2016 Winter Quail & Habitat Conditions Report

0e2a95c8-6796-40f3-841b-5126012f1df3 In regard to habitat and quail forecasts, El Niño remains the hot topic among wildlife officials. The irregular, mild weather pattern served as a boon to bird populations in several states, while falling short of living up to its hype in others. Following a bounce-back year for bobwhites in the Great Plains, the upcoming nesting and brood-rearing seasons are critical for continued population growth. Read on to find a preview of habitat conditions and quail population trends in the state where you plan to chase coveys this fall.
Editor’s note: Additional state reports may be added as information becomes available.


In regard to quail populations, Arizona hit rock bottom in 2010 with their lowest counts on record, according to small game biologist Johnathan O’Dell with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. This past winter, the highly anticipated El Niño weather pattern didn’t live up to its hype in Arizona. “Still, one year won’t dig us out of hole,” O’Dell said. “Things are plugging along. We definitely still got quail and everything else.” Overall, despite El Niño not living up to expectations, O’Dell said hunter harvest numbers were “on the up” this past season.
“It would be great to get some rain here in April,” O’Dell said. “Gambel’s quail are incredibly reliant on winter rains. They are really the only truly, truly desert bird. They’re much like everything else in the desert—add water and watch them grow. We are still continuing to work in southeast Arizona restoring grasslands for scaled quail. Mearns’ quail rely on summer rain. Habitat conditions look good.”


Severe drought and numerous large-scale wild fires this past summer and fall limited hunter access to many popular areas for California and mountain quail hunting and likely also impacted population numbers, according to environmental scientist Matt Meshriy with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Northern and central California experienced near normal rainfall this winter sufficient enough to reduce the severity of drought in many areas, though southern California remains below average for the year in terms of precipitation. Conditions for California quail and mountain quail have significantly improved from 2015 with current “green-up” patterns anticipated to extend into early May. “Mean temperatures have been favorable for the accumulation of Sierra snowpack, which could lead to excellent conditions for mountain quail reproduction this year,” Meshriy said.
“Ideally, we would hope to see seasonal temperatures with continued periodic storm systems moving though California during the coming weeks,” Meshriy said. However, tropical, El Niño-induced rains or an extended period of warm temperatures could rapidly thaw current Sierra snowpack, leading to spring flooding and a reduction of available runoff during summer and fall. Still, according to Meshriy, the overall quail outlook in California is “good.”


Anecdotally, according to small game manager Ed Gorman with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the southern part of Colorado was excellent for quail. “The northeast part was hit or miss” Gorman said. “Birds were worked over by spring flooding during previous nesting seasons. Floods may benefit habitat this year or next, or later down the road.”
In the northern part of the state, habitat is pretty limited to riparian zones or sage rangeland. Northern riparian edges, where bobwhites reside, had quite the winter with 50 to 60 snow-covered days. “Quail were hammered for winter survival,” Gorman said. “Still, we had one winter where snow cover lasted for a significant portion of the winter, and we were seeing bobwhites around in the spring, so this is nothing serious.”
Other parts of the state experienced snow-cover early but for a limited time. The snow melted quickly and Gorman expects normal mortality rates for quail. In the northern part of Colorado, habitat needs more time to recover from the previous flood during nesting season, so below average spring precipitation is ideal. “The southern part, or anywhere else where bobwhites are not tied to riparian zones, need normal or above-average precipitation,” Gorman said.


In general, Florida experienced moderate winter weather across the state, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission northern bobwhite coordinator Greg Hagan. Unseasonably warm temperatures across the northern part of the state into early January resulted in difficult hunting conditions. However, above-average temperatures helped maintain abundant cover and food resources well into late winter.     
“Currently, favorable weather conditions exist across the state,” Hagan said. “However, there are significant uncertainties in the long-term weather forecast as a result of the El Niño weather pattern.” If periods of drought occur across the state, it will impact habitat management activities such as prescribed burning. “In Florida, prescribed fire is the key to producing quality bobwhite habitat, including good summer brood habitat,” Hagan explained.
Overall, Hagan said birds remain well positioned moving into breeding season.  


