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Arizona quail slam

9/10/2010

TUCSON, Ariz. -- It's Montezuma's Revenge, bird-style, with the runs in this case involving the chase of quail through creosote scrub, cat claw acacia, and cactus.

One has to always be mindful of naturalist Edward Abbey's admonition that everything in the desert either sticks, stabs, stings, or stinks. But tracking down Mearns' quail -- called Montezuma quail by non-hunters -- is worth the effort.

Bird hunters in Arizona have the distinct pleasure of pursuing three quail species -- Gambel's, scaled, or Mearns', the latter being pretty much unique to this part of the country.

"There are some in New Mexico that offer limited hunting and a few in Texas (but no hunting season), so basically almost all Mearns' hunting takes place in southeastern Arizona," said Mike Cross, biologist by trade and hunting guide by passion.

The more-well-known Gambel's -- with a black forward-curling tassel on top of their head -- prefer Sonoran desert scrub habitat concentrating in dense vegetation near water sources. Scaled quail will co-exist with them or strike out on their own in semi-desert grasslands.

However, Mearns' like to move into real estate found in Sky Island-type mountainous terrain in the southern part of the state. Although any oak woodland or savannah on the Coronado National Forest will hold birds, the Santa Rita, Huachuca, and Atascosa mountain ranges are the most popular locales.

"Look for woodland with a perennial grass understory and concentrate on forested hillsides and drainage bottoms," said long-time bird man Kirby Bristow of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Mearns' habitat is so remote, thick, and steep that it gets little hunting pressure, meaning bird numbers can be high in the thickly-vegetated areas that are difficult to hunt."

Hunting partner and fellow bird expert Randy Babb, writing in a small game guide for the AGFD, noted:

"Mearns' is the largest of our quail species, at times weighing over 7 ounces. Plump in appearance, they have short tails, blue-gray legs with long claws, and a modest crest atop their heads. Hens sport a cryptic array of browns, tans, cinnamon, and mauve -- making them nearly invisible in the terrain they inhabit.

"The cock is also a puzzling combination of perfect camouflage, similar to the hen dorsally, but with a striking black and white pattern on its face. Black bars adorn the wing coverts and its black sides sport white dots."

Although the birds have a nickname of "fools quail," they are anything but.

"While Gambel's and scaled will frequently flush and run, Mearns' tend to be a tight-sitting bird and without a dog to point them, they're hard to find," Cross said.

Success in locating the elusive prey is generally proportional to the numbers of miles walked.

"There's no sneaking, stalking, or crouching in camouflaged concealment," Bristow said. "No need for expensive optics, blinds, decoys, boats, bait, trail cameras, ATVs, rangefinders, tree stands or any of the long list of gadgets and gizmos that are a big part of hunting other game animals.

"Quail hunters don't have to perfect quarry calls or predict movement in hopes of a trail ambush. If quail hunters are willing to walk a lot and hunt hard, opportunities will present themselves. No one stumbles into bagging a limit of quail. Generally the hunter who walks the most, shoots the best, and has a good dog is the most successful."
Although dogs are not absolutely essential, they are efficient.

"Without a dog, it's a whole different ballgame," said Cross, who runs five pups from a Brittany to shorthair and long-haired pointers. "Hunters who know their habitat and are willing to expend both sweat and boot leather can do quite well, but without a dog they'll lose a number of downed birds."

A dog with a good nose and stanch on point makes a day in the desert so much easier.

"Because Montezuma quail hold tight instead of running, hunters can pass very close without being aware of their presence," Cross said. "And once a covey has been flushed and shots fired, downed birds are nearly invisible when they drop in tall grass. When a covey flushes wild, you can find singles nicely with a dog."

Acknowledging a four-legged prerequisite, the experts have a consensus on what else is needed -- good boots, a vest, and a shotgun. Although the same long-barreled 12-gauge that Grandpa used for geese will work, light-weight guns are easier to tote on day-long treks and will more quickly come up in a flush.

"You need a gun that's easy to bring to shoulder and points quickly because among flushing game birds, quail have the fastest acceleration and an uncanny ability to put obstacles between themselves and the shooter," Bristow said.

Double-barreled guns are popular, but expensive. Semi-autos are also popular as are good pump guns. Although lighter loads kick less (#7 ½ and #8 are commonly-used), many hunters use heavier loads to reduce crippling loss.

"I use high-based brass shells because many shots will be at a distance and these quail are very resilient, they get hit and keep on flying," Cross said. "It's not the size of the shot, but the velocity. I use a high-brass 7 ½ because you'll use a lot of birds if you use low-based 8s."

Ostensibly, the more you know in advance about the prey involved, the more successful the hunt --- although there is no one-size-fits-all formula.

"There's no such thing as an average day in the field," Cross said. "You don't have to be at the ready as dawn breaks, but some kind of a 4-wheel drive may be necessary because quail aren't generally parked on the site of the road awaiting your arrival."

It also helps to arrive early for two reasons -- to take advantage of the birds' activity patterns and to get hunting while it's cool as the heat is often hard on dogs and hunters alike.

Concerning bird biology, Mearns' tend to pair up in late winter/early spring and nest when conditions become favorable with summer rains. The average clutch size is 11 (although in years of poor nesting conditions that number may be as low as half a dozen). This species of quail prefers to feed on seeds, beetles, acorns, and the tubers of wood sorrels and sedges.

"Look for roosts on the ground in perennial grass cover, often located in the bottom of draws, although hillsides and small cuts and saddles that feed into drainages are also used," Babb said. "Quail start slowly feeding out from the roost site at daylight, often in an uphill direction."

Watching and listening are good habits to cultivate as quail are quite verbal early in the morning.

"In new area, the first thing I do is find water and look at the tracks in the mud to see who has been showing up there." Cross said. "One good place to consider is a livestock water tank, easily found on topo maps, and on land that is publicly accessible."

Prior to the hunt, get in shape because the desert is no place for couch potatoes. There are physical demands unique to this kind of terrain, especially heat and hills.

"If your past bird hunting experience has been on flat terrain, it's time to hit the Stairmaster to prepare for hilly hiking," Cross said.

Arizona's quail season lasts from early October (late November for Mearns') to early February with specific season dates, bag limits, hunting regulations, and other info available at www.azgfd.com.

While 2009 was hot and dry and not a super year for quail reproduction, El Nino rains greened up the desert and optimism is running high for a banner quail season this fall.