Collapsing my tenkara rod, I reflected on the brilliant California golden trout I had just released back into the trickle of a mountain stream dropping from a series of high lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The September sun shone golden and warm against my back as dappled light streamed through the forest canopy. That fish put a bow on one of the most memorable weeks of my fly-fishing career, traipsing through the scenic Sierra Nevada Range in search of a trout I had dreamed about for decades.
Descending from 10,000 feet, the trail meandered through various cover types including old-growth pine and small pockets of yellowing aspen. Approaching a unique knob around 8,500 feet was a minute stand of sagebrush, appearing entirely out of place and displaced from the lowland scrub and chapparal. The faint scuffling and whistling of a quail covey piqued my interest.
Climbing the knob, the covey scurried across the trail ahead and levitated above the sage, sailing elegantly into the safety of a nearby snarl. Mountain quail. That first encounter left me mesmerized and wishing to exchange my fly rod for a setter and double gun, and added another hunt to my bucket list. Researching mountain quail habitat and their distribution across the west, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Oregon’s populations and conservation efforts.
Mountain quail are a North America native, distributed throughout the Oregon Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada, with a sprinkling in Nevada, Mexico and Washington. Southeast Washington, eastern Oregon and western Idaho historically were home to mountain quail, but over time, their habitat and populations dwindled. In Oregon, mountain quail were once found in every county. Since about 1950, land use practices and fire suppression have contributed to their decline.
Mountain quail are the largest native quail in North America. They are uniquely monomorphic, meaning both sexes are virtually identical in size and appearance, each boasting their most peculiar feature, a black, needle-like “top knot” growing over an inch long from the top of the head.
Preferred habitat consists of dense brush, such as manzanita thickets, chapparal and scrub, in wooded foothills and mountains. Features like burns and clear-cuts are important for providing the appropriate balance of cover and food sources, and water within about one mile. Riparian habitats with an adjacent brushy, upland slope are favorable.
The mountain quail diet consists mainly of vegetation during spring and summer, seeds and berries during fall and winter. Insects are important for spring and summer brood rearing. Mountain quail also exhibit a robust reproductive strategy. Females lay seven to fifteen eggs in two separate nests within about 600 feet of each other. Both adults incubate clutches independently, males typically having greater hatch success.
In 1996, Oregon State University (OSU) began a study to compare life history characteristics between the larger, stable lower Cascades population, and that of a remnant population in Hells Canyon. Additionally, quail were translocated from the Cascades to Hells Canyon to compare life histories of the separate groups in the same habitat.
The OSU study results informed a sixteen-year follow-on translocation study to reintroduce mountain quail to historic eastern Oregon habitats. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) teamed up with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 2001, translocating and radio-tracking birds in the Freemont, Deschutes and Malheur National Forests and the Steens Mountain Wilderness.
A total of 2,574 birds were translocated across years. Forty-five percent (1,156) were radio-tracked to obtain habitat selection, survival and nesting success information. Overall, nesting and brooding was successful across sites and years. Survival ranged from approximately sixteen percent to nearly sixty percent, depending upon year and release site. Survival rates and trends observed were similar to those of the Cascades population from which birds were translocated.
Concluding the study in 2017, it appears the translocation efforts were at least marginally successful. Mountain quail appear to be maintaining small populations where translocated and are considered an “occasional” species in Wallowa and Union Counties while the lower Cascades population remains strong. Detailed annual reports of the translocation study are available from ODFW online.
Oregon offers hunting opportunity with the eastern Oregon season running October 10th through January 31st this year, including California quail and overlapping the forest grouse season. The lower Cascades season opens September 1st.
Mountain quail are a peculiar and secretive species, and a treasure to the State of Oregon. There is something magical about their presence on the landscape. The memory of flushing a covey over manzanita or juniper scrub will remain etched in your cache of extraordinary upland experiences. Whether pursuing with dog and scatter gun or hiking stick and camera, the marvel of this distinctive native quail and their habitat that we are blessed to have on our public lands is reason enough to seek adventure in the high desert.
An icon of the western U.S., the wary, spike-tailed adult males of this species boast the endearing nickname “bombers” due to their large size and lumbering liftoff. An obligate Inhabitant of the high sagebrush, greater sage grouse are as quintessential to the range as pronghorn and mule deer.
A spectacle to behold, my first encounter was in southern Idaho on a late September elk hunt. Riding an abysmally rough BLM road back to camp, I spotted “geese” in the sagebrush off to my right. “Why are geese out here in the sagebrush?” I asked myself. It seemed plausible to find geese along the Pahsimeroi River, but not in the shrub-steppe.