Going into the hunting season in Georgia, properties with higher quality habitat observed populations comparable to previous years, while areas with lower quality habitat likely observed a decrease. Warmer winter temperatures and less than favorable scenting conditions for dogs gave Georgia quail hunters additional challenges this year, according to state quail coordinator, Paul Grimes with the Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. “In general, overall harvest numbers may have been lower despite population levels as a result of poor hunting conditions throughout most of the season,” said Grimes.
However, the same weather conditions that led to poor hunting conditions this winter likely helped quail populations in high-quality habitat areas. Mild winter temperatures prolonged insect availability and made for readily available food sources for bobwhites. “Empirical observational data and radio telemetry work in Albany by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy supports this and suggests winter survival may be up this year in areas with higher quality habitat,” said Grimes.
“Ideally we would like to see lower temperatures along with adequate, evenly distributed rainfall throughout the spring and summer months to allow for productive vegetation growth—improved cover and seed production—and increased insect abundance,” Grimes said.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service and Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s Bobwhite Quail Initiative (BQI) provide landowners with the opportunity to apply for the “Bobwhite Quail and Pine Savanna Restoration Pilot Project,” which cost-shares selected practices specifically aimed at gaining habitat on the ground for bobwhite quail and other early succession species. For more information on the Bobwhite Quail Initiative in Georgia and to get technical assistance on your land, call a professional wildlife biologist within BQI’s East Region (706-554-3745), Central Region (478-296-6176), or Southwest Region (229-420-1212).


Anecdotal reports in Idaho suggest hunters were finding quail in large numbers in locations where they normally don't spot a single covey, according to upland game and waterfowl staff biologist Jeff Knetter with Idaho Fish and Game. "It was a pretty darn good quail year," Knetter said.
Idaho saw a favorable winter, and biologists continue to spot quail this spring. "We have no concerns in regard to winter kill," Knetter said. "We are getting a little bit of moisture now, which is good, because we warmed up quickly." With more timely moisture, Knetter expects to see good brood-rearing conditions. "Precipitation through spring is ideal to carry forbs through summer and produce insects for broods," he said. "I anticipate another good year, though it is always difficult to know how things will shake out until summer hits," Knetter said. 
Idaho remains one of the country's premiere hunting destinations. With 10 huntable upland species and a large amount of public land, hunters can spend more time afield filling a mixed bag and less time knocking on doors asking for access.


This past winter in Illinois was the warmest on record, and also brought with it above average precipitation. There were no major snowstorms or prolonged periods of ice cover throughout most of the state, but there was some severe flooding in December, according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources agriculture and grassland program manager Stan McTaggart. The lack of snow and ice with mild temperatures likely helped quail make it through the winter in good condition. However, quail in and along waterways, creeks and rivers were likely displaced by fast-moving floodwaters that flattened some habitat. 
“The long-term quail populations continue to decline across much of Illinois due to habitat loss and changes in land use,” McTaggart said. “However, areas with quality habitat and active management still have quail. Eligible landowners who enroll marginal areas of cropland into quail friendly practices in CRP like Pollinator Habitat (CP42), Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds (CP33) and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (CP38) can help quail populations across the state.” 
The Pollinator Habitat (CP42) practice is offered through a continuous signup in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This practice is becoming very popular and provides great quail habitat. Illinois had almost 30,000 acres enrolled at the end of December 2015. This practice offers some flexibility for landowners who may not qualify for other CRP practices.


Iowa roadside survey quail counts increased 52 percent this past year and mark the fourth consecutive year of stable to increasing numbers, according to upland wildlife research biologist Todd Bogenschutz with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The statewide index was 1.44 quail on our routes,” Bogenschutz said. “The last time we had a higher statewide average was 1994.” 
Across the primary quail range, in the southern third of Iowa, winter temperatures were generally normal to below normal and Bogenschutz expects good hen survival. “Potential for another increase in populations looks promising for this coming fall if spring weather cooperates,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll see a warm spring with normal to slightly below normal rainfall for a good hatch.”
The Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) continues to enroll acres, many in Iowa’s quail range. Iowa has a new online hunting atlas that shows all public lands (Federal, state, county, walk-in) open to hunting in Iowa.


Winter weather in Kansas was relatively mild and unlikely to have any significant population impacts, according to small game specialist Jeff Prendergast with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “The western quail range would greatly benefit with some spring precipitation over the next two months to recharge soil moisture and produce the needed vegetation for production,” Prendergast said.
“We are in our fourth year of our five-year quail initiative areas around Melvern and Grand Osage wildlife management areas,” he said. “The spring whistle survey is expected to increase from last year given results of the brood survey and a mild minter.”


