Quail and chukar season openers look promising -- the best in at least five years
By JIM MATTHEWS
They’re baaaaaack. For upland bird hunters who have left their shotguns idle the past two or three seasons because quail and chukar numbers have been so low, this is the year the dust can be wiped off those shotguns and actions oiled up. Upland bird numbers have recovered – dramatically so in some areas, less so in others, but better across the board throughout Southern California. However, in some areas, both quail and chukar are still going to have just fair overall numbers of birds even after excellent hatches this year. The problem for many regions is simply that bird numbers were so low, that even with good production this spring, overall numbers are still just fair. “In my surveys, there were guzzlers where there were no birds or just one or two pairs last year – it got down that low,” said David Hardt with the Taft Sportsman’s Club. Hardt, the former refuge manager at the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, has been conducting brood surveys as a volunteer for the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Temblor and Caliente mountains ranges west of Taft. “It’s amazing the effect the drought had, but it’s also amazing how well the birds can recover when conditions improve,” said Hardt. Hardt said that there was a good hatch the spring of 2016, but the number of breeding birds was so low that it merely created small coveys where there had only been little groups of two to four birds. But that production led to a more holdover birds for the 2017 production year, which was also wet. This spring’s production saw bird numbers increase significantly, but the quail population still hadn’t reached the level he is accustomed to seeing in the area. “It’s a better year, better than the last four or five years. If we could get a wet year this year, we’d be crawling with birds again,” said Hardt. The Temblor and Caliente region had the worst-case scenario for the 2017 Southern California season, while the region with the brightest prospects is the vast eastern Mojave Desert, especially the Mojave National Preserve. Cliff McDonald, the founder and ramrod behind Water for Wildlife, the group that restores guzzlers and springs for wildlife in the East Mojave, said that on the youth quail hunt Oct. 14 “we jumped 150 or more quail where I hadn’t seen any in the past two years.” He added that they saw birds in almost every spot they checked in the Mid Hills and New York Mountains. Todd Siron, an avid Las Vegas bird hunter and new Western Birds subscriber, said he’s been scouting the Preserve all summer, and reported that on one trip he saw 17 coveys of Gambel’s quail and 600-plus quail overall. “I went a few more times three or four weeks ago and saw a lot of birds. It looks like there were two or three hatches this year, and all of the coveys had 50 birds or so,” said Siron. Most other places across Southern California are in between these two extremes. The further north and east you go from major urban areas in Southern California, the better the conditions were for nesting this spring and the better the bird numbers. Here’s a region-by-region update from actual eyes-on-the-ground reports: SIERRA, WHITE, AND INYO MOUNTAINS: The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, along with the Inyo and White mountain ranges on the east side of the Owens Valley, all had much better quail and chukar production the spring of 2017 and bird numbers have recovered so that overall numbers are fair to good. Some of the dryer mountain ranges didn’t get as much moisture, but overall the prospects look good. In the south end of the Sierra, all of the major drainages on the west side of Highway 14 from Red Rock Canyon State Park (closed to hunting) north past this Highway’s junction with Highway 395 had good production and enough holdover birds from last year to look pretty good again. Chukar numbers have rebounded, but were so low that flocks are widely dispersed. Valley quail numbers look good in most canyons, but still well below the peak numbers in 2010. The White Mountains look particularly good for chukar this year, while the more southerly Inyo Mountains will probably be just fair with more widely scattered groups of chukar. RED MOUNTAIN REGION: The Rand and El Paso Mountain ranges and other desert mountains in this area – collectively known as the Red Mountain region – is chukar central for Southern California hunters, and the numbers of these big gamebirds have recovered from the dramatic lows of the past three seasons. They are still well below the peak numbers during 2010, but it could be considered a more normal year in this area and hunting should be pretty fair. Quail numbers in this region still are very low and recovering slowly. EAST MOJAVE DESERT: The mid- to upper-elevations of the Mojave Preserve had excellent bird production and good holdover bird numbers from last year, and the result is a bumper-crop of Gambel’s quail and almost-as-good chukar production and numbers. All of the mountains ranges in the Preserve will have good to excellent hunting this year with especially good reports from the Mid Hills, New York, Castle, Woods, Providence, Ivanpah, and Piute mountain ranges. The Hackberry Mountains look very good for quail and chukar, and the Clarks and Kingston ranges have good chukar numbers again in addition to strong Gambel’s quail populations. South of Interstate 40, the Old Woman Mountains and Sacramento Mountains didn’t have quite as wet conditions, but good enough to improve bird numbers significantly from the past few seasons and the hunting should be fair to good in this area. COLORADO RIVER CORRIDOR: Quail numbers are nearly as good as in the East Mojave along the whole Colorado River corridor from Bullhead City south to Yuma. Gambel’s quail numbers have really rebounded and there have been a lot of reports of double hatches this season and large coveys. The best numbers will be on public lands adjacent to irrigated agriculture