Gambel’s & scaled quail in our Southwestern sands
As dawn spilled over the crest of Arizona’s Pinaleño Mountains, I understood why modern artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Ansel Adams had come here just for the light. It seemed to have a magical quality that made the empty panorama of cactus, sand and rock glow as if lit from within. In fact, the miles of desert floor spread out before us weren’t “empty” at all, except for the absence of human habitation, surface water and no-trespassing signs. In addition to countless species of exotic flora I still hadn’t learned as well as I should have, it contained a robust population of rodents, deer, javelina and the predators that preyed upon them, not to mention neo-tropical birdlife that occurs nowhere else north of the nearby Mexican border. And, of course, there were the quail that provided our excuse for being there that day.
We were targeting Gambel’s quail that December morning, and the habitat in front of us looked ideal. The foothills behind us provided rolling terrain, brushy dry washes offered cover, and abundant prickly pear cactus rose from the sand. After fitting Maggie and Max, our two wirehairs, with locator collars, my wife, Lori, and I set off abreast down opposite sides of the nearest wash with the dogs ranging eagerly in front. Despite the modest distraction of their beeping, the collars served two purposes. While most of the terrain was open enough to allow visual contact with the dogs, the thick brush along the wash could hide a dog on point. Furthermore, a close-range encounter between a bird dog and a sounder of javelina is likely to end badly for the dog. Hunting into the breeze, I wanted to give any desert pigs hiding in the area advance notice of our approach.
The walking in desert-quail country is generally easy (in contrast to the steep, rocky Mearns quail habitat nearby). We scarcely noticed the mile that passed underfoot before Maggie’s collar began to beep steadily somewhere in the tangle of mesquite, cat’s claw and cactus ahead. Then the deeper tone from Max’s collar created a crude but welcome harmony as he moved in to back her point. I had just spotted the vibrating tip of Max’s tail in the brush when the sound of wings erupted like a detonation.
As is often the case on a Gambel’s covey’s initial rise, the birds flushed just beyond shotgun range. But they stayed together until they strung out and settled back into the wash several hundred yards ahead. I anticipated solid dogwork on scattered singles as we approached the area where I’d marked the birds down, and the team didn’t disappoint. This time Max locked up first, and Lori practically had to kick the quail into the air as she walked in ahead of the dog. The opportunity wasn’t wasted on her 20-gauge. Before Max had completed the retrieve, Maggie was on point on my side of the draw, and the rise offered a double as easy as doubles get.
I estimated that the covey had contained 20 birds, from which three seemed enough. We called a time-out to admire the Gambel’s jaunty topknots and rich plumage (all three were males) and provide the dogs with water from the containers in our game vests. Miles of public land beckoned like an engraved invitation, but the comfortable morning chill already had started yielding to the sunlight overhead. I sensed that we would need to have the dogs out of the field in another hour or two at most. When Lori suggested we cut cross-country to the next wash and work it back uphill toward the truck, I concurred.
I felt confident that the desert would produce another covey or two before we had to call it a morning, and my optimism turned out to be well founded.
Seven varieties of native quail inhabit the US. Confined to a limited range a hundred miles west of our location that morning, the rare masked bobwhite (actually a subspecies of the familiar bob) is endangered and protected. The coastal mountain quail is one of two bucket-list species of North American upland gamebirds I have never hunted. Three of the remaining five occupy a swath of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts north of the Mexican border from West Texas across New Mexico to central Arizona. The habits and habitat of the mountain-dwelling Mearns are unique to the species. The remaining two—Gambel’s and scaled quail—occupy the desert floor and, while their habitat preferences differ subtly, they often are found in the same general area. Locals refer to them collectively as “desert quail.”
I’m not sure I can provide a scientific basis to explain what I look for when deciding where to hunt Gambel’s quail within this extensive chunk of real estate. As noted, I like some contours in the terrain as opposed to flat desert floor. Dry washes that encourage the growth of brush during periods of seasonal water flow concentrate birds, even though it can be hard to imagine water flowing there during winter’s dry season. Prickly pear cactus seems to be an indicator of good Gambel’s cover. Livestock-management practices often vary considerably among sections of public land, and I avoid hunting cover that has been heavily grazed. Both desert-quail species depend on winter rains for optimal forage production, and seasonal rainfall can vary considerably within a small geographic area. Ground cover is never thick in Gambel’s habitat, but I hunt where it looks the healthiest.
Scaled quail (aka scalies and blue quail) prefer flatter terrain with more-open grass. Their range generally lies farther east than the Gambel’s and, while I certainly have shot them in southeastern Arizona, I think that southern New Mexico and West Texas offer the most consistent hunting. While Gambel’s quail certainly will run out ahead of bird dogs before a covey is broken up, nothing runs like scaled quail. This habit can be confusing for dogs and maddening for hunters, but those who can keep up with a covey until it flushes can enjoy good dogwork on scattered singles.
More than a decade ago the quality of hunting for both species of desert quail began to decline significantly. While an extended drought cycle was a major part of the problem, other factors, such as the replacement of native grasses by invasive weeds like buffelgrass, likely contributed to the problem. The good news is that bird numbers have started to rebound during the past several years, coincident with improved rainfall. In particular, hunting for scaled quail in New Mexico and West Texas has been outstanding for several seasons. Hunters discouraged from traveling to these areas because of prolonged reports of poor hunting finally have grounds for optimism.
