“Hot” topics for bobwhite: hunt success, weather forecast and burning

It was so “hot” the other day that for the first time in a long while, I actually opted not to go quail hunting! This season has been a roller coaster of climatic shifts—warm…cold…lots of rain…no rain…hot…dry. And so goes the hunting success for much of the region.

Reports from hunters and managers indicate that quail populations are similar to our predictions from the early fall covey counts; bobwhite abundance is either about the same or moderately down from previous years. Many properties are experiencing a 5-15% reduction in coveys moved per hour compared to previous hunting seasons. However, the narrative may not be as bleak as it seems for a couple of reasons.

First, warmer than average temperatures combined with later than normal hard frosts have created less than ideal hunting conditions and denser cover well into January, making finding and pointing birds more difficult. This negative impact on hunt success alternatively benefits adult survival. In the Albany area, adult survival is well above average, whereas survival in the Red Hills region is similar to or slightly above long-term averages. When weather conditions have been better, however (following rain and/or cool weather), hunting reports were more on par with what we have become accustom to in the Red Hills and Albany regions.

Second, a common theme reported throughout the region, with a handful of exceptions, is that covey sizes are larger than average this hunting season. We are still seeing some coveys with 18–20 or even more birds well into February. Increased covey sizes may result in fewer total coveys, which would dampen overall hunt success in terms of coveys moved per hour. Interestingly, our research on bobwhite chicks shows a potential developing trend linking chick survival with covey size. That is, when chick survival is good, covey size tends to be good. For example, this year coveys sizes are well above average and chick survival, especially during late breeding season, was nearly double that of the previous 2 years. Coveys sizes last hunting season were reportedly smaller than average. In addition, during our January trapping on Tall Timbers, we captured 40% more of our banded chicks than compared to previous years, and on multiple occasions we captured siblings (i.e., hatched from the same clutch and wing-tagged at 11 days of age) still together in the same covey. The variation in chick survival from year to year and site to site is still a puzzle the Game Bird Program is focusing on, with the goal of finding pragmatic management solutions.

Beta cooling off after hunt Gerti cools off after hunt

Beta (at left) and Gerti (at right), cool off during a hot day’s hunt

Weather forecast and burning for bobwhites

We have observed quite the shift in weather pattern over the course of the past few months, experiencing sporadic activity since September—periods of excessive rainfall and periods of little to no rainfall. In October, Hurricane Matthew rambled through the region dropping copious rainfall throughout much of north Florida. On average, temperatures are higher than normal. La Niña has played a significant weather role over the last few months, especially with regard to high temperatures. NOAA Climate Prediction Center forecasts that frontal passages will be the primary catalyst for rainfall in upcoming months, followed by short periods of cooler temperatures and drier conditions for variable periods of time.  NOAA’s prediction is that as the current, weak La Niña weather pattern comes to an end by spring, we will experience above average temperatures, below average rainfall and increased potential for drought conditions. As such, we may see the number of days for prescribed burning decrease. 

What does this mean for burning in 2017? There are numerous factors to consider when considering what to burn, when to burn and how to burn, including previous burn history—what was or was not burned last year. Stoddard deemed the bobwhite the “firebird” and for good reason. We often say you can have the application of fire and not have good quail numbers, but you cannot have good quail densities without the proper application of fire. It is one of the pendulums in management, where finding and applying the appropriate balance between frequency, scale, and season can pay huge dividends; whereas swings too far from that balance can have devastating results. This balance is site specific so that every property is different and may require a different burn strategy. An important trade-off every property must consider, however, is maintaining adequate cover for bobwhites for protection from their winged enemies, especially during the raptor migration in March, while getting the burning done prior to potential burn bans associated with drought conditions.

That said, and given the weather forecast, we recommend taking advantage of those good burn days whenever possible, but continue to burn at a small scale (40-60 acre blocks) in a patchy mosaic. We recommend burning conservatively at 45 – 55% of the uplands during late February through April, and if sufficient rainfall occurs, the option to burn additional acreage later in the season will be a bonus. Late-season burns are known to provide exceptional brooding habitat during late summer, especially on sites with higher soil fertility. 

Adult survival is crucial to good reproductive output and population increases, so a manager’s goal this time of year should be focused on protecting adults through quality cover management and proper application of fire. Careful burning and maintaining a sound supplemental feeding program is crucial. Although the season is not yet over, it’s never too early to begin preparing for next year’s crop of birds!

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