by Dale Rollins
September 1st may be heralded as the start of Texas’ dove season, but for “Students of Quail” it also marks the unveiling of the RPQRF’s forecast for the upcoming quail season. Across the board, it’s going to be a little better than last year, but still only fair to poor for many of us. Say what?
“If it rains, we’ll have quail; if it don’t, we won’t.”
That operating paradigm may be true most of the time in west Texas, but not always, as evident in many of the quail forecasts this year. It did (rain), but quail numbers lagged in most areas of the Rolling Plains. In recent issues (i.e., since April) RPQRR has noted low survival following winter storm Uri and that contributed to low carryover of breeding capital.
Year-to-date rainfall (as of 30 Aug) at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch (Fisher Co.); currently the Ranch is 42% above the long-term mean.
Rangeland habitats in Texas (including southeastern New Mexico and western Oklahoma) are in excellent condition this year—some argue the best they’ve ever seen. But have the quails taken full advantage of the jubilee?
At a glance:
South Texas (south of US 285) is the hotspot again this year. If you have any coupons to clip with folks down there for a hunt, my advice is to “go south young man!”
There are several common denominators in these forecasts:
- Habitat (across the Rolling Plains anyway) looks incredible and most areas have received 20 to 50% more rainfall (year-to-date) than average (RPQRR is 42.4% above its LTM; refer to graph). In my opinion, the luxuriant cover has many reporters basing their prediction on “potential” as much as (or more than) quail sightings. The premise here is that detection rates are low because of cover conditions (therefore abundance is underestimated).
- Like dryland cotton farmers, my forecasters are eternal optimists. Watching their forecasts for the past ten years leads me to believe their optimism inflates their predictions somewhat – I’m hoping they’re right and I’m wrong. One day I’m going to contrast their predictions in August vs their scores post-season.
- There is evidence of a late hatch—several radio-marked bobwhites are still nesting at RPQRR and our study site in Erath County as of August 29. Chicks may hatch as late as October in the Rolling Plains, but such late hatches generally do not contribute enough for a quail population to go from a “2” to a “6”. Late nesting attempts have smaller clutch sizes than earlier nests; but whatever they contribute will be welcomed.
On August 12, I tasked my “quail trapline” from across the state for their prediction for the upcoming season on a scale from “1” (pitiful) to “10” (wow!). I thank all those who took time to respond to my call for outlooks.
Keep in mind these predictions are anecdotal observations for the most part from various “Students of Quail”, including landowners, long-time hunters, QuailMasters (QM), and other colleagues. One person’s “4” could be another’s “6”. There are a few reports herein from TPWD biologists, but TPWD’s official roadside counts won’t be posted until early-October; ODWC’s version of Oklahoma’s routes will also be out in early October. I’ll be receiving additional reports over the next month from other landowners and deer managers (based on September helicopter counts); stay tuned to our Facebook page for real-time updates. If you have reports to share, please send them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Forecasts proceed from northeast to southwest; blue quail and a prediction from Oklahoma are towards the end of the newsletter. Several reporters’ comments were noteworthy of a text box, beginning with this one from Lloyd Lacoste, former ranch manager at RPQRR.
I always query various helicopter pilots as they see so much country. Kyle Lange reports for several counties, including Stonewall “9,” King “7,” Irion “4,” Tom Green “4,” Reagan “8,” and Upton “9” (the last two being blue quail reports, and IMO blues flush more easily from a helicopter than bobwhites, thus higher estimates). Dusty Whittaker flies out of Childress and reports in general from the northeastern half of the Panhandle: “quail density is low, slightly better than last year. Vegetation is heavy and detectability could be more so the issue.”
Jay Stine (QM) reports from Clay County: “I can’t recall ever hearing this many whistles in the mornings, but difficult to see birds with all of the cover. Haven’t seen any broods, but time at the ranch has been limited this year. I would call it a “7” based on number of birds calling rather than visual observations.”
George Allen reports from Archer County: “We have had several hatches in August and still have birds nesting. Spring call counts were down to 2011 levels, so we did not have much carryover plus we also had quite a bit of avian predation in March. I rate prospects at a “4” only because I am encouraged by the late hatches.”
