Birds in the Borderlands

Josiah refilled my drink and gestured me over to a glass-fronted bookcase. There on the shelves stood a mounted pair of each quail species, but the Mearns cock bird was the one Josiah pulled out. It was a rotund little bird that reminded me of an overdressed bobwhite, a jumble of striations and snow-white spots set against an iridescent black-brown undergarment. Some call it the Montezuma quail. That night at El Coronado, Josiah just looked at it and smiled, not needing to give it a name at all.

THE NEXT DAY AT THE BAR FOOT, we drove deeper into the foothills and pulled off the track, aiming dog boxes away from the sun. Dave started hauling out dogs and putting his string together. Dave’s a Brittany man at heart, with some pointers thrown in for style, and he lugs his dogs two at a time with arms wrapped around their shoulders. He set the dogs down, collared and watered them, and turned them loose for a tour of the brush. All assembled, he looked at Josiah, who shrugged and smiled quietly. “I guess we work up this canyon, cross over the top, and work our way back down the canyon to the west.” We strung out three abreast, and eased over the grassy rise and into the arroyo to the east.

Dan took the side hill to the left, and I walked up the arroyo, while Josiah weaved steadily up and down the hill to my right. The dogs bounced all around us as Dave watched them, smiling all the while. In the wash, I was able to study the trincheras more closely. At ground level, these structures are still hard to see, as they’ve been so readily absorbed into the surroundings. Scrub grasses and sedge bristle around and over them. I found myself thinking of them less as a means of water capture, and more as an expression of desert folk art, as intricate and inconspicuous as any piece of oldworld engineering. I saw Josiah stopping to inspect them, too, bending over to feel the texture of the silt in the small side washes, commenting on the telltale scratch marks that meant the Mearns were near at hand.

The shallow canyon eventually petered out, and we lumbered out of it to gather on an oak-strewn rise. The day was glorious and cool as we caught our collective breath in the thick of it, feeling the exertion and the increased elevation. Mearns are not bottomland birds. They frequent hilly places, and I’d been told we’d be working for them. Josiah removed his hat, wiping his forehead on his sleeve. About then, Dave called out a dog on point.

There were actually two dogs on point, nose-to-nose, not 10 yards apart. Dave’s little Brittany, Lucy, was honoring a few yards off, and my heart beat faster, though not from the climb. In deference to our host, I offered Josiah the first covey, but he wouldn’t have it. “You go,” he said, never closing his gun, and Dan and I moved in. I was ready for a flush, and a flurry of wings, but no part of me is ready for what greeted us. The world between the two dogs blew apart in fragments that buzzed with the fury of angry bees, erupting like a shower of sparks above, beside, and all around us. I poked desperately in one direction, swung and poked again, hearing Josiah’s gun sound to my right a split second after mine. A lone bird, tangential to the covey rise, tumbled into the sunburnt grass. When silence returned, a smiling Brittany was retrieving Dan’s bird, and I turned to Josiah to congratulate his fine shooting.

“No, no. That bird was all yours,” he said as the pointer fetched it back. I was sure he was wrong, but he insisted, and took the bird from Dave, then handed it to me. It will always be my first Mearns quail, given to me by a humble gentleman in a wide-brimmed hat. I held it in my hand and marveled at its intricacy: the contrast of bars and spots and whites and blacks as precise and delicate as anything drawn in ink. I pocketed the bird. The remains of the covey had spread out across the hillside in scattered singles, and Dave looked over at Josiah for direction. “Enough to follow,” he said, affording us hope for a single or two without taking more than we ought from one covey. So we loaded our guns and followed the dogs, and crept ever deeper into the hillside.

That afternoon at the Bar Boot, we shot over a handful of unique Mearns coveys, taking thoughtfully and not wantonly, as if we had a choice. We filled our pockets with little mottled birds, interspersed here and there with a scalie or Gambel’s. But what I noticed, what I remember most, is the way that Josiah gave the hunt to us, and shared with us the wonder of that place. Dan and I walked up on each point at Josiah’s urging. Josiah offered up an occasional shot, but the quail seemed to mean far more to him than just shooting, and he’d just as often simply watch them scatter, smiling quietly to himself. I began to sense that quail were not the goal at all, but simply an indicator that a greater goal had been achieved.

Over the next few days, we hunted high and low, shooting, and often missing, three species. We ran dogs over, around, and through that magnificent country, letting them run as big as they could, confident that even a mile out, they’d barely be beyond our sight. We hunted ranches that pushed against Mexico, places with romantic, Wild West names like the old Smith Place, Cienaga, and El Coronado. We shot birds overlooking Turkey Creek, and the place where Doc Holliday ostensibly beat Johnny Ringo in a draw, and left his corpse beneath a shade tree. We stood in saddles where Cochise once stood, considering the interconnectedness of things.

All the while, I found myself watching Josiah. He’d hunt along with us, then fall back, drifting over the ridges and into arroyos where we’d find him kneeling, adding rocks to trincheras or pulling stalks of dried grass from the earth. He’d shoot and hit and in that reverential interlude between shot and retrieve I’d watch him sigh, and look beyond the quail-strewn cover before us, and into that sweep of landscape. He saw, I’m quite sure, something filled with possibility. All about him, the land was rebounding and proving itself in the scratched-up silt that collected in arroyos, and by the little spotted birds that filled our game bags. He saw not a landscape, or a project broken up by impediments, or barriers, or “can’ts.” Instead he saw something bigger than himself, something timeless and priceless and utterly worth saving. Then he’d bend over to pick up a lime-sized rock and add it to the nearest trinchera, while 20-gauge shells dribbled out of the hole in his tattered vest pocket.


With another New England winter in full swing, Reid Bryant is already looking for a way back to the borderland region of Arizona. He writes from his home in southern Vermont, and you may read more of his work at www.reidbryant.com.

If You Go

With the modern volatility of wild bobwhite populations, desert quail have become the most desired alternative for those hunters who seek hardflushing covey birds that are a pointing dog’s dream. The borderland region of Southern Arizona—with Patagonia as a geographic and cultural hub—offers numerous opportunities for hunting these birds both on public and private land. Little more than an hour from the Tucson airport, Patagonia offers lodging and dining options proximal to great hunting. Several outfitters and guides operate in the region, including Dave Brown Outfitters (www.davebrownoutfitters.com), and Mark Nissen and Randy Matis (www. classicbirdhunts.com). DIY hunters will be well served to get more information regarding access and habitat at www.azgfd.com.

The ranches of Cuenca Los Ojos afford a small number of lucky hunters shooting opportunities for scaled, Gambel’s, and Mearns quail. Dave Brown is the guide with sole concessions on the CLO properties, and opportunities for private-land hunts exist on properties in both Arizona and Mexico. Proceeds from these hunts help to sustain the CLO restoration work, as do private contributions. More on the efforts of Cuenca Los Ojos is available at www.cuencalosojos.org.

Though seasons for scaled and Gambel’s quail open in September, the trifecta of Arizona desert quail (Mearns included) are hunted in a late-winter season that spans most of December, January, and a portion of February. In the cooler winter months, desert quail are hunted to great effect with pointing dogs. Terrain can be rough and unforgiving, so dog boots and chest protectors may be warranted.

As desert quail are small and fairly delicate, shotgun, choke, and shotshell choice need not be overly complicated. Double guns as small as 28-gauge and light upland loads of #7½ shot should suffice, as should chokes no tighter than modified. Open chokes and light loads will enhance shooting success and make for a nice piece of table fare. All three species are lovely on the plate, especially when seared in a hot pan with nothing more than garlic, salt, and pepper.