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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.

Growing Wildfires Impacting Forest Service’s Ability to Manage Our National Forests

the-cost-of-wildland-fire_reducedIf you’ve been paying attention to the news you have likely seen information on the many wildfires currently burning across the southeastern United States as well as those that occurred this summer in the western part of the country. In the Southeast, we’re having unprecedented wildfire activity for this time of the year. Over the past few years these wildfires are tending to occur more often, burn at higher intensities and burn more acres. Fire has been a part of the natural process throughout time and if used properly can have a positive effect on the environment. Prescribed Fires can be defined as a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and reduce wildfire risk. Wildfire is one of the most destructive forces known to man and can be defined as any unwanted or unplanned fire burning in shrub, forest, or grassland.   

Many of these wildfires occur within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), therefore making them very expensive to fight. The WUI can be defined as areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire. Depending on the area of the country, fire departments might refer to wildland fires as brush fires, forest fires, rangeland fires, or something else; however, they are all part of the WUI and all pose the same threat to local assets. The increase in the WUI threat has been steep because of continued development and exposure.

Last August, the United States Forest Service published a report titled The Rising Cost of Fire Operations; Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work. In this report the Forest Service projects that by the year 2025, 67 per cent of its budget will be used for fighting wildfires. The cost of fighting wildfires in 2015 was 52 per cent of the Forest Service budget compared to only 16 percent in 1995. This means that over the years less money is available to both the National Forest System and the states to conduct needed management of the natural resources on the ground.

According to the same report, six of the largest wildfires since 1960 occurred after the year 2000. There are many reasons for the increase in wildfire activity — climatic change, more homes being built in the Wildland-Urban Interface, the Forest Service’s inability to manage the national forests due to litigation and frequent protests about  timber management,  just to name a few.

With these increasingly large wildfire seasons the Forest Service has no option but to take money from other important programs, sometimes called “fire borrowing,” to help pay for the fighting of these wildfires. This means that other program priorities such as vegetation and watershed management, capital improvements and maintenance, recreation, wilderness, private lands management, wildlife and fisheries habitat management, land planning and inventory, prescribed burning and monitoring all suffer at the expense of fighting wildland fires.

The USFS budget for wildland firefighting is based on a 10-year rolling average, which means the budget is based on the last 10 years firefighting cost. Once stable, the costs of fighting a growing number of larger fires is making it more expensive and unpredictable to estimate what the future cost will be.

The NBCI is currently working with the Southern Region office and other region offices in an attempt to promote better habitat for northern bobwhites and other species that require early successional savanna grassland habitat in our national forests. It requires funding from the Forest Service, state partners, non-governmental organizations and other groups to get habitat management accomplished, such as with frequent low-intensity prescribed fires that reduce the risk of damaging wildfires. Funding that is budgeted for bobwhite habitat work on national forests is being re-routed during the middle of the year to fight wildfires at the expense of habitat management. Re-routing these funds also impacts funding for forest health, stewardship, forest inventory analysis and other programs that state forestry agencies manage. Therefore, the ability to manage natural resources on national forests and provide technical assistance to private landowners is hindered. Due to this lack of management, insect and disease infestations are on the increase, species of animals and plants that need early successional forests are being lost, every year wildfires are increasing in size and in landscapes where there are dead and dying trees, therefore making them more difficult to control.

There is no quick fix to solving this problem, but it is time for action to insure that the nation’s forests are protected from wildfire and the federal land management agencies are able to properly manage the areas that have been entrusted to them by the American citizens.

Over the past couple of years several bills have been introduced in Congress which would help alleviate but would not fix the problem.   Washington needs to fix the way wildfire suppression funding is budgeted and to look at alternate ways to fund wildfire disasters when the cost of fighting them exceeds the budget. Forest Service funding for doing necessary on-the-ground management should be maintained for that purpose instead of so frequently being ”borrowed” for emergency wildfire response.

