Blogs

Shell’s Covert: Lowbrow Bird Hunting (It Doesn’t Have to be Fancy to be Fun!)

 

Author’s note: This BLOG is dedicated to my Llewellin setter, Smudge, who drifted off into the shadows of a grouse-filled thicket in heaven last week. Until we meet again my friend.

Smudge – Nebraska 2008

What’s it take to be a “bird hunter?” I think some aspiring new hunters ask themselves this question and often give up before they get started. Many of today’s young hunters never grew up around bird hunting and their only vision of the sport is that portrayed in some of the high-brow magazines that talk more about fancy clothes, fine wines and crab dip, than bird hunting. But the bird hunters I grew up knowing might find it hard to stifle a snicker, or an outright laugh, at the tweed coated, 10 grand shotgun-toting, truffle-eating bird hunters pictured in some of today’s sporting ads.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a snifter of top-shelf bourbon and a nice plate of smoked salmon from time to time, but I am equally at home with a cold beer and a cheeseburger. And if someone gave me a vintage Parker shotgun I’d have to mortgage my house to buy, I’d take it, but I find my 1974 Remington 1100 20-banger more than adequate (and it surely does not hurt as much to miss with an inexpensive gun).

Chances are you already own a shotgun worthy of bird hunting. So I call on all you oldtimers out there to lighten up, take a young hunter out on a “lowbrow” bird hunt sometime and let them know no matter how you dress it up, it is about fun and the relationship with a dog – whether the dog be from well-heeled national championship field trial stock or from unregistered “meat dog” lineage. And being a “sporting gentleman” has more to do with your demeanor than your clothing or number of digits in your salary.

Dogs ($250.00 to $1,500): Yes, you can spend a ton on a bird dog. And while sometimes you get what you pay for, it is no guarantee of success. There are many good dogs available for reasonable rates if you look. No longer is bird hunting strictly the realm of pointers, setters and Brittanys. Many breeds make fine bird dogs, German long and short haired pointers, Vizlas, and yes, pointing labs, along with many flushing breeds like Boykins and Springer Spaniels make loyal companions. It is possible to get a good dog for less than what most folks pay for one of the four TV sets in their home. In fact, many probably carry phones in their pockets that would easily have paid for a nice dog.  My suggestion is to buy a puppy as young as you can find. It is most important that a dog bond with you. The more time you spend with the puppy, the more it will love you and be your dog. Most of us don’t hunt on horseback or off mule wagons, so a close working dog that checks back with you on its own is best.

Dog training (DIY DVDs out now – $50,  unless you want to hire a professional): Some bird hunters are only happy with dogs that hold a point, hold steady to wing and shot (don’t run when the birds flush or shots ring out until released by the owner), retrieve and back well. I admire and respect this, but it is not necessary to enjoy bird hunting. If your dog will obey basic commands like “Whoa” and “Come here,” and will hold a point (if a pointing breed, or work close if a flushing dog) and back another dog’s point, a good time can be had.

Retrieving is something that comes natural to some dogs, but can be tough for others. My best dog would only retrieve if there was another dog present trying to get the bird. I have never owned a dog that was steady to wing and shot and I don’t ever plan to. Training a bird dog can be very stressful if you approach it like you have to get it all done today. But if you take the tactic of “one step at a time” you can learn to enjoy the training (and here is a hint, if you do not learn to enjoy it, you won’t be very good at it). In terms of training for dogs or people…it is always best to end on a high note and never leave the field “mad.” There are good books available on this subject – buy one.

Dog Training Aids ($200 – $800): There are some basic necessities like a check cord, a good whistle, a bell or beeper collar, and perhaps a blank, or starter pistol (a decent cap gun can work well). As time progresses you may require an electronic stimulation training collar. This can come in handy for safety when breaking a bird dog from running deer, which increases their risk of being hit crossing a road. At some point you may want to build a quail recall pen for housing pen-raised training quail. And you might also want an electronic bird launcher. But you do not have to have all this stuff at once.

Dog Boxes: I have seen dog boxes that would have been an improvement on places I have lived myself in my younger days. My dog rides up front with me…costs me nothing but the occasional electricity required to vacuum out the dog hair.

Places to hunt: A good friend of mine took the time one day and figured up all the public land within 2 hours of us here in central Virginia, almost 200,000 acres. Does it all have upland gamebirds…yes…just about all of it. These lands contain a lot of woodcock at times, a few quail and a few grouse, not to mention doves. Is it great hunting? Not by Texas standards. Can fun be had hunting birds on it? Yes! It requires an adjustment of what you might consider good hunting – does finding 5 to 10 woodcock in a day sound good? Does finding a covey or two of quail from time-to-time sound good? Many modern hunters have lost the fine art of “scouting,” which for me is half the fun, riding around during the off season and looking for new coverts, marking places on topo maps for future looksees – it is all part of an enjoyable process.

