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Quail: Winter Habitat Conditions Report

Two factors are of critical importance to maintaining healthy quail populations: weather and available habitat. While these elements affect all quail species year-round, they’re highlighted every year as the harshest season comes to an end and the birds begin their next reproductive cycle. The following report examines these factors in various regions across quail country*.

*Additional state reports may be added as they become available.

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Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Alabama

While the harvest data for the 2011/12 season has not been determined at this time, reports from hunters from within areas containing Longleaf Pine Restoration were quite positive this year, notes Carrie Threadgill, wildlife biologist for Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Populations on public lands that are being managed for quail looked good, continued Threadgill, with “more coveys seen this year by area managers than previous years on several of (the Department’s) management areas.”

Winter has had its ups and downs in the Heart of Dixie, staying somewhat mild with week long periods of wintery weather interspersed.  In the last few months, rain events have increased enough that there are only a few southeastern counties in Alabama that are still seeing slight drought conditions.

Field Notes: Alabama is continuing to survey for quail and other bird species on Barbour Wildlife Management Area and is expanding to several other management areas in an ongoing bird monitoring project of longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, and native warm season grass restoration areas on public lands.

Arkansas

Severe drought and heat during most of the warmer months of 2012 likely caused a downturn in quail survival heading into the winter of 2012/13. However, “The Land of Opportunity” experienced a generally mild winter (with the exception for an unusual snow event in central Arkansas), which could lead to positive overwinter survival.

According to Clifton Jackson, “Current habitat conditions are growing increasingly favorable as the state is getting rain to rechange rivers, lakes and ponds. There have been several good days to execute prescribed fires February through March.” In addition, efforts to enhance quail habitat on several WMAs are progressing, and the state’s “Acres for Wildlife Program” is adding funding opportuntiies for additional quail friendly land practices.

Colorado

Quail populations were average to below average across Colorado prior to the onset of winter, but fortunately for the state there haven’t been winter storms that would result in high quail mortality across the quail range, according to Ed Gorman of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Winter moisture, or lack thereof, could have an effect of quail populations heading into the breeding season. Without significant moisture this spring, quail nesting and brooding habitat will be reduced in both quality and quantity. Current habitat conditions are relatively poor across the range due to last summer’s drought.

Florida

“Nesting began early in 2012 and weather conditions were favorable during much of the nesting season, except in a few areas that received high amounts of rainfall from tropical systems. These factors, combined with quality habitat management and good adult survival, resulted in higher populations across the state heading into winter,” says Greg Hagan, northern bobwhite coordinator and upland ecosystem restoration project director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Winter weather (December and January) was warmer than average across the state. The benefit of this unseasonably warm winter has led to above average overwinter survival. Lower mortality and favorable habitat conditions should lead to good carry-over of birds, positioning the state well for the spring and summer nesting season.

The Upland Ecosystem Restoration Project (UERP), a multi-agency cooperative effort to increase populations of Northern bobwhites and other declining fire-dependent wildlife species on public lands throughout Florida, continues to enhance habitat conditions on roughly 100,000 acres of early successional habitat.

Currently, favorable habitat conditions exist across the state; however, there are significant uncertainties in the long-term weather forecast. If periods of drought occur across the state, it will impact habitat management activities such as prescribed burning. In Florida, prescribed fire is the key to quality quail habitat, including good summer brood habitat.

Georgia

Transitioning into the winter of 2012/13, Georgia’s weather was mild during fall to early winter with abundant rain, which should mean a good carryover of birds into the spring breeding season, this according to Reggie Thackston, program manager for Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Habitat conditions are good across well-managed lands and landscapes, and with Georgia Wildlife Resources Division in the process of finalizing and releasing the state’s National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Implementation Plan, Georgia hunters have a more than one reason to keep the dogs ready and shotguns oiled. The plan will target effort and funding into spatially explicit landscapes identified to have the highest potential and lowest constraints to restoration and management.

