Four years of drought have reduced the quail population on the ranch by at least half, but the covey around the house has fared much better than most. There’s ample cover here from bobcats and Cooper’s Hawks, and they don’t seem concerned with our strain of half-feral cats. But it’s been the regular irrigation of the garden that holds them here most summers.
The Valley Oak that we planted years ago and a resident Blue Oak have also benefited from the regular irrigation, both with good crops of acorns, most of which have fallen to the ground now. Whether crushed underfoot or decayed and rotting, they attract the quail, much to the displeasure of the woodpeckers who dive and try to drive them away from the Valley Oak, their tree of choice.
For the past month or so, the morning routine of the covey is to leave the Palo Verde tree where they spent the night, to go through the garden and stop beneath the Blue Oak for a snack, then parade across the yard to the Valley Oak, their tree of choice, for their main course. They seem to be coming to breakfast earlier, or perhaps the woodpeckers are sleeping in, but they haven’t been harassed lately as our temperatures drop to around 40°.
A little cold now for coffee outside, I finally went for the camera yesterday, having chastised myself for weeks for too many missed opportunities. Overcast after a light rain overnight, photographing quail and maintaining any depth of field was a challenge. Constantly moving and pecking, manual focus was out of the question and auto focus limited me to a single bird or two. My philosophy is to shoot lots of photos, especially with a digital camera, to sort out later. The photo above has survived some severe cropping yet maintained its unique feeling thanks to a good lens.
Trivia: Quail were among the messengers in native Yokuts folklore.
You could hear them
from the squash and cucumbers,
from the tomatoes where the rattler
stretched upon damp dirt to cool his belly,
in that no man’s land of prickly pear
and grape canes claiming shade trees
on the periphery of ripening vegetables—
their incessant tittering within: military
training before their first tour of the garden
scouted at the peak of heat days before,
our lawn of weeds this side of roadrunners
nesting in the cottonwood under
the surveillance of a pair of crows.
The only green for miles of hard
baked clay and blond dry fuzz,
a microcosm of good wet years,
the wild moves in, gathers to include
us—horses, dogs and feral cats—
into a sustainable family.
Tree frogs on the move, hopping
sojourns at dusk and dawn bring
the King snake tracking Garter snakes
that ignore us, stay out from underfoot.
We have no choice but to share
our little space and water in a drought.
We will count the covey into the future,
measure training into evenings, watch
for Bobcats and Coopers Hawks on patrol.
No place for soft hearts, politics,
or too much attention—no one wants
or can afford to run for election.
When the earth can be worked, they come
to investigate. Horses peer over fences,
cattle stare through barbed wire, but
the Roadrunners come in pairs like cops
on patrol inspecting changes to the ground
they claim, including us, without fear.
The quail fall out of the Live Oaks
well after dawn, tittering like children
late for school, gray coveys rolling
off the hill to graze new ways
to the water trough, and we claim them
all like family, one that gets along—
a sense of belonging greater
than ownership, taken root and proven
to be more than enough to feel secure.
A pair in the shade
take a break—quail
on the rail of the gate—
we stop to inhale
with each prolonged
tick of time, knowing
it won’t last long enough
to photograph—to leave
for the house and good lens
to freeze gray detail
to store somewhere.
Instead, we stare
at a mirror
in our garden
we won’t forget.