AMARILLO – Quail counts in nine major wildfire locations are being made this summer to determine the impact wildfires have had on the birds and their habitat, according to two Texas AgriLife Extension Service wildlife specialists.
In what is being termed Operation Phoenix, after the mythological bird of fire reborn from the ashes, AgriLife Extension personnel will monitor three times in each location for three years, said Dale Rollins, AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist in San Angelo.
Selected burn sites include the Wildcat Mountain fire in Tom Green and Coke counties, Cooper Mountain fire in Kent County, Matador fire in Motley and Cottle counties, Dickens County Complex fire, Swenson fire in Stonewall County, Andrews County fire, Possum Kingdom Complex fire in Stephens County and the 611 Gas Plant fire in Fisher County.
Call routes are 10 miles long and included burned and unburned areas, said Ken Cearley, AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist in Amarillo. Counts are conducted for two hours following dawn, weather permitting.
Rollins and Cearley said they hope to continue the counts in these locations for three consecutive years to determine the initial impact and recovery of the quail at the different locations.
Becky Ruzicka, an AgriLife Extension technician from Dallas, coordinated this summer’s counts. The studies are funded by AgriLife Extension’s “Quail Decline Initiative.”
While a bane in almost every respect, this year’s spate of wildfires did provide some unique opportunities for quail research, Rollins said.
“We surveyed quail response following the 2006 wildfires in the Panhandle and have three years of data there,” he said. “Our goal is to follow the 2011 burns for three years also.”
In the 2006 wildfires, the specialists found that habitats dominated by sandy soils rebounded within the first year, but clay loam soils were much slower to rebound.
“Sandy soils in the Panhandle are usually characterized by shinnery and it resprouts very quickly following fire, and thus offers better quail habitat more quickly than other sites,” said Rollins.
Cearley said after the 2006 fires, they monitored abundance of quail for three years on transects that started in burned country and extended into adjacent unburned country. Without pre-burn numbers for those areas, they could only test to see whether the burns enhanced quail habitat and resulted in more birds than the unburned areas.
He said that study showed population appeared to be affected more by soil-particle size, plant composition and its response to fire, pre-burn habitability for quail, topography and rainfall, rather than whether it was burned or unburned.
Sandier sites responded more quickly and likely supported higher densities pre-burn than sites with tighter soils, he said. In many cases, the fires burned on top of the caprock and stalled out before burning the rougher country off of the cap, which is often better quail habitat.
“So, in some cases, the lines were unable to give an unbiased picture of the impact of the fires on quail populations,” Cearley said.
A major difference between the 2006 fires and the 2011 fires is the tormenting heat and drought that spawned the 2011 fires and that has persisted unabated since the burns, Rollins said.
“Vegetation response has been much slower,” he said. “Many of the sites dominated by cedars still look like a moonscape four months after the burn.”
The specialists say the recent fires are unique in another regard—they had “pretreatment” counts on several of their study sites.
“Having pretreatment data for a wildfire study is pretty incredible. We had count lines in place on four of these burns, so we’ll have a unique opportunity to better gauge the fires’ impacts on quail, and how long it takes numbers to rebound,” Rollins said.
With a history of several years’ worth of density surveys on some transects, this study stands to be more instructive, Cearley said.
“With that information in hand we’ll have a much better chance of being able to measure the impact of these fires on quail populations.”