Illinois

In 2012, Illinois had good nesting conditions early but those gains were  erased by the severe drought conditions in the quail range, notes Mike Wefer, field operations section head/acting ag and grassland wildlife program manager. “For the core winter months of December, January, and February, the statewide temperature was 31.8 degrees, which was 2.8 degrees above average. The statewide average precipitation was 9.1 inches, 2.2 inches above average. It was the 11th wettest winter on record for Illinois. Snowfall for those three months ranged from less than 10 inches in east-central Illinois to over 20 inches in parts of far western and northern Illinois, as well as in a band across southern Illinois.”

Besides an early snowstorm in southern Illinois which likely had a negative effect on quail populations, the winter has been fairly mild for bobs.

Current habitat conditions can be summed up with one word: shrinking. “High farm commodity prices have led to loss of grassland habitat in Illinois. Illinois experienced a net loss of 33, 899 CRP acres last year. An additional 186,549.9 acres of CRP is due to expire at the end of September. It is uncertain how many acres will be reenrolled. Also, there has been a long term loss of hay and small grains throughout the state,” continued Wefer.

Field notes: Illinois has additional CRPSAFE/Grassland Wildlife Focus Area acreage that will be available for signup when SAFE reopens this year.

Indiana

The non-winter of 2011/12 help a bit to stabilize and, in some areas, raise local quail populations in Indiana. However, populations in the state were near record lows, but stable, heading into the winter of 2012/13.

“I think this winter (2012/13) may help the quail populations in some areas, but continued loss of habitat has essentially negated much of the benefits of a milder winter. (The state) continues to lose habitat, particularly linear features, in both areas where populations are higher and stable, and of more concern, in areas of the state where few quail remain. Mild winters and drier conditions seem to speed the habitat loss, as landowners have more time and quality conditions to manipulate their land,” notes Budd Veverka, farmland game research biologist for the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Indiana’s properties and game bird areas have been made a focus of an early successional habitat initiative where managers are changing the landscape to focus more on producing quality game bird habitat

Iowa

After a series of hard winters, it seems Iowa caught a much needed reprieve in weather for at least part of the year. Quail roadside counts were the highest since 2009, and with the exception of the south-central region, the statewide snowfall has been around average.

Looking at past data with similar winters, Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist with the Iowa DNR, notes about half previous spring counts have increased, while the other half of counts have decreased. A lot of this may be riding on spring nesting conditions.

The south-central region of Iowa has received the most snowfall in the quail range, and it’s where Bogenschutz expects the winter to have the most impact. The east-central and southeast region seem to have had the easiest conditions thus far, so keep an eye on these regions as trip ideas start to formulate.

Like many other traditional quail states, Iowa is participating in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, ramping up the state’s habitat efforts on several public wildlife efforts. In addition, the state has also partnered with local PF/QF chapters to enhance management on the state’s wildlife areas.

Field Note: Iowa currently has approximately 10,000 acres of CP33 buffers it could enroll for quail.

Kansas

Two years of severe drought in the central and western half of Kansas were a detriment to many upland species; however, preliminary info shows a statewide harvest likely between 200,000 to 250,000 bobwhite quail, keeping Kansas as one of the top producing quail states.

“The quail populations were spotty at best across the central portions of the state. Some areas of eastern and north eastern Kansas had increased populations following some very low years,” according to David Dahlgren, small game specialist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“The winter has been very mild until late February, when severe winter storms affected most of Kansas. The winter storms with lots of snow cover that lasted multiple days could have negatively impacted quail, thus reducing breeding populations for 2013; however, the magnitude of this effect is unknown,” continued Dahlgren.

Field Notes: The state’s Quail Initiative and Focus Areas are ongoing, and will continue to be monitored those area again this spring. These are at minimum of five year projects, and the state is just entering its second year.

Kentucky

Ben Robinson, wildlife biologist-small game program with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, predicts the breeding season in far western Kentucky was not as good as the central and eastern parts of the state because of drought conditions, which likely meant fewer birds available heading into winter months.

Kentucky has experienced a relatively mild 2012/13 winter, and while the state has had periods of cold temperatures, snowfall accumulations have been low and the snow that has fallen has not stayed on the ground for long periods of time.

This is the second year in a row that Kentucky has experienced relatively mild winters, so Robinson anticipates a good carry-over of birds heading into the breeding season.

