Frank Loncarich and Kyle Hedges are on a mission…two missions, actually. Mission No. 1 is their job. As wildlife management biologists for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), they work to restore health and vigor to Southwest Missouri landscapes. That folds nicely into Mission No. 2 – figuring out how to locate bobwhite quail in expansive prairie landscapes.
Mission No. 1 requires some unconventional tools. Traditional axes, shovels and rakes are too labor-intensive to be practical for managing thousands of prairie acres with limited manpower. Instead, they employ carefully controlled burning, herbicides, chainsaws and cattle to restore these historically open landscapes to their former condition and keep them open.
The effects of some of Frank and Kyle’s recent efforts can be seen at areas under their management. I visited these areas with them in early November to see how their work is panning out. Not only how quail are faring, but how the biologists hunt them.
Prairies, by their very nature, are deficient in habitat features that are the keys to quail hunting around my home in central Missouri. Brush piles, field edges, shrubby fencerows, small woodlots and abandoned farmsteads do exist in a prairie landscape, but they are scarce. Mostly what you’ve got is big, almost featureless expanses of grassland. For many hunters, such areas are unsolvable riddles.
Stony Point Prairie Conservation Area (CA) is one such riddle. This 960-acre parcel in northwestern Dade County is managed by Kyle. The fact that it had a remnant population of prairie chickens as recently as 2005 tells you something about its potential for prairie habitat. Prescribed burning, grazing and haying have helped eliminate woody plants from most of the area. A few brushy draws, scattered thickets of wild plum, a small stream and scattered ponds add to the patchwork of habitat elements that quail, rabbits and grassland songbirds need to thrive.
Frank’s rangy pointer, Bailey, immediately began a loping reconnaissance of the far edges of grassy cover. Meanwhile, his dainty Brittany spaniel, Daisy, threaded in and out of the edge of a brushy draw to nose out tight-sitting coveys. Out of sight on the other side of the wooded draw, Kyle’s well-heeled English setter, Tess, and his mischievous Brittany, Tucker, were holding up their end of the bargain.
We hadn’t gone far when we heard “Bird!” from the other side of the draw, followed by the report of a shotgun and the sounds of dogs “hunting dead.” They emerged with a fat woodcock – not the main event but a welcome bonus.
As we continued up the edge of the draw, Frank described the two kinds of habitat hunters encounter on prairie CAs. At the moment, we were hunting what he calls “intensive” habitat – small parcels of woody or shrubby cover surrounded by open ground.
“When you hunt intensive habitat, at the end you really feel like you’ve covered the area,” he said. “Extensive cover is what I call the big open areas. It takes more time to hunt those areas, and if you don’t find birds, you always wonder if they were there but you missed them in all that cover.”
Frank and Kyle have one advantage over most hunters on the areas they manage. Annual surveys tell them how many coveys exist there and give them an idea of average covey size. But that information does them little good when hunting season arrives. They have to find elusive coveys the same way other hunter do, with a combination of bird dogs and intuition.
At times, knowing how many coveys inhabit an area can be more aggravation than help.
“It’s frustrating when I have the surveys in my desk showing 20 coveys on an area, and hunters can only find two,” said Loncarich. “They think you’re lying to them.”
(Next time: A 25-bird covey rise.)