An overcast sky masks the sunlight, and against blustery gusts of chilly wind, a pair of English pointers searches for a scent cone across the grassy meadow. Less than half an hour into our hunt, their noses lock onto a covey. They stiffen into statues and await our arrival like disciplined soldiers of the Coldstream Guards. We close to within effective range with light but steady steps, inserting cartridges into the open breaches of our guns, snapping them shut, planting our feet with guns at the ready. The birds hold tight so we take another ginger step, then another, and then another until we can almost touch the dogs. Are they here? One final step releases the covey coiled in the cover directly underfoot, and from the epicenter of this disorienting vortex of hard-flying quail, their dense pattern and close proximity denies me a shot, but John Long of Hideaway Hunt Club drops a straggler with his side-by-side 20 bore.
“Why would I go to Texas or Kansas when I can hunt quail like this at home in Maryland,” John exclaims through a grin. His yellow Labrador blind retrieves the mark and delivers a male bobwhite to hand. Before he slips the fistful of feathers into his game bag, John’s partner-in-conservation and fellow member of Hideaway Hunt Club, Tom Fisher, walks over to examine the fruits of their labor, and while we resume our search for more coveys, they share the details of their 20-year quest to return this treasured game bird to their property.
Tom and John met over 40 years ago through mutual acquaintances and became fast friends through their passion for the sporting life. Both grew up quail hunting—Tom on Maryland’s western shore in Montgomery County and John on the eastern shore around Salisbury. While urban sprawl and industrial agriculture took their toll on the quail population, Tom and John managed to find property holding healthy coveys and formed Hideaway Hunt Club in 1983. Despite responsible management of the resource, the wild coveys disappeared from their property before the end of the 1990s. Neither of them wanted to give up on the quail, and through several years of partnership and collaboration with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and consultations from Tall Timbers, they now have a management program for reintroducing bobwhite quail with a stronger chance of becoming wild coveys.
At Hideaway Hunt Club, meticulous husbandry makes the difference between a viable hard-flying game bird and an easy snack for predators. John and Tom receive 5,000 day-old quail hatchlings during the summer and raise them in a partitioned portion of a retired industrial chicken coop. These hatchlings are a little bigger than a bumblebee, and inside this predator-proofed brooder room the quail have space to roam with logs, leaves, and beds of natural grasses added for familiarization with their future habitat. At eight weeks old, they are transported to the field, but since they still lack the skills needed to survive, they’re deposited into triangular-shaped shelters referred to as “half-way” houses. John says, “I believe these boxes make a big difference, and we picked this up from a guy over in Delaware who swears by them, though Tom is somewhat skeptical about their effectiveness.” The wire cage walls of the half-way houses have a small hole cut into each side that allows only an eight to ten week old quail-sized creature to enter and leave, and their triangular-shape makes it difficult for a predator to round the corner faster than a juvenile bobwhite. These ground-based structures provide a level of safety and shelter for the quail before they are relocated for acclimating another covey.
In addition to husbandry, habitat tops the list of requirements for cultivating quail, and both John and Tom agree upon prescribed burning as being one of the key activities for maintaining their property. “Planting hedgerows and grasses is important, but sometimes all you’ve got to do is burn. Burning releases the seeds for foxtail, partridge pea, and other grasses that quail love,” John insists. Burning also increases the level of pollinator insects such as butterflies and bees playing an instrumental role in maintaining healthy quail habitat.
Forming alliances with neighboring property owners expands the habitat by providing an avenue for quail to spread across a broader area. These corridors of habitat allow the quail to cover more ground and form independent coveys. “Recruiting neighbors as partners is another key. They don’t need to do the heavy lifting of raising and releasing, or even burning or planting. Just having permission to plant and burn a little unused property is helpful. Everybody I’ve talked to likes to see and hear bobwhite quail on their property,” Tom explains. Neighboring farmers two miles from Hideaway Hunt Club have reported flushing coveys of quail—a sight they haven’t seen in almost 30 years. John and Tom believe anyone owning or leasing 50 acres or more in certain parts of the country within the bobwhite’s natural range could replicate their success with hard work, patience, and willing neighbors. “Ask other people for help. Don’t waste time trying to bull through it on your own,” John said.
Seven coveys of hard-flying quail flushed during our three-hour hunt, and we plucked and dressed the harvested birds before huddling over a bushel of Chesapeake Bay oysters roasted on an open fire. Though the bobwhite population might never recover to the extent of yesteryear, these birds weren’t of the “boot n’shoot variety,” and they are here today because of conservationists like John, Tom, and neighbors of Hideaway Hunt Club, who pool their resources to collectively manage their little corners of creation for everyone’s benefit.
Originally published in Volume 9, Number 6 (October-November 2021) of Covey Rise.
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