Kentucky was fortunate this winter, according to biologist John Moran with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We had little snow cover,” he said. “When we had snow, it was short-lived. Temperatures were mild overall which was fortunate given substantial rainfall.”  
Kentucky is kicking off a new bobwhite focal area this spring at Perryville Battlefield State Park. “We are planning a 700-acre conversion at one time,” Morgan said. “It will be the single largest planting we’ve been a part of. Birds are on-site, so we are optimistic that this could be a big time project. Best of all, we will have public hunting access once the population is built.”
Morgan continues to be optimistic going into the breeding season. “Last year’s winter was brutal,” he said. “We needed a mild winter. If we can couple that with a good breeding season, then next fall should shape up nicely.”


This past fall's roadside surveys in Missouri indicated an increase in quail from 1.95 to 3 per 30-mile route. Missouri Department of Conservation small game coordinator Dave Hoover attributed this rise in numbers to 2015's wet late-spring and early summer, which prevented planting for many fields and allowed for weeds and forbs to grow and provide cover for broods. Additionally, extra moisture meant more bugs for feeding, which had a positive effect on both early and late hatching birds. 
"Particularly in west-central and north Missouri, we had a pretty good nesting season," Hoover said. "That played out into fall 2015, when hunters were seeing an increase in coveys afield. Several reports from hunters said they flushed more birds than they had in years."
However, this past December saw a significant flood in quail ranges south of I-34 and Hoover suspects this will impact over-winter survival in those isolated populations. North and west-central Missouri experienced a relatively mild winter and have received recent spring precipitation, so Hoover anticipates conducive brood-rearing conditions if weather maintains. "Things are progressing toward a good nesting season where we have good habitat," he said.  
Hunter numbers and days afield continue to decline in Missouri, since populations are still below ideal numbers in the state. However, Hoover hopes a continued rise in numbers and improved habitat conditions will entice more folks to head back out and increase harvest numbers.


Although the winter was very wet in Mississippi, temperatures were relatively mild, according to small game biologist Rick Hamrick with the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks. “Acorn crops were very sporadic last fall,” he said, “and at the statewide level, they could be characterized as fair at best.” 
Spring season continues to be very wet throughout the state with above average temperatures so far. “In general, average overwinter quail survival was probably about as good as it can be where suitable habitat was available given relatively mild weather conditions,” said Hamrick.
Portions of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley experienced large-scale, late winter and early spring flooding this year. “It is still uncertain how significant these effects may be,” Hamrick said, “and in some cases, disturbances from flooding may create some early successional habitat opportunities in the short-term.”
Ideally, Hamrick hopes to see mild temperatures and normal to slightly above average precipitation. “Wetter is preferable—except for flooding conditions—to excessively dry conditions going into summer,” he said. “If we have mild, moist conditions similar to last summer, it should be another good year for nesting and brood-rearing where cover is suitable for quail production.”
Still, statewide, quail populations remain low. The greatest limiting factor statewide continues to be lack of quality habitat at sufficient scales to produce and sustain noticeable population increases, according to Hamrick.


Though Nebraska Game and Parks conducts formal surveys in April, anecdotal reports suggest hunters had a phenomenal year with population numbers at a high compared to the state’s 20-year average.
Nebraska experienced sporadically severe winter weather with heavy and icy snowstorms. “They didn’t stick around very long,” said upland game program manager Dr. Jeffrey Lusk, “so that is good news.” As a result of the extra moisture, Nebraska vegetation is turning green and blossoming this spring, meaning food and shelter will readily available and accessible during nesting season.  
“We did have a late snowstorm but it missed much of the quail range in the state. That was just last week,” Lusk said. In some parts of the state that received heavy snow, there may been some winter mortality, according to Lusk, but he doesn’t suspect anything severe.
“Timely rainfall would be good—no more snow,” Lusk said. “We are a bit above average for moisture so that is good for vegetation conditions, so as long as we don’t any more violent weather, we should be set for good production conditions.”