“Those aren’t geese, genius. They’re sage grouse!” I blurted out in elation. A half-dozen robust, feather-legged fowl eyeballed me warily as I bounced past, ensuring they need not unnecessarily expend the energy of lift-off.
Sage grouse once numbered around 16 million across western North America, pre-settlement. Presently, estimates of approximately 200,000 birds remain range wide, their significant decline attributed largely to habitat loss. Following their decline, the species was proposed for listing as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act until a 2015 status review identified that listing was not warranted.
The decision was made partially due to the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), which began in 2010, pushing to conserve precious sagebrush habitat across the sage grouse range. Sage grouse and the SGI are both captivating in their own right; the birds for their size and behaviors, and the SGI for its incredible cooperative nature among landowners, non-profits and government agencies.
Presently, there are four protected, fragmented populations in Washington. A much larger area of southern Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and southeast Oregon throughout the Steens, Malheur and Owyhee public lands support these curious prairie grouse, permitting regulated hunting seasons.
Sage grouse are known for their dramatic “lekking” behavior. A lek is a common area where males gather in spring to perform courtship displays for females and fiercely defend their territory on the lek, which may only be a few yards in size.
The sage grouse courtship dance is something to behold. Males have spiked tail fans and snow-white breast feathers with two yellow air sacs that they inflate during the ritual. The Cornell University bird laboratory explains the courtship behavior as follows.
“Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest. The outward popping of these bare pouches creates a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.”Cornell University Bird Laboratory
Ensuring the persistence of this iconic species of the western sagebrush habitats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped found the SGI, leveraging Farm Bill funds and volunteer landowner cooperation to conserve the largest intact tracts of sagebrush with the largest sage grouse populations. To date, the SGI has cooperated with 1,856 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres across 11 western states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).
The SGI includes NRCS partnerships with myriad local, state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society. While the NRCS channels funding through the Farm Bill, success is only possible through partners that leverage funds, shoulder work, and tackle policies beyond the authority of the NRCS.
The success of the SGI equates to uplanders like me continuing to have opportunities to hunt sage grouse where their remaining populations are strong. But wildfire and invasive species like cheat grass continue to threaten sage grouse habitat. As fire danger and smokey air from the Cascades region settled over eastern Washington and Oregon this past September, I cancelled my bucket list hunt for which I had drawn an Oregon permit.
Smoke settled thick, oozing through the window cracks on the homestead like pancake batter late on September 11th. Burning tear ducts awakened me, urging me to tape off windows and doors. Burns, Oregon was slated for the same air quality. I can only imagine how uncomfortably stuffy a camper, sealed tight, encapsulating myself and two setters might have been.
Historic sagebrush-steppe fires burned slow and cool, beneficial to the ecosystem. But cheatgrass encroachments have changed fire cycles to more frequent and hotter, roasting mature plants and damaging sagebrush regeneration. Additionally, sagebrush communities are slow-growing, requiring invasive species management and possibly replanting to reestablish decimated communities.
Fortunately, wildlife is resilient and persistent. Habitat and hunting opportunity to be restored through the efforts of dedicated partnerships like the SGI. And the 2021 prospects are looking good.
I can see the covey nestled among the buttery autumn grasses and milky sage. A setter tail wafts gently in the auburn glow of the sun peeking over the Owyhee; the location of the covey betrayed. Circling in for the flush, the covey materializes from the sagebrush sea. Heavy wingbeats trigger a swift mount. The bead aligns with my right eye as double barrels swing through. Next year…
December 15, 2020 – Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters | Harvesting Nature
Picture an expansive river bar with a variety of cover and vegetation types, and terrain ranging from flat bottomland to steep and brushy slopes topped by shallow soils over basalt formations. Riparian cottonwood and willow present with sparse, brilliant canary yellow and amber foliage, shedding gently into a light breeze. Golden waves of wheatgrass and other bunches flank wealthy corn, canola and sorghum food plots separating the riparian from the uplands. And a rooster cackles as you unclip your pointing dog for a morning match of wits.
This well-loved public parcel sees a wealth of upland hunters and canine breeds over the course of the bird season, my setters and I included. The pheasant are wily, highly educated, stretched tighter than a banjo hide, and easily qualify for the Olympic 400-meter sprint. Pinched birds are prone to startle the hunter into cardiac arrest as they rarely sit for a staunch point and flush from behind at every opportunity.
Humans succumb to routine, of which hunting method fall victim. The parking area and access points are low on the property and lead to the tempting food plots and thicker riparian cover. Walking the road or hunting the lowlands right out of the gate is a natural tendency, yet ensures an early day, and not due to a limit of birds.