Images from the Grasslands

Hardwoods get all the attention this time of year for their fall color but ask me and I say the prairies are just as colorful.

Fall Color

Fall Color

 

The full moon on November 14th, which coincided with perigee, resulted in the closest supermoon since 1948 promised to provide some excellent opportunity for lunar photographs. I set up in a prairie planting in anticipation of the rare event, hoping to capture some once in a lifetime images. Unfortunately, clouds obscured much of the moon that evening in my location. What do you do when you are all set up with camera gear then can’t get the conditions you want? You take pictures anyway. Here are some of the shots I took.

bluestem-super-moon_reduced

Bluestem Super Moon

 

I used the moon to silhouette a senescing stem of big bluestem. After taking this shot I wondered how different it would look if the bluestem were illuminated.

 

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

Illuminated bluestem supermoon

 

 

I can’t decide which one I like best. What do you think? After taking this shot I decided to experiment with a technique called light painting, where you use a light source to illuminate the foreground while the exposure is being made. You can come up with some interesting results using this technique.

light-painted-bluestem-super-moon_redcued

Light-painted bluestem

 

 

 

Not to be denied a lunar image, a couple of nights later, under clear skies, I got a shot of the waning gibbous moon. It’s not the supermoon, but it’s pretty good. I call it Perigee Minus 2.

 

Perigee minus 2

Perigee Minus 2

 

 

Don’t let the weather keep you out of the prairies. Get out there and enjoy their beauty, regardless of the conditions there is always something picture worthy.

Shell’s Covert: My ‘Quailucation’

Author’s note: I got long-winded again. I guess I could have used 40 mimes, or 100 tweets to try to convey this, but I am old school. I write for people who still like to take a few minutes and read. I have been lucky to spend the last 24 years involved with some of the best quail researchers in the world and also some of the best people. Here are a few recollections of that time.

I gave a talk to a distinguished group of local landowners and bird hunters last Friday evening at Lowry’s Restaurant in Tappahannock, Va. It’s one of the few places I know of that has “all you can eat” deep fried quail on the menu. I can’t say I ever saw so many farm raised quail consumed in one sitting in my lifetime (I had a turkey sandwich – you ever try to eat fried food before giving a talk?). It was ironic my talk was on quail nutrition, since quail were the nutrition of choice that evening. I began my talk with this statement: “You can learn a lot about quail by hunting them behind a good bird dog, but there is a lot you don’t learn that way, too.” Lately I have looked back over what I term my “quailucation” – my quail education, and I realize it has been a pretty darn good one.

Quail research continues to be important ... we either keep learning or fall behind

Quail research continues to be important … we either keep learning or fall behind

It was as a kid rabbit hunter back in Pulaski County, Virginia that I first started to develop a search image for what gamey cover was. After a few years of chasing bunnies, even a boy gets to know where not to waste time. I recall a number of quail coveys flushed in those pursuits and I can see them all flying away as clear as a dew drop to this day. Many were using “old home sites.” There were sagging fences, overgrown with brambles, old hog lots with rich dirt and diverse plant life, and collapsing cabins whose old yards could hold rabbits, quail and even grouse. I’d have laughed in any person’s face back then who said to me “That’s good early-successional habitat.” What!? It was just thickets and brush to us. And there was a lot more of it then, along with chinquapins, bumble bees, butterflies and migrating birds (and a lot fewer of us).

Later in life, when I was about to complete my undergraduate degree, a good friend of mine saw me walking down a hall at Virginia Tech and he had a flyer in his hands. He said to me “Marc, you ought to put in for this project on quail in North Carolina.” I’d always wanted to be a bird hunter, but had never figured it out. I took him up on the idea and long story short, I ended up being accepted to North Carolina State University working under the tutelage of Dr. Pete Bromley and in close concert with Bill Palmer, now CEO of Tall Timbers Research Station.

