and comer.”
“For the Webb Center, everything that is not swamp is pretty good quail habitat,” said Hook. “At Hamilton Ridge, look for the areas where timber removal work has been started. There are areas of thinned pines and this is where the birds will be found.”
The Enoree Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest, offers folks in the Upstate a location that is closer to home with great opportunities to find quail.
According to Hook, the best method to find suitable quail hunting habitat is to locate the Enoree Ranger District office, and then drive around and look for thinned pine savanna habitat.
For folks in the Lowcountry, areas within the Francis Marion National Forest offer upland habitat suitable for growing quail. However, comprised of approximately 259,000 acres, not all areas of the Francis Marion are created equal. Hunters will need to find where the pine trees have been thinned. The areas around Halfway Creek Road and Steed Creek Road contain lots of brooding fields and pine savanna known for holding birds.
The Sand Hills State Forest WMA is a property owned by the South Carolina Forestry Commission and managed in partnership with SCDNR. Starting in the 1960s, this site, comprised of 46,000 acres in Darlington and Chesterfield counties, offers hundreds of food plots for quail and other small-game species.
Before hunting, don’t forget to stop by the office. The Webb Wildlife Center, Enoree Ranger District and the Francis Marion National Forest offices are open Monday through Friday and are staffed with folks who are more than willing to provide a map and help point out the right direction. More information can be found at dnr.sc.gov.
Coleman, along with the others, still pursue quail in the Palmetto State. And while they don’t find the quail they used to, they continue they great tradition with the hope that one day birds will be much more plentiful.
In order to better understand the impact of its habitat management efforts, SCDNR, along with a team of volunteers, conduct multiple surveys each year to estimate quail populations throughout the state. Of these, the Fall Covey Count Survey is considered the best indicator for reproductive success, brood survival and habitat sustainability. It also serves as the best predictor of hunting success for the upcoming season.
Conducted between October 15th and October 31st, the FCCS places trained observers at selected locations at least 1,000 yards apart. These observers listen for loud, clear whistles emitted by quail as they form coveys and establish their winter range. This call is described phonetically by wildlife biologists as the “koi-lee” call.
This technique, long used by hunters to scout new areas, provides information that, when coupled with calling rates established by NC State and Tall Timbers Research Station, gives an accurate estimate of quail populations on some state WMAs. For more details regarding the Fall Covey Count Survey, and the see its results, visit dnr.sc.gov.