Counting Quail In Arizona

e6651ade-4037-44ee-906d-55776881461a By Bob Corley

On Oct. 14, 2018 eleven members of the Southern Arizona Quail Forever volunteered to survey “treated” habitat in the Sulphur Springs Valley of Arizona with the cooperation of Zach May, QF chapter president, and under the supervision of Wade Zarlingo, small game program manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
 

The Area

The Sulphur Springs Valley is a huge north/south area bordered by the Galiuro Mountains on the west and the Pinaleno Mountains on the east. Prior to the late 1800’s pioneers described the valley as having grass “up to the belly of a horse” with no trees. Pronghorn antelope and scaled quail were reportedly in abundance. Then came the cattle from Texas. It was an open range with no fences and early ranchers could run as many cattle as they wanted. And did. A true tragedy of the commons: The more cattle you ran, the more money you made.  
Jonathan O’Dell, small game biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said that it was grazed down to a “moonscape.” Years of severe drought in conjunction with this overgrazing left the Sulphur Springs Valley barren for miles and miles. And then, slowly, after the cattle left and the rains returned, the habitat started coming back. But now an invasive species had arrived – mesquite from Texas.
 

Bringing Back the Grass

According to Wade Zarlingo, Arizona Game & Fish began a program to return portions of the grassland to its more historic, original condition by using an excavator (backhoe with tracks) to remove the invasive mesquites. On state trust public land as well as private sections, a total of 22,000 acres have now been “treated” in this way with the expectation that arid grassland species such as pronghorns and scaled quail will return. Treated and untreated transects have been pre-determined for survey each year to provide a means of scientific comparison. Each transect is basically a rectangle of 2.2 – 2.5 miles.
 

The Survey

So on the chilly, muddy morning of Oct. 14, 2018 eleven Quail Forever members and their dogs were set to run the transects. And what a menagerie! Muensterlanders, GSPs, German Longhair Pointers, Pudelpointers, britts, Labs, Vislas, retrievers, and my own little French britts.
 

Results 

And what did we find? The most prevalent plant on my transect as well as others was Russian thistle, or tumbleweed. Rana Tucker, regional game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, who hiked with me as an observer and recorder, commented that the tumbleweeds should eventually be replaced by more native grass species through natural succession.
Scattered throughout the transect were excavated dead mesquite piles. And that was exactly where most of the birds were found. More pronghorns have been spotted recently and several teams found scaled quail, but smaller coveys and not really in abundance. My Britts pointed one dead mesquite pile that held 35 Gambel’s quail.
“Scaled quail habitat improvement efforts in other states such as New Mexico have taken at least five years or more before seeing any positive results,” said O’Dell.
With continued habitat projects and good rains, perhaps we will see the same in Arizona.