Basic Scouting Tips for Quail
1. When going into an area you are not familiar with, do your best to go in when it’s dry (say maybe a couple weeks since any rain). You’ll be able to better locate concentrations of birds due to higher visibility of tracks around roost sites and along two-track roads. Rainy weather and the resulting waterholes allows birds to possibly move out of their typical routines during drier weather. Birds don’t call as much either during cloudy and damp weather. So the tip is: if at all possible, do your scouting during dry rather than cloudy/wet times.
2. A somewhat unorthodox method of scouting is using optics – binoculars and spotting scope. Move quite a distance from the area you want to hunt, get on a high vantage point, take a look where some of the access points are, and then look over many miles of terrain with your optics. Look for certain cover characteristics, good feeding areas, waterholes, springs, and even the lay of the land. This can work well with Mearns’ quail, too. If you move a complete mountain range away and get to a high vantage point, you’ll be able to glass country that you wouldn’t be able to see with any other scouting method other than air. There have been several good hunting areas I’ve located by studying a mountain range with optics from a mountain range away. It takes time, but is well worth it.
Gambel’s: When scouting unfamiliar country, the first two hours of daylight are best spent covering a lot of ground by driving the back roads and using a quail call about every ½ mile. Take your time while calling – stay there to call and listen a minimum of 10 minutes. If you hear one or two birds answer, make a note of the location, but move on. What you’re looking to find is an area where birds from 2 to 3 coveys are responding to the call at the same time indicating a good pocket of a concentrated number of birds. On windy days, of course, this won’t work. If you’re scouting later in the day, drive the back country two tracks and look for quail tracks in the dirt, tracks in the sand washes, and tracks around roosting areas such as hackberry, turbinella oak, mesquite, etc.
Scaled: These quail won’t respond to calling like Gambel’s, so they can be much more difficult to locate. Since these birds are not as vocal, it requires a lot more leg work and dog work to find coveys. Also, Scaled quail are always in flat land or, at the most, gentle, rolling hills, and seem to be attracted to objects or areas that may stand out. For example, you may find a covey around a windmill or old, abandoned barns or buildings. Even areas of thicker patches of short mesquite or patches of heavier growth of prickly pear or cholla cactus can be attractive to Scaled quail. Objects or areas that stand out, such as mentioned above, are ideal when they are in country that also has some open ground. If the cover is too thick, Scaled quail won’t use it as much as country that has the good ground cover but also semi-open areas.
Mearns’: One of the first things to look for in new country would be huge rocky ridgelines or bluffs with good cover directly below it. Mearns’ are drawn to these areas because there is usually more moisture just below these bluffs or ridgelines. As with the other quail species, look for country where the grass cover is not too thick but not too sparse either – areas of good grass with some semi-open cover. It’s a good idea to pass on by waist high, thick grass since the birds probably won’t be there in any kind of numbers. Areas of moderate grazing by cattle is ok to look for as well. Cat claw is another plant that, when mixed with grass and either mesquite or oak, make for good Mearns’ country, and can be a good starting point when you’re in unfamiliar country.
In general, the more scouting you do, the more you learn to recognize good quail cover. A good parallel might be the way a very experienced NFL quarterback learns to read and recognize certain defenses and automatically calls a different offensive play. An experienced bird hunter will read and recognize good bird cover and automatically call for a first-rate day of Arizona quail hunting!