The Quail Diaries, Tercero: The Last Evening

We fly home tomorrow.

The coyotes are howling and yipping, just a bit.

And I expect the quail are tucked in tight–some sitting incubating their nests, hidden in plain sight, others roosting in trees.

Did you know that it is very very very difficult to find quail nests? This is one aspect of their biology that makes it difficult to study them. They are ground nesters–laying @20 eggs in scrapes in the dirt or brush. I have only ever found a very small number of nests–some already predated, with a pile of feathers scattered over the remains of eggs. Meaning, perhaps, that these nests were not the best hidden if a coyote or bobcat, squirrel or snake found them first.

The two recommended ways to find nests are to have a good tracking dog or to radio collar birds. I have done the latter and found a few nests this way. It is still hard, for the site is so brushy that I am loathe to tramp through following a signal because I might crush any number of nests on my way to find the location of my one collared bird.

And, of course, half the time they nest in poison oak–or so the signal suggested when I collared them.

I have a suspicion that some of the birds here are nesting in a big clump of nettles south of my traps. I walked down that way this afternoon and came across two males sitting high in the brush and vocalizing in very quiet little pips. One of the males had a Blue band (the other jumped down too fast for me to ID him). After blue banded male jumped down there were a few very muffled rally calls and then silence. No flushing.

As males often sit sentinel while the females incubate–perhaps there were nests down below, swaddled by the nests, surrounded by nearly impenetrable branches of the chaparral-scrub.

Or perhaps I’m full of it…who knows–I sure don’t since I did not see any nests. But, I know from sad experience that one can be staring full at a nest and not quite see it. And I saw no reason really to go digging around.

I did not trap anyone today. Both this morning and this evening the traps were monopolized by hungry rabbits and ground squirrels and no one else wants to go into a small space with one of these critters. I even saw a rabbit smack a ground squirrel on the rear with its two front paws in order to get it to move out of the way of the entrance to the trap. The squirrel moved on and the rabbit moved in.

I did take observations both times–not much joy this morning. The arrival of the (a) Cooper’s hawk on the scene, swooping over a feasting jay, missing, and flying to a nearby tree, made it certain the quail were not likely to show. It sat in the tree and made sweet little vocalizations, charming and annoying me alternatively.

I feel I do not quite have the quails’ schedule down. Things change during this period of nesting and they tend to be more sporadic rather than emerging to feed as a group in the am and pm. It was also cloudy in the morning and they tend to emerge later in the clouds.

There was someone (likely a male) “cow calling” from a tree in the east. Males cow calling are assumed to be soliciting mates/copulations. As there appears to be substantial extra pair copulation this is a possible explanation. I would like to know with more certainty…

Cow calling only ever happens during the breeding season and is related to increases in testosterone levels as is squill calling. Squills are aggressive calls made by males. One male yesterday seemed to make it in response to being alarmed. There is a substantial increase in intrasexual aggression during the breeding season–and I did see a lot of displacements yestarday and today, by males towards both males and females.

One thing about the squill call. They sometimes seem to use it to jam female communication–or perhaps coordinate. A female will rally (chi-ca-go) call (trying to contact other birds) and a male will squill after the first syllable, essentially overriding the female’s call. Is this mate guarding? or something else? I would like to know with more certainty….

I would like to know….

In the evening I saw male B/K B up by the traps with 5 other birds (2 other males and 3 females) most were, damnation, unbanded, although one female had either an orange or a red band (they were wandering around the grass and their legs were variously obscured. They came from the south and went back down, stopping for a group dustbath on the way, towards where my suspected nests were.

I wonder if that male is the same I saw near the nettles.

I do think this pattern is quite different from the pattern of the birds I trapped the last few times–coming up from the north in the morning, spending the day in the south, and returning to the north in the evening.


The monkeyflowers are quite cheerful, by the way


I did check out the fire zone. There is some green-up. Both in the cut made by the firefighters


and in the burned region itself


I wish I knew my plants. I am ashamed to say that I know very few–but I suspect…am concerned…that many of the plants coming up in the fire zone are non-natives. Certainly the Russian thistle I saw is an invasive. And the vines, perhaps.

Of course, I also saw my old friend, looking beautiful and healthy.


I have scars on my arm from my last encounter. I can only hope this time I have escaped…

At any rate, this is likely my last post of Tercero, at least from the study area. What I am doing here, I am not so sure…but it feels like one of the few things I am really supposed to be doing, watching these quail. Undoubtedly, it is a senseless pursuit, but it seems to be mine and I really love those quail, even when they are unbanded or walking through the tall grass.


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