By Michael Pearce

The Wichita Eagle

(MCT) Good news for Lane County hunters. A summer study showed more than 10 times as many pheasants in your county as last year.

Researchers went from seeing .01 pheasants per mile of driven survey to .012 birds per mile. so the population is still pretty bleak, as it is across most of Kansas despite widespread increases.

"We had about a 70-percent increase in pheasants statewide, but everything has to be taken into perspective," said Jeff Prendergast, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism pheasant biologist. "We started the survey with all-time lows. We're still well below average. It's still going to be a tough year for most pheasant hunters."

Prendergast gets his information from the agency's annual six-week summer brood survey, when agency biologists, public land managers, game wardens and a few people from conservation groups, drive established survey routes and log the numbers of birds they see. The state has 74 routes for annual comparisons, which means not every county has a route.

Through the decades, the brood survey has usually provided accurate projections of what fall populations of pheasant and quail should be. A year ago it accurately forecast bad things. Prendergast said hunters shot about 190,000 rooster pheasants during the 2013-14 season, the lowest in recorded history. That compares to slightly under 900,000 three years earlier. The latter was the highest in nearly 25 years.

Pheasants

Prendergast said several years of drought that followed that great season seriously reduced nesting and brood-rearing habitat for pheasants, plus left the birds with little protection from predators. Some areas of western and central Kansas did get quality rainfall last summer, but it came too late to help with pheasant production.

This spring, things began looking glum as a winter drought continued, but Mother Nature eventually began to smile.

"In mid-May, we saw the rainfall kick in and it rained through May and June," said Prendergast. "This year the rain was early enough to help some of the pheasants to get off some re-nesting attempts."

As with most species of gamebirds, hen pheasants will attempt to nest again if one clutch of eggs is destroyed. Many that re-nested this year did well raising chicks. Prendergast labeled brood-rearing conditions "spectacular."

That means there were plenty of broadleaf plants for cover and to provide insects for hungry chicks. Though a problem for farmers, a weather-delayed wheat harvest in many areas gave the chicks the extra days or weeks needed to be large enough to escape farm machinery and predators.

This year's hunting prospects are best in the department's Smoky Hills region, which covers most of north-central Kansas. The northern counties of the region had the state's best populations last year, too. The decent hunting has spread southward for this season.

Prendergrast predicted the region roughly north of I-70, and between highways 81 and 183 should hold the most pheasants for the upcoming season.

The south-central region, below the Smoky Hills region, showed the largest pheasant population increase of the seven upland bird regions. The summer brood survey showed an increase of 173 percent throughout the region.

Prendergrast said several areas showed populations had doubled. The highest increase was the Lane County route, but the population was so low that even a huge increase means few birds.

Still, he said there will be some good hunts scattered about for good hunters. He talked with several people who shot daily limits of four roosters last season, when there weren't as many birds as this year.

"Those (good) spots will always be out there and the most dedicated hunters seem to find them," Prendergast said. "If you know somewhere that has good habitat, the birds will be there."

Like thousands of hunters, he hopes this year's improvements are just the first of several years to come.

"If we could have another year like this, we could be up to an average harvest in 2015 or so," Prendergast said. "It's all a matter of what the weather does."

Quail

Unlike pheasants, the Kansas quail population in some places had responded favorably to the drought in years past, especially eastern Kansas. Though nowhere has the population been close to what it had been 20 years ago. Prendergast said the late summer rains that came too late for pheasants last year appeared to have helped quail, which nest later than pheasants. This spring biologists found more bobwhites than last summer's survey had suggested.

This summer's rains probably helped western Kansas quail populations, where the drought had severely limited production. Prendergast cautioned most areas are still below where they were before the drought started five or six years ago.

Still, the overall state quail population is up 50 percent, on average, Prendergast said. He predicted the best quail hunting will be in the Flint Hills, particularly the southern parts of that region. Locally, the south-central region showed a 100-percent increase.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle