Status and Conservation of Oregon’s Mountain Quail

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.

Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service

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.

Photo Credit- US Fish and Wildlife Service

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.

WDFW takes Important Step in Post-fire Habitat Recovery

Wildfires that tortured the Pacific Northwest in September did a number on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area (Swanson Lakes), located about 10 miles south of the town of Creston.

Swanson Lakes is a 21,000-acre tract of native grasslands nestled among the channeled scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Shrub-steppe and riparian/wetlands comprise the dominant habitats and much of the area is rangeland, with some old Conservation Reserve Program fields. The undulating landscape is characterized by numerous pothole and rim rock lakes and one intermittent stream.

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Z Lake in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area is one example of the unique channeled scablands and shrubby habitat. Photo courtesy of WDFW.

In western habitats, wildfire threatens native vegetation in two ways. First, given our rangeland’s generally unnatural fire cycles from fire management and encroaching invasive species, wildfires often burn much hotter than they would in pristine habitats. Fires that are too hot scorch the seed bank and possibly the underground root structure of native shrubs like sagebrush, damaging the plant’s potential to regenerate. Second, invasive weeds are incredibly prolific and competitive. In the case of the earth being blackened down to bare soil, weeds can quickly flourish, outcompeting native plants, often by simply covering the area, effectively shading out the native species.

Fortunately, WDFW was poised to respond, leveraging funds in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to quickly apply native grass seed mix to the charred Swanson Lakes landscape. Aerial seed drops covered about 930 acres on October 22nd, scattering two varieties of bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, Sandberg bluegrass, and prairie dune grass across Swanson Lakes and a portion of adjacent BLM lands, said Mike Finch, WDFW Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area Assistant Manager.

Fall is not the ideal season to sow grasses, but the timing could not have been better. The WDFW and BLM made the seed drops in October to ensure native seeds were available to germinate on the exposed soil ahead of any invasive species seeds. Additionally, wet snow that fell October 23rd and 24th worked well to soak the seed into the soil surface, increasing the likelihood of establishment through good seed-to-soil contact. The WDFW plans to return with machinery in drier conditions to scratch the seeds slightly deeper into the soil surface.

Finch mentioned that Swanson Lakes was one of three areas receiving fall seed drops. The areas were prioritized for immediate reseeding due to their deeper soils, being more likely to establish and sustain healthy native grasses by allowing roots to grow down into moist soils for good summer survival. Understanding site conditions and prioritizing restoration efforts is important for project success and the best use of resources, particularly with the cost of native grass seed as high as $200 per acre, plus application time.

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Native grass seed being dropped in Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, October 22nd. Photo courtesy of Mike Finch, WDFW.

Native shrub-steppe communities are a critical part of the ecosystem in the arid west, providing food and shelter for a wide variety of wildlife. The sharp-tailed grouse, for example, is an iconic western prairie grouse species that thrives in shrub-steppe habitat. Precisely why maintaining quality native habitat in Swanson Lakes is of critical importance. The area was acquired by the Bonneville Power Administration, primarily as a wildlife mitigation project for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a state “threatened” species.

By leveraging funding and relationships with the BLM, and making smart decisions on the use of available resources, WDFW can sustain unique and important shrub-steppe habitat areas like Swanson Lakes to benefit wildlife and the public user well into the future.

Upland Pursuits – Animals Survive, Adapt and Thrive in Winter

Published February 20th, 2021

Here we are again, on the far side of the winter solstice, hunkered beneath a blanket of freezing fog and snow. Our latitude offers approximately eight hours of daylight early in the calendar year. And, while most humans seek winter shelter in our heated homes and celebrate holiday feasts, wildlife experience a greater challenge, making due with what Mother Nature provides (or doesn’t), and relying on innate strategies to see the winter through.

Animals are keenly attuned to environmental cues like photo period (day length) which drive their responses to the changes in seasons. Similar to putting on your winter coat, mammals like squirrels, bear, deer and elk grow a coat of insulating fur and seek to fatten up, devoting more time and attention to foraging. Bears go into hibernation while elk and mule deer, and songbirds make winter migrations to warmer climes and more abundant food sources.

Nut-bearing trees in our local communities feed populations of non-native eastern fox squirrels. Glancing around town, you will likely notice these orange, bushy-tailed tree rats scurrying, digging and burying all fall. Squirrels can stash up to 10,000 nuts for winter forage, creating caches in hollow trees and other convenient hiding spots, like your home attic.

Songbirds that overwinter locally feed tirelessly throughout our short winter days. Weed seeds, nuts and berries are typical wild food sources, supplemented by our home bird feeders. High-energy foods like sunflower seeds are a staple in their daily diets.

Songbirds reduce their body temperature at night to avoid excessive energy expense to keep warm. As the sun rises, a flush of activity occurs for several hours as they feed. Midday usually brings reduced activity and short periods that will have you wondering if the birds have simply vanished, but the afternoon rush will soon hit with another flurry of wings.

A western chickadee forages among deciduous shrubs.

Critters like reptiles that cannot regulate body temperature seek winter shelter in burrows or covered in mud where the ground temperature is warmer than the air. They don’t require food, but must avoid freezing. Some frogs even create their own “anti-freeze” to avoid cell damage.

Beavers stash food below the water surface in case a freeze prevents them from foraging, and their tails store fat for the lean times. Chipmunks cache food in their burrows and remain below ground when the weather is exceptionally rough.

The snowshoe hare may use a burrow as well, and feed on plants and twigs that they dig or find protruding from deep snow. Their large feet allow them to move across the snow surface without sinking in, reducing energy expense for foraging and providing efficient predator avoidance.

While the hardships of winter are evidenced by wildlife adaptations for survival, these adaptations allow species to thrive through freezing temperature and deep snow, like the snowshoe hare, which lives right here in the Blues.

One of the most abundant and well-distributed mammals in North America, hares rarely starve. Research suggests they maintain consistent body mass throughout the year. Their large feet, white winter coats, and efficient digestive system allow hares to prosper on minimal, and at times, poor-quality food sources over the northern latitude winter.

A snowshoe hare spends its day hidden beneath snow-covered vegetation. Photo by the National Park Service.

Ravens are another local example of an animal that has adapted well to winter living. During the warmer months, ravens are active predators, as well as feeding generalists. But when winter pickings become slim, ravens turn largely to carrion. Ravens have been documented following wolf packs, feasting socially alongside them. Ravens are highly intelligent and wary of novel food sources, but trust the prey of wolves, swooping in almost immediately as the pack makes a successful kill.

Scientist and author, Bernd Heinrich, published a book titled “Ravens in Winter”, presenting a surprisingly captivating study on raven feeding and social behaviors in New England. Heinrich found that ravens cash carrion when in abundant supply and communicate openly with fellow ravens, leading them to new food sources.

The common raven. Photo by Christopher Bruno.

While viewing the winter world from the comfort of our heated homes, it appears an inhospitable place. It’s easy to anthropomorphize the plight of wildlife from our understanding of discomfort and hardship. Yet, animals have the gig nailed, surviving, adapting and thriving with typical grace and beauty. Take a snowy day walk in the forest or even around town this winter. Stop, look and listen to the feathered and furred lives busy at work. And take inspiration from their resilience and resourcefulness, making the most of what is provided every single day.