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Shell’s Covert: From the Civil War to the Coordinated Implementation Program

Hot cannon metal under my hands, I peered down the barrel and across the open lands to where the Union troops under General John Pope poured from the wood line and into the hail of artillery from 36 Confederate cannons on Battery Heights not far from the Brawner House. It was on the afternoon of the 3rd day of the battle, on August 30th, 1862, that these cannon played the decisive role in the Second Battle of Manassas, (Bull Run). On this day, August 1, nearly 155 years later, I stood on the ground where over 3,000 men died in combat all those years before.

View from ridgeline where cannons fired in support of Stonewall Jackson’s troops on the third day of the 2nd Battle of Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

I had slipped away from our group of biologists, having seen a rail fence on the ridgeline, my one moment of digression during this quail habitat monitoring workshop. Once there and seeing the cannon I had to take a closer look. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in souls. Closing my eyes for a brief moment a chill went down my spine and my eyes misted. I believe wherever we travel a small part of us stays behind forever. For an instant I felt the same fear and exhilaration those men on that fateful day felt. What goes through a man’s mind when he charges headlong into such carnage? The rest as they say is history and what is arguably one of the most important events in the story of humankind ended 100 miles to the south in Appomattox less than 3 years afterwards (though we are still trying to heal some of those old wounds).

I doubt those men could have had even the slightest inkling of how much change would occur over those next 150 years. The constant sounds of commercial airliners approaching Dulles International Airport, or Reagan National Airport served as the backdrop for most of our day in the field. Traffic on the nearby highways was never ending. Yet Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) serves as a unique oasis for wildlife in the middle of a metropolis. With over 5,000 acres of habitat, wildlife thrives. And yes, even the bobwhite quail remains – largely due to the extraordinary efforts of the Manassas NBP staff.

Think about that for a second. In one of the most human dominated landscapes in America, with enough land and the right habitat management, bobwhite quail can find a way to win. If this does not give you hope for bobwhites, or convince you that habitat does work, there is not much more I can say to you, or is there?

Monarch butterfly on a milkweed at Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

And this was one of the primary reasons our group of about 25 biologists gathered at Manassas NBP earlier this week. We were there to practice conducting habitat monitoring as part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). Developed by the science subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee among others (our own Jay Howell played a key role), the CIP will prove to be the largest coordinated monitoring effort ever undertaken for bobwhites (and several songbirds, too.) Virginia was proudly one of the first seven pilot states. The number of states now involved has soared to 21 and at some point we hope all 25 NBTC states will come on board.

But why do all this?

No matter how hard biologists stress that while other factors may play a role in bobwhite decline habitat loss is still the driving factor, many people simply did not believe us. Further, though many states did have evidence of habitat’s effectiveness, each state did their own thing and trying to compare survey results was like comparing anvils and kitchen knives. Beyond being made of metal, they do not have much in common.

All states participating in the CIP will be using the same methods to monitor habitat and bird response. Further, they will use the CIP to layout and design their focal areas. The monitoring protocol is designed to work across the vast array of ecoregions where quail occur. Take a deep breath and then think about the power of this program. Potentially 25 or more focal areas across 25 states all replicating the same methods and analyzing their results to form a massive data set that will answer this question once and for all. But the CIP is more than a monitoring program; it is a catalyst for quail habitat work and partnerships.

One group of trainees at Manassas habitat assessment training (Photo: John Doty)

Witness how the National Park Service (NPS) has embraced this program (along with others like the U.S. Forest Service). The first official NPS CIP Focal area was Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas and they are smack in the middle of implementing their focal area. Their staff came to Virginia this week to help their peers at Manassas NBP. In addition to the Pea Ridge staff, our group this week included key national staff from NBCI, national level NPS staff, Manassas NBP key staff and field biologists, staff from Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, a West Virginia DNR quail program biologist, a Quail Forever coordinator from South Carolina who is leading their focal area, a biologist from Virginia Working Landscapes, a teacher (our instructor this week) from Northwest Arkansas Community College, and our own VDGIF staff.

Ours was the second of such training workshops, the first being in Kentucky last year and more are already scheduled. I won’t ramble on anymore today about the CIP, but I hope that for those of you who feel not enough is being done for quail, we are doing more for them now than at any time in history. You will be hearing more about the CIP and I believe it will lead to you hearing more quail in the future.