Hunting companions: I suggest you keep in mind hunting is supposed to be fun. Several of my hunting companions and I have remarked that the older we get the more we like to be around dogs and the less we like to be around people. I do know this… the older I get the more I like to be around people who are like my dogs…they don’t judge me, they accept my short-comings and are always happy to see me (of course they don’t have to jump up on me, or roll in deer poop to qualify). So stop talking about becoming a bird hunter. Take all that money you were going to spend on an exercise bike with a video of spandex-clad personal trainer barking at you, and invest it in a way to get the best exercise one can have, out in the fresh air with a good bird dog (P.S. – I average walking about 6 miles per bird hunt over rough terrain).

Native Grass Gazette: NatiVeg – Helpful Tool or Curious Tchotchke?

I hate answers that begin with “it depends.” That usually means you are about to be inundated with tons of detailed, probably useless information which ultimately ends up with no clear answer to your question.

So, is NatiVeg a helpful tool or just a curious tchotchke? As much as it pains me to say this, it depends. How are you going to use it and what do you expect to get out of it?

First, for those not familiar, NatiVeg is a mobile website (https://www.quailcount.org/NatiVeg)  developed by NBCI to aid planners in selecting the correct native vegetation for their geographic location (limited to the 25 NBCI states) for their intended use. Released publically for comment on Nov. 16, 2016, NatiVeg can be used either as a desktop application or with a smartphone with GPS capability. An internet connection is required.

Many land planners dealing with working lands have limited knowledge of native vegetation, let alone its adaptability to a specific site or for specific purposes. NatiVeg was developed to provide planners with no or limited knowledge of native vegetation a tool for identifying native vegetation adapted to their selected location for their selected use. The target audience is persons providing technical assistance to landowners and/or landowners with the primary objective of incorporating native vegetation into their working lands.

NatiVeg uses Plant Hardiness Zones (PHZ) and Major Land Resource Areas (MLRA) as spatial components for search criteria of a database of Natural Resource Conservation Service Plant Material Center (NRCS-PMC) releases. NatiVeg returns a list of species known to be adapted to your selected geographic location. Herein lies the answer to the question of whether NatiVeg is helpful or a curious tchotchke.

Plant materials in the NRCS-PMC database have been through a process to document a variety of criteria, depending upon the intent of the release. In a majority of cases seed is commercially available or foundation seed is available for commercial increase, many of the releases have been planted in growing trials and their area of adaptation is documented, cultivars and selections have been made for desirable characteristics and there are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria. (Both of those last two attributes are either good or bad depending upon your intended use and location) However, there are some limitations to the NRCS-PMC database; there are a limited number of releases (306 in the NBCI modified database) compared to a list of species that would have historically occurred for a location and there is skewed geographic distribution of native species releases, leaving limited choices for selected areas within the NBCI states.

MLRA’s are large geographic areas that are geographically associated land resource units based upon the dominant physical characteristics using physiology, geology, climate, water, soils, biological resources and land use, and they are thousands of acres in size. Obviously, there is variability within these areas, so though you may be in an MLRA where little bluestem is adapted, your specific location may be mesic or wet mesic and not suitable for little bluestem. For that reason, it is also important to consult the “Details” section of each species in NatiVeg to determine its appropriateness for the site. Information about collection location, comments or site adaptations can provide additional information to aid in decision making. If you still have questions or would like help there is a link to the state agency to help you find local assistance.

What about our non-target audience? Since the launch of NatiVeg I have received several comments from ecologists  wishing the application were more specific in relation to local ecosystems and vegetation communities. Fair comments, though those changes wouldn’t particularly serve our target audience any better. Remember a few lines above where I was listing the attributes of using the NRCS-PMC database; “There are some areas where local germplasm releases have been made with no selection criteria?” In some areas within the NBCI states there have been ecotype collections made and seed increases done. South Texas and Iowa/Missouri are two examples. Ecologists working in those regions will find plant materials suitable for restorations. Unfortunately, there is limited species availability and our database returns still don’t give a “big picture” list of species endemic to the location.

We are working on ideas to address this and determine if we even need to. It appears, based upon feedback, there is some need/desire for this type of product. At this point we don’t know if we will develop an entirely new product or work to expand NatiVeg, but we are examining options using NatureServe data or NRCS Ecological Site Description data. There may be others and we’ll examine all options.

