by Garhart Stephenson
Photo by Gary Kramer | garykramer.net
Gunning for running blue quail.
It’s no secret we live in a changing world. Last winter this was driven home with an exclamation point in southeast New Mexico. I had traveled there from my home in Wyoming to hunt scaled quail—something I first had enjoyed there many years before. That first time the Y2K scare was a recent memory and my friend Jake Binns had taken a firefighting job in the area. When Jake had returned north on vacation, we’d discussed the quail possibilities near his new home. I visited him in New Mexico that winter, and that’s when we’d set out to learn all we could about the fascinating gray bird with the punk-rock hairdo.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2019-’20. COVID had yet to shake up the world, and I drove more than 1,000 miles straight through from Wyoming to New Mexico. This time I would not be staying with Jake, as he had moved “home” years earlier. Also, due to their rates and noise levels, I no longer enjoy staying in hotels. I had decided to camp in the bed of my truck under a topper. Not only would this save money, but it also would allow me to enjoy peace and quiet and sip my coffee while listening to quail perform their morning roll call. It was a good plan, except for one detail: my choice of campsite.
When the cover is thick enough to impede their running game, scalies tend to hold tighter and offer better shot opportunities. Photograph by Garhart Stephenson
I rolled in at 2 am and pulled onto a level patch of asphalt at the terminus of a road where an abandoned mineshaft was fenced off. I knew the place well. What I didn’t know was how much human activity had changed in the years since my previous visit. My first clue should have been the bulldozer parked there, but I knew it was common for oil companies to park equipment in the area.
I’d just nodded off when at 2:30 a truck rumbled in, turned around, backed in adjacent to my pickup and its occupant proceeded to load and secure the dozer to a lowboy trailer. The driver was efficient and gone in 30 minutes, but there is no quiet way to perform this task. My night got shorter.
It felt like my eyelids barely had closed when MOSAIC security arrived and lit up my rig. The guard inquired what I was doing, and I told him. MOSAIC did not own the land, but the company was keeping an eye on the mineshaft. During our lengthy conversation, two things were accomplished: The guard realized that I was not a potential liability, and I learned of recent vandalism, theft of copper wire and so on. Eventually I fell back to sleep, but at first light I was visited by another security guard. Thankfully she, too, was friendly.
At that point I gave up trying to sleep and greeted the day with four cups of coffee and a vow to move camp to a quieter location. My Border collie, Rusty, was ready to go, having slept plenty during the journey south, and I could hear the delightful metallic twang of scaled quail calling—motivation to finish my morning rituals quickly.
Scaled quail have a well-earned reputation for using their legs to evade predators. Don’t be surprised, though, if birds split off during a chase and the covey seems to have shrunk by the time it eventually flushes. Photograph by Garhart Stephenson
Scaled, or blue, quail are nervous little devils—full of energy and always on the move. By the time I finished breakfast and wandered toward the spot where I last heard calling, the birds were gone. Fresh tracks in sandy washes provided encouragement, and I hunted my way up a rocky ridge, Rusty leading the way. We found quail on this ridge, just as we always had. I was glad to see that some things hadn’t changed.
Despite being so tired, I managed to scratch down a few quail and considered the day a success. I moved camp before enjoying a wonderful meal of pan-fried quail—all the birds I had taken. Hunting desert quail is hungry business. This works out well, since the possession limit in New Mexico is only two daily limits. Eating a limit of 15 quail each day not only is easy and provides needed protein, but it also is a genuine treat.
One thing these quail exhibit an affinity for is caliche (a rock containing calcium bicarbonate), which was available on the ridge I hunted that morning. It also happens to be the road base of choice in the region. Many people drive around looking for birds that come to roads to add this mineral to their crops. It works. When they spy quail, some employ guerilla tactics and simply pull off the road and run like mad at them. Others drive on a few hundred yards before putting a dog or two on the ground and hunting their way back.Once the covey is split up, the birds will call to each other to regroup.
Some hunters use flushing dogs, whereas others use pointing breeds. I am in the flushing-dog camp, as I enjoy being a close and active participant in the chase. Scaled quail have a well-earned reputation for being runners—a trait further encouraged by frequent roadside assaults. Some hunters believe blues will not hold, thus a flushing dog is the way to go. That said, plenty of people shoot these delightful little birds over points. When I hunted with Eric Heitman, we did well with his German wirehaired pointers. I also know several people who enjoy success with Brittanys and a falconer (who also gun hunts) who frequently employs English setters and Vizslas. He often runs a trio of dogs, and these dogs have been known to pin birds by moving in on them from different angles simultaneously, cutting off escape routes. His photos of this are impressive. It’s also worth noting that once a covey is split up, the singles and pairs tend to hold better.
The author’s dog, Rusty, with a limit of blues.
Photograph by Garhart Stephenson
No matter how one feels about hunting near roads, taking the time to drive them in the evening is a good scouting technique. While my appreciation for the ease and convenience of paper maps has grown through the years, modern technology certainly has changed the way bird hunters scout. GPS features include “Find: nearest water.” Potential hunt locations are easily marked on GPS too. Satellite images also are handy for finding water. Ranchers graze this land, and cattle converge on water from all directions. From the air, trails resemble an old wagon wheel, with spokes radiating out from the water source. There are also guzzlers in the desert constructed specifically to provide wildlife with water. While it may seem easy to spot the rain-collecting metal roofs with overhead viewing, remember that oil fields have little metal roofs just about everywhere in this area of New Mexico and into Texas.
