(For the first part of this saga, see "2011 Quail Odyssey, Part I," posted Nov. 30)
Our next stop was Wade and June Shelton Memorial CA, a 320-acre prairie remnant in west-central Dade County. Wildlife Management Biologist Kyle Hedges manages this area of mostly open prairie with a small amount of brushy cover. The area is home to a fair number of rabbits and quail, as well as many other species of grassland birds, including the state-endangered greater prairie chicken and Henslow’s sparrow, a species of conservation concern.
When we stepped out of our trucks, we were greeted by the sound of quail calling in a brushy draw a couple hundred yards away. We were all eager to find the birds, but Frank Loncarich’s dog Bailey was a little too eager. The hard-charging pointer blew through a covey at the edge of a jumble of brush left over from clearing an Osage-orange grove. The birds scattered to every point of the compass. With a gusty north wind whipping away the birds’ scent, we failed to find any singles and had to move on.
At the upper end of the draw, we launched into a sea of grass. Some of the previously timbered areas on Shelton CA have been thinned to restore the prairie that once existed there. Periodic prescribed burning maintains this highly productive wildlife habitat. Quail, rabbit, wild turkey, and a host of other wildlife species benefit from the resulting habitat variety.
The new scenery got Kyle musing about how hunting changes on prairie areas as the season unfolds. He said early-season hunting is all about intensive habitat. But after hunters flush and shoot at birds a few times, they flee to “extensive” habitat – large expanses of open grassland. Clumps of shrubs in fields provide a few focal points for mid-season hunts, but most times the birds lose themselves in the vast expanses of grass.
Just before we reached the northwest corner of the area, Baily redeemed herself by pinning a covey. Kyle had just mentioned finding two coveys in this area three weeks earlier, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when 25 or so birds erupted in a rolling covey rise. What did surprise us was the way the birds used the brisk north wind to slingshot themselves directly over our heads and across a fence onto private ground and safety. Six hasty shots rang out, but when the shouts and excited chatter subsided, only Frank had managed to scratch one bird out of the feathered gust. When congratulated on his accomplishment, he quipped that he probably was shooting at the bird in front of the one he killed.
Kyle and Frank agreed that they are seeing fewer coveys this year than last. That makes sense when you consider how torrential rain from 2008 through 2010 and last year’s severe winter have pounded quail. However, the remaining birds posted gains last summer with the return of more normal spring temperatures and rainfall.
“When you do flush a covey this year, it can be 20 birds or more,” said Loncarich.
(Next installment: They key to hunting bobwhites in the Big Grassy.)