Knowing some of the limitations of the database and spatial criteria, and understanding how to use additional resources to deal with those limitations, NatiVeg should be a helpful tool for our target audience … and in some instances our non-target audience. If you’re expecting a list of species endemic to your local ecosystem, then NatiVeg is probably a curious tchotchke.

To answer the question,” Is NatiVeg a helpful tool or curious tchotchke?”  It depends.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Remembering Rocky Evans, Co-Founder of Quail Unlimited

Joseph Roswell Evans, co-founder of Quail Unlimited, died December 9, 2016 at 66 years old in Augusta, Georgia.  Much better known as “Rocky,” he and Jerry Allen launched the nation’s first national quail conservation organization in 1981 in Edgefield, South Carolina.  Rocky served as its executive vice president, face and fervent voice for 28 years until his retirement in 2009.

Prior to 1981, Oklahoma State University had convened two periodic quail research symposia to share and publicize scientific findings. But QU was the first national force for quail conservation that brought the plight of declining bobwhites and other quail to the attention of tens of thousands of hunters, biologists and agencies across the country. QU also was the first to undertake the task of trying to do something about quail declines at a large scale by raising sportsmen’s dollars to hire a national network of professional biologists who worked with local chapters, state and federal agencies, and researchers.  Those biologists collectively became one of QU’s most valuable and enduring contributions. The annual QU conventions provided a forum for hundreds of sportsmen and chapter leaders at local and state levels to interact with agency biologists, quail researchers, outdoor writers and others.

The rest of the bobwhite conservation world caught up in 1995 with the formation of the Southeast Quail Study Group and completion of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative in 2002. Those developments added state wildlife agency authority, a stronger technical foundation, long-range bobwhite conservation vision, and large-scale strategy to bolster the grassroots work begun by QU. This strategic organization enabled mutual support and collaboration among QU and its sportsmen, state wildlife agencies, quail researchers, and other conservationists at a national scale. 

That opportunity for mutual support culminated at a pivotal moment in 2006, when Rocky and QU stepped up to pledge critical three-year financial support for the NBCI.  “Quail Unlimited is proud to be a partner … in meeting the financial demands necessary to help ensure the long-term success and viability of the NBCI.  Our whole organization including our staff, chapters and members strongly endorse and support the NBCI goals,” Rocky said at the time. That timely contribution by QU solved a crucial funding problem and enabled the NBCI to blossom, to better serve the nation’s entire bobwhite community in the long run. Unfortunately, the QU national organization did not fare as well, peaking too soon under the weight of a complex web of leadership and management challenges. Three years later, Rocky retired amid controversial circumstances and imminent bankruptcy of the organization. 

Upon reflection benefitting from the passage of time, it becomes clearer that Rocky’s aspiration for a broad, cohesive movement for quail conservation was 20 years ahead of its time. When the states and the rest of the quail conservation world began standing up, QU was already trapped in a declining trajectory, unable to capitalize on the new national attention and synergy. The state of bobwhite conservation might now be brighter if the timing of the two trajectories has been better aligned. But a piece of Rocky Evans’ bobwhite conservation legacy lives on in the NBCI, as the next generation endeavors to build on what he and QU set in motion.

Shell’s Covert: Pictures on my Memory

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words…but I think what they are really worth is 1,000 memories. These days they’ve gotten so easy to come by. The digital world has improved some things, but I still miss the feeling I had back when I turned in a roll of Kodachrome and went to see them “again for the first time.” The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I am actually writing this on December 30th, 2016.

The office is quiet today and I am able to look around my small portion of it at some of the photos that clutter my wall. I had a fellow tell me one time, “Wow your office is like a monument to you.” I don’t think he meant to insult me, and if he had looked closely he would have seen all the other people and pets in those photos. I did not bother to try to explain to him that these photos are like my “Linus blanket.” These office walls and this job can close in sometimes and it is hard to explain the suffocating feeling I get from time to time when I feel like all I can do is never going to be enough. So I surround myself with people and places that take me to someplace warm.

Grace’s Trout Painting (My present this Christmas)

I see friends when we were young. Like that time we went to Santee-Cooper South Carolina and caught enough catfish to fill two big coolers with fillets. One night we fished through a violent thunderstorm. Those were the “bullet proof” days. We were fishing two poles each until the storm hit and as the rain pelted the water, the fish began to hit so fast we had to reel in one pole and focus on one. We caught them up to 40lbs. The next day we took these pics, hauling them in a wheelbarrow to the cleaning table.

