By David Gutierrez
Drought and summer heat waves present tough conditions for Arizona’s quail heading into this fall hunting season.
WEATHER AND CONDITIONS
“Our quail populations took a real hit with the drought,” says Larisa Harding, Small Game Program Manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD). “The lack of winter rains this past year meant reduced breeding activity and fewer young Gambel's and scaled quail going into this summer and fall. Gambel's quail appeared to delay breeding or laying this spring.”
While local coveys with chicks could be seen in late spring/early summer, the excessive summer heat wave across Arizona seems to have taken a severe toll on the young birds before they could get large enough to effectively thermoregulate.
Quail counts along traditional survey routes decreased significantly. “In two of the longest running Gambel's quail call count survey routes in southeastern Arizona, we observed up to an 80 percent decrease in calling activity this spring compared to last spring,” says Harding.
AZGFD conducts water hauls to keep wildlife drinkers and water tanks full throughout the summer months to offset the drought. The department was on track to exceed their 2020 water haul numbers until summer rains provided relief.
“In July and August, we had several good storms drop water in Arizona (with flash flooding in some parts!),” says Harding. “Our landscapes have greened up and are now looking more lush.”
While the recent rains were welcomed, the state will need several years of summer and winter precipitation for the landscape (and bird populations) to recover from the long-term drought.
HABITAT, BROODS AND COUNTS
Record temperatures and an extreme heat wave took a toll on habitat and compounded the severity of the ongoing drought. “By late June,” Harding says, “several habitats looked more like moonscapes than viable habitats and provided little cover or forage and water was scarce.”
However, there are still areas where desert quail are plentiful, despite the drought. And some pairs of both species might have taken advantage of the summer rains to produce late broods.
For Montezuma quail, or Mearns' quail, winter carry-over birds offer some hope to hunters. Those birds, “…should be really primed right now to go gangbusters with reproduction, as their habitats in southern Arizona are looking really lush after all the moisture,” says Harding. “Look for Mearns’ quail in pockets where they were able to survive the past few years.”
Southeastern AZ is the region where all three native quail species can be found. Parts of southwestern AZ near Yuma appear to have good Gambel's quail numbers along some of the large washes and drainages, so don't be afraid to venture into the hottest part of the state to hunt quail.
Look for oak woodlands or grasslands if you're searching for Montezuma or scaled quail, respectively. Try hunting small roadside areas out in the wilds or other locations that aren't popular spots and you'll likely find birds.
Be prepared to run. Gambel's and scaled quail (to some extent) would rather run than hold for a dog or fly, and they'll easily outdistance a hunter who isn't willing to run or pursue birds quickly.
Dogs that aren't accustomed to cactus may have some issues navigating in quail country, so consider boots for you pups. Keep pliers or a comb handy to pull needles and cholla from their skin and fur. Harding also recommends rattlesnake avoidance training for those hunting desert birds while it's still warm in Arizona. Rattlesnakes can be out until November or later if the weather stays warm.