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Bonanza of Blues

Whether you call them blue or scaled quail, cotton tops, scalies or coneheads, these hard-running birds are as unique as the country they inhabit, and this year they’re proliferating.

By Henry Chappell

Molly, my German shorthaired pointer, makes a second lap around the windmill, her stub tail whipping like a springing doorstop. Despite the stiff wind, I can hear her snuffling 30 yards away. On the northern horizon, across miles of shortgrass prairie — buffalo grass, blue grama, prickly pear, yucca, dry creeks, square buttes, caliche flats — a dark blue band of clouds portends a rough night in camp.

Molly breaks away from the windmill, following tendrils of air and ground scent over sparse tufts of grass. The birds are running. I jog after her, wondering, as always, where a covey of blue quail could hide in these open badlands. Molly begins to catwalk. I move up, anticipating her point. But she breaks and shifts into a higher gear. Sixty yards farther on, she slows to a creep, then breaks again. The pattern continues until her frantic snuffling ceases, and she regards me apologetically, tongue lolling.

After a drink of water and a breather, we hunt back toward the windmill. Molly makes a looping 150-yard cast to my right. On her way back in, she locks up tight, ears pricked, brow furrowed, eyes big as 12-gauge bores. No question about it this time.

The half-empty water bottle sloshes and 20-gauge shells rattle in my game vest as I hurry toward the point. Forty yards away, I glimpse the erect white crest of a blue quail 6 feet ahead of Molly’s nose. Unlike a bobwhite hunkered in cover, the bird eyes me and bobs its head. I slide my thumb toward the safety. The quail whirls away, offering a hard-right crossing shot. For once I keep my head down and swing. Molly brings the bird to hand, and I stroke the jaunty crest and overlapping breast feathers.

To the north, the approaching front seems much closer. My drying sweat leaves me chilled. I pocket the bird and hope my tent poles will still be upright come midnight.

Blue quail, scaled quail, blues, cotton tops, scalies, coneheads. Apt names that conjure images of slavering, wild-eyed bird dogs, rubber-legged hunters, heat mirage and dust devils. Like the country they inhabit, blues engender strong opinions. Hardcore bird hunters either love them or hate them. Bobwhite purists scorn the blue quail’s raffish preference for running instead of sitting tight for stylish pointing dogs. Other hunters gleefully screw in their modified and full choke tubes, stuff their game vests with water bottles and moleskin toe padding, and brag about dogs that do whatever it takes to put a few blues in the bag.

Although commonly lumped with Gambel’s quail under the heading of “desert quail,” blues actually are birds of the arid grasslands. Their range extends from western Kansas southward into Mexico, then westward across the High Plains in the north and the Chihuahuan Desert in the south. In Texas, blues are common in the western half of the Panhandle, the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, the South Texas Brush Country and the Trans-Pecos region. They share the eastern edge of their range with bobwhites and the western portion with Gambel’s quail.

As their name suggests, blue quail are bluish-gray, save for their conspicuous white crests. The overlapping breast and mantle feathers, edged in black, earn the bird the common name “scaled quail.” Although males and females are indistinguishable in flight, close examination reveals that the male’s throat feathers are a solid cream color while the hen’s are cream with fine dark streaks. On average, blues are slightly larger than bobwhites and weigh about 7 ounces. The males of a subspecies common to South Texas and northern Mexico, called “chestnut-bellied scaled quail,” sport a distinctive buff or chestnut-colored patch on their bellies. Blues are less vocal than bobwhites; their ventriloquial covey call — chuc-ker, chuc-ker — is difficult to locate.

Like bobwhites, blue quail are an edge species; they require a patchwork of open ground, seed-producing forbs, grass, herbaceous cover and low brush for overhead protection from avian predators. Dale Rollins, of the Texas Cooperative Extension, describes perfect blue quail habitat as ideal bobwhite habitat minus 50 percent of the grass.

Blue quail populations boom and bust relative to rainfall. “They’re much like bobwhites,” says Steve DeMaso, upland game bird program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They face the same problems of weather and habitat.” Although blues are well-adapted to arid rangeland, they require late-autumn moisture from rain or snow and April and May showers that bring on herbaceous cover and insects for brood rearing.

Coveys break up in early spring in preparation for mating. Nesting begins in May and can extend into October. Hens lay nine to 16 eggs in nests constructed in a variety of cover such as dead grass and cactus. Precocial chicks hatch 22 to 23 days later. If a nest fails because of predation or weather, the hen will nest again until she’s successful or nesting season ends. Blue quail hens occasionally raise more than one brood per year. The fast-growing young depend on an abundance of protein-rich insects. No rain means little herbaceous cover and few bugs. Hens may forgo nesting during severe drought.

Like all quail, blues follow a daily routine. Shortly after sunrise, the birds leave their roosts to feed until mid-morning, then loaf beneath screening cover such as javelina brush, lotebush, skunkbush, cholla, sandsage and even abandoned farm buildings and equipment. Late in the afternoon, the birds feed again, then roost on open ground amid sparse cover.

In spring and summer, blues feed on insects and green herbage. During hunting season, they rely on the fruits of woody shrubs and seeds of native grasses and forbs such as ragweed, sunflower, prickly poppy, croton and snakeweed. Blues also eat domestic grain when it’s available.

