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Rainfall -- or the lack of it -- can make a definite impact on Texas quail populations, but the area west of Fort Worth always seems to turn out good hunting. Here's why. ... [+] Full Article
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Texas Sportsman
The Quail Comeback

"TPWD roadside quail counts show a boom-and-bust cycle that mirrors habitat conditions and rainfall," Bartoskewitz continued. "Roadside counts in 2005 showed an average of 37.37 birds per 20-mile route while 2006 counts showed a paltry 14.02 birds per 20-mile route in the Rolling Plains area west of Fort Worth. The long-term mean is 22.57 birds observed per route. Most ranches west of Fort Worth had very few quail last season due to the dry conditions and subsequent loss of nesting opportunity.

"In dry years, quail and ranch managers should be mindful of grazing regimes. If possible, try to leave suitable amounts of nesting and screening structure (bunchgrass clumps) so that quail at least have a chance to survive and attempt to nest when habitat conditions become suitable.

"Quail hunters and landowners in Texas have enjoyed generous amounts of rainfall in 2007, with most areas west of D/FW near Albany and Throckmorton receiving 20 inches of rain by June. Average annual rainfall in those parts is about 22 inches a year. The 2007 rains have been timely, and in the right amounts. Several land managers and ranch owners have commented this is the best grass (habitat) conditions they have seen in 30 years.

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"Will quail return to 2005 numbers? It depends on continued moisture the remainder of the summer and the number of hens in the populations that survived the below-average 2006 season. There is no question that 2007 should be much better than 2006 when it comes to habitat conditions and the opportunity for a quail to nest and raise a clutch."

Jeff Bonner, a TPWD technical guidance biologist based out of Pampa, is optimistic that quail can rebound on the edges, and even in fire-devastated interior areas of the Panhandle. I asked his opinion on the 2007-08 quail outlook in the northeast Panhandle.

"Since 2006 was such a dismal year for quail in this region, anything would be better," he observed ruefully. "Anytime you get an abundance of fall, winter and spring moisture, ground-nesting birds do very well. We've had great moisture over the last seven months, and we're currently cocked and loaded for a great quail year. Pheasants, turkeys and deer should also do well because of the moisture.

"Quail are boomers and busters, depending on rainfall and habitat conditions. If you graph out population estimates from our surveys it comes out looking like the skyline of the Himalayas: up and down with tall peaks and deep valleys. The peaks do not require a buildup over multiple years -- they just shoot up and then back down again.

"I've been asked by a multitude of people, hunters and ranchers how many years will it take for the quail to come back from the dismal production of 2006. Based on the moisture we've had through the first half of 2007, I'd say one year. Will it be as good as 2005? Maybe; maybe not. But it will definitely be a year to get the old pointer in shape and ready to hunt.

"As for the country burned in the wildfires last year, it's not quite that simple. When three-quarters of a million acres burn off -- and I mean completely burn off -- and is then followed by a severe drought, there's nowhere for a ground-nesting bird to make a nest and nowhere to hide from predators for about two months, and no forage available.

"However," Bonner continued, "it's important to remember that quail have been around this country a lot longer than we have, and the landscape has been burning during all that time. Just to demonstrate the resilience, I heard multiple quail calling last month in central Gray County -- about smack-dab in the middle of the I-40 fire.

"An abundance of weeds is going to help, but the drought that followed did not produce much grass, which is critical for spring nesting the following year. Hats off to the NRCS for the quick development of a prescribed grazing incentive that offered $5 per acre to landowners who would rest their pastures from grazing for one to two growing seasons and allow the country to recover. Around 60 to 65 percent of landowners in the burned country enrolled. Since residual cover -- grass from last year -- is still relatively low, I don't think quail numbers will be quite as high in the interior of those burned areas; just my guesstimation.

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