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Merlin: They may be rare but this could well be our ‘quail year’

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“I think I have just seen a quail,” said my son over the phone on August 18.

“I was out walking my spaniel on land where I shoot near Kingston and the dog flushed a dumpy bird about the size of a thrush.

“It only flew a short distance and dropped down into the vegetation.

“When I reached the spot where it landed there was no sign of it.”

Although I had only seen one common quail myself over a lifetime of bird watching I knew by my son’s description of the bird and its behaviour that it was indeed a common quail he had seen. A few days later he was back on the phone to tell me he had seen two in the same place and near the end of August called to say his dog had flushed another one in a field near Portgordon.

I told him he was very fortunate to see one quail never mind three as they are rare summer visitors and breeders in Moray and are very elusive in their breeding quarters and seldom seen as they are very reluctant to fly and when flushed only fly a short distance before dropping back into the cover of cereal or grass crops that they occupy during the breeding season.

However, this year may be a so called ‘quail year’ when many more birds than usual have visited Moray as was the case in 1989 when unprecedented numbers visited Moray and other areas in the UK.

During bird surveys they are usually located by the distinctive call of the male that is said to sound like, “wet my lips” repeated several times.

The males arrive first on the selected breeding grounds and begin to call to attract a mate. However, listening for their calls may not always detect that there are birds present because males that find a mate apparently seldom call once they are mated.

Bachelor birds continue to call and are therefore more likely to be located.

In Moray over the years they have been recorded all along the agricultural strip between Brodie and Buckie and mostly in fields of cereals so this is one bird that probably benefits from the cover that growing cereals provide.

Their nest is a mere scrape in the soil sparsely lined with grass in which eight to 13 eggs beautifully marked eggs are laid. However, due to the birds’ secretive nature the nests are usually found by chance rather than by searching for them.

Amazingly, the birds that breed in the UK may already have bred on route from their winter quarters in North Africa or could even be the offspring of birds that bred on route.

First broods which are capable of migrating just two months after hatching and are sexually mature at the age of 12-15 weeks join in with the second phase of breeding as early as June.

During a study of breeding birds in France during the ‘quail year’ of 1987 it was estimated that 50 per cent of the birds breeding that year had been hatched earlier the same season. There will be more on the fascinating lifestyle of this long distance migrant in my next article.

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