A friend at the state Forest Service promised me a "magic moment" — a few minutes before dawn when decades would fall away and the Florida woods would fill up with the calls of bobwhite quail.
So just after 6 a.m. Thursday, I met with a dozen-member crew — mostly Forest Service workers in dark green uniforms and scuffed boots — under the glare of a fluorescent light at an open-air hunt depot in the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.
Greg Hagan of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission handed out miniature boom boxes for the playing of recordings of the quail's call and maps marked with listening posts scattered over 7,700 acres of forest.
With a lot of hard work over the past few years, these woods have become almost as attractive to quail as the average old-time pasture or orange grove, said Marty Bearss, a longtime quail hunter and citrus grower who helped with this annual check on the species' population.
When Bearss was young, he said, his family enriched its groves by planting nitrogen-fixing — and quail-feeding — cover crops such as partridge peas and hairy indigo. Hunting was as convenient as rolling a pickup between their rows of citrus in northern Hillsborough County.
But gradually growers started enriching their soil with chemical fertilizer and treating these seed-bearing plants as weeds, spraying herbicides to create so-called "clean" groves.
Also, farmers got in the habit of mowing the messy, weedy edges of fields. Subdivisions spread. Rangers got better at putting out forest fires and, over the last 30 years, the national population of quail dropped about 75 percent, said Hagan, who coordinates the Upland Ecosystem Restoration Project.
This project was launched in 2006 by the state and the Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee with the aim of undoing years of damage to quail habitat — so far about 100,000 acres across the state, including the patch of the Citrus Tract south of Inverness, where controlled burns come no more than two years apart.
Bearss and I rode to our assigned spot in Hagan's truck, its headlights shining on a tunnel of tree branches and the high, sandy banks of the road.
Hagan held a fist-sized boom box over his head, looking a little of John Cusak in Say Anything, and broadcast a call that sounded absolutely nothing like the famous mating cry that gives the bird its name. It was more like the opening and closing of a rusty gate, the call of one covey checking on its neighbors.
We stood watching the horizon brighten through the pines, listening.
Other members of the crew heard a lot — calls from 13 coveys over two days, compared to a total of three last year.
Hagan, Bearss and I heard cawing crows, the faint buzz of traffic on County Road 581 and the occasional ping from the cooling truck engine.
"The woods are really dead this morning," Hagan said.
But if there was no magic in the moment, there is in the way the forest has been transformed by regular burns.
On the return trip we saw a forest of tall, well-spaced longleaf pines over a carpet of wire grass and yellow-flowering, seed-producing plants — a forest that looks like it did a few decades ago.