Pheasant naturally emerge from thick roosting covers before sunrise and head to the high ground and crop fields for breakfast. Pushing through the roosting cover often produces a productive point or two, but if you step aside to observe bird behavior beyond the range of your pointing dog, you may notice birds escaping far ahead, possibly beyond the public boundaries. And once these birds decide to go, they generally waste no time.
A simple solution is to hunt the high ground immediately. Birds heading out from roost are more likely to hunker down or flush back toward roost cover. Making a high pass and circling low for the return lap ensures a few more birds are occupying good transition covers and may be less sure of themselves as you approach from a different direction than most others.
Hunting large tracts with birds possibly scattered throughout is best accomplished with partners and multiple dogs. Beware of the company you keep, however. Pheasant are highly attuned to sight and sound. I have witnessed birds escape an onslaught more than a quarter-mile ahead as whistles, beeper collars and voices echoed, alerting all life to the presence of the orange-clad cavalry.
Instead, keep quiet, collars silent, and leave the whistle in the truck, if possible. Use hand signals to communicate with your buddies and canines, and spread across the terrain with a couple of good working dogs to catch the birds as they try to duck between and around the mammalian search party.
Another consideration is the severity of disturbance the birds experience. A similar but much smaller creek bottom property I visit has relinquished several roosters to my girls and I over the years, some coming directly on the heels of other hunters. When pheasant are gently pushed out, even speeding ahead of an errant shot wad, they may only travel a short distance into more challenging terrain if not further pursued.
Recently, at the conclusion of significant rainfall, I made the creek bottom for the final hour of daylight, only to pass parting hunters on the road. Not 10 minutes prior did they deposit spent shells and boot tracks in the bottomland mud.
Upon spying the aftermath, my youngest setter, Zeta, and I turned up the adjacent draws, traversing the hillside bunchgrass, flanking the edge of a wheat field a mere couple hundred yards off the creek. Because the property is so small, other hunters rarely venture up the grassy draws. Pheasant that flush to the extent of the cover and experience no further pressure over time are largely content to sit tight, waiting for the typical brush-busters to push through and vacate.
This particular evening, Zeta put us on a couple pheasant that sat beautifully for her rare and stylish point. She needs a cure for her addiction to putting birds on the wing and careening madly in their wake. Yet, as we surprised these birds, she did her job well, and the flush presented an easy shot.
Hunting pressured public land pheasant can be challenging, particularly coming into the late season, but alternative approaches playing on pheasant behavior and property boundaries can be surprisingly productive. Keep quiet, always anticipate the flush, and trust your pup’s instinct. It may take some time to pin a bird, but when the point is true, circle in, ready for action, and savor the hard-won success of an educated public land bird.
The sun rested against the crest of the horizon, a massive sphere radiating vibrant magenta. Wind turbines stood solemnly shadowed in the foreground while a rich golden hue settled across the bunchgrass sea laid out beautifully across the hills and swales before us. Yuba trembled in anticipation as the GPS collar chimed and vest straps clicked securely.
Leadership training taught me the most valuable lessons of putting “first things first” and “taking care of myself and others” to maximize effectiveness as an employee and satisfaction with life in general. Therefore, as the clock struck 2:30pm on this gorgeous afternoon, a run on the Palouse rose to the top of my priority list like the cream materializing in a freshly squeezed jug of milk. Silently, I dropped from my conference call, tossed Yuba in the back seat and made haste for the wind farm.
Hitting the ground running, Yuba bee-lined to the east. But the faint whisp of wind suggested another approach. Whistling her back, we continued south into the swale. The plan was to cross the swale, ascend the far hill, hunt the ridge line east, then circle back to the north in a pattern reverse of how many hunt the property. Roosters up feeding would be preparing to drop into the swale to roost and I wanted to catch them on flanks before they hit the thick cover.
Dense reed canary grass envelopes the swale, providing superb roosting cover from predators and cold temperature. It also prevents a pup with bad hips from hunting efficiently, sapping stamina. Hence, I waded quickly through and across the mattress of bent, swishing grasses with Yuba in tow to keep her from expending too much energy in the impossible cover.
Emerging at the toe of the hill, a few colossal tufts of Great Basin wild rye stood clustered along the outskirts of the reed canary tangle. Strolling past, Yuba encircled a cluster of bunches and failed to reappear. Peering around a nearby tuft, Yuba’s breathtaking point offered an eyeblink’s notice before the rooster exploded nearly under my right foot.
Amid the startling heart palpitations, my practice of quick target acquisition instinctually kicked in, securing the roost with an instantaneous burst from the cylinder-choked barrel. Most upland birds begin entering roost covers approximately one hour before dark, and this guy was just on the edge, about to dive in for the night.
