Mearns' Quail Hunt in South Arizona. Jim Matthews Column.

spectr17

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MEARNS' QUAIL -- Jim Matthews-ons 09jan01

Mearns' quail, rain and cattle.



PARKER CANYON LAKE, Ariz. -- Dave Lukens stopped on a steep sidehill and looked back at his two hunting companions. He smiled. Even his Brittany spaniels stopped sensing that something was up. Lukens was about to reveal the true secret to hunting southern Arizona's Mearns' quail.

"The best advice I've even had about Mearns' quail was given to me by a Mexican gas station attendant," said Lukens. Lukens had been frustrated in his efforts to find these unique birds in their native oak grassland habitat, and was reaching out to anyone and everyone who might help. The attendant had hunted the birds, he admitted, so Lukens asked him where he could find these birds. "He said to me, "Oh senior, the Mearns' they can be anywhere.' "

Lukens whirled and continued hiking down a steep slope through gnarled oaks. My Flagstaff hunting buddy, Rob Breeding, and I had come with Lukens hoping to learn about these wonderful gamebirds, and we looked at each other and started laughing. But by the end of the day and 10 coveys of birds later, we realized the advice was sound. The birds were where we found them -- on the top of ridges, in the bottoms of canyons, and on the sidehills. They were everywhere and anywhere.

Lukens, who is a Southwest Airlines pilot in between his hunting trips for upland birds, has become known as one of the preeminent Mearns' quail hunters in the Southwest and a strong proponent for protecting their habitat and hunters' opportunities to pursue this unusual quail species. His simple hunting technique is to get into good habitat and cover ground on foot with his Brittany spaniels romping through the terrain ahead of him. A 15-mile day is not unusual for Lukens. Maybe more. He who covers the most ground wins because, afterall, the birds they can be anywhere.

The Mearns' or Montezuma quail are different than most Western gamebirds. It doesn't run. For hunters accustomed to hunting Gambel's or valley quail, which almost require the wearing of track shoes, a Mearns' quail is a stark contrast. It hides. Often hunkering down right under a pointing dog's nose.

With its clown-like facial colors and white spotted breast, nearly black legs, the male Mearns' is a striking bird, even if he has only a tuft of feathers on the top of his head and not a topknot like other quail species. The female Mearns' is more subdued with uniform mottled brown coloring, but both sexes blend into their background exceptionally well. The beak is short and stout and the legs are strong. The toes are long with long nails that are used for digging tubers and roots, two of its primary food sources. The strong beak allows the bird to nip the roots into bite-sized portions.

When Lukens first pointed out diggings in the soft soil where a covey had been feeding, it looked as though a miniature herd of javelina had been rooting the soil, and I keep pointing out the "rooting" the rest of the hunt and each time Breeding would five me a goofy smile. I could hear him thinking, "Pigs root you idiot, those are diggings."

When they flush, they swirl off the ground in curving flight, frequently going behind hunters who corkscrew themselves off balance and miss. I know because I did this repeatedly. They weave through the brush and trees making hunters shoot timber instead of feathers. Oak is very effective at stopping tiny size 7 1/2 pellets from a shotgun. I shot several testing this theory as birds wheeled away unscathed. Sometimes the birds flush out all around you and simply scare you so badly that you fire one shot off straight into the air. I called it a warning shot, warning them that they'd better not do that again.

The statewide limit of 15 quail per day is a wishful dream for Mearns' quail hunters. A hunter is lucky if he gets three or four birds, and surveys done by the Arizona Game and Fish Department show the average take is just over two birds per hunter per day when bird populations are high, like they've been the past two seasons.

Lukens has collected all the research done on the Mearns' and points out there are two limiting factors on Mearns' numbers: Drought and cattle. The two together can just about spell doom to coveys of birds. Mearns' are a bird that evolved in the grasslands and when there is lots of grass, they do very well. In wet years, like there has been in southern Arizona the past two seasons, the grass is high and production and survival is good. Throughout the two days we hunted with Lukens he marveled at the height of the grass and how it carpeted the hills.



"I can flat tell you that in drought years, this would be bare dirt from cattle grazing," said Lukens in a lush canyon bottom while we hunted. He said that the dryer it gets the less cover the birds have. The cattle graze off the canyon bottoms first, the ridge lines next, and then move onto the steep slopes to get those last blades of grass. Federal range managers don't mandate that cattle ranchers reduce the number of cows on their allotments during dry years, even though its called for in the grazing plans. The result is that all grassland species suffer, especially Mearns' quail.