I see a picture of me and a friend back in 1983 on a rabbit hunt while I was home on leave from the service. I am holding a rabbit and I’m wearing a pair of blue coveralls my Mom gave me for Christmas and a white toboggan – back before blaze orange became mandatory. Yes, luck sure plays a role in our continued existence sometimes.

And there is a photo of most of the core members of the 5 Bs Hunt Club posing in front of our deer hanging tree with 7 deer in the background and all of us striking a pose like we had just conquered Normandy. Of the six of us in that picture, two have now gone on to hunting grounds in the sky and our club as a whole has seen seven members pass on since its heyday. We visited the old cabin this November on the anniversary of one of those lost. The old Catalpa tree that hung our deer had also succumbed to time. But those memories hung on the fall air like wood smoke and, if you listened real close, you could hear feet falling on the old cabin floor.

I see a photo of an Oregon license plate from 1994. It was the year a good friend and I cut two weeks of grad school classes to fly to Oregon and hunt for 13 days. I killed a grand total of 13 game birds on that trip – one for each day, I spent a thousand dollars I did not have and probably sunk my chances of graduating with honors, but one thing I did not do was acquire any regrets. I don’t remember a single thing from any of the classes I cut, but the memories of that trip are a wonderful tattoo on my mind. In one photo the mountains slant to the right, the hunter stands straight with his gun slanting upward, and the clouds in the sky slant to the left, and it tells the story of that land of angles. The only flat place in that country is the bottom of a well. Like the author Cormac McCarthy said “It’s no country for old men.”

There’s a picture of when I first started working for this outfit. One of my co-workers and me posing with two nice jakes during spring gobbler season. We got ribbed pretty hard for killing jakes, but we didn’t care. I have hunted turkeys all over, and I have been defeated by wary old long beards way more often than I have won, but those two jakes…what a hunt. Long story short, my friend taught me a lesson about teamwork that spring. We hunted as a team and in this case we had been after these birds for a couple days, we had a decoy set-up and we sat about 2 yards apart with our backs to a downed stump ball. Over the hill they came running to the decoy, both like high school boys at their first dance. Our shots rang as one sound and the two birds dropped within feet of the decoy. I have never been more proud of a turkey.

There’s one of my wife before we were married. She was learning to fly-fish, but this day we used fly-rods and bait to fish for stocked brook trout on the South Fork of the Piney River in Amherst County. Of course, I was trying to impress her with my skills and she caught the biggest brook trout to date either of us has ever caught. Life gets crazy and we don’t fish together much anymore. It seems to me relationships have a way of going around some bends, but then coming back someday. Her smile that day raised the temperature along that chilly creek by 10 degrees.

One is a classic “tailgate” shot of bird hunters after a day afield. Some kind friends took me to a preserve one day. There’s Raymond, Bill, John and “Grunt”, Raymond’s son who was about seven at the time. He is well into his twenties now. And in front of them is Shell, grungy as usual, her woolly fur holding every bur, twig and clod of dirt she rubbed up against. And she is looking up at the hunters, tired but not out, and seeming to say “You done good.”

I could keep on for many more hours talking about these memories. I hope you have many of your own. I hope every day you wake up you say to yourself, “Let’s go make some more.” The last one I’ll mention today is of my daughter and me at a fee trout pond in Nelson County. When she was young I took her to a place I knew she could have success. The trout were expensive, but she didn’t know that. She had a ball. But what I remember most when I look at this picture is not that day itself, but a day a couple years later when I asked her, “Do you want to go back to the trout pond, or do you want to try fishing for them in the river?” She said “Daddy, I think I’d like to earn my trout, let’s fish in the river.” I think I’ll sit here and look at these pictures a while more…and just keep the thoughts for myself.

Shell’s Covert Blog — Quail Harvest: Regulation Versus Education

‘…with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level.’

Our agency is currently implementing our biennial hunting regulations review and amendment process. We have been taking public comments for three months. The initial online commenting period closed November 30. More comment periods will follow as regulations are proposed. As a project leader, one of my duties is to lead discussions with our small game committee on public comments and ascertain whether any small game seasons or regulations need modification. We take this process seriously and all public comments are presented to the committee. As a member of the public it is important for you to note that having your comments heard does not mean all comments or suggestions will lead to the changes requested.