Unfortunately, the current habitat situation in Kentucky is similar to other states. High commodity prices make conservation delivery difficult. The state is making progress in several of its Quail Focus Areas, and birds are responding positively as a result.

Louisiana

Louisiana’s quail population has trended downward for several years, and no change in this trend was detected in the fall whistle surveys, according to Jimmy Swafford, small game & turkey program leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

Habitat conditions remain generally poor across the state; however, the Department is in the planning state for a Quail Emphasis Area on Kisatchie National Forest.

Mississippi

Although populations were not very abundant at the statewide level, it is believed populations were relatively good where suitable, quality and quantity of habitat was available due to the previously mild winter, early spring and good to very good summer breeding season conditions.

Winter weather was mild through early winter, and the state had a relatively wet winter and early spring, especially in the northern part of the state. The later part of winter was colder, and thus the early spring period has remained cool.

Winters are generally mild compared to northern states, but the lingering cool weather could somewhat delay the start of the breeding season compared to last year. Lingering cold weather in the northern United States could also keep more migratory raptors (hawks, etc.) in Mississippi region as they are migrating north, which could slightly increase incidence of raptor predation on quail in the early spring, according to Rick Hamrick, small game biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Field Notes: This year, Mississippi will implement a State Wildlife grant for Blackland Prairie habitat restoration. In addition, the Fire on the Forty Initiative, which was started in 2011, allocated all of its 2012 funding for prescribed burning on private lands in priority counties in south and northeast Mississippi. Roughly 25,000 acres of prescribed burning were funded for these first program years. Other conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, continue to be used in accomplishing habitat objectives when available.

Quail populations will generally not be sufficiently abundant for hunting in most areas with a few localized exceptions, but there is still much potential for quail habitat improvement throughout the state. Habitat improvements are showing benefits in some areas, and we continue to try to increase landscape-level habitat in areas where multiple habitat management projects have potential to be tied together.

Missouri

Missouri’s August Roadside Surveys showed half of the state’s regions were higher than the previous year, and the other half of them were lower, so it was a mixed bag statewide, according to Beth Emmerich, agricultural wildlife ecologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The state had a fairly mild winter with little snowfall, until mid-February. Two major snowstorms hit Missouri within a five day period. The first on 2/21 dropped 5-12 inches over the state, with the heaviest snows at 10 inches or more occurring along a 60-mile wide band along I-70 from Kansas City to Columbia. The second storm hit late on 2/25 and 2/26, dropping 5-10 inches, with North Missouri getting 12-plus inches. Following these two storms, temperatures stayed below freezing, leaving snow on the ground several inches deep for up to two weeks.

Emmerich continued, noting late winter snows can be very detrimental to quail, especially when the snow cover lasts for more than one week. Late February and early March are tough times for all species to find food, especially quail. Last year’s drought coupled with these snowfall events result in little food available for quail.

Nebraska

Fall surveys indicated populations lower than the previous year in the eastern third of Nebraska, probably the result of poor production due to statewide, exceptional drought conditions. Nebraska has experienced a number of heavy snow-fall events, but these were typically followed by warm periods and melt-offs, leading to a mixed winter for the Cornhusker state.

Over-winter survival should be good, in areas where sufficient cover is available. Habitat conditions across the state can be considered fair to poor, as all Nebraska counties were opened to emergency haying and grazing of CRP due to the drought emergency, reducing grassland habitat available for wintering and nesting, this according to Dr. Jeff Lusk, upland game program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

North Carolina

The quail population heading into the winter of 2012/13 was similar to last year and a normal winter  should not have a notable impact on quail heading into the spring breeding season, notes Mark Jones, supervising wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Field Notes: The Corporate CURE Project has shown positive results. One of the main goals of this project is to show that viable working farms can be very productive and provide small game habitat while also protecting and/or improving water quality. This goal is accomplished by creating field borders around row crops and pasture land. Most of these naturally vegetated borders are along ditches or woodland habitat and can trap sediment, absorb herbicides, and uptake nutrients.

Oklahoma

While populations have been declining, especially due to the extreme droughts of 2011 and 2012, the fall and winter trapping suggested some hens were able to take advantage of late rainfall events and produced late broods.