Snow accumulation in December and January throughout much of northern Nevada was above average with fairly frigid temperatures. “These conditions created some stress on California quail populations and there was likely some bird loss,” said upland game staff biologist Shawn Espinosa with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “However, temperatures and snowpack moderated substantially in February and provided birds with ample access to forage and favorable temperatures.”
In southern Nevada, the Laughlin and Searchlight areas received good amounts of precipitation in January. Other areas throughout southern Nevada also received good amounts of precipitation during January, but mixed results were recorded in February. Death Valley National Park in southern California and southwestern Nevada was noted for its “superbloom” this year. “This may be a good indication that conditions for Gambel’s quail have improved and we should expect good production from this species this year,” Espinosa said.
In northern Nevada, ample March and April showers with warming temperatures normally provide upland game with the resources that they need for good production. This year’s March started out good in northern Nevada; however, conditions are drying quickly, according to Espinosa.
In southern Nevada, wet February and March conditions usually portend into good production for Gambel’s quail. “Southern Nevada has not experienced these conditions for approximately five years now,” Espinosa said. “This year may reverse that trend.”

New Mexico

In New Mexico, the average number of hunters afield and birds harvested was approximately 30 percent higher compared to last year, according to resident game bird biologist Casey Cardinal with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. In the 2014-15 season, 1,879 hunters voluntarily reported harvesting 24,470 birds; while 2,696 hunters reported harvesting 54,785 birds this past season.
The beginning of winter in New Mexico brought normal to above average precipitation levels across much of the state. “There was one historic storm in central and eastern New Mexico,” Cardinal said, “but for the most part quail fared this quite well and many birds were still seen after the storm.” 
In 2016, conditions have been very dry, with below normal precipitation across most of the state. Cardinal worries that this could negatively affect breeding and brood rearing habitats this coming year. “We hope to pick up some average to above average rainfall from April to July,” Cardinal said. “This would help with grass production to create good nesting habitat, and then forb production during brood rearing.”
Cardinal remains very optimistic and expects another good year for quail in New Mexico. “We had excellent production in southeast New Mexico last year,” she said, “creating an excellent scaled quail hunt year. If we pick up precipitation this spring and summer, we could expect another great hunting year, particularly in the southeast.” 


Preliminary results from hunter surveys suggest that Ohio quail hunters averaged about four trips and one bird harvested per hunter during the 2015 season, according to wildlife biologist Mark Wiley. “These estimates are on par with estimates from 2013 and 2014,” he said.
Ohio’s winter conditions were largely favorable for quail with fairly mild temperatures and no prolonged periods of snow cover throughout most of the state.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife continues habitat work on the Fallsville Quail Heritage Area, Ohio’s first National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative focus area. In addition, the Division of Wildlife has partnered with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever to improve game bird habitat on several state wildlife areas.


Statewide hunter numbers declined approximately 1,071 hunters according to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Game Harvest Survey. “By all accounts, out-of-state hunters seem to have increased,” said quail habitat biologist Kyle Johnson, “according to hunters in the field and our local biologists on the ground. However, the mean hunter harvest numbers jumped from 12.81 birds per hunter in 2014, to 20.19 birds per hunter in 2015.”
Overall, the 2016 winter in Oklahoma’s premier quail habitat (western Oklahoma) was mild and dry, Johnson relayed. However, two snow-ice-sleet winter storms did blanket portions of western Oklahoma for several consecutive days. “These winter storms were relatively early in the winter season and direct quail mortality was minimal as the majority of birds still had ample fat and reserves,” Johnson said. “The habitat in western Oklahoma was in excellent condition because of the above average rain during 2015 and this also helped minimize the effects of the winter snow and ice events.”
Oklahoma has experienced two consecutive years of cooler spring and summer temperatures with above average precipitation. This has provided excellent quail habitat and extended the quail breeding season well into late summer. “If 2016 brings another year of cooler summer time temperatures (generally below 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and average to above-average timely spring and summer rains, another bumper crop of quail can be expected,” Johnson said.
Many landowners and quail hunters reported Oklahoma’s 2015-16 quail hunting season as the best in more than 30 years. Good habitat and favorable weather during 2014 and 2015 were the key to the success, Johnson claims. “If the weather is favorable yet again during 2016, a third consecutive year of excellent quail hunting is achievable, especially in western Oklahoma,” he said.


After several years of below-normal precipitation and snowpack, Oregon received above-average precipitation this past winter. Snowpack remains near or above average, according to upland game bird coordinator Dave Budeau with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The increased precipitation should improve habitat conditions with more grass and forb growth, especially in the eastern portion of the state.”
Winter conditions were not so severe as to cause higher-than-average mortality in Oregon. Provided the spring nesting conditions are average or better, Budeau expects quail populations to increase in 2016.

