Scratching the California Quail Itch

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This past winter I had the opportunity to travel to coastal Oregon where I stayed with a good friend and hunted birds for 10 days. During this week and a half, we pursued sooty grouse, ruffed grouse, mountain quail, and California quail, devoting a couple of days to each species. Though each species has its own niche and habitat requirements, the pursuit of sooty grouse, ruffed grouse, and mountain quail landed us in densely forested coverts. The days spent searching for California quail offered a stark change in scenery.

On the first day dedicated to hunting California quail, we traveled to a state-owned Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on the edge of town. Standing in the parking lot, I looked out across the landscape of grassy foothills dotted with shrubs that stretched from a river bottom up to the forested mountains. The foothills seemed inconspicuous and certainly much different than the few places I had hunted California quail in the past.

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As I waited patiently for my buddy, Matt, to gear up, I noticed he was lathering some kind of lotion onto every inch of his exposed skin. I was teasingly making a comment about the use of moisturizer in the field when Matt informed me the lotion was actually a preventative to keep oils from poison oak from soaking into your skin. He pointed at the hillside, “you see those shrubs? That’s poison oak.” On that note, I quickly lathered some on my hands, arms, and neck.

After a few last-minute adjustments, we started up the hill. I soon realized I had underestimated the “hills”. While they weren’t very tall, they were incredibly steep, and the slick, wet grass didn’t make the situation any better. But anyways, we mustered on up, avoiding the poison oak. The first crest provided a nice vantage point. From there, the picture became much clearer. Each trough between the hillcrests was thick with blackberry bushes, an excellent place to find a covey.

We began working the edge of a blackberry thicket while my English Setter, Ruby, snaked her way through them. About halfway down the first drainage, my Garmin handheld buzzed. Ruby was on point, buried somewhere in the thicket. Wading through the hip-high brambles (thank goodness for brush pants), I located my little Setter who was quivering with intensity. On approach, a nice covey of 40 quail rocketed out of the brush. We both hit birds that dropped deep within the tangled blackberries. Ruby, who isn’t usually much of a retriever, found both downed birds and brought them out of the brambles (thank goodness for bird dogs). A gorgeous pair of coastal California quail!

Although Matt had marked the remaining swarm of quail down near the next blackberry thicket, we were never able to locate them again. The impenetrable cover made an ideal escape cover. Not long after that, the characteristic rain clouds of the Pacific Northwest reappeared and threatened us with a thorough soaking. We hurriedly picked our way through a maze of poison oak down to a road that led to the parking lot. The whole way down, the scraggly arms of the poisonous plants wrapped around our legs, ensuring they were able to share their irritating oils.

Once at the truck, we made a conscientious decision to strip off our outer layers and throw them in the truck bed for the ride home. For safe measure, we washed all the clothes and ourselves with a product designed to remove and neutralize poison oak oils. Ruby and I came out in the clear. Matt, on the other hand, had a case of the California quail itch for the rest of my tenure in Oregon!

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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