Saturday, January 23, 2021

Southwest Late Season Gambel's and Blues

 Late season desert birds, Gambel's and Blue Quail, can be a challenge, to say the least.  By the end of the season, in January and February, those runners have matured and become tougher, faster, smarter, and more wary.  Or they aren’t around anymore.  

I hunted both of my favorite southwest states this year- Arizona in December and New Mexico in January. While my Arizona hunt was OK, some of my favorite spots didn't yield any birds, at all.  It boiled down to looking for the habitat.  For me, I looked for water, grass, and cover (brush, bushes, cactus, trees, etc.). At night, I would peruse Google Maps and GAIA GPS looking for waterholes, stock tanks, creeks with water, etc.  Once you've spotted a few, they are pretty easy to see.  Dry creek beds and washes are also favorite hiding places for the Gambel's. 
Blue and Pearl found them in the Creosote

New Mexico, in January, yielded a lot of the same.  From some locals, I learned the rains were on time and plentiful in the spring for the hatch, but then the spigot was shut, and the rain quit. The hatch was excellent in many areas of the Southwest.  It is a banner year, in fact.
Cap and a couple of Gambel's

We finally discovered the secret of the dry wash. Those rascals like to roost in the safety of the washes, in the trees and shrubs and bushes.  They'll head out of the wash  in the early morning to eat seeds on the rocky hillsides, retreating to the washes to loaf during the day, safe from the avian predators, their primary danger. Early afternoon, they'll once again brave the edges of the washes to finally go back to the safety of the trees and shrubbery for the night. All of this usually on their feet.  To fly is to die (from hawks, falcons, etc.), so they would much rather run/walk to and from the food.  That said- check for tracks.  It's the easiest way to see if there are birds in the area. I always welcome a rain or snowfall, because it will wipe out the old tracks leaving fresh ones.
Looking for quail tracks is a great way to find birds.

This time of year, it can be very cold in them morning.  It was 12 degrees one morning at the motel, and the Brits were toasty in their kennels with moving blankets over the top of them and in the insulated topper on the back of the Beast. During the day, it went up to the mid-60's, and felt like a day at the beach!  One day, near the end of my trip, a wind warning was published for winds of 25+ mph sustained with gusts up to 45 mph.  It turned out to be my best hunting day for desert birds all season! The birds don't like the real strong wind, I think because the aren't able to hear predators.  I found the low areas and draws held birds all day long.  When we trailed a covey out onto the hillsides, they would flush back towards the washes, or to another wash.  They just didn't like the blowing wind.  
Blue and me on the side of a dry wash.

In the picture above, you can see the straight stock on the my new 28 ga. I was bound and determined to hunt with it all season.  I almost made it. These fast flushing and flying desert birds laid it on me, and I never seemed to be able to catch up! Also, after one day knocking down 14 birds and only recovering 10 of them, I began to question my gauge, shot size, dram equivalent plan.  I finally switched to the old, reliable 20 ga. SKB double, shooting high brass #6's, switching from 7 1/2's.  A broken wing on these birds means many times they will run down a hole, or be totally out of the area by the time the dogs arrive.  It's a lot like pheasant hunting in that regard. I know guys that shoot a .410 out there.  For me, a 28 ga. will be as small a shot as I'll use, and I'm  leaning towards using my 20 ga. on these birds.  I don't see any requirement for a 16 or 12, other than your personal preference.
Male and Female Gamble's Quail

One thing I like about this land is the lack of dangers to our dogs. The cold weather keeps the snakes in the ground, and while there are porcupines,  they are relatively few. Hunting the near the end of the trip, I had my gentle giant on the ground, Shack. He was covering the hills around some water holes, in the heat, and doing a great job. His pager went off after he was out of sight for a few minutes. So, I climbed to the top of a hill and looked toward him. He was locked up and looking like a million bucks 125 yards from me, near a shrub along a fence line. I started moving to him, when I saw a black shape take off away from him. Then, I saw a huge black shape run out of that shrub in the opposite direction from the first shape.  Javelinas! I yelled to Shack, and, thankfully, he turned immediately and came trotting back. I was thankful he wasn’t the kind to go after the peccary!  They can mess up a dog. 

Blue and me resting during a warm afternoon.

 The bottom line, for me, is the sheer pleasure of hunting these wily, tough birds. A few days, I didn't put any in the bag.  One day, I never saw a bird! We explored and looked for new areas, and that did not always pan out.  Rather than hunt the same area over and over, we drove the dirt roads with our GPS App designating the public lands.  Many times, doing this, we will discover a real sweet spot, after many hours and many miles and many days of effort.  It's then I  realize why I drive 25 hours to walk through the desert looking for these worthy adversaries.