Hunting season opener for quail and chukar is affirming poor forecast
By JIM MATTHEWS
This was supposed to be an El Niño year, a year when we have great hatches of quail and chukar in our local deserts and mountains, a year when we shoot lots of young, dumb birds.
It’s not turning out that way.
In spite of those great expectations, the El Niño fizzled across most of Southern California. While there was increased rainfall, it certainly wasn’t above normal in most places, and bird production was below normal nearly everywhere. To make matters worse, this is the fourth year in a row of poor production.
But not all is doom and gloom. There are some bright spots in the southern half of the state. The forecast was for better quail hunting along the Colorado River, especially on the Arizona side, and in the eastern Mojave, especially the higher elevations on the Mojave National Preserve. The foothills of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges had poor to fair production on valley quail, but numbers are still low and coveys small.
Chukar numbers are at bottom-of-the-barrel numbers just about everywhere, but numbers are particularly low in the west Mojave mountain ranges. Quail Unlimited volunteers with the High Desert Chapter counted very few birds overall in their early summer surveys, and even fewer young-of-the-year birds. From Opal Mountain north of Hinkley south through the Ords and throughout the Apple Valley to Lucerne region, there are only a handful of holdover chukar.
Field reports have confirmed that gloomy forecast.
Herman Radke of Claremont hunted the foothills on the north side of the San Bernardino Mountains and found a couple of small coveys of valley quail and managed to get two birds for a hard day of hunting.
In the Cajon Pass area, Scott Biegel of Corona found a covey of birds and managed to get five quail before 10:30 a.m.
But that was about as good as it got. Four different chukar hunters, two hunting in the Red Mountain region and two in the Ord Mountains south of Barstow reported not bagging a single bird. All four hunters did report seeing or hearing chukar but not being able to get close enough to get a shot.
Along the Colorado River, bird hunters reported seeing a decent number of birds south of Blythe near Walter’s Camp, but coveys of Gambel’s quail were still under 20 or 25 birds.
One hunter in the Mojave National Preserve reported seeing over 100 Gambel’s quail the day before the opener, but he hadn’t reported back in by late Saturday afternoon.
The bird drought really covered all of Southern California. Shaun Richardson of Santee wrote that he “covered a lot of miles this morning here in San Diego County, no birds were seen and no calls heard in a location that typically produces.”
Here’s the forecast for the rest of the season by species:
CHUKAR: Again this year, the most popular hunting areas for chukar look grim.
The Red Mountain region -- which includes the Rand and El Paso mountain ranges south of Inyokern and Ridgecrest, along with the southern Sierra Nevada south of Olancha -- looks poor with low production and low numbers of holdover birds. There was better production than last year, but holdover numbers were so low that total numbers are probably not any better than last season. It is going to be tough in this part of the desert.
This same report can be repeated for the bulk of the west Mojave region. The vast triangle-shaped area from the Black Mountains and Opal Mountain on the north then south to the foothills of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains ranges also looks poor. There were some pockets of rain that fell in higher elevations of the Ord Mountains that greened up the desert here a little more than other areas, but overall it still looks pretty poor.
Like last year, the only place that seemed to have decent production on chukar was in the far eastern portion of San Bernardino County in the higher elevation desert mountains on the Mojave National Preserve. This is the second year in a row this area had a decent number of holdover birds and decent production. It’s not a bumper-crop year, but bird numbers should be equal to last year or a little better.
Top spots include the Hackberry Mountains, located north of Goffs off Lanfair Road, along with Wildhorse Canyon and Columbia Mountain, which are near Hole-In-The-Wall campground. The same can be said of the New York Mountains, the Ivanpah Mountains (on the south side of Interstate 15 at Mountain Pass), and the Clark Mountains on the north side of I-15 also continue to have decent number of chukar, but in widely scattered groupings.
VALLEY QUAIL: While the news is not as bad as last year, valley quail numbers are still low in most areas. Because of low holdover bird numbers, even areas with moderate production still have overall numbers that are below average. Overall, valley quail numbers will be on par with last year or a little better.
Throughout all of the intercoastal mountain ranges -- from the southern portions of the Los Padres National Forest, across the Angeles National Forest, and then through the San Bernardino National Forest and into the Cleveland forest in San Diego County -- bird production was low to fair. In areas with influence from coastal moisture, the production was a little better. In ranges that abut interior valleys or desert, the production was poorer because there was less moisture and green-up for nesting birds.
Coveys of birds throughout this region will be small, usually less than 15 birds. Hunters will find the best coveys at the upper elevations of valley quail habitat in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges. The San Jacinto Mountains also had decent brood numbers that maintained covey sizes, and the Santa Ana Mountains also had fair production and should have some very huntable coveys.
The Ventura and Santa Barbara regions were again dry and production low. The Carrizo Region (Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges) looks very poor again with dismal production. Most of San Diego County also had poor production and valley quail numbers are low again throughout the county.
The west Mojave desert continues to have few quail outside of residential areas in Victorville and Apple Valley due to very dry conditions.
To the north, the Owens Valley had fair production, and the further north you travel, the better the production. From Big Pine north, quail numbers actually look pretty decent, with 15 to 25 bird coveys pretty common in the Owens valley and foothills of the Sierra and White mountain ranges.
GAMBEL’S QUAIL: For the second year in a row, Gambel’s quail numbers have improved in two regions of Southern California. In the eastern Mojave Desert’s higher elevations and along the Colorado River. Like last year, these are the two bright spots in the upland bird forecast.
The best hunting in the Mojave will be on Mojave National Preserve lands above 2,500 feet in elevation in the foothills and canyons of the Providence, Mid-Hills, and New York mountain ranges. The east side of the Clark Mountains and some areas on the north side of the Mescal Range also look pretty good, but the lower elevation flatlands -- that can be so darn good some years -- have fewer birds and much smaller coveys than the higher elevations.
With no fall rains in the desert yet, the birds will still be concentrated around water sources until rain allows them to disperse.
Along the Colorado River, especially near agricultural lands and adjacent to the river itself, bird numbers continue to recover from a very low population ebb, and hunters will find fair to good numbers of Gambel’s quail all along the California stretch of the river.
The desert lands away from the river or agriculture are also seeing increases in quail numbers, but not in the same magnitudes as birds with ready access to water and green feed.
MOUNTAIN QUAIL: Mountain quail have fared much better than birds living in the foothills and deserts. There was much better moisture in our local mountains this winter and spring than lower elevations, and the southern Sierra Nevada also had enough rain for mountain quail to produce normal or increased broods. In a nutshell, populations of these birds have increased slightly throughout their range.
There have been increases in the number of birds in the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Santa Ana mountain ranges, and most of the higher ranges in San Diego County. In the southern Sierra, mountain quail numbers are up from last year, but still slightly depressed from population highs of a few years ago. Early season hunters in the Sierra have reported generally fair to good numbers of birds this year -- a vast improvement over that past couple of seasons.
[NOTE: Hunters are encourage to report their success or lack-of-success to Jim Matthews by phone at 909-887-3444 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org for a more comprehensive opening week report next Sunday.]
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.]