Dr. Bromley made me a professional and Bill made me a bird hunter…along with Frank Howard, a tobacco farmer and “old time” bird dog man of great ability who battled Parkinson’s disease as he shared his knowledge of bird dogs with us. I did not realize then how lucky I was to have these three men continuing my quailucation. Frank told me once, “Marc, I have trained enough bird dogs in my life, if you hooked them all to a harness, they could pull a 747.” I began to learn quail from several new angles. I saw how quail behaved when surprised. I began to learn when, where and what they fed on. I learned how they called to one another, and also how to stay very quiet in approaching a dog on point, so quiet you could sometimes hear the soft calling of the quail and be a little less surprised at where they flushed. I learned that in some circumstances they’d hold so tight they’d literally come up between your legs, and in others they’d run ahead and come up out of range. And I began to see why…the closer you came upon them before surprising them the tighter they held. They can hear as well as turkeys.

Simultaneously, I began attempting to trap quail for my research project. My study area was the contract farming units on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the coastal plain of North Carolina. My first few weeks of quail trapping were a lesson in humility. I had trapped a lot in my youth, but I found catching quail to be more difficult than trapping raccoons, muskrats and foxes.

Quail don’t rely on their sense of smell to locate food, thus they cannot be lured to a trap with scents. I started to realize that you had to put the traps where the quail were…not 10 feet away from where they were. I learned how they “stage” in edge thicket cover before moving out to feed. And it was in these staging areas that they could be captured with some success. I also learned their affinity for shrubby cover and brier thickets. If I was not battling thickets when setting traps, I caught few quail.

Something else I noticed was that they did not always walk to where they wanted to be. I witnessed on more than one occasion their flight to a feeding area and then back to cover. These flights were fast, only a few feet off the ground and in complete concert with one another. Up in a split second, buzzing out to the feeding area, and then after feeding quickly up and back into cover in a matter of seconds.

One morning as I was hunkered under a blackberry thicket re-setting a trap, a covey flew into the thicket within 10 feet of me. I lay still and listened. They were calling softly to one another and they knew something was amiss. I listened for a time and then started sliding my way out of the thicket. I managed to get out without flushing them and I later caught that covey. I had found their covey headquarters for sure.

Something else I saw them do on more than one occasion…just at dusky dark, they flew out into the wide open soybean stubble fields to roost. I confirmed it by looking for their roosting disks during daylight. I suspect in their case, if not spotted by an owl, they were safer out in the stubble than along the field edges.

The quail were especially difficult to catch on one portion of the study area. It was wide open and windswept, and the only cover existed along drainage ditches. Bill Palmer visited almost weekly, as my study was nested within his larger study. He was depending on me to catch quail. We were both perplexed by this section and then Bill had a spark. The wind brought the Northern Harriers, and the harriers cruised those ditches back and forth all day long. The only place the quail felt secure was down in the big drainage canals at the end of each field.

So down we went, excavating trapping sites eight feet down the steep banks of those canals. I later borrowed a canoe from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put in at one end of the canal. It was still cold so no worries about gators or moccasins. And, low and behold, as I canoed around these canals I gave many a quail their first glimpse of a human in a canoe. The look of surprise they exhibited as I came up almost eye to eye with them was priceless. But they held tight as I paddled by. This was a lesson for me in their adaptability.

I later also learned how nature interacts. The harriers came for meadow voles, not quail, and when the vole population crashed the Harriers did not tarry. Low vole populations meant less harassment for the quail of ARNWR. We also found that incorporating field borders along drainage ditches running through crop fields helped quail, but were not a complete substitute for larger blocks of fallow land. Ideally, farmed landscapes will incorporate a variety of fallow fields and borders, and maximize “weedy areas” whereever possible.

During those days we also raised quail in captivity and hatched eggs, thousands of them. Other students were studying different aspects of quail ecology offering more learning opportunities. We ran sweep nets for insects to feed the young quail. What predators they are! To observe their foraging habits, many were imprinted on humans after hatching, and it was a fun sight to see a student walking along “cheeping” at the little quail as they fed. Grasshoppers, crickets, beetles…they jumped on them with a raptor’s zeal. In one case a chick grappled with a praying mantis as large as it was and was unable to kill it. If you look at a quail chick up close, its head is all mouth. The shape of their young mouth reminds me of the nightjars (Chuck-Will’s- Widows, Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, etc.) which have such large mouths for night foraging on insects.