Several aspects of desert-quail hunting broaden its appeal beyond the scenery, the shooting and the dogwork. Seasons are generous and extend well into winter, when upland hunting is over in much of the country and those of us who spend most of our year farther north would welcome almost any excuse to escape cold and snow. Best of all, Arizona and New Mexico contain vast tracts of public land (most of which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, with some overseen by the Forest Service and the states) that includes most of the country’s prime desert-quail habitat. On a good year roughly anywhere with suitable habitat within a hundred miles of US Highway 10 from Phoenix east to the isolated mountain ranges of West Texas will hold birds. Gambel’s quail are generally more plentiful in Arizona, with scalies more common in New Mexico.
In this day and age the ability to hike endless miles of good bird cover without having to dodge posted signs or scramble for permission feels priceless. Let’s hope that Congress doesn’t yield to misguided pressure to privatize these assets. And since hope may not be enough, please support organizations such as Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (backcountryhunters.org) and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (trcp.org) that are fighting to keep public lands in public hands.
Texas being Texas (and since my family roots there go back to the covered-wagon days, I can say this), abundant public land becomes harder to find there. The birds certainly don’t, though, and some of the best hunting I’ve had for both blue and Gambel’s quail on the same day has taken place on friends’ properties among the scattered mountains east of El Paso. A morning hunt made there a decade ago nicely illustrates the frustrations and rewards of blue quail hunting.
As long as an area has received enough rainfall to nurture the succulent plants upon which they feed, desert quail don’t need surface water. But they will take it if it’s there, which is why we parked the rig near a stock tank with a trickle of overflow near one end. My friend’s two experienced pointers barely had started ranging when they began acting birdy, and then hit the skids simultaneously. As I approached, I spotted little blurs of motion weaving erratically through the sparse grass in front of the dogs. The birds were running so fast that I couldn’t keep track of individuals, and if I hadn’t been through this before, I might not have even recognized them as quail.
“Try to bust ’em up!” my friend shouted as I broke into a trot. Easier said than done, for by then it was obvious that the quail could run faster than I could. I dared not look around to see how the dogs were handling all this, but the encounter illustrates why I never hunt my own dogs on scalies until they have several seasons of discipline and experience under their belts. Finally, quail began to rise ahead of me—some peeling off to either side with a breeze beneath their wings while others buzzed a few yards above the grass and settled back to the ground. Now we had quail scattered all over the countryside, which was just what we wanted.
It was time for the pointers to be pointers. The grass was so sparse that I found it hard to believe that a bird could hide on the sand under the first dog’s nose. Then I heard a shotgun bark to my right, and a buzz of wings erupted at my own feet to punctuate my friend’s commands to “Fetch!” My bird offered a pure chip shot, but seldom has revenge tasted so sweet from the barrel of a 20-gauge.
Not all the birds in that covey cooperated as graciously. Some ran out in front of the dogs again, while others simply vanished. But by the time we’d finished rounding up stragglers, we each had three birds in our vests. And then the dogs found a fresh covey. We even ran into a third covey during our long, circular route back to the stock tank, and by the time we finished I was running low on both shells and energy.
But that’s scaled-quail hunting.
New Mexico’s license plates declare that the state is “The Land of Enchantment,” and that adjective is as suitable as any I can think of to describe the ambience of our Southwest on either side of the ambiguous line between the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Forget the golf courses and gated communities along the population corridors. Our desert—and it is almost all our desert—remains remarkably insulated from the crush of civilization, as if its stark terrain were immune to the passage of time. The remarkable abundance and diversity of the wildlife it supports reflects this principle. Its quail are native sons, uniquely adapted to their harsh environment and ready to offer endless challenges to upland hunters and their dogs during the time of year when they can best appreciate it.
You can’t do much better than that.
Notes on: Bird Dogs in the Desert
Despite occasional frustrations from scalies, desert quail offer abundant opportunities for pointing dogs to showcase what they do best. However, dog owners new to the desert environment need to be aware of some potential pitfalls in order to keep their canine charges comfortable and safe.
Water is always the first priority in the desert. Unless you are certain surface water is available in the area you plan to hunt, carry more than you think you’ll need and turn back well before you reach the halfway point in your supply. Since most desert-quail hunting takes place in the winter, extreme temperatures are unlikely but always possible.
Cactus thorns are ubiquitous in desert-quail habitat. While most dogs quickly learn to avoid them, two varieties can be troublesome. Sand burrs can stop a dog in its tracks. I don’t routinely boot my dogs, but that’s just because I avoid areas with sand burrs. If you encounter sand burrs, use boots or duct tape on your dog’s feet. Cholla is a nasty cactus with thorny pods that detach easily and adhere to dogs’ coats. I always carry a long-handled hemostat to remove cholla if a dog gets into it.
Snakes are a fact of life in desert-quail country. While they are largely inactive during winter, they can and do bite dogs every season. A detailed review of the topic is beyond the scope of this discussion, but know the location of the nearest veterinary care before going into the field. I strongly recommend a preseason snake-avoidance clinic from an experienced trainer. All my dogs are graduates.
Javelina are common in desert-quail country, as well, and can inflict serious injuries on dogs. Make some noise in the field and, if you encounter them, get your dog under control at your side as soon as possible.