Using passive acoustic monitoring to assess Montezuma habitat use and population dynamics

Montezuma quail are secretive birds that occur in the upper elevations of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Desert regions of Mexico, with the upper extent of their range extending into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Although their life history has been documented, most accounts have been based on anecdotal observations or harvested samples. The lack of information on Montezuma quail may be attributed to several factors including their cryptic nature, the inaccessibility of their primary habitats (e.g., steep slopes and high elevations), and researcher’ inability to capture Montezuma quail.
One area of Montezuma quail research that is largely lacking is a methodology to determine current population estimates. Population estimates are needed to have a basis for any management decisions and are necessary to monitor population dynamics across years in the mountain ranges where Montezuma quail reside. Determining what the current population is for Montezuma quail has been difficult due to their cryptic behaviors and their tendency to crouch and freeze when disturbed. Additionally, due to the mountainous areas where these birds are located, detections have been low in past studies. However, current advances in technology are opening the door to obtain data on secretive species. Passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) is now available to help overcome some of these past issues. Passive acoustic monitoring allows for unattended and non-invasive monitoring through recording vocalizations of the local taxa via recording units the size of the common game camera. These units can be easily deployed and left in the field for weeks to collect data without human presence influencing behavior. These advances in technology can now aid in collecting data on remote and cautious species such as the Montezuma quail. By using PAM techniques coupled with autonomous recording units (ARU), we are currently able to passively collect field data that will be used to estimate occupancy, habitat selection, and population abundance parameters for Montezuma quail.
In the present study, we teamed up with Park Cities Quail, Permian Basin Quail Coalition and the Cross Timbers Quail Coalition to use PAM techniques to estimate habitat use and population dynamics of Montezuma quail in the Davis Mountains. By deploying ARUs year round, we are collecting data from the breeding and non-breeding season, determining patterns of habitat use, and using recorded vocalizations obtained in our ARU array to identify individuals in the area to create a model to estimate densities/population size across the Davis Mountains. Furthermore, this research is helping to identify patterns in vocalization activity associated with diel period or season, which would aid to our ecological knowledge of this species. The breeding season is currently underway and we are excited to see what the ARUs record over the next few months. If all goes well with the model, we will be able to give the first rough population estimate for Montezuma quail in the state.