The southwest corner of the state is different and provides a more primitive experience—except for some border-patrol activity. That said, there is no substitute for getting out there and familiarizing oneself with new territory or current conditions in old territory. I put in my windshield time, and it pays.
This proved crucial last season. One of my favorite guzzlers was failing, and cows had knocked down the fence. The guzzler tray was clogged with sand, a common problem in windy country. It took a half-hour with a shovel and pliers to return the habitat project to use. I checked on it a week later, and not only had high winds not refilled the tray but several quail coveys were frequenting the site. (A side note to remember: In New Mexico it is illegal to park or camp within 300 yards of a water tank.)
Guzzlers provide water for thirsty quail, but they can become clogged with sand. Getting them working again can bring back birds.
Photograph by Garhart Stephenson
Another of my favorite locations was completely shut down. No water at all. Some company had bought the grazing leases for other purposes and thus deemed it needless to supply water. The whole water line had been shut off for miles. I didn’t find many quail there either. This came as a shock after more than 15 productive years, but the Chihuahuan Desert is a big place, so I headed north to other prime ground.
This, too, held surprises. The grass cover was the best I’d ever found in the area. Elated, I expected close flushes for hours; but it was not to be. Rusty did find birds, but they were widely scattered even though we avoided roads and worked near water. Later I learned that hail previously had swept through and really put the hurt on the quail.
Essentially, scaled quail are no different than others: They need food, water, cover and grit. Of course, the devil is in the details. Scalies will utilize just about any form of brush for overhead protection, but they really like the thorny fortresses of mesquite and catclaw. Forage consists of a wide variety of seeds from grasses, weeds or shrubbery, and I have not found any pronounced preference. Water is pretty much a matter of birds taking it where they can get it. Open water is best, but I have witnessed scalies subsisting by pecking apart prickly pear cactus far from water holes. Grass is the wildcard with scaled quail. Most places I have hunted “cotton tops” have had very little grass density. When I do locate isolated pockets of shin-high grass, I investigate thoroughly. The highest quail densities I’ve encountered have been in these grassy areas.
It should come as no surprise that the best-holding birds also have been in these places. Normally, scaled quail habitat is pretty open and encourages fleet-footed escapes. Where grass is thicker, the option of hiding must seem better, especially when the grass is thick enough to impede the birds’ running game. Ten inches of grass may not look like much to us, but we aren’t seven inches tall.
One bizarre trait of scaled quail is what I call “drop out and split up.” During my first trip hunting these birds, I realized that I was not going crazy when covey sizes often seemed to shrink on the rise. It is common to see 30 birds in a scrambling covey, only to have 15 boil up on the flush. As the covey runs, lacing its way through, around and between cover, individuals and pairs will drop out and hole up in clumps of anything big enough to hide them. Some will even squat in the open, as they blend in surprisingly well. The crazy part? Half of these birds will run off randomly in new directions as soon as a hunter and dog pass. If the dog sticks with the main covey, they may get away unbothered. If the dog turns on them suddenly, the jig is up. Make a habit of reversing direction for singles and pairs after the covey rise; half of the missing birds likely will be scattered along the path you took.
Photograph by Garhart Stephenson
Once the covey is split up, the birds will call to each other to regroup. How long they wait depends on hunting pressure. Don’t expect all of them to do the same thing at the same time either. But at some point a bird will begin calling. Many typically will answer but not always. Hard-hunted quail may assemble quietly and quickly around the call bird and then move away before danger returns. Learning to mimic the vocalizations not only is handy for relocating a covey, but it also is great for locating other coveys, since groups commonly will call to each other. The call is a sort of chip-chew, with a pronounced metallic twang. I have experienced a 30- to 50-percent success rate in eliciting vocal responses with commercial calls since learning to adjust the pitch of the calls and the right technique. Generally I find that I need to pull the rubber bands in the calls tighter to produce accurate notes. Also clean the calls often, as they will gum up or collect debris quickly, flattening the tone. Scalies seem to have good ears, and they don’t respond as well if the notes are not sharp and crisp.
My days spent in New Mexico always have been enjoyable, even if times have changed. I see more hunters now than ever before, but elbowroom still is not a problem. The spot I hunted last season is comprised of more than 65 square miles of public land in which I have marked more than 50 water sources. The western side of the state also holds vast spaces—most of them fairly lonely. There are even locations there where I can hunt quail in steep, rocky terrain reminiscent of my favorite chukar haunts back home.
My recent journey may have brought surprises, but my old friend with the topknot and fish-scale feathers remains the same as he always has. No matter what the ebb and flow of change is, I take solace and satisfaction in knowing that when the sun rises over the Southwestern desert, a cheerful little fellow in a dapper gray suit is there to greet the morning with his snappy song. I yearn to be there with a cup of coffee while my faithful dog, Rusty, impatiently turns his ears toward the jubilant roll call. Some things never change, because they don’t need to.