I was asked to visit an old client today in the Pearsall area. This client over a period of 25 years has learned all I had to teach about Bobwhite quail and manages their country as well or better than I would, so I consider him to be a “graduate”. Additionally, they are well-funded so have all the right equipment and their ranch is in the red sandy country I have come to love.
The landowner has done a lot of brush work, does periodic grazing, cool-season discing, even installed an extensive sprinkler system. However, this year there are not many quail. As you can see in these pictures, the place looks “birdy” today and most years produces some of the finest quail hunting within two hours of San Antonio. Where did they go? Was I missing something?
Feeding/hunting routes are driven weekly to assess the birds and while there was a good carry-over breeding population, normal pairing, and what by all accounts was a normal hatch, there simply are not very many birds, juvenile nor adult today. The resident bird dog trainer confirms this, so they’re not just hanging in better cover. In a two hour drive mid-morning, I saw several pairs (that’s a warning right there) and two good coveys of adults with juveniles, probably clutches.
So what happened? As the country looks great now, we have to go back to the brooding season and try to determine what the vegetation was then, not now. I fear that a dry spell during brooding reduced the insect population, critical to quail chicks and they did not survive. Rainfall in sandy soils must be adequate if not plentiful throughout the reproductive cycle to provide foods at the right time; timing is everything. I saw something similar years ago just down the road, where the native plants came up, hatch was good, chicks did good, but it turned dry mid-summer and the plants did not make seed for the winter. In that situation, the adults were starved out. In this case, the native plants did not come up or were too dry to support aphids, etc. for the chicks at the time when they can only eat insects.
I believe this problem might well have been solved with the sprinklers. Now, I freely admit it is a very expensive proposition, and not suitable for most folks, but as the system was in place, the landowner should have run them as soon as range conditions turned dry. That would have made green spots, as seen below, which are havens for bugs and which may have been enough to improve chick survival and the hunting season.
“Penny wise, pound foolish” is a saying that applies in this instance. The landowner choose to skip the irrigation and it may have cost him the season. Certainly it has taught him that a more careful assessment of range conditions throughout the nesting/brooding season is just as important as any of the other management tools he employs. I hope and pray he continues to get rains and can pull off a late hatch, conditions are good for adult survival.