Ricky Moss (QM) reports for several counties near Vernon: “In Wilbarger and the three adjacent counties my spring count averaged 3 roosters/stop. As of August 11, however only 1 report of a brood sighting. I don’t even know what to give it . . . perhaps a “3” and hope abounds. I hate being wrong but in this case I will welcome it.”
Keith Boone reports from Roberts County: “We are forecasting an “8 or 9.” Covey sizes are very encouraging.”
Don Allred reports from Collingsworth County: “We’ve had one of the wettest summers in 10 years, the pastures look great for the end of August. However, I’m not seeing the coveys I’d expect to; the February cold may have hurt the birds more than I thought. Still seeing some pairs and a few nice coveys. I’ll call it a “4” and hoping for a “6.”
Wayne Winters also reports from Collingsworth County: “In and around the sandsage areas are probably around “4” per my personal observation. In and around the areas of irrigation pivots and river bottom perhaps a “7.” In talking to four others in multiple parts of the eastern/central parts of Collingsworth, their prediction is “7-8.”
Chip Ruthven reports from the Matador WMA in Cottle County. “I do not recall seeing one myself yet. Still a little early as we just wrapped up regional roadside counts this past Sunday (22 Aug). Conditions appeared to be ideal; however, our roadside counts on the WMA were abysmal. I have no good explanation. More replicates of routes to come and numbers might change. If I had to go with what I’m seeing right now, I’d say a “3 or 4” at best.”
TPW’s Dana Wright reports from Cottle and surrounding counties: “I’m with Chip, I would give it a “3-4.” I completed 8, 20-mile routes and only saw 1 covey of 16, 1 pair and a single! Very disappointing considering range conditions are excellent!”
Chris Timmons reported from southern Baylor County. “Hearing birds everywhere but have just seen a couple of coveys. Should be decent as long as Mother Nature doesn’t throw us a curveball.”
I received several reports from Shackelford County; all sobering. Jon Rex Jones reported from the northeast corner, “we saw a few birds earlier, but with all the cover, have not seen any in the last few weeks. I would suspect it is generally a “2 to 4” all over this area from talking with others.”
RPQRF Director Justin Trail (QM) notes, “hoping for a “2” in Shackelford County. We have quail, but not many.” Rob Hailey reported from the southwestern part of the county – his forecast is a “4.” Marc Bartoskewitz (QM) reported from northwest Shackelford Co. “We have not heard reports of many chick sightings to date or conducted any surveys to give us a sense of reproductive effort. Our carryover was not good and who knows the effect from the winter apocalypse. With that said, I’m a pessimistic “3-4” for us right now! I hope to change that tune after our late-October helicopter surveys!”
Steve Burns reports from northern Dickens County. “I’ve seen a couple of coveys of less than half-grown birds. I will give it a “3” hoping for a “5.” Also reporting from nearby is James Lewis: “I still haven’t seen any broods, but do know a friend that has seen 2 different coveys. Pairs seem to be the most common thing folks are seeing right now. Although brood sightings are low, conditions still look positive. However, with the poor carryover from last year I think we are looking at another “3” year.”
Several reporters weighed in from Stonewall County. RPQRF’s Rick Snipes refers to his property as a “7-8” kind of year. He added “given that we had enough quail last season, a strong breeding population and the best nesting season, my prediction for this season is more than enough…maybe way more than enough.”
Snipes’ neighbor “Barefoot” Bob Richardson stated, “I give it a “3 maybe a 4,” adding, “I’m seeing a few week-old chicks. I have another place in Kent County that’s better but just marginally.”
Jesse Wood (QM) reports from just north of Swenson: “Although carryover was suspect following the winter storm in February, birds appear to have fared well if you had quality thermal cover. Spring call counts were down slightly from 2020, but still strong. It looks like a “6-7” kind of year for our area.”
Ray Whitman checked in from northeast of Aspermont; he rates his prospects as 4-5. Jimmy Haggar said “I’ll give it a “3.” Count could be a “5” by November.” Brad Ribelin reported from just southeast of Aspermont: “If nothing drastic happens I think a solid “5” in the tight lands of Stonewall County. We have very low numbers of rodents that is worrisome to me. Everything else concerning quail looks great.” Stan Kimbell (QM) reported from near the Double Mountains: “have seen some big coveys with lots of immature birds but not that abundant, perhaps a “4-5.”