Having been an infantry soldier, I know what those Civil War soldiers were thinking about when they were baking with sweat streaked faces in the hot summer dust, or freezing to death in the dank winter mud, the only intangible thing holding them to that particular spot on earth being their own honor. They thought about simple things … a home-cooked meal shared slowly around a table with good conversation, a clean, dry and safe place to sleep, the rhythmic sounds of summer katydids on a moonlit night or the sound of a bird coming from the fence lines at least as peaceful as the call of the mourning dove. Softly at first, “bob-BOB-WHITE,” …“bob-BOB-WHITE,”…”it’s ALL RIGHT,”…it’s ALL RIGHT” – I’m still breathing in and out.

Native Grass Gazette: “That One Thing”

Preface

I had the joy and privilege of filming and producing the Firing Up Your Beef Production video. Aside from being an avid hobby photographer, which is one reason why this project was so enjoyable, I met some of the most genuine, sincere and interesting people. During the interviews, it was obvious each and every one, in their own unique way, had a passion for what they were doing and the land they were on. This has been a rewarding project.

 

If you were a ranch owner and cattleman in the Great Plains and there was one thing you could do to halt and/or reverse woody encroachment, increase your carrying capacity, increase water availability, increase animal performance, increase forage quality and quantity, reduce parasites, improve grazing distribution, improve range health and protect against wildfire, would you do that one thing?

According to the ranchers and researchers interviewed in the recently released NBCI video, Fire Up Your Beef Production – A Ranchers’ Perspective of Prescribed Burning for Range Management, that is precisely what prescribed burning does.

Ranchers who are using prescribed fire on their ranches to improve their beef production shared their experiences for the filming of Fire Up Your Beef Production. It became apparent after the second interview there was a common theme developing … all the ranchers, in their own way, were saying the same things about woody encroachment control, water availability, carrying capacity, forage quality and quantity, range health and other topics. It was a script that was writing itself.

The focus of the video is on the ranchers but researchers were included to throw a little science in for those who want to hear that aspect, though in the real world most folks find those ranchers who are practicing what they preach to be very credible and, in the end, this video is targeted to ranchers.

The ranchers are the stars of the video. After all, when you get quotes like…

 “…springs started to flow again.”

“The thing with prescribed burning and grazing management is we’ve been able to run more cattle through the ranch which increases the bottom line significantly.”

“Range condition has definitely improved, (we have) a lot more tall grass than we used to and just all around better plant health.”

…then how can you go wrong? Ranchers are telling their own stories of how they use prescribed burning on their own ranches to improve their operation. These testimonials are sure to resonate with other ranchers who view this video.

The National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Grassland and Grazing Lands Subcommittee charge in developing this video was to target it to ranchers, knowing if prescribed burning is implemented along with grazing management, bobwhites and other grassland wildlife will benefit. Wildlife enthusiasts are likely to ask why there isn’t more about bobwhites or wildlife in the video. Again, wildlife managers and bobwhite enthusiasts are not the target audience for this video, though there is plenty a wildlife manager could learn from hearing these landowners tell their experiences. Keep in mind, ranchers trying to make a living are the target audience.

Moving outside of our traditional NBCI promotion circles, cattlemen’s associations, grazing lands coalitions, associations of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, prescribed burn associations and several other groups received the news release announcing the video, and, of course, our traditional network of contacts. The video, in both long and short versions, is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/user/BringBackBobwhites/videos. Entities interested in obtaining copies for group screenings may contact Alyssa Merka at amerka@utk.edu for copies on DVDs or flash drives.

This project wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the ranchers, but there were many other people involved in the background who coordinated site visits for filming, set up the interviews, provided drone footage, answer the call for “b-roll,” reviewed our effort and provided quotes for our news release, and on and on. I am going to attempt to list everyone who had a hand in this project in one way or another. I apologize in advance for any omissions.

The state quail coordinators in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska… Robert Perez, Derek Wiley, Jeff Prendergast and Jeff Lusk, respectively.

