Think like a naturalist to unlock clues in upland bird habitat, behavior and patterns
Sometimes the biologist and naturalist sides of my brain collide with the bird hunter side. That alphabet soup of brain waves used to annoy me until I decided to use it to my advantage. I’ve found that being able to think like a game bird enables me to enjoy a more fulfilling hunting experience.
Perhaps some definitions are in order, from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:
- Biologist: A person who studies the science of the plant and animal life of a region or environment.
- Naturalist: A student of natural history.
- Natural History: The study of natural objects, especially in the field, from an amateur point of view.
After recently flushing a covey of bobwhites, I took a few minutes to assess the situation with both a biologist’s eye and a naturalist’s observations. I began to dissect why that covey of bobwhites was found in that particular spot on that day and time.
Both new bird hunters and veterans may benefit from applying a little natural history and biology on their next bird hunt. Here are a few tips.
Identify the needs of the birds
Wild animals need four things to survive: food, water, shelter, and adequate space. I’ll use that covey of bobwhites and my mental notes to elaborate.
Food: The covey flushed on the edge of a soybean field adjacent to a corridor of native grass. The diverse array of grass and forb seeds plus the waste soybeans was more than adequate to fulfill their food needs.
Water: In this case, water served as a barrier instead of satisfying a need. A significant rain had fallen twenty-four hours previously and this covey was located on the high side of the cover versus the lower side that was ankle deep in water.
Shelter: This covey had tall native grasses in which to hide and, when they flushed, they flew directly to a plum- and blackberry thicket less than a hundred yards away. Escape cover is another key component of bobwhite survival.
Adequate Space: This particular public hunting area plot measured more than 160 acres, most of which consisted of similar edge habitat. This space could likely hold many coveys given its size and excellent habitat.
My theory, then, was that I found this covey in this particular spot because they sought out a place to escape pooling rainwater that also contained a diversity of food plus great escape cover. I immediately began surveying the landscape for similar areas in hopes of finding other coveys.
Expand your knowledge by scouting
The internet is a great place to start a scouting venture. Apps like OnX Hunt allow hunters to start at a 30,000-foot view from which one can “read the landscape.” On the previously-mentioned quail hunt, the first thing I did prior to the hunt was fire up OnX Hunt to identify the intersection of food, water, and shelter.
I am by no means implying that digital scouting can take the place of burning boot leather. Nothing replaces boots-on-the-ground scouting. But a few minutes of digital scouting can narrow down the potential spots to find a covey of birds and save a lot of unproductive steps for both you and your bird dog.
Upland bird scouting tools
Any naturalist worth an owl’s hoot will have a pair of binoculars nearby. Prior to laying down some boot leather, pick up your binoculars for a closer look at the habitat you identified from your digital scouting trip. Gear junkies can go hog wild on binoculars, but I like to keep it simple with a quality pair of 10×42 binoculars that can be found starting around $50.
Another simple and inexpensive tool is a bobwhite quail call. Many game call companies manufacture bobwhite calls and I happen to like the Haydel’s Q-91 Call. It’s small, simple to use, and can help you to quickly locate a covey of birds. Bobwhites will whistle a covey locating call before sunrise and will often respond to the “koi lee” call during the day. Then, follow your ears!
Read the conditions
My emergency room physician brother-in-law has a philosophy about situational awareness that I often remind myself of when bird hunting: Be. Here. Now. It helps to focus one’s senses on staying in the moment and aware of current factors.
Again, on the hunt I mentioned, it had rained a solid one to two inches a couple of days prior to our hunt. The ground was soaked and puddles of water filled every low spot. Since quail don’t possess the webbed feet of ducks, I knew to focus our search for birds on higher ground. If those high areas were also in close proximity to a good source of food and shelter, then we’d be in business.
Off-season scouting can often be done while pursuing other interests such as spring turkey hunting, taking a drive through the country on a warm summer’s evening, and even while dove hunting in September.
I am always amazed how observant of wildlife I become when backed up against a tree awaiting a spring gobbler. Many times I’ve marked locations of quail whistling while trying to lure in a boss gobbler.
Sometimes in the midsummer heat, my wife and I like to take a drive in the county about an hour or so before dark. Temperatures cool down and often quail broods can be seen collecting grit on the side of the gravel roads. Again, drop a pin on your OnX Hunt app and try to secure permission from the landowner to hunt in the fall. Hint: landowners are usually more open to hunting requests during the off-season rather than 7:00am on a Saturday morning in November when they’re trying to complete their morning chores and have already received several requests for permission to hunt.
Journaling on paper or digitally
I am lucky that my wife is a journalist and writer. She has instilled in me the importance of both telling stories and recording events for posterity. Toward that end, I use what she has taught me to help me when afield.
I try to always have a small notepad and pencil nearby to jot down notes on hunts. Those notes could be as simple as temperature and wind direction or more detailed such as where, specifically, I find birds.
I admit that I am an old soul and appreciate handwritten notes in a paper journal. However, I recently discovered the invaluable OnX Hunt app and it has been a game changer. I set waypoints and later add notes as to habitat, atmospheric conditions, and bird locations.
OnX is relatively inexpensive, packed with features, and a vital tool in an upland bird hunter’s digital toolbox. Sign-up for the free seven day trial and, if you find it as valuable as I think you will, buy one of the annual plans.
The OnX Hunt app not only helps you be a better hunter, it also aids in telling your story. Believe me, your kids and grandkids will someday treasure these critical pieces of your hunting heritage. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I had even one page of notes from my grandparents’ and my dad’s quail hunting experiences during the golden age of bobwhites in Kansas in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Aldo Leopold, upland bird hunter and the father of wildlife conservation, wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?'” One of the side effects of my education as a wildlife biologist is the desire to not wander with blind ignorance when afield. It’s been said that birds are where you find them. Yes, but why are they there? Readers, your homework is to use some of these tips to answer the question of, “Why are they there?” and to unlock more of the story of the birds you love to pursue.
Brad Stefanoni grew up hunting quail and waterfowl in southeast Kansas, where for the past 20 years he’s been passing on what he learned to his wife and their two sons. His diverse background includes work as a biologist, a science education center director, an outdoor writer and a developer of public/private partnerships. With a degree in wildlife biology, Brad’s current work-in-progress is transforming his family’s 80-acre farm into a living laboratory of upland and wetland habitat. His passions include spending time with his family and black Labrador retriever pursuing waterfowl and upland birds, and fly fishing.