Quail Forecast has bright spots

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY–Results of Missouri’s annual statewide quail population survey give quail hunters little to rejoice about. However, bobwhites are holding their own in some areas and making gains in others where landowners and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) have made quail management a priority.

One way the agency tracks quail is through roadside surveys. Each August, conservation agents count quail along 30-mile routes in 110 of Missouri’s 114 counties. Only Clay, Jackson, St. Louis and St. Charles counties are not surveyed. The 2011 roadside surveys recorded an average of 1.4 quail per 30-mile route. That is 36 percent lower than last year and 56 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Results from the roadside survey are consistent with other measures that document a continuing, long-term decline in bobwhite numbers statewide and throughout most of their range.

Agricultural Wildlife Ecologist Beth Emmerich, who analyzes bobwhite quail population data gathered by MDC field staff, says that while Missouri’s quail picture is not rosy, it isn’t as bad as the roadside survey numbers make it seem. She notes that quail populations vary significantly in different parts of the state and even locally. Some of those variations reflect differences in weather patterns. Others show where MDC and private conservationists have been at work.

“Quail counts in northwest Missouri are up 63-percent compared to last year,” said Emmerich, “while counts in the Mississippi lowlands, which had severe and extended flooding this year, show a 92-percent decline over the same period. Looking at the roadside survey numbers, you might think it wasn’t worth getting your dog out of its pen, but that is absolutely not true.”

Emmerich said roadside quail surveys occur on the same routes every year. They document quail population changes in those areas over time. However, they don’t take into account quail population trends in areas where work is underway to create quality quail habitat. That is why MDC conducts fall covey counts at 19 conservation areas (CAs) that have been designated Quail Emphasis Areas.

Starting in mid-October each fall, MDC biologists visit randomly selected plots on Quail Emphasis Areas early in the morning and listen for calling quail. They record the location of each covey in earshot. They flush some of the coveys to get an idea of how many birds are in each. Feeding these data into statistical population models allows biologists to estimate area quail populations. Covey counts are a practical way to evaluate the effectiveness of habitat management efforts.

Emmerich said results from this year’s covey counts are not all in yet, and she won’t finish analyzing those data until next year. But early results already document some quail-management success stories. They also illustrate how weather affects quail populations.

On Oct. 11, Resource Assistant Chez Kleeman flushed a covey of quail at Bois D’Arc CA in Greene County. Some of the birds were sparrow-sized and barely able to fly. Quail that successfully raise early clutches sometimes nest again and raise a second brood that year. Seeing small birds in October indicates Bois D’Arc’s quail may have “double-clutched.” Backing this up are reports from Bois D’Arc staff that quail numbers are up this year.

According to Private Land Conservationist Mike Gaskins, landowners in Dent and Shannon counties also have reported are seeing late-hatched quail and turkey broods in recent weeks.

Resource Forester Phil Sneed, who manages Poosey CA in Livingston County, also reported seeing very young quail in some covey counts, so portions of northern Missouri have experienced late quail nesting success as well.

Sneed also reported hearing coveys in new locations. That is a sign of good habitat conditions. Average covey size on Poosey was 11 to 12 quail, with two 20-bird coveys.

Dave Hoover, manager of the Seat CA in Worth County, reported covey counts slightly better than the last year. However, he cautions that quail numbers remain low there, due to extremely difficult weather conditions that plagued ground-nesting birds from 2007 through 2010.

Staff at Whetstone Creek CA in Callaway County and William White Memorial CA in Lincoln County reported covey counts 50 percent smaller than in 2010. Heavy snow that lingered throughout much of last winter in parts of central Missouri may have cut into this and some other local populations.

Private Land Conservationist Nathan Mechlin called 2011 a good quail-production year for Clinton, Caldwell and Daviess counties. He said both quail and turkey brood sightings are up from previous years. Those results are spotty, however, and landowners in some areas report seeing very few birds.

Each year, MDC makes habitat improvements on more than 75,000 acres on CAs. These improvements benefit quail and other wildlife that share the bobwhite’s habitat needs. Roadside quail counts occur along routes established before this work began and are not designed to measure the success of quail management on CAs.

Just as the roadside survey fails to capture information about Quail Emphasis Areas, it also does not reflect progress made on private land. Emmerich said hundreds of Missourians are working to restore quail habitat. Some have organized cooperatives to work with MDC and other agencies in dozens of Quail Focus Areas around the state.

“The Conservation Department is making a significant investment in quail management on private land each year through cost-share and landowner incentive programs,” said Emmerich. “One partnership we are especially proud of is the Habitat Challenge Grants program. This summer, the Department awarded a total of $133,000 in funding to Quail Forever, the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, Quail Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Through habitat challenge grants, each of these conservation organizations provides matching funds to help landowners complete habitat work on their land.”

Emmerich said MDC’s Landowner Assistance Program channels more than $1 million a year into habitat enhancements that benefit quail and other wildlife that share the bobwhite’s habitat needs. The agency also promotes federal farm bill programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which funds quail-friendly habitat work.

For locations and additional information about MDC’s Quail Emphasis Areas, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3333. For more information about Quail Opportunity Areas and quail management, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/12606.

-Jim Low-