All of the ranchers: Linda Evans, Jerry Hunter, Cody Sander, Ted Alexander, Brian Alexander, Tom Carr and Greg Hurlbut.

Crew of many others: Alex Lyon, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT); Allen Wilson and Reading Benefit Fire District, KS; Ken Brunson, The Nature Conservancy-Kansas; Barth Crouch, Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition; Craig Woods; Oklahoma State University (OSU); Russel Stevens, Noble Research Institute; Blayr Gourley, OSU; Chris Schenck, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) ; Kyle Banowsky, TPWD; Carol Baldwin, Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, Kansas State University (KSU); Aleksey Sheshukov, KSU; Tom Gross, KSU; Dan Donnert, KSU; Eva Horne, KSU; John Weir, OSU; David Engle, OSU; Brian Teeter, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever; Alva Gregory, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; Mike Remund, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission; Chuck Stanley, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Troy Smith, KDWPT; Society for Range Management; NBCI staff.

I hope I got everybody. Thank you!

Shell’s Covert: I Still Love the Bobwhite Quail

I have been off on a much needed break for a bit now. After 21 years with DGIF and over 25 working with quail, burnout can ensue. While home the other day I was doing some “cleaning out” when I found a 1998 issue of Virginia Wildlife. In it was an article I had written titled “A Quail for the Heart.” It reminded me of the many reasons I continue to enjoy this job. It reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for, too.

For wildlife professionals my age (54), the last decade has been a little confusing. We have lived and worked during a time of rapid change in our society and profession. What professional statisticians like to call “demographics” – meaning the makeup and interests of our human population –has changed. The short story is folks are less connected to the land now, less likely to spend time outdoors and much less likely to hunt and fish than they were 50 years ago. This has translated into declines in revenues for many state wildlife agencies and the last decade has seen great effort expended to seek remedies. Some have been found, but no perfect fix exists.

One thing many of us realized quite some time ago is that our constituency is very diverse now, and we need them all to succeed. And we believe they need us, too, in order to truly have the kind of future they desire. At some point in the lives of many people they find something is missing. For many, what is missing is a connection to nature and their ancient roots.

Our “Quail Team” has embraced the idea of partnerships quite well. We call ourselves the “Quail Team” quite frankly because it is much easier to say than “early-succession habitat / species team.” And we simply have not struck upon a better name (if you can think of one, please let us know). In the back of our new quail and early-succession species recovery plan (available at this link:  https://bringbackbobwhites.org/about-us/nbci-statescoordinators/virginia-nbci/  then click on the tab for the plan – thanks to NBCI for working with states to create these pages) is listed 35 partners from a very diverse array of entities that we work with and rely on routinely. And we have a team of private lands wildlife biologists with impressive backgrounds that include remarkable knowledge about songbirds, deer, pollinating insects and plants. I am proud of the small role I have played in helping them in their careers, but they have helped each other a great deal more than any of their managers have, like a true team. Our goal as cooperative managers via DGIF, NRCS and CMI has been to allow them to work to their strengths, and encourage and facilitate them when we can.

With all this partnership though, and much talk about the huge declines in upland gamebird hunters, I fear our upland gamebird hunting constituents might worry they are being forgotten. My main reason for writing this post is to assure them they are not being marginalized. In our new “quail plan” – in quotes because it is much more than that – we identified several key areas where significant improvement is needed, and one of those is our efforts to continue to recruit and support upland gamebird hunters. Maybe this phrase has been overused, but “it is not a zero sum game.” This means that we do not have to either be “game species” managers or “non-game species” managers. The more I work in this job the more I realize how important what some call the 80:20 rule is. Written about in the most recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, this rule states that when bringing diverse partners together, focus on the 80% of things you agree on and forget about the 20% you might disagree on. Whether your favorite species is the monarch butterfly, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the southeastern fox squirrel or the bobwhite quail – there is a good chance their habitat needs are similar. And it will only be through the “strength in numbers” that evolves when we come together with a common message that allows us to “move the conservation needle” in the right direction. Ouch – enough quotes!

