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Grass. As far as the eye could see. And oaks — an open forest of them.
Hillsides suede with dried threeawn, gramma, bunch grass and cottontop. Ghostly white sycamores, leaves long gone. And in the distance, high mountains, dusted with snow.
It looked like no part of Arizona I’d ever seen.
But look closer and the Southwest gave itself away. Among the Emory and scrub oaks stood juniper and mesquite. Tucked into the grasses were hedgehog, barrel and prickly pear cactus. And, here and there, spindly chollas, decorated with ripe, canary yellow fruit, like Christmas lights in the savannah, waved their arms in comic fashion.
This was Mearns quail country.
Upland bird hunting is more about soaking in a particular place than putting meat in the freezer. Even an easy limit is a calorie-negative affair. And there is nothing easy about hunting Cyrtonyx montezumae, known variously as Mearns, Montezuma, harlequin and, oddly, fool quail. More on the last later.
Mearns, as they are called in Arizona, are, like much of the flora and fauna of the state, extending as far north as they get; Mearns are mostly a Mexican quail, ranging all the way down to Oaxaca, more than 1500 miles away. They are a secretive, quiet and difficult to hunt bird.
North America has six species of quail, each with its own preferences. Most of you know the bobwhite, as it has the widest range of any quail. You can hunt bobwhites from Cuba to Colorado, and they are part of the culture in the Deep South.
All other quail are Westerners. California quail live beyond the Golden State, into Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. So too does the relatively large mountain quail, as large as a partridge. Blue or scaled quail start in west Texas and are primarily a Southwestern bird, as are Gambel’s and the Mearns.
This makes Arizona the epicenter of quail hunting. It is the only state where three species live in abundance; New Mexico has all three, but in lesser numbers. Gambel’s and scaled quail live in the Arizona you’re thinking of: Parched, grassless desert, among giant saguaro cactus, towering yucca and agave.
To find the Mearns, you must travel south, and upwards.
My friends Johnathan O’Dell, Mike Cross and Wade Zarlingo, all Arizona Game & Fish biologists, had taken me to Sonoita, elevation 4800 feet. We’d go uphill from there.
Accompanied on different days by a pack of Brittanies, German shorthairs, longhairs, and pudelpointers, we’d spend hours hiking up and down rocky canyons, through arroyos and oak savannah in search of the wily Mearns.
I’ve hunted quail before, many times. They are by far the hardest upland game bird to shoot, being tiny, fast and aerobatic. Good quail hunters can rest assured they can hit all other types of upland game with relative ease.
Mearns may well be the most challenging of all.
Even though they are large for a quail — a big male can weigh almost a half-pound, and are rarely smaller than 5 1/2 ounces — Mearns can fly up to 45 miles an hour, and have an uncanny ability to put an obstacle between you and them.
And then there’s the whole “fool quail” thing. Mearns got this name because they hold tighter than any wild bird I’ve ever seen. Even after one of their covey has flushed, and been shot, they will sit tight.
Case in point: Wade, Johnathan and I were walking an arroyo when Shiloh the Pudelpointer got birdy, coursing back and forth and wagging her tail. She locked up, pointing, just up and out of the drainage, so Wade and I clambered up as fast as we could.
When we got there, Shiloh was still pointing, and nothing had yet flushed. That would almost never happen with bobwhites or California quail. Wade eased Shiloh in, and what looked like a gray apple exploded from the grass, dead away from us. Wade shot first, missed, and I shot through an oak branch the bird had put between us. At least one No. 7 1/2 pellet managed to hit the quail and it fell.
Shiloh brought it back, we congratulated ourselves… and Shiloh got birdy again. Not six feet from us.
CHEEP! Another gray apple blew out of the grass, this time with a black butt. A rooster. Wade and I shot at exactly the same moment, double tapping the bird.
Shiloh brought this bird back… and got birdy one more time. Again, a rooster flushed, not five feet from the last one. And again, Wade and I double tapped it.
No other quail I’d ever encountered would act like that.
Sure, most Western quail will flush in pulses, but I’d never seen this. The reason may be because Mearns quail are so perfectly camouflaged, and give off so little scent, that sitting is a good option for them. They also travel in tiny coveys. Twenty birds is a big covey, and we saw only two larger than 10 birds in two days’ of hunting. This was a group of three birds. A crazy sight for someone used to other species.
You might think this holding still business would make Mearns an easier quail to kill. After all, they aren’t flushing at 100 yards the way bobwhites and California quail do. I suspect those used to hunting Mearns quail do find it easier.
But not me. At least not yet.
I am a very good snap shooter, an instinctive shot at targets that magically appear before me with no warning. The whole lead-up to shooting a hidden bird being pointed at by a gun dog thing can give me stage fright. I miffed two easy shots this way. Overthinking. Damn.
Mike and Wade say a covey per hour of hiking is a good day. We did not reach that nirvana, sadly. End of season blues.
As we tromped around, Mike casually pointed. “That’s Mexico.”
Seriously? We were that close to the border? Sure, he said, and we jumped in the truck. Right to the fence.
I have to admit it was surreal. Immigration is such a hot topic, so much in the news. But it is an abstraction for virtually everyone, me included. Here it is a reality.
Evidence of illegal border crossing was everywhere. Footprints. A jug of water, painted black so it could not been seen at night. Bent places in the wire fence where a bale of… hay? marijuana? …was thrown over. A discarded child’s hoodie. A shoe.
Mike pointed to a spot along the fence in an arroyo where the cartels had bulldozed the fence to let trucks carrying drugs drive across the border. It had been reinforced by the Border Patrol since. He said that before the now-imprisoned drug lord El Chapo had taken control, this area was more than a little dangerous. Gunfights. Home invasions. Even raids by Mexican soldiers, chasing drug smugglers across the border.
Everyone wondered aloud what was going to happen now, with El Chapo in a US prison, unlikely to be freed anytime soon. Another war for control? Mike shuddered.
All of this in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever been to. As I said, surreal.
In the end, we managed only seven quail in two hard days’ hunting: We’d walked 12 miles the first day, seven the second. Each bird was a trophy.
A trophy at the table, for sure.
Mearns quail eat tubers primarily. Mostly creeping wood sorrel and purple nutsedge, supplemented by acorns, various seeds and insects. Ours had sedge tubers, lots of small black seeds and maybe a few bugs mixed in for good measure.
I plucked each one, even a beat-up hen whose skin had ripped. It took me 90 minutes, but these birds were too valuable not to pluck whole. How do you get them this pretty? Practice, man, practice…
Quail in hand, I decided to do a little kitchen science. Plucked, gutted and ready to roast, my seven quail averaged 4.7 ounces. Smallest was 4.35 ounces, the largest 5.1 ounces.
Six of seven were young of the year, which meshes well with other data that suggests that Mearns don’t live long in the wild, although they can live seven years in captivity, apparently. Remember: A young bird is a tender bird.
What will I do with these quail? The beat up ones will be stewed with butter and ginger, served with green grapes and pearl onions. The nice ones? They’ll go into one of my favorite dishes, one that celebrates this part of the world: Sonoran Quail.
Still, with only seven to play with, I’ll need to return. I can’t wait.