June 19, 2015

SUL ROSS MCNAIR RESEARCHER TRACKS MONTEZUMA QUAIL MOVEMENTS

By Steve Lang, Sul Ross News and Publications

Now you see them. Now you don’t. book

Felicia Rocha, Del Rio, spent several months tracking the well-disguised Montezuma quail on a Davis Mountains ranch as part of a McNair Program research project.

“I saw a pair on the site in the middle of last (spring) semester, then I couldn’t find them on my next few visits,” said Rocha, who will graduate from Sul Ross State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management with the completion of her research project.

“(Her mentor) Dr. (Ryan) Luna and I located three pairs in late May, but I do not always find them on my weekly visits,” she said. “Montezuma quail won’t flush until you are right on top of them and they are perfectly camouflaged.”

Luna said, “Montezuma quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) are a cryptic species with little being known about their ecology, roosting behaviors, or behavioral alterations to cope with environmental changes or disturbance. As a result, this quail species is one of the least understood upland game birds in North America. Montezuma quail crouch and freeze when they are approached, thus making detection difficult. Additionally, this species of quail consume subterranean forage, therefore typical quail trapping methods do not yield high success rates.”

Rocha’s research, “Habitat Associations of Montezuma Quail During the Breeding Season,” includes conducting surveys to determine habitat use and selection during the breeding and nesting season.

“In lieu of trapping and affixing radio-telemetry to Montezuma quail, for Felicia’s project we opted to conduct flush counts,” said Luna. When the quail are flushed, the number of birds in the covey and their sex composition are recorded. Additionally, a GPS point is obtained, which will be used to determine areas of preferred habitat.

Rocha said Montezuma quail’s preferred habitat is mostly found in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. Her research included tracking quail movements in the montane (mountainous) grasslands.

She is mapping areas where she sighted the pairs to determine if patterns exist for habitat choices. “For example, do they prefer certain aspects on a slight slope or more level ground compared to a greater slope.”

“Since most of Texas is privately-owned, it is hard for researchers to access habitats, and we don’t have numbers (population totals) on them,” she said. “Even in states like Arizona and New Mexico, where there are more public lands and open hunting seasons (for Montezuma quail), they are still hard to find.”

Rocha said that her research results support previous studies. “I have found they like the higher elevated grasslands, and when they do flush, they head toward tree lines.”

“Overall, Felicia’s project will yield valuable information on habitat characteristics selected by Montezuma quail during the breeding and nesting seasons,” Luna said.

Rocha said that her McNair Program participation has been enlightening and inspiring.

“I have certainly learned a lot about research,. It’s a really involved process, but I know what to expect if I attend graduate school,” she said. “It (participation) boosted my confidence and helped me realize what I can do.”

In addition to her McNair research, Rocha is also conducting an undergraduate project through The Borderlands Research Institute's Undergraduate Research Program. Working with graduate student Justin French, she is comparing the micro-structural features of six species of plants gathered near Marathon and Marfa.

Rocha plans a break from university studies in mid-July, when she begins a three-month stint as a temporary employee with the U.S. Forest Service, working in the Lincoln National Forest near Alamogordo, NM.

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program is designed to encourage first generation, low-income students and minority undergraduates to consider careers in college teaching as well as prepare for doctoral study. Students who participate in the program are provided with research opportunities and faculty mentors.

Named in honor of the astronaut who died in the 1986 space-shuttle explosion, the program was established at Sul Ross in November 2007. It is funded through the Department of Education’s TRIO programs.