Roy Wilson shared his observations from Jones and Haskell counties: “Seeing some good broods. Not sure of a huntable population even with a good hatch with the numbers as low as they were. I’d say “2-3” at best with the idea that it could change to “4-5” in late October.”
J.B. Daniel reports from Knox County: “We are seeing very few birds. Our cover is rated a 10. The estimate for the quail population is “3.”
Joe Pat Hemphill reports from Coleman County: “Was horseback over 12,000 acres in northern Coleman County five days last week; saw 1 group of 4 quail and 2 coveys of 10—that is ALL. Hardly measurable in my opinion.” Just to the west, Bourke Harvey predicts a “3” for his ranch north of Lake Coleman, and a “6” for a lease he has in Jones County. Gary Bomar reported from southwestern Coleman County: “I give it a “4.” Been seeing more this past month, i.e., a late-hatch.”
Dr. Norm Dozier predicts a “5-6” from eastern Fisher-western Jones counties. “Better than the last few years somewhat. I’m excited by the large covey sizes (15-25)!”
Paul Melton reports from Fisher County: “A good carryover of nesting stock responded as soon as April, and later May rains graced the ranch. Brood sightings are plentiful, with chicks of all sizes up 8-10 weeks of age (nearly mature) common on ranch roads. If these chicks mature, I feel we will have a season in the “7” range here.” Brandon Boehme (QM) reports from just northwest of Sweetwater: “I rate our prospects at about a “4,” which is up from last year a little.”
Barrett Koennecke (QM) is the TPW biologist serving Fisher and surrounding counties. He reports “based on my surveys I would call it a “1,” but I am a little more optimistic and calling it a “high 2” or maybe even a “3.” On 180 miles of roadside surveys I saw a grand total of 12 birds (mostly singles and pairs). The last three years averaged 5 birds/route (only 1.3 this year). Vegetation was excellent on the roadsides with mostly monster sunflowers and tall johnsongrass. None of the birds I saw flushed, they just ran back into the vegetation.”
Daniel King reports from the RPQRR (western Fisher County): “We‘ve had about as successful of a nesting season as you can ask for. All the metrics (nest initiation, nest success, clutch size, etc.) have been above average. We have put a lot of chicks on the ground. Despite all this good news, the low population entering the nesting season limits the increase in abundance we can expect. I predict a “6.” Our roadside counts (starting next month) should hone that prediction, stay tuned for those results!”
Rod Hench reports from eastern Scurry County: “I’m giving it a “2;” I think nesting is still ongoing. Just afraid there aren’t enough out there to have birds to hunt. Hope for enough to work dogs.” James Cave also reported from Scurry County: “Maybe a “3 or 4”. Have seen a few large coveys (15-16) of small birds but not that many.”
Larry Gabel (QM) reports from southern Borden County. “Bobwhite hunting forecast is a “6-7;” blue quail hunting forecast an “8+.” He also reported that 90% of the lotebush on his lease is dead or dormant (from winter storm Uri).
Steve Mayer reports from western Runnels County: “I’m almost too late with this because I’m just not seeing quail in any numbers. I see a few single roosters and an occasional pair but have not observed a single brood. Birds were still here after the winter storm, but we observed some weak flyers. Hopefully it’s just a problem with abundant cover. I rate it a “2.”
Rick Barnett, Mayer’s neighbor across the Colorado River offered his prediction for two properties in Runnels County: “On the more western site, large number of breeders carried over. Have observed two hatches; first had 15-20 birds per covey while second hatch averaged 7-8 birds per covey. I’ll give this ranch a “7.” The other property is about ten miles to the southeast. “Minimal amount of breeders. I’ll give it a “3.”
Ralph Suarez offer thsis report from Concho County: “Cool, wet summer seems to have allowed quail to produce a decent hatch around the Lake Ivie area. I would rate the hatch at about “5.”
Hollis Farris reports from Coke County: “Numbers look good; 12-15 birds per covey. Looks like an “8.”