and within two or three miles of permanent water sources where bird have access to water. Quail numbers around all of the guzzlers and springs in the desert have also jumped dramatically throughout this region. WEST MOJAVE: The drought subsided in the cluster of mountain ranges in the Barstow to Lucerne Valley to Pinon Hills, collectively called the West Mojave. However, chukar numbers were so low that the rebound was modest, at best, in this area. “Bleak,” said bird hunting guide Harold Horner. “There’s birds again, but I’m not hunting this region this year.” The members of the High Desert Quail Forever chapter in this region said they have hauled nearly 20,000 gallons of water to area guzzlers this year to make sure the systems were all full, and Frank Rorabaugh said they tallied a total of about 500 chukar in their surveys and during water-hauling, which he called “the most in the last couple of years” but still pretty dismal overall. “On guzzler A-18 where we saw hundreds of chukar in the past, we didn’t see a single bird this year,” said Rorabaugh. “I think we’re seeing progress with the birds. The guzzlers are not all of it [the solution], but it’s a part of it. If we have a couple of more good winters and get the grasses and forbs, we’ll get there,” said Rorabaugh, noting that the QF Chapter has restored nearly all of the guzzlers in this region to full operation. Most were damaged and dry just a decade ago. Hunters are reminded that a lot of parallel routes and spur roads have been closed by the Bureau of Land Management this summer, so four-wheel drive roads they may have driven in the past may have “closed” signs. ANTELOPE VALLEY: While most of this region is private property with increasing numbers of “No Trespassing” signs and development, a lot of the open land remains un-posted and open to hunting. The southern portions of the valley along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and up into the public Angeles National Forest saw very good production this year. One hunter described the area as “three times better than last year,” and that seems to be the consensus where fair to good hunting is likely for the valley quail. CARRIZO PLAIN REGION: The quail numbers in the Temblor and Caliente mountain ranges have recovered from extremely low numbers, but they are still just fair in these two mountain ranges that border the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Coveys will be small and scattered this year. Hunting will be slow to fair. However, the further west you go toward the coast and the higher in elevation you go to the south, the better the conditions and production. The south west end of the Caliente mountains and south of Highway 166 into Los Padres National Forest will be better, but still just fair.
VENTURA-SANTA BARBARA REGION: The canyons in the Los Padres National Forest from Frazier Park west to Highway 33 and all the way to the coast should be fair to good this year with better numbers of holdover birds from last year’s production and good production this year. Much of the best hunting will be in the canyons on forest lands on both the east and west sides of Highway 33 north of its junction with Lockwood Valley Road. YUCCA VALLEY TO INDIO REGION: The desert and foothill canyons on east side of the San Bernardino Mountains and both north and south of Joshua Tree National Park have experienced better production this year with both valley and Gambel’s quail numbers recovering from very low levels on public lands, but overall numbers are still fair in this area. IMPERIAL VALLEY-SALTON SEA REGION: The desert mountain ranges east of the Salton Sea have seen good hatches this year, but bird numbers are still recovering and hunting will just be fair. However, the further south and east you go in this region, the better the conditions and bird numbers. In the eastern Imperial Valley deserts, this is the second good bird year in the row and Gambel’s quail numbers are higher than they’ve been in over 10 years, and hunting should be pretty decent on the desert side of the East Highline Canal. SAN DIEGO REGION: Quail numbers have rebounded throughout the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego County, but overall numbers are still just fair. The BLM lands in the eastern side of the county are a little better, but not much. Most of this region is dense brush, and the best hunting is on the edges of recent burn areas or more arid desert sides of the ranges where the cover is less thick. SAN BERNARDINO-RIVERSIDE REGION: The small pockets of huntable public land on the edges of the urban areas of western Riverside and San Bernardino counties look fair to good for hunters this season. Production was good inside the intercoastal mountain ranges, and the foothills of the San Gabriels, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains have good numbers of valley quail this year. Most of the country is chaparral which is difficult hunting unless you can find birds in recent burns. REGULATIONS TO REMEMBER: Hunters are reminded that non-lead ammunition is required for hunting chukar again this season as the state phases in its statewide lead ammunition ban by 2019. Hunters can still use lead ammunition for quail this year. You are not allowed to have lead in your possession in the field when hunting chukar. The quail and chukar season runs from Saturday, Oct. 21 through Sunday, Jan. 28. The limit is 10 quail per day with no more than 30 in possession after the third day of the season. The chukar limit is six per day with no more than 18 in possession after the third day of the season. FINAL NOTE: Hunters are encouraged to send their hunting reports and photos from this year’s opener to Jim Matthews at email@example.com. I will be doing a detailed follow-up e-mail report to Western Birds subscribers and general stories for Western Outdoor News, this website, and a number of local newspapers.
[This special upland bird season forecast is from Western Birds, for a printable PDF of this issue of the newsletter, click HERE.]