Much of our small game committee discussions revolve around whether the quail season and bag limits need adjusting. To be frank, we get very few comments on quail seasons. But we agonize over this issue as dedicated staff wanting to do what is right. I have stated many times that biologists generally believe quail hunting has not been the cause of the quail decline. And quail hunter numbers are at historic lows. We had almost 145,000 quail hunters in the early 1970s and we are now down to less than 9,000. Most of those are incidental quail hunters, meaning they do not pursue quail purposefully, but generally encounter them while hunting other species.

In spite of our very best efforts over the last decades, outside of pockets where quail numbers have increased or remained strong, and off properties where landowners have done significant quail management, Virginia’s quail population continues to decline (as well as those in most states). This leads some to question why we continue to allow statewide quail hunting with a bag limit of six per day. On the surface it seems easy. Simply close the quail season until numbers rebound when environmental factors and increased habitat line up to support recovery. But it is not that simple. One major thing to note right away – dozens of species of songbirds and insects that use similar habitats to bobwhite quail are also declining … and they are not hunted at all.

I have already mentioned that with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level. Further quail hunting tends to be self-regulatory in some ways – meaning when quail numbers are low, hunters stop pursuing them. It costs a good bit of money and takes a great deal of time to be a bird hunter. Very few people are willing to purchase a bird dog, all the associated equipment and put in the time to become a “real bird hunter” when quail populations are poor.  However, there are places in Virginia where quail are at “huntable” numbers, and hunters still do well. I wonder who will champion quail when the quail hunters are gone? As a colleague of mine said to me “Quail will never be ‘every man’s’ bird.” I can only think that closing the quail season would hasten the extinction of our remaining quail hunters.

I proposed a few potential changes this year early on and offered them to some of our avid quail hunters for feedback. One such idea was the possibility of limiting the number of female or hen quail harvested. This should increase the number of females able to contribute to nesting in the spring and summer. Limiting female harvest has been done effectively with mallards, pheasants, turkeys and whitetail deer. But the females of those species are readily identifiable, and while there are a few quail hunters who can distinguish between male and female bobwhites on the wing, most cannot.

Feedback was negative on this idea. It was pointed out that it may be hard to enforce and that a person could violate the law accidentally. For example, if we said the quail bag limit was reduced to three per day west of the Blue Ridge with no more than one female allowed, a person shooting at a flushing covey could kill two hens without knowing it and be in violation. The same thing could occur east of the Blue Ridge if we left the bag limit at six but allowed no more than two hens and three hens were killed on a covey rise.

My take on all this is that perhaps we ought to consider education before regulation. I propose a set of “Bird hunter best management practices” or BHBMPs. These may include a self-imposed limit on the number of females harvested. For instance, if you find a nice covey of quail, kill two and they are both hens, how about considering moving on and not pursuing the singles and risking killing even more of the females. You could also consider that if you kill more than 3 or 4 quail out of a covey, you might want to leave that covey un-hunted the rest of the winter.

Further, as the law requires in many mid-western states, the pursuit of upland gamebirds should end at sunset. We could make that a law here, but in reality it comes down to an honor system and I’d like to think most bird hunters already adhere to this practice. No bird hunter that calls him or herself sporting can make that claim if they are still shooting quail near dark. The coveys need time to regroup and form a roosting disk before the night cold sets in.

Lastly, I’d say in the back of every bird hunter’s mind, they should value every quail, grouse and woodcock as much as they value turkeys, ducks and deer. Why would anyone consider a quail less valuable than a turkey? Is the size of the quarry the determining factor in how we should judge our success in the hunting endeavor?

Before I make a few comments about quail hunting on public lands, I want to point out that all private landowners have the ability and the right to limit or prohibit quail harvest on their lands. And while as a whole quail hunting is not causing the quail decline, local quail populations, particularly on small properties, can be reduced or eliminated if over hunted. Private landowners should consider determining the number of quail they believe they have before the season starts and limiting harvest to no more the 20% – 25% of that. This takes effort and would require hunters of their land to report their kill.

As an example, suppose you believe you have four coveys of quail on your land, each about 15 birds going into the fall season. You would close the quail hunting on your land when 12 – 15 or so quail had been harvested.

Concerning public lands, our department is going to begin making an attempt at getting a better idea of the quail harvest on lands we own. We want to provide opportunity, but also want to insure our policies are not hindering quail recovery on your public lands. Quail hunting on public lands may be having no negative impact at all, or it may be limiting recovery – we simply do not know. And we hope our quail hunters will support us in our efforts to make a fair assessment and modify our approach to public lands quail hunting if it is determined changes need to be made. I hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season with your friends and family, and your bird dogs. Just remember with family or with bird dogs, it is the quality of the time you spend that is most important.