Randy Bullard reports from Mitchell County: “Observations in the south part of Mitchell County show decent to fairly good numbers of birds (in select areas). On a numbered scale (on the ranch that I manage), I would give a “4.5 to 5” on the southeast side and a “weak 4” on the rest of the ranch.”
Allen Curry reports from Tom Green County: “I operate ranches in Coke, Sterling, Tom Green, and Irion counties and the conditions look as good as I’ve seen in the last ten years, but my quail forecast is pitiful. I was extremely optimistic early this summer, but that optimism crashed and burned. With very little carryover numbers from last year, plus our Valentine’s Day freeze, I’ll give it a “2-3” at best. Sorry for such a dismal forecast.”
My hunting buddy Steve Sherrod also reports from Tom Green County: “I’ll say “2-3” just because I am an eternal optimist.” John Goodman chimes in, “I’m predicting a “2.” Plenty of nice weather but no breeding stock left. I hope I’m wrong.” H. R. (“Winky”) Wardlaw concedes “too much grass in the pastures to evaluate the quail hatch. Adults seem to be paired up and nesting again.”
Cal Hendrick reported from west of San Angelo, “I spent all day Saturday (21 Aug) walking and driving through my pastures. Although I saw some coveys of both blues and bobs, I did not see very many. We had a wet summer, and a very mild, from a temperature perspective, summer. I have great grass and insects. We have lots of nesting cover. We manage the ranch for the best quail habitat. So, conditions for a great quail year were excellent. However, the birds did not seem to respond. Therefore, based on the totality of evidence, I’ll give my place a “2.”
Charley Christensen reports from Tom Green, Sterling, and Irion counties. “Not so great. We just didn’t have much to start with. I’ll be surprised by a “4.” A new property in Runnels county could be a “6-7,” especially if July and August rains do what I’ve seen them do in the past.”
Don Northcutt also reports from Tom Green County: “I’d say a “6.” The guy that keeps up with our place and several others says he sees more pairs and smaller coveys at our place than any of the other country that he covers. I’m optimistic about having a decent year. Any possible nesting in September or October? It happened last year.”
Scott Mitchell sent this report from Refugio County: “We had some early hatching. However large rainfall events the last two months have set back nesting on the prairie. Hope to have some late nesting with excellent range conditions. I would say it’s a “5” or so.”
Richard Eppright (QM) reports from Atascosa County: “Overall prospect is an “8.”
Mike Petter (QM) provided this report from several counties: “despite the weather challenges of the late winter, the bounty of rainfall has made 2021 a “wow year.” We cover quite a few counties in South Texas with our brush management crews, and we see prolific production of vegetation resulting in prolific production of quail! Report covers Karnes, Atascosa, Live Oak, Frio, La Salle, Dimmit, Zavala Bee, Refugio, San Patricio and Duval Counties. I cannot imagine where this report would stop geographically within the Rio Grande Plains! I would call this a “9” year; not sure why I don’t call it a “10,” I guess I just don’t think it is perfect!”
RPQRF Director Russell Gordy predicts a “7” for his ranch in Zavala County.
Mike Allen (QM) reports from Dimmit County: “We have had so much rain the grass is high and thick, making quail sightings difficult. I guess I would rank our potential for quail numbers a “6.”
Abe Woodard reports from Jim Hogg and Kennedy counties, “I predict an “8 (7–9)” for the year across our Jim Hogg and Kennedy County properties. Most of our property was in poor shape following the freeze in February, with March densities ranging between 6.5 and 14.5 acres per quail. We are still observing bobwhite chicks of all sizes, including hatchlings (on August 10).”
Chase Currie also reported from Dimmitt County: “We carried over a very low breeding population, I’d give this year a “6-7.”
Jerry Hammon (QM) reports from his Brooks County ranch, “I’ll say a “6.” Not many left over from last year’s drought. Still very high grass, plenty of bugs, and a lot of seeds, will know better in September. He also predicted a “6” for his lease in Jim Hogg County.
Scott McCool reports from Duval County: “I’m hoping for a “9.” Still seeing a lot of pairs and a second hatch. Watching the Gulf at this time.”
Mark Bivins reported from northern Potter County: “We’ve had abundant rain and now have abundant grass and cover. The call counts indicate a similar if not slightly improved bird count. I’d rate it a “7.”