Winter weather has been mild overall, with the exception of two major winter storms which occurred in February and may have impacted local populations. With mild winter weather, it’s expected quail will have relatively good overwinter carryover into spring breeding season.

Field Notes: Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Commission has partnered with Oklahoma State University to conduct research on two Wildlife Management Unites, Beaver River and Packsaddle WMA’s. In addition to several other projects, researchers will be looking at weather and its impacts to quail and quail habitat. In addition, a quail habitat restoration initiative is available to select counties within Oklahoma. Please contact the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Commission for further details.

Oregon

Much of Oregon encountered above average precipitation during autumn, but below average precipitation during February, with no abnormally long or unusually cold weather events. At the beginning of March, snow pack was at, or slightly below, average for most of the state. Dave Budeau, upland game bird coordinator with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, predicts quail reproductive success will be contingent on amount and timing of spring precipitation.

Oregon reported 42,781 California quail; 13,514 Mountain quail; and 30,336 pheasants harvested during the 2012/13 hunting season.

South Carolina

Unlike states further north, winter mortality from weather conditions is not a big issue in South Carolina. Winter rains following several years of drought could lead to good soil moisture conditions heading into spring, which may result in improved nesting and brood habitat conditions, according to Billy Dukes, small game project supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Winter cover has held up well, due to the mild conditions and no frozen precipitation; however land managers interested in managing for quail should pay close attention to size of burn blocks during prescribed burning operations and make sure to leave adequate escape cover.

Utah

According to Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah experienced average snowfall in the winter of 2012/13, but with colder temperatures and more persistent snow in the valleys – where Utah quail live there is a chance these weather patterns will have an effect on quail populations. This snow will affect California quail populations in huntable areas the most, while the Gambel’s quail in southern Utah should have high overwinter survival.

Habitat conditions in the state are good, with no valley snow and good mountain snow to help through the spring and summer.

Virginia

While the 2012/13 quail harvest is yet to be determined, Marc Puckett of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, does not expect much change from the 2011/12 season. There are pockets where a modest recovery is being seen, but very isolated geographically.

Puckett went on to note that the state had a relatively good hatch based on weather conditions, and a mild 2011/12 winter, leading to a good breeding population last summer. As winter set in, weather started off mild and stayed mild through mid-January, but since then, the state has had a moderate winter. Most recently a heavy snowfall occurred in the northern part of the state, but the weather turned warm shortly after and conditions quickly improved. Puckett does not believe the winter has been severe enough to impact quail numbers, and “unless we see something unexpected in early spring, I think the winter moisture is actually setting us up for a good breeding season.”

Virginia remains committed to long-term quail restoration. There has never been a time in history when more is being done for bobwhites than now. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is helping bring together all entities interested in early-successional habitat. Thickets, weeds, and native grasses equal wildlife and healthy ecosystems, not just for quail but for songbirds, pollinating insects and people.

Field Notes: Virginia’s quail plan is ongoing, and the state has five private lands wildlife biologists on staff and continue to fund the states quail recovery initiative. This winter, the state began a cooperative forestry related wildlife BMP program with the Virginia Department of Forestry. Read the story on the NBCI website.

Texas

The majority of areas typically hunted in Texas were below average in regard to quail numbers, still suffering from the effects of long-term drought. South Texas has experienced a relatively dry winter while north Texas has received some relief from drought in the form of both snow and precipitation.

Lack of moisture in south Texas may delay nest initiation, but birds there are very opportunistic and can take advantage of spring-summer rainfall anytime it occurs. The northern Rolling Plains (panhandle) will likely have some production especially if more precipitation is received. The southern Rolling Plains did not receive as much winter precipitation and nest initiation will likely be delayed.

Unfortunately, nesting cover is less than adequate over much of the core bobwhite range and spring rains are needed to produce cover and insects, according to Robert Perez, quail program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has begun development of three focus areas where resources, partnerships and monitoring are intensified in the hopes of eliciting a bobwhite population response. This approach is in line with protocols developed at the national level by the National Bobwhite Technical Committee as part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

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Field Notes are compiled by Rehan Nana, Quail Forever’s Public Relations Specialist. Email Rehan at RNana@quailforever.org and follow him on Twitter @RehanNanaQF.

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