By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com
This is the last weekend of the last of the popular hunting seasons in California, with waterfowl and upland birds seasons drawing to a close Jan. 31. For those of us who are avid quail and chukar hunters, this year has not been so much about shooting birds as it has been about taking long, quiet walks carrying shotguns through bird country with dogs and hunting buddies.
You see, quail and chukar numbers are at very low ebbs thanks to drought and rainfall that came at the wrong times to produce many young for the past several years. Since my Lab Duke and I hunt alone more than we hunt with other hunters, I suppose I should be honest and say there were a lot of days when I didn’t even bring the shotgun, preferring to leave the seed stock out there, hoping for a better season next year. It is fun to watch him work, and there were days he got snoot-fulls of quail scent. There just weren’t enough quail so I would feel comfortable taking a bird or two out of six or eight bird coveys, but there were enough to watch Duke’s roping tail and lope go into that happy ìbirds, birds, birdsî mode.
There were also places where the hunting was actually decent is you really wanted a few to eat. The Mojave Preserve had huntable numbers of Gambel’s quail at higher elevations, and Arizona Mearn’s quail were spectacular this year.
But chukar were dismal throughout the region. I didn’t talk to more than one or two hunters all year who had even heard a chukar until the last week or two of the season. Then I had a report of one guy getting into about 50 birds in the southern Sierra’s east slope near Inyokern, and another jumped a small covey of about a dozen north of Apple Valley. I relate these two reports because I know a lot of other good hunters who had pounded these same areas through the early part of the season and never saw or heard a single chukar. Not one.
For years, most of the chukar hunters I know start seeing paired up birds by the last couple of weekends of the season in our local desert mountains. The mate selection process is already beginning. But while on a long fruitless hike this week, after hearing the reports of chukar groups, I began wondering if chukar ñ especially in low birds years ñ start to aggregate in groups, perhaps coming from miles around to find company and go through the mate selection process before dispersing out across their habitat when it comes time to nest. I mean, seeing 50 birds in one area where no one else had seen any birds earlier in the season would lend credibility to that idea.
It also makes you wonder how far chukar move. For years, when they seem to disappear from whole mountain ranges and then suddenly reappear, I had wondered if anyone had ever done a study with radios to see how far chukar would move. Recently Shawn Espinoza, and upland bird biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife, told me of a 1980s study that showed chukar moved up to 35 miles from where they were fitted with radios. I’m not sure that would surprise anyone who’s hunted chukar and watched them flush off the top of a desert mountain range (usually out of shotgun range) and glide out of sight into the vast expanse of the Mojave. Or they fly across a deep valley and onto the side of a hill taller and steeper than the one you had just climbed to find them. (Chukar hunting is a young man’s activity.)
So it sort of makes sense to me. In poor bird years, the birds are going to be climbing up to vantage points and giving their raspy, gabbling call. Chukar hunters know they are social birds and the like company of other chukar, so it makes sense they would keep wandering around until they found company. Maybe all of the chukar for 35 miles in all directions were in that canyon near Inyokern to socialize and find mates.
Those are the kinds of things we think about on those long, birdless hikes in years like this.
Before I started hunting with dogs, I was certain valley and Gamble’s quail could turn invisible or do some sort of molecular evaporation and disappear from the open hillside where I watched them land and then reappear a half-mile down the wash calling, just to taunt me. Now, I know they will sometimes hold so tight that you literally have to stomp them out of cover, even low cover you’d swear wouldn’t hide them.
The waterfowl hunting has been very good this year. First, we again have a record number of birds in the flyway, and second, thanks to drought, they are concentrated on less water ñ or were until the rains late in the season scattered them all over the region. A flood control pond near my house had been dry until the recent rains, and it was holding a couple of flocks of mallard and teal this week. The green-up of vacant fields all over Southern California has Canada geese feeding all over the region. Those birds had been concentrated on golf course fairways and wildlife areas (where they could be hunted), and now those birds have spread out. Hunters have reported far fewer birds these last few weeks of waterfowl season. The early migrants will be heading north before too long. The seasons end at the right time.
Hunting seasons are long in the Southwest. Our rabbit seasons open July 1, quickly followed by the Sept. 1 dove opener, and then a plethora of season openers in October ñ from quail and chukar to waterfowl to deer. But it is all winding down now, and I’m already missing it.