Neil Shelton reports from Oldham County: “We are starting to see some birds. Seems to be later than usual but coming on. I’d rate it at “5-6” but may get better.”
Phil Carter reports from Yoakum County: “I give it a ‘thumbs sideways’. Better than the past two double thumbs down years but not good enough to call it a thumbs up. Hopefully they are just not having to move around much. We grew a lot of weeds and grasshoppers this year.”
Jude Smith with the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge reports for Bailey and Lamb counties, Texas, and eastern Roosevelt County, NM. “I am going with a “5,” I have recently seen a good number of broods of blues. I have seen Bobwhite pairs and brooding behavior but have not seen chicks. We have suspended all shredding of roads unless really needed to avoid possibly destroying broods or nests.”
Cody Webb and Tommy Holt both give Reagan County a “2.”
Ernest Angelo reports from Midland County: “Our lease has the best range conditions I have seen in years, but we had so few birds survive the winter that I rate our forecast a “4” at best.”
Brad Bates (QM) reported from southern Midland County: “Poor; I’ll give it a “2.” No rain during summer of 2020, hot, poor forb production (mostly snakeweed that died by September), three snow storms. Winter storm Uri delivered the final punch – very few quail survived. Those that did survive paired up but apparently did not produce offspring—I have not seen a single successful clutch. Ranch hands have reported one sighting to me this year. This ranch is 34,000 acres.” UPDATE – GOOD NEWS – Brad updated his entry on August 30th to include – “This last weekend I saw 18 broods in an hour of driving. Most could not fly far. About 1/4 size.”
Jeff Wemmers says, “Same here for northeast Ector, northwest Crane and southeast Ward counties. Great conditions, but virtually no birds. I’ve spoken to several ranchers that say the same. We all agree that it is a “2” this year.”
Billy Cole reports from western Ector and Winkler counties: “We have had some rains lately but I’m seeing very few pairs. I rate my ranch’s population a “3” at best.”
Gary Dunda reports from Crane County: “I’ve seen no quail yet, so I’d rate it a “1.”
Jesse Wood (QM) provided reports for Upton County: “Bird numbers were already depressed going into late winter so we expected an uphill battle this year. Birds continue to exhibit breeding activity, and brood sightings have increased over the last few weeks. Our collective prediction for the coming season is a “3;” I expect hunting to be tough compared to previous seasons.”
Cal Hendrick reported from Ector and Crane counties: “I was checking out my dove leases several times in the past couple of weeks. I saw very few blue quail. Based on my observations, both counties will be about a “2.5.”
Woods also offered forecasts for Lea and Eddy counties, New Mexico. “The 2021-22 quail season will be very spotty in Lea and Eddy counties. Where birds are found there should be ample numbers, but finding those birds will take some driving and boot time. The drought of 2020 and winter storm in February were particularly hard on quail in southeast New Mexico. At this time, we expect no better than a “2.”
Dan Allen Hughes, Jr. sends this report from Culberson County: “Currently a “6.” Saw lots of coveys with half to two thirds grown birds recently. Also saw a lot of pairs and single birds during the middle of the day. If all the pairs we observed have a late hatch we could be looking at an “8+” season.”
Ron Helm reports from south of Plateau (Culberson County): “While we have had some really nice rains during August, I’m just not seeing very many hatchlings. Still seeing quite a few pairs, but no chicks with them. If I rate the prospects as of today, I’d give it a “4” and that may be generous.”
Norm Dozier has a lease near Dryden and offered a shiny forecast: “Unbelievable, an “11.” Rancher says he’s never seen so many blue quail in his life. And several bobwhite coveys out of nowhere. Three times the usual rainfall makes big difference, especially in the desert.”
Chase McCrory, TPW biologist, gives Terrell County a “6.”
Dr. Dwayne Elmore provided a report from Oklahoma: “after looking at the brood reports we have thus far, it appears there was sporadic production in June, but brood reports really picked up in July and have continued to present. There were a good number of nests hatched in mid-July. This is the case for western and eastern Oklahoma. Brood sizes reported are large. If we continue at the current pace, hunters should expect at least similar numbers to last year, possibly higher (but not dramatically so).”