Bird's Eye View

How unmanned flight helps researchers track elusive quail.

A quail perched atop a tree branch as it looks towards the sunrise.
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On a clear, chilly November morning, Texas Tech graduate student Sean Yancey sips coffee as he and two other trucks full of northern bobwhite quail researchers convoy out to the V Ranch south of Slaton, Texas.

The trucks rumble through a gate and down a caliche and dirt road. Yancey finds his point and parks. This point is a specially chosen spot at a bend in the road where researchers return to listen for their quarry and count by ear how many coveys are in the area. The other trucks pass and proceed to other points on the ranch. A sky streaked with stars and heavy with the sound of country silence hangs over us as Yancey shuts off the engine. No wind, too. That’s a good sign, Yancey says. Makes the quail counting much easier. A sliver of dark pink has barely emerged on the eastern horizon.

What time is sunrise, he asks. If it’s at 7:10, I’m betting we won’t start hearing them until 6:40. So we’ve got about an hour to wait.

At 6:30, we leave the cab of the truck and stand in the brisk morning air, waiting with ears open.

I sure hope we hear something, Yancey says.

Then, we do. A few minutes shy of 6:40 a.m. and right on schedule.

Straight in front of us about 100 yards, a lone chirrup rings out from the grass and mesquite. Then again. And again at about 10 o’clock from our position. Then at two o’clock.

Texas Tech University Graduate Student Sean Yancy.
Sean Yancey is among the Texas Tech graduate students who are up long before sunrise counting quail coveys on a West Texas Ranch.

Quite a few coveys are calling to each other. Yancey explains that, while scientists don’t know for sure, the birds may be communicating to other coveys each morning to disperse themselves equally in the environment. That way, competition for food might not be as fierce and overgrazing might not be a problem.

Ten minutes later, the cows are up and the quail are silent. In this early dawn communique, the casual observer could hear the suspected diverging of the birds. Yancey marked what he heard on a graph showing where he heard each covey and how far he believed them to be from the point.

OK, we’re done, he said. It doesn’t take too long.

Quail-Tech Alliance

The V Ranch is one of 26 ranches in 19 counties covering about 1.6 million acres of land enrolled in the Quail-Tech Alliance, a five-year, $1.25 million study. Scientists with this project hope to discover reasons for the area’s quail decline as well as develop new methods for landowners to use to stabilize, maintain and even increase quail populations. The Quail-Tech Alliance is a partnership between Texas Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management and Quail First, a nonprofit organization.

Sunrise at V Ranch near Slaton, TX.
The V Ranch near Slaton, Texas is among the ranches that are part of the Quail-Tech Alliance, a partnership dedicated to a stable and health quail population.

Following a population that mysteriously plummeted in 2010 to nearly zero in some areas of the Rolling Plains of Texas, researchers tried to find out why. True, the drought of 2007 and 2008 impacted the numbers, but with plentiful rains in 2010 boosting bird numbers in the spring, everyone expected a bumper crop by fall.

Instead, there was silence from the usually talkative birds, and researchers and landowners wanted to know why.

Rains of 2015 have helped to swell populations again, Yancey said, and now they’re travelling to the ranches participating in the program to find out by how much.

Ecology and Economy

Sustaining a healthy quail population is important both ecologically and economically. Brad Dabbert, Burnett Foundation Endowed Professor of Quail Ecology at Texas Tech, leads the Quail-Tech Alliance.

Economically quail hunting is important to rural Texas, he said. In years when there are high bird populations, landowners can get $6 to $8 per acre for hunting leases. For a rancher with 10,000 acres, that’s a big impact. The hunters also bring money into the rural towns to hotels, restaurants and stores. When they hear there are few birds, that revenue stream can dry up.

Ecologically, Dabbert emphasizes how important it is for every species to thrive. Quail populations have declined significantly across the country, but when the strong holds of the Rolling Plains, near Lubbock, began seeing declines, alarm bells began to go off for land owners and researchers.

How farmers and ranchers manage their land is a key factor in quail population stability. Changes in farming practices and land use have made many habitats unsuitable for quail, he said. We’re looking at some things to help ranchers better manage their land while maintaining quail numbers.

Dabbert’s research team has worked on a number of projects including successfully using supplemental feeding during winter months and removing predators to increase quail numbers.

High Tech Monitoring

How do scientists monitor the birds to know if they are thriving? For about half a century, scientists, including Dabbert, have used very high frequency (VHF) transmitters to track how quail move about their habitat. The small transmitters are attached to birds caught in the wild.

A quail perched on a branch.
Texas Tech researchers are tracking quail populations to help ranchers devise sound management practices to insure that the birds thrive.

While VHF units have served researchers well, it’s not a perfect system. Dabbert notes that his team can only monitor the birds in person, usually once a day, by going into the area and physically finding the birds. That method presents a couple problems. No. 1, it is labor, time and cost intensive. Secondly, the birds can hear a human approaching and may move away from where they typically would be, creating a not completely accurate map of how the birds would naturally move.

Now Dabbert’s team is joining the drone revolution to better monitor the birds. The team using tiny GPS units and the unmanned aerial vehicle to monitor movements. While the birds still must be caught and the units attached, the final results are much more accurate.

For example, if we were to find you in the parking lot once a day with the VHF transmitter, then we’d say the parking lot is your preferred place, not in the office or in Starbucks, he said. With the drone and GPS, we can get exact locations.

Dabbert’s team, thanks to a generous donation from rancher Bill Goddard, purchased an advanced drone capable of giving researchers survey grade data. The drone has allowed Dabbert to greatly expand his research area as well.

Before, we considered it good if we could get 30 quail locations in six months or a year to estimate their home range, he said. Now we can 300-400 locations in a couple weeks.

It’s not just the increased number of locations he can track that gives Dabbert’s research new layers. It’s the ability to link the virtually real-time data with the GPS that creates what he calls the magic. The drone takes still images that are incorporated into a map that’s geo-referenced.

A quail is about 10 inches tall, so the grass should stay at least 12 inches tall, he said. We know that three-foot tall is plenty. But there is a lot of unknown in between.

With the drone and GPS technology, Dabbert’s team can produce a 3-D map of the habitat and see where a bird moves, what type of cover it seems to like and if it survives.

It’s the total picture that helps Dabbert help landowners. Quail require a minimum amount of grass cover, the exact amount isn’t known, but it’s important to a landowner who’s grazing cattle to know how short to graze the grass.

If cattle graze the grass too short, the birds may not have enough cover to hide from predators, Dabbert said. We can tell a rancher exactly what part of his land the quail are using so that he or she knows where to graze cattle.

Dabbert believes that helping the ranches that are part of the Quail-Tech Alliance will have a trickle-down effect on other ranchers.

We call our partners anchor ranches, he said. We try to anchor quality habitat in each county that we’re in in hopes the neighbors will see successful management techniques and adopt them.

For Dabbert, the bottom line is a healthy quail population. While no one can control the weather and how a drought will affect the bird population, he believes that research-based habitat management is vital.

Part of his measurement of success is the pre-sunrise call of the birds. We’re not positive why they call to each other. We believe the quail are spacing themselves out so they don’t use the same resources, he said. We use it as an index of density. We estimate how many quail are in a covey and use the call to estimate how many covey are on a particular area.

How are the quail doing? Rather well actually. Last year we were hearing eight or nine coveys. This year, we’re up to 15 or 16.

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