So Lukens is enjoying the abundance of birds right now. He knows that instead of bumping 15 or 16 coveys of birds -- most with 10 to 15 birds per covey -- in two days of hunting like we did, that it only takes one dry year to make that shrivel to six or eight coveys with fewer birds in each group. Better management of public lands would improve the Mearns' plight, and Lukens is the shaker and mover in the Western Gamebird Alliance (P.O. Box 14152, Tucson, AZ 85732; http://www.gamebird-alliance.org), a group that goes toe-to-toe with agencies and ranchers that would threaten Mearns' and other gamebirds' habitat in the West.

While some Mearns' hunters howl about the hunting pressure, Lukens said there aren't enough quail hunters and encourages hunters to come to southern Arizona right now so they can see what it's like in good years and help in the battle to save Mearns' habitat. The season runs through Feb. 10 this year, and Arizona has two-day licenses to make a trip reasonably priced. Lukens knows hunters don't have an impact on the birds, partially because the birds are difficult to hunt and partially because most hunters don't get far from roads.

"Most of these birds die of old age never having seen a hunter," said Lukens while we hiked up a canyon a couple of miles from the vehicles. A few minutes later his dog locked up on a point and when I rounded a manzanita bush, I could see a beautiful mature male Mearns' quail frozen on a small branch just above the ground only 10 feet away. I told Lukens and Breeding that I was going to try to get a photo and slowly started to reach for my camera in my vest while kneeling down. Just before my knee touch the ground a half-dozen other quail flushed from the grass all around me. I dropped the camera, threw the shotgun to my shoulder, and missed two shots at flushing birds.

With good habitat, I knew the Mearns' quail would be able to survive forever.
 



Whoadog

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 I made my first trip down there last year for the little suckers and it is beautiful country that they inhabit.

Brian
 

songdog

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Brian,

How did you do?  I'm planning a trip down there for next year.  Going to try and do javelina and mearns in the same trip the first week in February.
 

Whoadog

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Songdog,
 We were down there the end of January first part of February and everybody said we waited too long because the gambels and scaled quail were down so everyone was coming down south and hunting Mearns.  We also hit a freak 2 1/2 day snow storm.  But to answer your question we didn't see any mearns and only killed gambels and scaled quail.  We are planning on going back next year to avenge, that was before I got hooked on chukar so I don't know.  Mearns quail is the only quail I have left to kill though.

Brian
 

songdog

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Brian,

Same here.  I'm just looking for a pair of Mearns for the mantle and then I've done the Grand Slam of quail (is there such a thing?).

I hear you on the chukar too.  I'm going to try and slip out next week for a few before the season closes.
 

rlwright

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Chuckar are my favorite and the most rewarding. How far west are the scalies in Arizona. I want to go on a mearns/scaley hunt in the future. So far I've mapped out a couple of places in southeastern Arizona. I'm wondering if there are places west of Tucson. My grandfather has a place in Parker, I've been hunting the reservatrion for the last 20 years. It's to crowded on the reservation these days, it's time to travel east and find the mearns and scaleys. How far do I need to go?
 

Whoadog

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Songdog,
 Let me know if you would like some company on the chukar I would love to meet you.  
 A pair of Mearns for the mantle is exactly what I had in mind.

rlwright,
 True scalie country is around Wilcox, which is southeast.  Anywhere south of Tucson is good for Mearns and scalies, your best bet is to buy Web Parton's book on hunting in AZ, great book and a great guy a friend of mine is a friend of his and I called and picked his brain.

Brian
 

Dakota

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Songdog,

I am planning a trip with a MN hunting buddy for next jan/feb for mearns as well.  I would like to include javelina if the season meshes.  I got some info from a CA guide that I want to check out.  Maybe we could make it a mutual trip.  That pup your planning for should have some experience by next Jan!
 

songdog

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Brian,

I'm thinking about heading up to the Carrizo area next week.  My wife is flying to see her folks so my Thursday plans just got shot.  I'm going to see what else I can come up with.  How far are you from there?  Sound like a pretty good haul for you.

Mark - some of the javelina seasons will overlap.  They have a HAM  season (I once told a friend that this was a special hunt where you were required to eat the animal thus the "HAM" name.  In fact it's Handun Archery Muzzleloading) that overlaps with quail.  Depending on the area the regular season may overlap too.  That could be a great trip for the new pup.
 

Whoadog

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Songdog,
 I am just north of Sacramento, what is the closest town to where you are hunting?

Brian
 

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