South Carolina

Weather severely impacted the majority of the state for the 2015-16 quail season, according to small game program leader Michael Hook with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources. South Carolina experienced a “thousand year” flood event in early October that impacted the piedmont and coastal plain. “This one event, followed by an extremely wet fall and winter, led to a great deal of quail habitat being flooded for an extended period of time,” Hook said. 
In the coastal plain, quail population and quail behavior was drastically changed. For the quail that survived the flood, loss of habitat may have led to higher than average predation, according to Hook. “In the piedmont and upstate, it was a very wet year as well but in general the birds and habitat faired a little better,” he said. “Because of topography, lands in the upstate drained a little better and gave birds a better chance at survival.”
There is good news: most recently, rainfall is less frequent and not as heavy. “During the summer of 2015 there were many individuals that were reporting seeing large broods and many folks were saying they were seeing more birds than in years past,” Hook said. “If South Carolina can have favorable weather this spring and early summer, I fully expect the quail to fully rebound from the adverse impacts of this past year’s flooding and wet weather.”
Recently, the South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative has kicked off in earnest – follow their progress. The South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative is South Carolina’s effort to restore habitat for quail and grassland birds and is a product of the South Carolina Quail Council. 


Even after a very successful hunting season in Texas, people have reported seeing large coveys across the state. During the season, upland game bird program leader Robert Perez heard hunter stories of 40- to 50-covey days. “Even in places where quail weren’t feeding, people were seeing 10-15, maybe 30 coveys,” he said.
Everything is blooming in Texas, according to Perez. “The deserts bloomed, which doesn’t happen often. At least I got to see it once in my lifetime,” he said. “We didn’t have a freeze or extended period of ice. One ice storm, in the panhandle, lasted 30-something hours. I got video of quail running around afterward. It wasn’t a wet winter, but it wasn’t dry. It was about average. I checked the crop where I hunted. They had greens beetles, everything they’re supposed to have. That comes from precipitation. Certainly no food shortage.
“We expect quail to start pairing off soon,” he said. “We start sooner, as weather warms up. Weather looks great. Just need spring rain in April for another good year. Next year could be even better.”
Despite his optimistic forecast, Perez still stresses the need for continued conservation efforts. “We can’t take a break from conservation,” he said. “There are a lot of places where quail are just a memory. We are working hard with various partners to restore quail. I don’t want a great forecast to overshadow the fact that there is a conservation need throughout Texas and other western states.”


Though it is still too early for formal surveys in Tennessee, small game coordinator Roger Applegate with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, believes the state’s fairly mild winter did not impact bird populations. Should the state receive warm weather with average but not extreme rainfall, Applegate anticipates a slight increase in numbers for the fall season.


Virginia experienced an unusually mild winter well into early January. As a result, quail populations were less predictable in the early season. Insects were widely available right up until late December, so with an accessible food in close proximity, quail moved less and were harder to locate for hunters. Once cold weather set in during mid-January, hunters reported better luck, according to small game project leader Marc Puckett with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Because the season ended on January 31 and due to heavy snows in late January, which melted quickly, hunter harvest numbers were down and Puckett expects good overwinter survival. “We would like to see normal to slightly above normal rainfall during May, June, July and August,” he said. “This is usually conducive to the best hatches.
“The overall outlook is that we see improvements in localized situations, in portions of counties,” Puckett said, “but overall, our ever increasingly populated state is not making it easy for a recovery on a wide scale.”


Spring weather hit Washington’s upland bird populations hard in 2013. However, according to Department of Fish & Wildlife small game section manager Angelique Curtis, all indications are that populations rebounded in 2014. In 2015, a mild winter and favorable spring breeding conditions helped bolster populations.
“Wildfires in 2015, including the largest fire in state history, affected habitat in some of the most popular and productive quail areas in Chelan and Okanogan County,” Curtis said. “Important riparian habitats should rebound quickly but short-term impacts to quail populations can be expected.”
Overall quail outlook is good in Washington, as favorable weather over the past year has helped bolster quail populations. For more specific information, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife posts hunting prospects, written by each district biologist, annually on their website.  These articles provide the most up to date outlook and advice for hunters in the coming season for individual species.


“The winter of 2015-16 was quite mild in terms of both snow depth and temperatures, leading to less stress on birds and easier foraging,” said upland wildlife ecologist & farm bill specialist Mark Witecha with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “With back-to-back mild winters and good nesting and brood-rearing conditions last year, I’d expect numbers to be up; however, the population in Wisconsin is still very small and restricted to the far southern portion of the state.”

Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
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