Yuba rushed in, securing her prize and whining excitedly as we marveled over the bronze, bared tail and brilliant iridescence of the overall plumage. The Palouse landscape against a gorgeous fall sunset presents a stunning watercolor painting. Throw in the varied tones and flashes of setter and rooster to orchestrate a unique masterpiece worthy of marvel and never to be seen quite the same again.
While those clear, crisp evenings along thick drainage cover are ideal, draw-bottom grasses on higher ground can serve as sufficient roost cover as well.
One rainy Friday evening, my youngest pup, Zeta, ran the high ground below a perched wheat field. The shallow draw opened slightly into a beautiful bowl below the abrupt field edge. The kind of area you would expect to glass a bedded mule deer. While the flanking grasses were little over ankle-high, the draw bottom grasses were knee to thigh high, enough to swallow little zeta as she quartered through the cover like a trick bicyclist in the half-pipe, zooming through the bottom and up the side hill to the rim, then back down again.
Circling down from the left rim, Zeta bumped a covey of Hungarian partridge. A great disappointment as Huns are a rare find for us and I hate to miss possibly the only opportunity of the season. Unlike quail, I have never seen any stragglers. The entire covey goes at once. Yet, hope springs eternal, so I hustled closer in preparation for a second flush, which failed to materialize.
Approached the top of the draw, Zeta became birdy and began working frantically up and down the thick grasses. Simultaneously, Zeta flashed on point, prompting a rooster to rocket from the cover, presenting a beautiful crossing shot. My 20-gauge double rose quickly, depositing the bird in the short grasses. Numerous roosts and scat piles were strewn about. An identical scene presented in the adjacent draw where we pushed up a hen.
While morning and mid-day hunts appear to be a standard for may uplanders, the magic hour before dusk can be nothing short of spectacular for both scenery and locating birds that may sit just a little tighter than typical. If the season is slipping away to other priorities, try putting first things first by squeezing in a short evening hunt. The minimum reward is a run with your pup beneath a painted autumn sunset, and you might even swing a bead over a bird or two.
The rich aromas of a moist, finely blended pipe tobacco drifted from the crooked briarwood clenched between my teeth. Taking a slow pull, I puzzled over the two spent 20-gauge shells lying before me, signaling a close to the 2020 upland bird season. Each season brings new and unique experiences, and lessons learned, and re-learned.
Unique experiences of 2020 included a road trip to north-central Montana for sharp-tailed grouse, and making a new hunting buddy from Almira, Washington, on the basalt-channeled scablands chasing quail and pheasant. Both experiences offered complete surprise and education.
A tip from some Helena residents led me to the Conrad area of Montana, only to find it a complete bust. Having hunted sharp-tails in far eastern Montana and finding coveys thick as starlings, I was confident in my setter’s ability to find birds. Map scouting for large grasslands and sagebrush tracts had me a bit concerned, but I identified a few areas that looked good among the patchwork of cropland.
Upon arrival, I found a single tract in 50 square miles with semblance of the native prairie I sought. Over the course of a few days, my setters never once got birdy. We saw not a single game bird along farm roads or public access. Thoroughly disappointed, we packed it in early, headed for Flathead Lake, and camped in a beautiful lakeside state park for a pick-me-up.
On the contrary, in December I met a social media acquaintance near Grand Coulee, expecting prospective covers to resemble our local bird numbers. Darren McCall and his daughter Kinzie were gracious enough to show me some of their best covers, while I ran my best dogs. Wading into the first field of the day, dappled in Great Basin wild rye and other choice grasses, a scene reminiscent of the Dakotas erupted as waves of pheasant took to wing hundreds of yards ahead of us and the dog.
Moving on to the quintessential quail cover of the scablands, every grassy pocket held pheasant, but we put up not one quail covey. The sagebrush and bunchgrasses were cloaked in ice and the landscape a glimmering prism, punctuated by the milky green of sage and chocolate basalt outcrops. Darren claimed a single rooster, and we enjoyed an exhilarating hunt behind Yuba as she taught a clinic on pinning hens.
The common lesson relearned from both Montana and Grand Coulee was that quality habitat produces birds. The Montana habitat was abhorrent, while the scablands were characterized largely by native vegetation.
Also noteworthy, the western wildfires may have kept me from the Oregon sage grouse season, but exceptional mourning dove flights on my homestead amidst the smoke were a fair consolation. Finn and Yuba hunted at peak performance, Yuba in particular. Following a second surgery in August to correct hip dysplasia, she now has no hip sockets. I feared her stamina and stability would prove a challenge over the fall, but being freed of crippling arthritis, her exuberance, determination and skill were redefined.