TPWD biologist Scott Lerich offers this advice to novice blue quail hunters: “The first thing you have to understand is that you’re not hunting bobwhites. Scaled quail typically won’t hold while you stroll up for the flush. You’d better be prepared to move up quickly.” Lerich should know. To earn his master’s degree, he spent two years at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area trapping and fitting blue quail with radio telemetry collars in order to study nesting ecology and survival. He’s also an avid quail hunter.

Dale Rollins believes that habitat affects the birds’ behavior. “In my opinion, blues need more grass than a lot of people realize. You see blues in some terribly overgrazed country where there’s just nothing for them to stick in. Find them in some country with a little vegetation, break that covey up, and you can get some excellent dog work.”

Because blues inhabit vast, open territory, their feeding and loafing sites can be harder to identify than those of bobwhites — especially in the sprawling Trans-Pecos region. “Creosote and tarbush flats don’t support high numbers of quail,” says TPWD biologist Mike Hobson, a serious blue quail hunter. “Just leave such areas alone. When you’re hunting blues in the desert, your best bet is to work the draws and the water.”

Although blue quail don’t require surface water — they get adequate water from their food — they’ll use it if it’s available. Hobson recommends that hunters concentrate on windmills, stock tanks and guzzlers. Start around the water source, then work outward in concentric circles. If birds are nearby, dogs should scent them right away. Otherwise, move to the next tank.

Once the dogs get birdy, hustle up — run if necessary — to flush the covey and mark the singles. Scattered blues often hold well for pointing dogs, especially after they’ve been flushed several times.

Running blues seem to melt away. In the course of a few hundred yards, birds peel off left and right until dogs and hunters are trailing one or two quail, which often as not flush out of shotgun range. Then the dogs snuffle around helplessly and the wheezing, disgusted hunters shuffle away in search of another covey. Instead, carefully hunt back the way you came. Often, the dogs will find the singles and doubles that peeled away from the covey.

Blues tend to hold on steep hillsides. “If I find a covey down in a draw, I always try to work it up a slope,” Hobson says. “I’ve had some excellent shooting on rocky hillsides. Then again, sometimes the birds will just outrun me and disappear over the top, but that’s just part of it.”

Hobson stresses the importance of persistence. “Late in the season there are fewer coveys, but they can be large — 20 or 30 birds from several smaller coveys that have combined. My dog might get on a big covey at 9 o’clock in the morning and we’ll still be working it at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Out here in the Trans-Pecos, the coveys are widely scattered. If you find one, don’t give up on it too soon. It may be the only covey you find that day.”

For blues, DeMaso, Rollins and Hobson favor aggressive, adaptable dogs. Forget field-trial standards. A dog should point staunchly when birds hold, but break and trail running birds. Hobson’s dog, a pointer- and German-shorthair cross or “crosshair,” runs big on the desert flats — 200 yards or more — but can be called in to hunt close in the hills.

“A good blue-quail dog works almost like a sheep dog,” says Rollins. “A few even learn to get out in front of running birds to stop or slow them down. But those dogs are few and far between.”

Early quail season conditions — hot, dry and dusty — challenge the toughest dogs. Hunt early and late in the day when it’s coolest and scenting conditions are best. Carry plenty of water for the dogs. Because of the water requirement, experienced blue quail hunters usually hunt with only one dog per gun — especially in the desert. Dog boots are a must in the rough terrain. The molded rubber variety affords the most protection in rocky hills.

Diehard blue quail hunters live for nasty weather. “If it’s a horrible, miserable, snowy or rainy day, take that dog hunting,” Hobson says. “The birds will hold. Some of my best hunts have been on nasty days on public land.”

Blues often flush well ahead of dogs and hunters. Shotguns choked modified or improved cylinder work well in heavy scrub; open country calls for modified or full chokes. Size 6 or 7 shot minimizes crippling and lost birds.

Interest in blue quail has increased in recent years after populations declined because of habitat loss and drought. “I’m glad to see the birds finally getting some respect,” says Rollins. “I’ve always called them the Rodney Dangerfield of quail species.”

According to DeMaso, blues are making a comeback. The August 2003 roadside survey reported high numbers of blue quail in the Trans-Pecos region and average-to-good hatches in South Texas Plains. That’s good news for landowners and hunters, especially as the price of quality bobwhite leases continues to rise. “Blue quail are definitely part of the future of quail hunting in Texas,” says Scott Lerich. “Serious bird hunters will look west and adapt. Blues are great game birds that have been largely neglected.”

A few footsore hunters and rangy, cactus-scarred dogs have known it all along.

Henry Chappell hopes that Maggie, his German shorthaired pointer puppy, will make a blue quail dog. They live in Plano.

Blues on State Lands

Although blue quail are native to the western half of Texas, Steve DeMaso recommends that hunters focus on the Trans-Pecos region and the South Texas Brush Country.

Because of adequate rainfall, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Brewster County is expected to offer excellent hunting for blue quail this season. Field staff report good hunting opportunities at Elephant Mountain WMA In West Texas. Chaparral WMA in LaSalle and Dimmit counties offers good hunting for both blues and bobwhites.

Hunters must possess an Annual Public Hunting Permit to hunt on Texas’ wildlife management areas. Consult the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual for seasons and bag limits. For full details, contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112, or www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

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