Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Surprise! A Bobwhite!

If you’re a birder and if you’ve lived in the same spot for 15 years, as I am and as I have, new species of birds for the yard list don’t pop up every day. Part of the reason I enjoy spring and fall migration so much is that it offers the possibility, however slight, of seeing a bird species that I haven’t seen at Roundtop before. So it comes as an especially big surprise when a non-migratory new species of bird shows up—namely, the Northern Bobwhite seen in today’s photo.

The days are darkening in the evenings now as surely as they already have in the mornings. When I headed out for my walk last evening, I found it was closer to sunset than I expected and was annoyed with myself for not starting out 15 or 20 minutes earlier. Already, I couldn’t see well enough to ID the smaller and more nondescript birds high up in the trees. They were already little more than silhouettes to my unaided eye.

Because I was rapidly losing the light, I changed my walking plan and decided to stay in open areas and not head into the woods. I ended up over by Roundtop’s Minuteman slope and saw several birds sitting on the split rail fence, none of which I could immediately ID because I wasn’t yet close enough. I kept walking and the birds gradually flew—a robin, a bluebird, a starling. One bird remained on the fence, and it was starting to look a bit different, but I wasn’t close enough to tell what it was.

I got closer, and the bird still didn’t flush. The bird was facing away from me, so I could only see its back. I don’t remember the moment when I started to think "bobwhite," but by the time the bird turned to check me out and I saw its face pattern, I was no longer surprised. I wasn’t yet close enough for a photo, but even as I walked closer, I was already telling myself this must be a released bird (and so uncountable).

When I was a kid, the Pa. Game Commission routinely stocked bobwhite quail for hunting. I saw them a lot in the warmer months and in the fall. But even if the birds survived hunting season, they didn’t survive our winters. Eventually the Game Commission stopped stocking the birds. Hunters were upset and many local gun clubs took to raising their own quail for release. Eventually, most of them stopped too, because this time the Game Commission was right. The birds couldn’t survive the winters, and keeping the fields stocked with them was an endless and expensive task.

But having a bobwhite on the fence in front of me, released or not, was still cause for a photo, so I kept inching forward to get into range. I tried whistling the bobwhite call that my grandmother patiently taught me, all those years ago, hoping that the bird would remain on the fence long enough to for me to get close enough for a photo. And then I saw them.

Three more quail, young ones, pecked the ground underneath the feet of the quail on the fence. These young birds were full size, but their plumage didn’t yet show the stripes of an adult bird. A moment later and I heard the soft sound, almost a coo, that the birds make amongst themselves. A female stepped out of the grass. Suddenly, the situation was a different one than what I thought. Here was papa bobwhite on the fence, protectively guarding his brood. Mama was down on the ground with the kids.

If these were released birds, they were released as a family, which seems unlikely. It seems more reasonable that the adult birds, released or not, bred in the wild and the young ones were born here. I managed to get the photo, though not one of the all the birds together. After a while, papa flew off the fence, and the adults herded the kids and headed up the slope.
These birds may still not survive the winter. I suspect they are holed up in the rocks that line the western edge of Minuteman. Come winter, the slope will have 4 feet of snow on it (presumably), and the birds won’t be able to forage much of anyplace without dodging skiers and snowboarders. Perhaps they will simply leave then and go someplace else. I hope so.

Could these birds really be wild quail? Is their presence yet another sign that southern birds, in the face of global warming, are ranging further north? I honestly have no idea. I only know that last evening, in the minutes before dark, I saw five bobwhite and got a photo of one of them. For the moment, that’s enough.


pablo said...

I am sooooo envious of your quail. I've heard them at Roundrock, but only in recent years. Maybe their numbers are recovering in Missouri. I'm glad you had the encounter.

Anonymous said...

I hope you are right about the Bobwhite. I know of 2 different reports about Bobwhites breeding in the last couple years in the Newville area. Each summer I hear one or 2 calling and it brings back memories of my youth in south east Massachusetts where at the time Bobwhite were still fairly common. But sad'y, there too as in all the northeastern U.S. they are pretty much gone.

Carolyn H said...

Pablo: the quail surprised me too. Whatever their origin, it was a great sighting.

Vern: I'm glad to hear about the bobwhite breeding reports up your way. That gives me a little hope that at least the young quail are wild-bred birds.

Carolyn H.