Yuba’s pheasant savvy comes as a result of passion and drive that have helped hone her skills over the years. I lost count of her finds this past season, and the tenacity in which she pursued downed birds was an inspiring spectacle.
Taking another pull, the sweet aroma triggered further memories. The time has past to hang up the vest, stow the side-by-side, and box the pipe for another grueling nine months of anticipation. And, as always, it was done with a pang of regret, yet a sigh of relief.
Season’s end signals a close to the crack-of-dawn, frozen finger mornings, and cutting, combing and plucking a thousand invasive weed burrs from the notoriously tangly setter coats. It also brings halt to the sight of high-tailed points beneath the golden rays of the crepuscular hours, and the rush of wings against crackling grasses and shrub limbs.
My girls and I are getting no younger. The same can be said for my upland brethren. And to me, a picture is worth 1,000 birds. It’s going to be a long wait for September. May the memories of the stellar days afield, and time spent toting the scattergun with friends and family, simply following the dogs and admiring the splendor of the uplands, see us through to the early 2021 grouse season.
As an adult onset uplander living in the heart of the “big city” flanking Walla Walla’s downtown shopping district, I never really considered owning a pointing dog. A German shepherd and buff tabby marauded throughout our 600-square-foot apartment space as it was. However, I had also never lived anywhere with legitimate upland hunting opportunity.
When my first rooster pheasant fell to the good fortune of arriving at a pheasant release site behind a hunter with a seasoned lab, my interest in upland birds piqued instantly. Suddenly, the old Savage Fox double that I loved so dearly took on purpose and was carried in pursuit of the abundant valley quail in the public access beyond the city limits.
I don’t credit my lovely bride with making the best impulse decisions, like springing for a Llewellin setter pup while we both lived in separate cities and apartments, fresh out of graduate school and living paycheck to paycheck. And that little pup was pure hell on our nerves and furniture. Yet, in hindsight, she changed our lives profoundly, forever. Mine in particular as the hunter of the household, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Similar to a custody arrangement, Ali and I split the duties of caring for young Finn, handing her off on our weekly visits. We both sought urban greenspace and any wildlands on the outskirts to expose Finn to wildlife. And while I knew nothing of training a pointing dog, I learned quickly how to utilize birds like pigeons that had grown accustomed to humans on the city sidewalks, and found Rooks Park on the edge of town with a resident covey of valley quail.
While a pup needs bird exposure, they also need socialization, basic obedience, and hunting commands, which can be taught indoors and on downtown streets. “Whoa” is a standard pointing dog command to keep the dog steady and on solid point as you approach to flush a bird. It can also be used to stop a dog in the field in a dangerous situation. Trainers use apparatus like barrels, tables, and elevated boards to teach this command, which can be done in the corner of a small space. Similarly, “place” boards are typically used for retrievers, but can also be used to teach “whoa” as an object which the dog is to remain steady on when given the command.
Once your pup has the basic obedience down, its time to practice in public. Start with only a few repetitions, cycled with some time in between. Pups still need time to be pups and it’s a big world in the city. Slowly build up your frequency and number of repetitions as the pup becomes less interested in the ancillary surroundings. Remember to start slow and simple with high reward for good work. Keeping a pup interested in training is important to ensure the lessons stick.
After a few jaunts downtown, your pup should have seen the flush of local pigeons enough to seek them actively. It will remember where the birds loaf and feed from your prior walks and anticipate the approach. Pointing behavior may still be coupled with the sight and sound of the birds, providing a good “whoa” opportunity. If possible, work with a partner to steady the dog while the other flushes.
The local valley quail were our saving grace when training Finn in her first year. She sought the usual blackberry and brush pile haunts and perked at the sound of their calls. While her maturation was slow, the regular exposure to covey birds on the edges of natural wetlands instilled early drive, and positive reinforcement for seeking them out.
Additionally, different breeds mature at different rates. My setters are typically not hunting with complete purpose until age three, but that doesn’t mean they don’t find birds afield at a young age. Maintain optimism throughout the early years, building the trust and teamwork foundation. Even if your pup doesn’t fully grasp the whoa command, by their sixth year, they can occasionally be steady to shot without formal training. Remember, no amount of formal training can replace the flush of a bird.
A number of timeless, foundational training resources are available in print and digital media, with recent contributions being geared toward urban training. Project Upland provides a variety of useful articles with free online access. The techniques may not work precisely as presented in every case, but with a little adaptability to your pup’s learning style, and a commitment to gaining experience whenever and wherever possible, a fine pointing dog can be made on the urban landscape, and with minimal resources.