Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Adversaries: stalking the Gambel's quail

...The instinct that finds delight in the sight and pursuit of game is bred into the very fiber of the race. Golf is sophisticated exercise, but the love of hunting is almost a physiological characteristic. A man may not care for golf and still be human, but the man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph, or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Four mornings. Four mornings I spent stalking through Sonoran desert brush, sans camouflage, to get these few images, and I'm still not entirely thrilled with the results, but I wanted to be able to post some photographs of Gambel's quail.

At times, they were surprisingly conspicuous. Males could be heard calling for at least two or three hours each morning, often from elevated perches in mesquite or palo verde.

But while they are known to congregate at bird feeders—Jess used to see her beloved "quail with hats", apparently decked out in Sunday best, at her parents' old place in Marana almost every day—Gambel's are not easy birds to photograph under more natural conditions. The home-field advantage is formidable, and these beautiful gamebirds are very alert and very adept at using cover, always keeping on the far side of whatever brush is available.

On occasion, I was able to get off a snap shot at a single quail making a dash up a rocky slope or across a sandy wash—they run much more readily than they fly, even when pressed—but only a tiny fraction of these were even remotely in focus. Autofocus is useless in an arena consisting mainly of twigs, and Gambel's are loath to give much time, so manual focus is a Hail-Mary play even when one can predict their route.


One the last morning of my self-assignment, I was able to get fairly close to a small covey and make a few pictures before the quail dispersed.


But the best shot I got all week—and, again, I'm still not completely satisfied—was when I emerged from a culvert under a road and turned around to find a cock Gambel's loafing in the shade just above me.

Of course, there's a reason these birds are so wary...

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