It takes a team to find North America’s most prized quail species the Montezuma quail
The upland scene has recently seen many first-time Mearns’ quail hunters. My hunting buddy, Kyle Hedges, and I are no exception. Mearns’ quail are the ultimate bucket list quail species in the United States. They are rivaled, perhaps, only by the mountain quail. In the age of social media, many hunters have discovered this dynamic little bird with males so beautifully colored they almost don’t seem real. Their beauty, coupled with their gorgeous oak-juniper savanna habitat, means Mearns’ quail have gotten lots of attention lately.
After a few years of heavy consideration, we decided December 2022 was our time to hunt them. We paired our Mearns’ quail pursuit with an already-scheduled Utah chukar hunt. If we were already going to be that far west, it’d be easy to pop down to Arizona for a few days. Southern Arizona’s abundant summer monsoon season meant the potential for good reproductive success for Mearns’ was high; that possibility sealed the deal.
Kyle and I wanted to hunt Mearns’ quail long before it was fashionable. However, work, family obligations, and the relative scarcity of Mearn’s quail hunting information prevented us from pulling the proverbial trigger. Anyone hunting a new species in a foreign landscape needs a helping hand if they expect success, especially if that species lives 1,200 miles from home and occupies a particular set of habitat conditions. Fortunately, much has been written about Mearns’ quail hunting in the last decade, and our jobs as bobwhite biologists allow us to meet folks that have hunted Mearns’ quail. Chatting with an experienced Mearns’ quail hunter gave us some valuable information during this hunt.
Locating Mearns’ Quail Habitat in Arizona
After a good chukar hunt, we made our way south to Mearns’ country only to wake up to a steady rain predicted to last until early afternoon. Hunting that morning was out of the question, so we road-scouted and tried to get the lay of the land. Perhaps we’d locate a spot for a quick hunt if the rain let up.
Mearns’ habitat is easy to spot, but not all of it is easy to access if the roads are muddy. After it quit raining and dried some that afternoon, we picked a canyon we could drive to that perfectly matched the description of Mearns’ habitat based on our research, discussions with biologists, and viewing countless internet videos. However, even though we were less than two weeks into the season, several other hunters also thought this canyon looked perfect. Campsites and fire rings were scattered everywhere, as were the tell-tale tracks of off-road utility vehicles going hither and yon. We did see birds there, though; two separate Mearns’ that flushed as wildly as a late-season ringneck.
Meeting Generous Fellow Bird Hunters
Now and then, serendipity strikes, giving one some sorely needed help on a challenging hunt. After spending supper pouring over maps, trying to hype ourselves up by believing that tomorrow would be better, we ran into Ross. He was an older gentleman at the door of our hotel who immediately recognized us as bird hunters. Having just arrived, Ross asked us how we’d done, curious as to how the hunting might have been. We told him our story and asked if he had any ideas. This was Ross’s 30th year hunting Mearns’ quail, and we hoped he could give us a general direction in which to look. With a gleam in his eye, Ross did us one better.
“You boys got a Gazetteer?” He said. Luckily, we are old school and had one stuffed under the truck seat. At a small table in the lobby, Ross marked several locations where he’d found birds. He told us about one spot in which he’d found four coveys some years back; he suggested we start there.
“We only have one or two days to hunt,” Kyle said. We explained that we only wanted to kill a few birds a piece and that we had no intention of hunting anywhere he was planning to go. Unbothered, he drew more small circles on the Gazetteer and said, “Try here. If that doesn’t work, try over there.” We thanked him profusely. Ross told us to give him a call after the hunt to let him know how we did.
Handling interactions like the one above can be tricky. It’s wise to ask fellow hunters for advice on where to start. One could also ask about the type of habitat conditions the birds prefer, like whether Mearns’ prefer the tops or bottoms of draws, for example. Asking for coordinates or specific public wildlife areas is poor form. Now, if someone is willing to give you that level of detailed information on their own, as Ross did, that’s a different story. Even then, it’s good policy to hunt it once, move on, and certainly avoid sharing that location with others.
Finding Arizona Mearns’ Quail
Dawn arrived the following day with four inches of heavy, wet snow. That threw a wrinkle into an already uncertain hunt. We suspected the birds wouldn’t move from their night roost for a few hours after a nighttime snowfall. That has been our experience with bobwhites. The soggy slush might limit our dogs’ abilities to find quail. No matter; we had to hunt in the conditions we were dealt.
We headed to the spot that Ross said we should try first. It was indeed fine-looking habitat, but it was close to a well-maintained road. We had some trepidation concerning previous hunting pressure. An hour into the hunt, the beeper collar on my dog, Sage, indicated she was on point; Kyle and I headed in that direction. Soon, we found her pointing at the base of a squat oak tree at the bottom of a slope. We moved into position, ready for the imminent covey rise. However, the birds wouldn’t flush, and Kyle and I couldn’t move from the only shooting lanes we had out of fear we might miss our only opportunity. I encouraged Sage to flush the birds, but she remained motionless. Kyle’s dog also wouldn’t release, but he was doing a solid job backing Sage.
Just as I was going to sling a stick into the tree, the covey exploded. Kyle and I killed three birds on the rise. After a couple of retrieves, North America’s most prized quail was finally in our hands. We exchanged fist bumps in celebration.
We searched for the final downed bird, which proved difficult due to a poor mark on my part. While we scoured the ground, commanding the dogs to hunt dead, one of our dogs bumped another covey of birds about 50 yards down the draw. One bird flew back over us, and Kyle made a fine shot as it buzzed overhead. We finally recovered the bird that I had poorly marked and were able to take one more bird from the combined two coveys soon after. We hunted another two hours before Sage pinned a third covey, still buried in their night roost. I had the only shot on the covey rise and harvested a juvenile male.
After Sage retrieved the sixth bird, we finished the walk and headed back to the truck. It was nearly noon, and we discussed our plans for the rest of the afternoon. We still had a desert quail hunt planned a couple of hours away, and the morning Mearns’ hunt had exceeded all our expectations. Leaving the high mountain savannas, we headed towards the desert, promising to be back soon with more time to hunt and study the well-worn Gazetteer.
The bird hunting community is small relative to other hunting groups. But what we lack in size, we make up for in generosity. Bird hunters know how difficult it is to get started in the sport or to find birds when populations are in a funk. That may be why many of us are willing to provide helpful advice when others are struggling.
We met just such a man in a small town in Arizona. A chance encounter led to a successful harvest and a new friend. Kyle and I called Ross after our Mearns’ hunt and told him all about it. He was ecstatic, happier to hear of our success than his own. Ross, thank you for making our day. The next steak is on us!
Frank Loncarich has been a wildlife biologist for over 20 years, specializing in bobwhite and grassland management. He is also a Habitat Consultant for Land and Legacy.