Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix)

Some animals on our safari are harder to spot than others. Among them is a tiny gamebird that is typically heard rather than seen — although its distinctive call has in recent times become much rarer in Shropshire. Thankfully, the Weald Moors are bucking the trend…

ID: Common Quail are small, stocky ground nesting birds with deeply streaked, sandy brown plumage and a thick cream stripe above the eye. However, familiarising yourself with their rat-a-tat-tat, and oft-repeated, ‘whip-whippit’ call is likely to prove far more beneficial in tracking down these secretive summer visitors, which are Britain’s only migrant gamebird.

The elusive Common Quail is far better known by sound than sight (Dave Chapman)

In the Field: the presence of Quail on the Weald Moors shouldn’t really come as any surprise, as they have a strong preference for open lowland landscapes with relatively few trees and hedges. Unimproved grasslands and, more typically, cereal crops are regularly chosen as breeding grounds. Winter sown wheat and barley (which provide dense cover but just enough room to move about freely) are particularly popular sources of seeds and insects, which the birds take from the ground.

Quail arrive in Britain during late April and May, with a second wave coming in just after midsummer (comprising birds born earlier the same season). Despite a reputation as a weak flyer, this unlikely migrant’s passage involves a journey from sub-Saharan Africa that begins in late winter and takes place at night. Once in their summer breeding grounds, Quail begin a complicated pattern of communal courtship that can involve male birds setting-up nests with different partners one-after-the-other in a process charitably referred to as ‘successive monogamy’! Quail chicks, which are cared for exclusively by the female, reach maturity very quickly and are capable of migrating just two months after hatching.

How Are They Doing?
The widespread decline of Quail in the British countryside is not fully understood, and the numbers visiting our shores each spring and summer can also vary dramatically. In a good ‘influx year’, the Welsh Marches are noted as a popular destination but the last known of these events occurred in 1989. Consequently, Shropshire is classified as an area where Quail enjoy only limited breeding distribution. Many possible reasons for the bird’s general decline have been suggested, with modern agricultural practices and a reduction of breeding habitat both cited as potential causes by experts. Interestingly, interbreeding with released Japanese Quail (the commercial source of many of the eggs found in our supermarkets) may also be another long term threat to wild populations.
Common Quail migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to Britain each spring and their young are capable of making the return journey just two months after hatching (Dave Chapman)

On the Weald Moors: Common Quail have been recorded in small numbers all across the Weald Moors in recent years. With their aforementioned love of crop fields, Eyton Moor is one location you might wish to search for them, while Moor Bank (just beyond the northern edge of Waters Upton Moor), Preston, Kynnersley and Wall Farm are other locations to keep an ear open for their distinctive calls. As a general rule of thumb, Quail tend to occupy similar terrain to Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges, so wherever you see these birds skulking around hedgerows and field edges, a chance encounter with their more elusive cousin could follow.

With thanks to Dave Chapman for giving us permission to reproduce his astonishing images of Shropshire Quail