Texas quail ride rain-fueled roller coaster
Two years after quail populations in Texas’ premier quail regions hit peaks not seen in a generation, abundance of the iconic, ground-nesting game birds in some of those areas has slipped as the birds feel the effects of weather-related changes to the landscape on which they depend.
After three consecutive years of outstanding habitat conditions produced by wet and mild winters and springs that had quail numbers in 2016 soar to record-setting levels in the Rolling Plains and near records in South Texas, an “average” 2017 followed by an extremely dry winter and spring this year resulted in population declines in both of these premier quail regions.
Some hope on horizon
But the last month or so has provided a bit of potentially good news for some of the birds and the tens of thousands of Texas wingshooters who pursue them. Rain that fell in June and early July — enough in some places to transform what had been a landscape that had turned increasingly unfriendly to quail — may stall or, in some areas, perhaps even slightly reverse that downward trajectory in South Texas.
However, the rains came too late and too little to make any significant impact on quail populations in the Rolling Plains region, the state’s other premier quail area.
And on Texas coastal prairies, the early summer rains that benefited quail in some parts of the state did no favors for a quail population that has for three years suffered from the seeming incongruence of too much rain.
South Texas quail benefited most from the June and July rains. And some areas desperately need it. A very dry winter and spring in much of South Texas resulted in poor habitat conditions for quail as the birds entered their mating and nesting season.
In the hardest-hit areas, nesting effort was minimal — a result of a lack of nesting cover, forage and the poor physical condition of many hens. Many hens in areas where habitat was most degraded by the dry conditions made no attempt to nest, and those that did had almost no success.
But that has begun changing in some areas after drenching rains fell on much of the region in June. Some areas saw more than 10 inches of rain fall over a couple of days. The effect was almost immediate, with the rain fueling a flush of grasses and other vegetation.
In Brooks County, where dry and hotter than normal conditions held during April and May, and nesting effort was low or nonexistent, quail took advantage of the improved habitat with a flurry of mating and nesting. Similar behavior has been reported across much of South Texas.
This late nesting effort could result in a surge of young quail hatching over the coming months. Quail in the region have a long nesting season that can start as early as April and continue into early autumn, allowing hens to take advantage of improved habitat conditions when they occur or renest if their first clutch fails. (It takes a hen quail 10 to 12 days to lay a clutch of eggs and then 22 to 25 days to incubate the eggs to hatching.)
“It’ll probably make a positive difference in some places,” Robert Perez, upland game bird program director for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said of the late nesting efforts in the wake of rains that fell on some parched patches of South Texas. “Those areas may see a little bump in production from late nesting but don’t expect a boom.”
No such bump is expected for quail in the Rolling Plains.
“We haven’t seen anything like the kind of ‘Quail Maker’ rains they had in South Texas,” Dale Rollins said of the situation in the Rolling Plains. “It’s not been a great year in this area, by any means.”
Rollins would know. A life-long quail hunter, Rollins has spent four decades as a wildlife scientist/manager/educator. Since 2007, he has been executive director of Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch, a 4,700-acre tract in Fisher County that serves as research and demonstration laboratory focused solely on study of wild bobwhite and scaled quail. The RPQRR — quailresearch.org — is the cutting edge of research and management.
“This year has been a tough one for quail in the Rolling Plains,” Rollins said.
This past winter and spring were among the driest on record in the Rolling Plains and adjacent portions of the High Plains. Much of the region went more than 100 days with no measureable rain, and some went even longer. The result was severe deterioration of quail habitat in the region as vegetation shriveled.
Quail-nesting effort in the area began about a month later than normal, Rollins said. And that nesting effort was much reduced as many hens were not in good enough physical condition to produce eggs or undergo the rigors of nesting and incubation.
And the hens that did attempt to nest had very low success, he said.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say this year is a 2, and hoping to get to a 3,” Rollins said.
Predation on those few nests have been a problem, he said. And that almost is certain to be exacerbated by the drought’s effects on other wildlife in the region, especially the small rodent population that depends on lush vegetation and the abundance of insects it supports. Those small rodents — rats, mice, mostly — serve as a “buffer species” against predation of quail nests, Rollins said.
Predation a concern
When small rodent numbers are high, coyotes, skunks, snakes, raptors and other predators focus on that abundance of prey and are less likely to spend time searching for a quail nest, where they devour the eggs and often catch and kill the adult quail on it.
RPQRR research has documented a positive correlation between the abundance of small rodents and the abundance of quail, Rollins said. This year, he said, surveys show the number of small rodents on RPQRR is down 98 percent from 2017 levels.
While the region did see some rain during June and early July, most of it was light and very spotty, with some areas being blessed and others going without. Those rains helped in some areas, but overall made very little improvement in range conditions and certainly not enough to trigger a burst of late nesting effort.
“We really needed to get some rain and some improvement by June for it to make a difference,” Rollins said. “Even if we could get four to eight inches of rain over a few days, now, it not going to pull our fat out of the fire this year. But we’d certainly take it!”
More rain is about the last thing quail on Texas coastal prairie need.
While rain is a blessing to quail in most of the state, it can be the bane of quail on the coastal prairies. Drier than normal conditions typically benefit quail on the coastal prairie, where even a drier than usual year provides enough moisture to fuel habitat and forage quail require.
Heavy rain can be, quite literally, a killer as flooding on the flat landscape during nesting season inundates and destroys nests and the eggs in them, and rain-soaked chicks and even adults can die from exposure.
Quail on the Texas coast have been tormented by rain for the last four years. In three of the last four years, the coast has seen record rains and flooding, often during spring and early summer when nests and broods are most vulnerable.
During the drought years of 2010-14, when other Texas quail populations were plummeting, coastal quail boomed. The coastal quail population hit a peak in 2014 when TPWD’s annual call-count survey tallied an index of 20 birds per survey route — nearly double the long-term average of the survey that began in 1978.
Different along coast
Flooding rains in spring and summer of 2015 and 2016 devastated coastal quail, with the 2016 survey index dropping to 3.83 birds.
The index improved last year, with the 2017 index nearly double the previous year. But that count, made in early August, came just ahead of Hurricane Harvey, which carpeted much of the coastal prairie between Corpus Christi and Sabine Pass with a sheet of water. That flooding resulted in significant loss of quail.
This year, parts of the coastal prairie and the quail that somehow survived Harvey again were hit by flooding rains. Rains that totaled as much as five to 10 inches soaked portions of the prairie during June and early July. A five-inch rain swamped much of the middle coast July 4.
A clearer picture of the coastal prairie’s beleaguered quail population, as well as that of quail populations in the Rolling Plains, South Texas, Trans-Pecos and High Plains, will come within the next month or so. TPWD’s annual call-count quail survey, which involves trained wildlife division staff counting quail and quail calls along standardized routes, will be conducted the first two weeks of August. Results should be available a few weeks later.
Those results are almost certain to show the state’s quail population continuing to ride a perpetual roller coaster whose tracks are greased, for good or ill, largely by rainwater.