The weatherman is calling for frost tonight, and Old Glory is waving proudly in a brisk northwest wind. After a hot, dry summer and early fall, the weather is beginning to match the calendar and folks are starting to talk hunting.
If you read my post last week and took a look at the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s recent State of the Bobwhite report, you know that quail are in dire straits across their range. Although Missouri has fared better than some states, we continue to log a steep population decline.
We track state and regional quail population trends with a roadside census. Each August, conservation agents count quail along 30-mile routes that wind through 110 Missouri counties; only highly urbanized Clay, Jackson, St. Louis and St. Charles counties are not surveyed. The 2011 census reports a statewide index of 1.4 quail per 30-mile route, which is 36 percent under last year’s index of 2.2. Viewed across longer periods, 2011 results are 52 percent below the five-year average and 56 percent below the 10-year average.
Roadside census results closely match other statewide measures, including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Missouri quail harvest estimates. The long-term trend information these counts provide is important to biologists, but there are limits to how we should apply the results. After all, there is no statewide quail population in any practical sense.
When viewed at a finer scale, roadside census results show differences among regions of the state that may result from weather patterns. For example, 2011 counts in Northwest Missouri are up 63 percent compared to last year. Quail counts in the Mississippi lowlands, portions of which sustained severe and extended flooding, show a 92-percent decline over the same period.
The roadside census does not capture smaller scale population changes that result from how land is managed. It also doesn’t capture local success stories--examples of positive quail response to habitat management that occur on both private and public land across the state.
Fall covey counts are a better approach for estimating local changes in quail abundance. These counts are useful at the farm scale, and MDC biologists conduct them to determine quail density on our Quail Emphasis Areas. Fall covey counts begin in mid-October. Observers begin their counts 45 minutes before sunrise at pre-determined locations across an area. Some coveys are flushed to provide estimates of average covey size and overall bird numbers. Covey counts aren’t foolproof, but offer a practical means for estimating local bird numbers and understanding the effectiveness of annual habitat management efforts.
Covey counts can’t begin until coveys form in early to mid-October, making it difficult to gather results from around the state and report them by the start of quail season. However, I can share what some managers are seeing during ongoing covey counts. The following observations are not final results, but they capture the fact that quail populations vary widely across the state and indicate that favorable weather and good management have combined to produce some good hunting prospects this fall.