Mearns Are Where You Find Them

landscape

Hunting—and learning—in the desert Southwest

Morning dawned cold, crisp and clear as a wash of pinks, oranges and golds softly faded from the eastern sky. With the persistent breeze, it was not quite T-shirt weather, but it soon would be. My faithful Border collie Rusty stretched and plodded about on four little paws—paws that were a bit tender after so many days pacing the rocky soils of Arizona and New Mexico. I was a bit fatigued, as well, but who can feel poorly when little sparrows broadcast such chipper greetings to another wonderful day in the mountains of the desert Southwest? Their uplifting notes set a pleasing tone as we wandered from camp in search of another delightful melody: the delicate high-pitched staccato of Mearns (aka Montezuma) quail during a covey rise.

Mearn's Quail

Before long, Rusty veered abruptly up a hillside wash with deliberate intent. I hustled hard to follow. Unlike most Mearns hunters, I hunt the birds with a flushing dog. I’ve pondered getting an English setter or a Munsterlander but, for better or worse, I just like the exhilaration of a good chase. Light wind and frost-dampened soil provided excellent scenting conditions that morning, so I knew Rusty’s maneuvering was a lock and did my best to stay in position for a shot. The big moment arrived like a meteorite, as nearly 20 quail erupted from the far side of an oak. Oh, no, not again! Montezuma’s revenge! I mounted and began swinging anyway, just as I would with dusky or ruffed grouse in timber. Then the entire mass passed behind an opening in the limbs, and I fired. It was perhaps the luckiest shot of my life. Three quail (all of which turned out to be roosters) crashed from the swarm. Three! The other barrel of my light 16 remained silent. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing makes a hunter look like a hero more than Skeet choke and small shot at close range. This time it made me better than I am, even if my only witness was a dog that now needed to round up all three birds. Have I mentioned just how much I adore that dog? Of course I have, but it’s worth saying again. A good dog is a blessing without rival.

Rusty and I spent a lot of time pursuing Mearns last winter, mostly alone. I learned a lot about the birds, and that was my goal. Let’s just say that I no longer look at or for Mearns the way I used to. The diminutive bombshells taught me things I seldom, if ever, had pondered.

Part of the equation was getting away from crowds. Word was out about the Mearns population boom. Birds were taking an unprecedented pounding in one popular region of Arizona, so I avoided the area like the plague. I craved solitude. I also needed to focus on one area as a case study. Granted, I traveled a bit one day, taking limits in both New Mexico and Arizona; however, I prefer walking straight from camp or driving minimal distances to explore new covers systematically, and that is generally what I did.

Border Collie
The author’s Border collie Rusty returns from the tall grass with a handsome Mearns rooster.

Of all my discoveries, three stand out. First, of all the coveys that Rusty and I located, only three were diggers and only one bird actually contained root chunks—oxalis or otherwise—in its crop. That pretty much shot the whole “look for fresh diggings” program all to hell. I did find some interesting things in the scores of crops I examined. The most prevalent foods were elm beetles (lots of them) plus small beans resembling Tic Tacs. I started noticing bean pods occasionally and began looking for them as I hiked washes and ridge fingers. Other items in the crops included grasshoppers, pine nuts, small seeds, wasp pupae (more on this later) and, the most shocking of all, an entire acorn! How that bird gagged down an acorn is absolutely beyond me. It should have turned blue and passed out like a wino in a dark alley. Needless to say, that impressed me.

The second big surprise came when Rusty and I took a morning to pursue Gambel’s quail. Gambel’s are more of a low-country bird keyed to desert hackberry, lava-rock beds and wide arroyos versus the oak savannahs Mearns prefer. I had a list of spots I wanted to try, but the first was all we needed. As expected, we found the little desert sprinters huddled at the base of a lava-rock ridge. Also as expected, the birds didn’t play nice, as half of them made for adjacent private land with great haste. The remainder kept Rusty and me busy with their track-and-field event, while difficult shooting helped deflate my ammo pocket. Eventually, with five birds in the bag and too many 16-gauge empties in my vest, I decided to look farther along the ridge where I had seen a covey on a previous visit.

Sure enough, the birds were there. Gambel’s began making the nervous sounds they make when they know something’s about to hit the fan. They were in quite a dither when they blasted straight up the wall of a slope as we approached. Loose rocks rolled out beneath my feet, and the whole ridge was comprised of them. Halfway up, a cow trail seemed like a wise course, so I ditched my direct approach.

Once on top, I directed Rusty to resume searching for the errant covey. I was not expecting what came next. This was hardly Mearns country, with the nearest oak 500 yards distant and no washes. A lone juniper stood guard at the crest, and a few scattered trees in the distance served as the only “forest.”

By now the scenting conditions had diminished further. Rusty gave me virtually no warning before a dozen exploding fragments nearly took off my visor in the shade of the lone juniper. This wasn’t our Gambel’s covey, as the shrill and beautiful cries of Mearns are unmistakable. My brain stalled momentarily, but I recovered in time to fold a beautiful cockbird. In an instant the others were too far for a shot, and they sailed over the rim. Then a bundle of wing-churning polka dots rocketed out late, crossing in the opposite direction. Bang! Puff!

I had just taken a pair where I thought no Mearns would dare be. Hmmm. Follow-up efforts produced two singles. I was more than satisfied, and we eased lower to find the missing Gambel’s covey holding well. This odd encounter made me think of a post I’d seen on social media where Tyler Sladen had stated that the more he hunts Mearns quail, the less he feels he knows about them. Mearns don’t always live where we think they do. I suddenly found myself feeling the same way. Ah, but the search for understanding is part of the allure and reward of hunting these mysterious birds.

