El Nino brings favorable weather patterns and a 38 percent boost to Oklahoma’s October roadside surveys, yet numbers remain well below historic averages.
By Tell Judkins, Upland Game Biologist
More than 30 years ago, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation began conducting roadside surveys to monitor quail numbers throughout the state. Surveys are conducted on 83 routes of 20 miles each in August and October in all counties except Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, which are excluded due to urbanization. With low observation numbers, these roadside surveys can have a wide degree of variability, but the consistency of the survey methodology over time allows interpretation of the information on a historical scale.
August surveys give biologists an idea of breeding success, while October surveys reveal a glimpse of recruitment for the fall hunting season. Typically, August survey numbers are a less reliable hunting season predictor than October survey numbers because some chicks won’t survive through summer. Long-term and year-to-year trends are important for hunters and biologists alike. The past decade has seen survey numbers cycle starting at the lowest recorded on these surveys in 2012 and slowly rising to a peak in 2016 that quickly fell back to previous lows.
Data are analyzed in two ways: by region (Figure 1/Table 1) and by ecoregion (Figure 2/Table 2). Looking at the data in both ways can provide better understanding of the fluctuations in quail numbers.
This year's data show the statewide average up by about 38 percent over 2022.
August surveys showed more sightings than in 2022 in all regions except the northcentral region. October surveys showed more sightings than in 2022 in all regions except the southwest and northcentral regions, and the southeast region showed no change over 2022. (Table 1).
Figures 4-10 show the average survey results for statewide and each region from 1990-2023. These figures also show a rolling 10-year average to help visualize the changes and the relationship to the 10-year average over longer periods.
When statewide numbers are broken down by ecoregion, it is easy to see which areas are producing better or worse year-to-year (Table 2, Figure 3). On an ecoregion basis, the Southern High Plain had the largest increase. By analyzing the data this way, it is apparent that this year’s statewide average is a result of production in four ecoregions: Ouachita Mountains, Cherokee Prairie, Rolling Red Plain, and Southern High Plain.
Weather and habitat conditions this past year have generally been greatly improved over the previous couple of years. November 2022 had over 97 percent of the state in drought conditions graded as D2-D4 (Figure 13). Last year’s drought conditions and overall La Niña weather pattern gave way to a moist spring fueled by El Nino conditions. Spring brought some reprieve for most of the state from drought, but some of those storms brought large swaths of heavy rain and hail that can make nesting success limited locally.
In mid-October, pockets of extreme drought persisted in the northcentral and southern regions of the state. Without additional rains, drought conditions will worsen for much of the state. (Figures 11-13). Drought settled back in quickly with summer heat; areas of the southwest saw up to 59 days over 100 degrees. Intermittent rains throughout the growing season allowed for much of the state to see decent crops of forbs and insects. Currently, about 33.9 percent of the state is affected by severe drought (D2) or worse (Figure 13).
Anecdotal reports of broods seem to indicate that quail nesting season started in early June, with a majority of observations coming in mid-July. Brood reports have continued throughout the nesting season. Age structure of observed bobwhite in the October surveys show 87.76 percent full grown and 12.24 percent as three-fourths grown birds. This structure tends to relate with a strong early hatch. Anecdotal observations of multi-age broods also reveal evidence of repeated nest attempts with varied success across the state.
No scaled quail were observed during 2023 surveys. There are only a few routes in Oklahoma with the opportunity to observe scaled quail. Therefore, this is not a prediction of scaled quail abundance, strictly an observation. ODWC biologists have received several reports of scaled quail broods in the Oklahoma Panhandle in 2023.
WING COLLECTION BOXES: This year, ODWC will again collect quail wings from public lands to better evaluate the population.
Hunters who harvest birds from a Wildlife Management Area that has a wing box are asked to please take one wing (whichever is least damaged as long as only one wing per bird) from each harvested quail and place it into a provided envelope, write the requested information on the envelope, and then place it in the wing box.
To learn more about ODWC quail wing research, click HERE.
SUMMARY: Hunters taking to the field this season will likely find areas of good quail numbers where habitat and weather conditions were most favorable. Hunting will not be what it was at the last observed peak in production in 2016, but hunters can expect to find birds throughout the state. Quail season will open Nov. 11, 2023, and close Feb. 15. Hunters may take 10 quail daily.
Looking to learn more about quail hunting. Click on the button below for the Wildlife Department's Quail Hunting Resources webpage.
Ultimately, remember the outdoors are always open! Work some ground, trust your dog, and make a memory! And enjoy time spent in Outdoor Oklahoma.