I kicked off this season hunting the entire month of September without ever pulling the trigger—for birds, not for big game, not for a once-in-a-lifetime tag draw. I never even came close. True, the Himalayan Snowcock might be the most challenging hunt in the country. This was my second attempt at those demons and I was just stoked to actually get a photo. Most people never have the opportunity to even lay eyes on one.
The dogs and I finished this season on public land in New Mexico. We’ve never chased desert quail before. We’ve never hunted this far south. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about bird forecasts or others hunting in the area this year. But there’s a big National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the state that is just a short 23 hour drive away, and it calls to us.
Visions of huge coveys of all three desert quail species duel with the knowledge I’ve gained from hunting elsewhere; late season wild birds are demanding. The later you go into winter the more educated upland birds become. These are the survivors of inclement weather, predator, disease, encroachment and every curveball their environment can muster.
But end-of-season wild bird hunters are the survivors, too. Hunters looking for an easy stroll and guaranteed gunning have retreated to preserves or have long ago retired their shotguns until next season.
For me, what is left is the essence of bird hunting that few get to see. The battle of wits between the smartest, strongest birds and Ultimate Uplanders with bird dogs not wanting this dance to end.
This New Mexico desert does not disappoint. It’s brutal and beautiful. It’s unfamiliar and unkind. Unseasonably high temps, gritty terrain and cactus of every sort that chew up pursuers. Quail offer fleeting glances and scent then scatter across the sand and evaporate leaving nothing but shallow footprints and spent, stumped dogs.
And I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ll be back to build on the lessons of this trip, to confront the unknown. The heft of the game bag remains a distant aim when the humbling by wild places offers such reward.