The Mearn's quail, otherwise known as the Harlequin and Montezuma quail is a species I thought I'd probably never get a clear photo of. The reason why is this primarily tropical species lives in grass, tall grass, associated with Arizona's Pine Oak woodlands also referred to as Madrean woodlands. I've been fortunate enough to see them several times in various sky islands in SE Arizona all the way up to the Mogollon rim. But always in at least knee high thick grass and my only view was their back side as they flew away. From the pictures you can see they are quite an attractive species and sought after by both birders and hunters. The distribution map below shows they are also found in some pockets in West Texas and into New Mexico, but the bulk of their population is south into Mexico.
As a quail species they are highly prized by quail hunters. Because of their secretive nature it takes a really dedicated hunter with an excellent pointing dog or three to find them. This characteristic tends to bring out the best of the quail hunters that often end up very taken with the species. So much so they have often forced the Arizona Game and Fish Department to lower limits and seasons even when the data biologist collect show that the harvest is minimal. I know for those of you that don't hunt this may be hard to understand but hunters often become very fond of their prey and hold a deep respect for them. They can become the best conservationists as they are willing to put a great deal of volunteer time and money into preserving and enhancing the species and it's habitat. Mearn's quail hunters are some of the best in my opinion when it comes to concern for the species and it's habitat.
Mearn's quail are different from Gambel's and scaled quail in that their reproduction is dependent on summer rains, not the winter. They are paired up now (June) but won't start nesting until after the first of the monsoon rains in July. Several studies have shown that the amount of summer rain is the most important factor influencing the population, good rain - good populations and visa versa. That's assuming the habitat stays in good condition. Two factors found to negatively influence the habitat, thus bird numbers, is overgrazing by cattle and over harvesting of oak by fuelwood cutters. A reduction in grass height or tree density tends to increase the amount of predation. Since those 2 factors were identified by earlier studies (60's and 70's) the AZGFD and the Coronado National Forest have done a good job of protecting the habitat and the population is stable, but fluctuates a bit depending on the rainfall.
The only reason I was able to get this photo is a friend of mine alerted me to a small guest ranch outside of Sierra Vista where several pairs are coming into water. I sat in a blind at the water source and was able to get some great shots. I'm hoping the birds will keep coming and the access with continue. You do have to pay a fee to enter the property though. Contact me if you are interested.
Until then, Good Shooing!