As for myself, I have a new bird dog puppy on the way. I look forward to picking her up in late August. I have been too long without a puppy to love and train. I am looking forward to that bonding process again that unless you have experienced it you may not understand. It is hard to put into words the feeling you get when you see something as tiny, dependent and innocent as a Llewellin Setter puppy develop into an independent, hardworking companion that lives for you and to hunt upland gamebirds. There is some luck and magic involved in this process. Special touch is required to understand how to keep a bird dog enthusiastic and pointed in the right direction. You have to guide them, but you have to keep it fun. You have to allow them to train themselves as much as you train them and you have to be forgiving of mistakes. In short, it is not altogether different to how we might raise a child, or how we ourselves might like to be “trained” to do things we have the heart and instinct to do but not the experience.

As long as I am in this job role, and alive on this earth with the health to do it, I’ll be a proud “bird hunter.” You might say I was born into it.  When I entered this world back in “those good old days” on a cold November Sunday, my Dad brought my Mom a meal of pan fried wild quail as she recovered in the hospital. A peer once said to me “Marc, the quail is never going to be everyman’s bird.” I have thought about that for many years now. I am not sure any bird will ever be everyone’s bird. But I can assure you of this – the bobwhite quail is this man’s bird, and will continue to be a primary reason I come to work every day.

The “Art” of Grassroots Bobwhite Conservation

Feel-good stories about bobwhite conservation come too infrequently, thus beg to be shared and appreciated widely.

I have maintained from the origins of the NBCI that the grassroots level at the bottom of the metaphorical pyramid is the foundation of bobwhite conservation.  Without the vibrant grassroots power of local sportsmen’s chapters, nongovernment conservation organizations, landowners, biology clubs, prescribed fire associations, birdwatchers, hunters, etc. – unified effectively with a common vision and coordinated strategies – the NBCI mission of widespread bobwhite restoration cannot succeed.

Add “student artists” to that list of grassroots bobwhite conservationists.

“Our mission at Bobwhite Innovative is to use our creativity to help conserve and protect the bobwhite quail population by creating and selling wildlife paintings of these amazing creatures to raise awareness. We will donate 75% of our profits to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. We are a small business that started as a high school Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project (SAEP) and hope to grow into something bigger.”

Madison Shell, a motivated high school student artist in Simpsonville, South Carolina, developed a special interest in bobwhites that soon was followed by a personal commitment to use her talents to help conserve the troubled bird.  Her high school’s Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project provided the launch pad for her proposition to paint pictures of bobwhite quail and sell them, donating the profits to an organization dedicated to preserving the bobwhite population.  Madison did her own research on organizations dedicated to bobwhite conservation, and contacted NBCI early this year to pitch her idea. 

NBCI has now established a business partnership with her new enterprise, “Bobwhite Innovative,” in which NBCI is helping feature her artwork and she is donating 75% of her proceeds to support NBCI’s bobwhite programs.  Madison has since created her own website to highlight her artwork and her conservation mission:

Our mission at Bobwhite Innovative is to use our creativity to help conserve and protect the bobwhite quail population by creating and selling wildlife paintings of these amazing creatures to raise awareness. We will donate 75% of our profits to the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. We are a small business that started as a high school Supervised Agricultural Experiences Project (SAEP) and hope to grow into something bigger.

“Through cooperation, education, and teamwork, we hope to impact the bobwhite quail population positively,” Madison pledges on her website at www.bobwhiteinnovative.com.

The bobwhite veterans among us are accustomed to – though still grateful for – the typical, stalwart grassroots conservationists who have carried the flag for decades.  But there’s something especially gratifying and encouraging about the passion, personal motivation and action of Madison Shell, offering hope that a new generation of conservationists just might be out there, ready to join and carry on the cause for bobwhites and all the other songbirds and pollinators that share its habitat.  The bobwhite’s future feels a bit brighter now.

Shell’s Covert: Housing Development Quail Management

Housing development quail cover – note wide roads and openings, these pines can still be thinned more heavily to help fund management. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

This is a true story about a man devoted to quail management. I won’t give his name or tell you exactly where his property is other than – it’s in Central Virginia. About a decade ago he began managing a 60-acre tract. His property truly represents maximizing habitat work. He has sought advice from many professionals. Most importantly, he took action. His farm is a showcase and he has from 2 to 4 coveys on that 60 acres year in and year out (don’t let anyone say you cannot contribute to quail recovery on small acreages – it is possible, but depends at least in part on what types of lands surround your land). Over the years he expanded his landholdings, his management and his quail population. His main goal is not hunting quail, though he does like to have a hunt or two each year.

