In the scrub deserts of our Southwest, Gambel’s quail are gathering in winter coveys of 20 to 50 (occasionally 100 or more). Unlike other gallinaceous birds, Gambel’s quail make scant effort to be secretive, parading instead with their covey mates across mesquite, desert thorn, and yucca flats. With their black top-knot plumes, gray backs, and rich chestnut flanking, the strutting males lack only batons to pass for miniature drum majors, and they call loudly from low branches. (To hear them, go to birds.cornell.edu/BOW/calqua/.) So difficult would it be for a Gambel’s quail to conceal itself in the sparse desert cover that attempting to do so might be a waste of energy. However, like many creatures that evolved in the open, Gambel’s quail are aggressive. When a roadrunner hungrily eyed one brooding hen’s hatchlings, she was seen to fly at it and knock it off a wall. The species is named for its describer, William Gambel, who explored the Southwest in 1841. But the alternate name, desert quail, is more descriptive because no other quail is so well adapted to arid conditions. When necessary it can get the water it needs from succulent vegetation.
6 | Frosty Flowers
Long gone are the frostweed’s white, daisy-like blossoms that provided a feast for butterflies and bees in shade-dappled woodlands and streamsides across the southeast and south-central United States. Now, with temperatures dipping below freezing, this tall, hardy perennial blooms again and in the most astonishing and spectacular fashion. When its sap freezes and expands, the stems burst, exuding the intricate and delicate ice formations that give the plant its name as well as the many alternates, including white crownbeard, ice flower, frost beard, frost ribbons, rabbit ice, and ice fingers. It’s also known as Indian tobacco because American Indians smoked its leaves. The plant is easily cultivated and spreads quickly by rhizomes. Allow seedheads to dry on the plants, then harvest and clean the seeds. You can store them over the winter.