The third revelation absolutely blew me away. My friend Eric Heitman met me at camp mid-morning on a Friday. We elected to set out straight from camp in a direction I had yet to explore. In spite of poor scenting conditions, his wirehairs, Heidi and Nellie, nailed the first covey on a tiny bench along a rock outcropping. The dogs pointed beautifully, and the birds held perfectly. Eric stepped in and flushed the covey of about 20 Mearns while I made certain the nearest tree blocked my shooting lane. (You can’t always guess right.) The quail, now wind-washed, scattered up and down a tree-lined ravine, and we managed to place a few in our game bags. Then something amazing happened.

Eric’s dogs wandered off into some high grass where there was absolutely no brush or trees and went on point. I remember Eric saying that he had no idea what they were on. As he walked in, I started reminding him: “You never know, after the Gambel’s-Mearns thing the other day, I’m willing to believe . . . .” Woosh! At least 20 more Mearns blew out of the grass. We were so dumbfounded that we barely disturbed a feather. It was like catching ruffed grouse out in wheat stubble. It just screwed with our parameters and required a mental reset. Thankfully we did better on the singles.

Now here was an interesting question. This occurred only 200 yards from our contact with the first covey. Could these have been the same birds? We agreed that they could not, since not only had we each taken several from the first covey, but also those birds had scattered 400 yards up and down the wash only minutes earlier.

Talk about a wonderful discovery! This, of course, brought up questions like, “What on earth were they doing out there?” Examining the ground in the tall grass, we found that the gravelly soil had been tilled up considerably—a swath about 20 yards wide by 100 long. Now, it’s standard knowledge that the little polka-dotted birds dig up oxalis root as food, right? It’s allegedly their established feeding pattern. But we were learning that this pattern isn’t reliable everywhere, plus oxalis tends to grow on steep, rocky banks and slopes, not grassy flats. This was one of the few coveys we’d come across that were diggers, but something wasn’t adding up . . . .

When we cleaned our birds back at camp, our findings proved startling. None of the crops contained root matter, as most were full of wasp pupae. Some species of wasps deposit their eggs into cracks in the ground. Now, just how quail know that stripes of subterranean pupae or larva are there for the taking, I can’t even begin to guess; but they know and therefore they dig. Ol’ Montezuma seems to be an international bird of mystery along our southern border. The take-away from all this was that it still pays to keep an eye out for diggings that have quail tracks, feathers and droppings in them. By the same token, I no longer abandon an area if I don’t find quail-tilled ground.

Mearns, or Montezuma, quail typically inhabit oak savannahs, but they aren’t always where you expect them to be . . . .

Of all the patterns with Mearns—and there are many—one stands as gospel wherever I hunt them. I find the birds in coarse bunch grass—blue grama, I believe. It differs greatly from the finer, whitish, “fluffier”-looking stuff that doesn’t grow in clumps. Once I leave the bunch grass, I seldom find Mearns.

As is typical, on last year’s hunt washes held their share of birds. Some groups lived lower, while other coveys inhabited high rocky areas more akin to chukar habitat. Oddly, I never found birds along one major wash that many of the other washes dumped into. I was at a loss with that. It’s not like there were any boot prints there.

Fingers between two washes hosted a fair number of quail, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because they offered easy access to both ravines.

Many productive spots were relatively free of cat’s claw. Zones with a lot of cat’s claw have never produced well for me. While some of this could be my own reluctance to be grabbed and plucked continually, it really does appear that Mearns don’t like the stuff. It may be because it’s difficult for them to flush outward when approached by ground-based predators.

In general, transition zones from flatter country to steep terrain with about 30 to 40 percent tree cover are typically productive, and all the tree cover does not need be the oak variety. Some areas contain a torturous plant from canine hell that we call “Velcro weed.” Its actual name is Arizona blazing star (Mentzelia isolata), and ironically it produces a beautiful yellow flower during the summer. It is bad news for dogs and makes cockleburs and beggar’s lice seem a minor inconvenience. Plus the trick of slicking up a dog’s coat that works on burs has zero effect on Velcro weed. Unfortunately, Velcro weed spreads and prospers during wet summers . . . just like Mearns quail do. I was glad to find areas nearly devoid of it last season. Chalk it up as an advantage of getting away and trying new places.

Finding the right zone can yield big dividends. One day Eric and I put up six coveys—each within 200 yards of the previous one—during a short walk. The nearby ground was emptier than a stadium parking lot after a baseball game, which shows that it pays to scrutinize good spots and look for similar locations. It also pays to scour an area for other coveys once birds are located.

As I write this, I’m back in Wyoming watching icicles grow, but my heart is still amongst the desert’s whispering oaks and deeply cut ravines. When I close my eyes, I can imagine the winter sunshine warming my face. Gentle breezes caress my bare arms and carry an invisible cord of scent to Rusty’s nostrils. The open-bore double is loaded with 8½s as we stride off in search of adventure. Hiking steep rocky banks is satisfyingly strenuous, the added challenge only adding zest to the day. When I close my eyes again, I can hear softly chirping sparrows, the raucous chattering of jays and the shrill whistling of a dozen polka-dotted bumble bees erupting all around. These are the memories that make the rest of the long winter bearable and the future so encouraging. 

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