Last year he approached me about a new tract of land he was thinking of buying a few miles from his existing property. He wanted my opinion on its “quail potential.” I met him and as we drove into the property I thought to myself “someone is already managing this land intensively for quail.”

The pines had been thinned substantially, in some places almost down to what we call “quail density,” about 40 to 50 square feet of basal area per acre.  All the logging roads had been widened with nice sunlight getting in along the 30-to-50- foot expansions on both sides of the roads. It appeared multiple logging decks had been used when thinning this tract and each had been expanded into small clearings of an acre or more and already planted with legumes. A lot of the hardwood encroachment had been controlled in the understory mechanically. All that was really left to do was start a burning regimen in the pines (which has since been done), and a combination of a liming, fertilization and discing regimen on the clearings … and he’d have 200 acres of prime quail cover.

“Who has been managing this land for quail?” I asked. He grinned and said “No one, this is a failed housing development project.”

It made perfect sense then. The roads had been widened to accommodate increased vehicle traffic and paving. The small clearings were to be house lots. Enough pines had been left to provide some aesthetics and shade for new homes. I don’t know whose development it was, and I feel bad for them. I don’t want to be accused of making light of anyone’s bad luck. But for the quail on this area, their misfortune was a boon. It also made me realize that maybe I should consider new ways in which to describe “quail cover” – picture a new 5-10 acre average lot size housing development in a piney woods area without the houses, lawns and pavement. By the way, when the owner allowed a good bird dog man to hunt the tract for the first time this past winter, they found five coveys of quail in a few hours – further proof to me that quail do find new habitats and can do well in them.

In a recent article in Quail Forever Magazine by Tall Timbers Research Station researchers Clay Sisson and Dr. Theron Terhune presented evidence on how important managed clearings can be within a pine ecosystem as quail brood-rearing cover. I suggest you visit their website for more information and consider supporting their organization and subscribing to their e-newsletter (http://talltimbers.org/welcome-to-tall-timbers/ ).

This fallowed corn field is now providing great brood-rearing cover. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

Primarily, they found that these clearings made superior brood-rearing cover compared to either burned or unburned thinned pine stands under poor or acidic soil conditions. The main reason – properly managed clearings produced far more insects than surrounding pine stands. I followed up with Dr. Terhune by e-mail and he provided me this information: “The need for brood fields and the proportion of fields required is dictated by soil type. Basically, the lower the soil quality the higher the percentage of fields needed. In very low quality soils we recommend 25-30% fields. Average desirable field size is 1.5 to 2 acres and should range from 1 – 4 acres and not larger than 5 acres.  However, in higher quality soils burned piney woods often provide adequate brood-rearing habitat.”

In many parts of Virginia’s coastal plain, the soils are either sandy, which means they do not hold nutrients very well, or they are acidic. Likewise, many soils in the piedmont, though heavier than coastal plains soils, can be very acidic. This varies by site. The main lesson is to get to know the soils on your land. You can contact an NRCS soil conservationist at your local USDA Service Center for more information on your land’s soil.

Further reading of their articles led me to other findings such as how the quality of these fields tends to decline over time. There may be some need for liming and fertilization which can be expensive. Most recently the staff of TTRS has experimented with using rotational agricultural plantings and incorporation of legumes to “rebuild” these fields, as opposed to fertilization. As with all quail management, the key is rotation. The fields can be rotationally disced, or rotationally planted with agricultural crops or legumes. The key is not planting the entire field every year. There is nothing that makes brood-rearing cover quicker than fallowed crop lands.

What should you do? First, get to know your soils, have soil tests done on clearings and lime and fertilize according to recommendations to start. There are many ways to approach soil testing, but the best in my opinion is via your local Cooperative Extension Service. You can decide on how many fields, and whether to use planted crops or simple rotational discing based on your time and budget. If you do not think your burned piney woods are producing quail like they should, check the soils and consider incorporating multiple brood clearings.