One of the nicest things about a day afield is that it seldom goes the way it's planned.

I was hunting for deer. What I saw, for an enchanted hour, was my first undisturbed covey of bobwhite quail.

I had seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of quail, but always in glimpses. I have surprised them pecking gravel along a road. I am often startled and delighted when coveys flush when I am walking the woods and fields. Ihave several times been treated to the broken-wing act of a hen trying to draw me away from her chicks, and once I even saw the tiny puffballs themselves.

But until this covey appeared below my deerstand, the quail had always seen me first and had fled in fear -- which was wise, because one of the places I love to see them is over the barrel of my shotgun. The only wild ones I had been at the bittersweet end of the hunt. The dead bird is beautiful but it is no longer a quail: It is dinner.

The covey was working its way along a brushy ditch between two freshly mown cornfields. I might never have seen the birds had not a cock and hen come whirring out of the nearby woods and landed below me. Quail sleep, eat and nest on the ground and usually will not fly when they can avoid it. Since I had not knowingly disturbed a covey when I mounted the stand, and it was too late in the season for the birds to be going around in mated paris, I still was puzzling over them when I became aware of four young birds hunkered down at the edge of the ditch. They must have been a late hatch from a hen whose first laying was destroyed by a snake or skunk or mowing machine, because theys were only two-thirds adult size. By fall the young normally are at least four months old and full-grown, distinguishable from their parents' generation only by close inspection of the wing feathers.

They looked like lumps of earth until on of them suddenly flapped its wings a couple of times. This set off the instinctive flight reaction of the two adults, who buzzed a few feet into the air and, seeing no danger, landed again. The cock bird strode up to the youngster who had sent the false alarm and pecked it so hard it went tumbling into the brush-filled ditch.

Watching the juvenile cower there, my eye began to pick up subtle movements: The ditch was crawling with quail. Some were eating weed seeds, others stalking bugs. One lay on her right side with head flung back as though dead but 20 minutes later hopped up and went about her business.

On either side of the ditch throughout the hour a lone bird stood sentry, a cock facing east and a hen facing west. Their heads swiveled almost constantly, except when 1i shifted position slightly to ease a cramp. Then each fixed one eye on me and tilted its head every few moments, thus getting slightly varying images of me that their brains put together into stereoscopic views. I wondered what they thought I was.

Now and then they froze, although I had not moved. After a while, usually, I would see the distant hawk the birds had picked up long before. When the sentinels froze, the birds in the ditch froze also: Whatever else they were doing, the foraging birds kept one eye on the lookouts, and the lookouts one eye on each other. The covey is as nearly a single living unit as a school of fish, every perception instantly shared by all. The all-to-oncet bursting apart of a flushing covey rattles a predator -- hawk or hunter -- who, failing to concentrate on an individual bird, is likely to miss them all.

The birds were working their way toward the sandy road that ran along the woods from which I'd been hoping a deer would emerge. They progressed slowly, examining every likely plant or crevice for something to eat, and it became clear that some of the birds were dominant. The three boss birds, a male and two females, led the way. Behind them came a second wave of five adults, and if any of the five moved closer than about a foot to one of the three, the boss bird involved would turn, fluff its breast feathers and make a low, harsh sound that sent the intruder into instant retreat.

There were 18 birds altogether, rather larger than the average convey, and a wildlife biologist later speculated that two groups of birds had recently come together and "hadn't quite sorted out the status question. The 'fall shuffle,' when paired birds bring their families together into larger groups, can be pretty disorderly. The sentinel cock and hen may very well have been the parents of the four juveniles and stayed on sentinel duty because their protective instincts were the strongest."

Only the four juveniles were allowed near the boss birds. It seemed to me the elders occasionally stepped aside to allow the young ones to peck up choice insects. At what may have been an anthill the juveniles had a brief feeding frenzy, scratching and pecking so vigorously that a plume of dust rose several feet into the air.

Sand and fine gravel had spilled down one side of the ditch where it met the road. One by one the advancing birds pecked up grit for their crops and then squirmed luxuriously in a sandy bowl about a foot across, working sand and dust into their fluffed feathers (to suffocate mites) and presenting the undersides of their stubby wings to the slanting sun. So talcum-powder fine was the dust that when a loaded-up bird shook itself with a sinuous head-to-tail motion, it disappeared into a cloud of dust from which more often than not would issue a sneeze. "It is not often given to a man to hear a quail sneeze," the bird man said.

The top of the pecking order seemed clear: Bigbeak, the name I had given to the boss male went first and took longest, spending about three minutes in the dustbath. Widewings, a female, followed with 2 1/2 minutes and Wiggles, a hen with a curious, frenetic waddle bathed almost as long. Then came the five of the second wave, three cocks and two hens, who spent a minute or so each at their toilet, interrupted by a brief flurry between two of the cocks as to which would go first. It came to a standoff and they went into the bath together like twins in a tub.

The four juveniles, either all females or males too young to have developed the distinctive eyestreak, sat submissively in a row until all but the sentry birds had bathed. It seemed to me that the last adult before them was blind in the right eye and may have been the female that was lying on its side earlier. Then the kids began to dust in one joyful, twittering bunch. Several minutes passed with no sign that they were through, but when the sentinel cock came down from his post they hopped out while he was still two feet away.

The old boy dusted quickly and gave way to the sentinel hen, who may have been the senior bird in the covey. She was senior bird in the covey. She was noticeably bigger than any of the others and there was a tattered air about her. She was noticeably bigger than any of the others and there was a tattered air about her. She may have been one of those rare quail who live into a fourth season, a veritable Methuselah among birds whose normal life span is about 18 months whether they are hunted or not.She took her sweet time in the dust, almost 10 minutes, while the others waited. I revised my guess at the pecking order because of the obvious deference paid the sentries by even the "boss" birds.

At length she rose and marched to the edge of the road -- I named her Victoria, so royal was her progress -- where she studied the terrain and the situation for a few minutes. Satisfied there was no danger, she suddenly took off running for the woods as though she had been goosed. The transformation from queen to clown was so swift and unexpected that I giggled, at which unprecedented sound all the remaining birds flattened against the ground. Even though I knew where most of them were, their earthtoned plumage made them all but invisible.

Victoria stalked up and down in the tall thin grass at the edge of the woods, stretched to her full height and cocking her head as she scanned earth and sky for the source of the giggle. I bit my lip and stayed still; after a few minutes she made a low sound I cannot describe, and the birds in the ditch stood up. One by one they ran across the road in pecking order, five or 10 seconds apart, the juveniles making the penultimate dash in a disorderly mass.

Last of all came the sentinel cock, who ran with a slight limp I had not noticed when he was walking. The old boy half-hopped and half-staggered, like Captain Ahab stuttering along the deck on his whalebone leg, and then he was gone with the rest into the woods and my memory. CAPTION: Illustration, By Ralph Mark, from Charles Dickey's "Bobwhite Quail Hunting"; Copyright (c) 1974, Oxmoor House Inc.