The California Quail Welcomes Me to TMPF (& Reno)
I grew up in the eastern deciduous forests and cornfields of northeast Ohio, lived in a 1000-acre nature preserve in southwest Ohio, adventured on the trails, discovered the flora and fauna, and enjoyed everything the east had to offer. Now, here I am, freshly moved to the Great Basin, the mountains of Reno, and looking to find my place in this wonderful new ecosystem. And what better way for an outdoors-y, nature-y gal like me than heading out for a hike?
In preparation, and not entirely sure what to expect, I packed up several water bottles, my singular field guide (don’t worry--I’ve recently acquired more), my camera, extra sunscreen, and a small notebook that has accompanied me on many an adventure. I hop in my car and head on up to Evan’s Canyon, part of Rancho San Rafael Park in north Reno.
t took me a rather long time to hike this rather short loop. I stopped and looked at everything, as nothing is familiar to me, save the turkey vultures circling in the sun above me. I watched some sparrows, found some very interesting (and still unidentified) wolf spiders, and discovered a few western fence lizards sunning themselves on the rocks.
Reaching the northernmost part of the Evans Canyon Trail, I found a small covey of California quail picking around on the rocks surrounding an drainpipe. A male stood at the top of the pile, watching out for threats (like me, obviously) while the little puffballs of babies and drably-colored females scratched around in the rocks. For a good while, I sat a hundred yards or so away, watching and listening to the muffled coos and bobbing antics. I was thoroughly entranced by the quails, having never seen anything quite like them before. (Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen ground birds before. I once saw a woodcock routing around in a marsh that my co-worker insisted was “dialing his bird cellphone.” I don’t know what he was talking about.) As I attempted to move closer and get the coveted covey of quail snapshot, they darted immediately off the rocks and into the brush with the most adorable hustle I’ve ever seen. I stood at the top of the rocky drainpipe, watching the family moved between sagebrush, scratching and calling to one another. I continued on the trail after confusing (no, concerning) a pair of dog walkers with my reason for sitting on the drainpipe.
I continued my hike around the canyon, enjoying the desert cottontail rabbits and loggerhead shrikes, all the while keeping an eye out for my new favorite thing, those evasive quail. I could hear them calling but was unable to locate them in the thick brush or against the ground, to which they are very well camouflaged. Coming around a corner on the trail’s last jaunt, having resigned to never seeing a quail again and reasonably heartbroken, I stopped in my tracks. Walking toward me on the trail was a covey of about 35 quail. A male was at the front, top knot bobbing as he walked. He stopped and straightened up upon seeing me. I stood as still as I could, regretting my packed-up camera cozily stowed in my backpack. He stayed very still while the lil’ quail train kept moving forward, huddling around him, scratching and peeping, an adorable traffic jam. The young fledglings did not seem to notice me. However, other adults appeared intermittently and were immediately alerted to my presence. As I later learned, a covey is typically comprised of multiple family groups, and have been known to contain upwards of 75 individuals. Quails also practice egg dumping, laying eggs in others’ nest, so while a family group may contain non-family members, a clutch is usually 12-16. This group was clearly quite mixed and the largest bundle of quails I could have imagined seeing!
As carefully, calmly, and swiftly as I could, and without losing my eye contact with the front-most quail, I made the move to fetch my camera. As stealthy as I thought I was, the male apparently thought otherwise. Quickly, he led the group off trail and into the brush below. I hurried to snap a few (horrible) photographs to prove to my quail-less Ohioan family that they do, in fact, exist, top knot and all.
Thankfully, this covey did not find me nearly as threatening as the last, and did not rush immediately to shaded cover. They stayed for about ten minutes in a small line of down feathers and head plumes, scurrying around between rabbitbrush and Russian thistle. They called to one another, hopped around, and pecked at the ground, until I lost them too far off trail to responsibly follow.
I wrapped up my hike with approximately 60 new pictures on my camera, a few sketches and notes in my notebook, and dust-filled shoes. I drove home, looking forward to telling my Ohio-bound brethren about the rare and wonderful quail. Little did I know, this would not be the last time that day I would have a close encounter of the quail kind.
While sitting at my kitchen table a few hours later, rehydrated and replenished, I heard the now familiar call coming through my open window. A quail was scratching around in my garden! As it turns out, you don’t have to go very far to encounter wildlife. I left my apartment, and open door startled the little fellow up to my driveway. I followed carefully, and found about eight juvenile and adult quail under my neighbor’s car. They moved fluidly against my approach, flying up onto a rail (quail on rail--I kid you not), and soon onto my neighbor’s roof. I sat outside my apartment and listened to the quail scurrying around the roof and calling to another bundle of quail in a nearby tree. In a swirl of wings, they clumsily flopped from roof to tree, tree to roof, back and forth. It was a wonderful end of the day. I can think of nothing better than California quail (in multiple coveys, no less!) to welcome me to Nevada and TMPF.
Here’s to many more quails & happy trails.