Upon coming to Virginia I was lucky to work with several more fantastic people: The “Old Timer,” Irv Kenyon, who wrote “Beyond the Foodpatch” and had forgotten more about quail than most people will ever know; Steve Capel (our leader, now retired but still going strong for habitat); Patty Knupp “Sister” who kept us all in line, now with NRCS in Colorado; and Mike Fies who was responsible for some of the best research ever done on quail in Virginia or elsewhere. In conjunction with NCSU researchers, we helped study predator effects, translocation of bobwhites (back before it became “new”), survival of pen-raised quail, and more.

We found that predator control only made sense if a person had first invested in fantastic habitat, and then if done, it had to be done every year. The best dollars spent are on habitat first. We found that translocated wild bobwhites did survive much longer then pen-raised quail, averaging 39 days versus the 2 to 3 for pen-raised, but there was no substitute for managing habitat to produce locally hatched and raised wild quail. We found that having a quail brood is tough on the parents, with 39% of the hens hatching eggs dead within 40 days.

And we set up remote cameras on hundreds of hatched or depredated quail nests. This led to close to 5,000 photographs of nest depredations. We found that raccoons, opossums, skunks and foxes were the main culprits. Out of all those photos we had one case of a deer eating a quail egg, one groundhog and a couple crows. We never had a single photo of a turkey depredating a quail nest. Or a coyote.

Before we did this study many people assumed that if you found a quail nest with all the eggs gone and no broken shells or other evidence, then it must have been a snake that ate the eggs whole. Not so fast! We also used remote video cameras and guess who else steals eggs leaving no trace? Mainly red foxes – we assume they carry the eggs off to feed young, or cache them for later use.

Research over the years has also shown many surprising things about quail. They move more than once believed. We found quail after losing a nest to predators almost always moved a long distance, 1,000 yards or more, before re-nesting. Studies in Oklahoma found a covey moving over 100 miles in fall. I saw quail in Virginia move almost a mile in a single day (they do know how to fly). Though many stay close to home, enough move to help keep genetic diversity alive even at low densities. We also now know that monogamy, once thought to be the “norm” for bobwhites, is not the case. As many as 25% of quail nests are incubated by males. Some hens leave nests with males and go have another nest. There is a lot of mixing and matching going on in “quaildom.”

We continue to try to stay on the cutting edge of quail research. We have been fortunate to have had Dr. Theron Terhune, Tall Timbers Game Bird Research Coordinator, visit with us multiple times, as well as Dr. Chris Moorman, Wildlife Unit Leader at NCSU, another fine quail program with ongoing research into quail ecology.

For those who may not understand the job of a state species project leader, one big aspect is to stay current on recent research on your species. I believe we are doing that in Virginia. We have not let “moss grow.” I continue to read every wildlife journal and newsletter I can find to insure we do not fall behind and grow stale. We continue to look for opportunities to start new quail research. Dollars have been tight for it, but we hope to continue to look for funding so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we know all there is to know about any species. Conditions change, species change, and we are either learning more about them, or we are falling behind. We have a new quail team now full of bright, enthusiastic biologists who are making their names known and we continue to strive to do our best for Virginia’s quail.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Miscellany November ’16

save-the-date-poster_reducedThe Fire Summit 2016: Changing Fire Regimes, a regional conference on fire science in the Great Plains, is set for Dec. 7-9, 2016 at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center in Manhattan, Kansas.

Landowners, fire managers, firefighters, agency personnel or anyone with interest in prescribed fire are invited to attend. The history of prescribed fire, current status and future will all be topics of the conference. Discussions will include national policy, partnerships, prescribed burn associations, smoke management, wildlife, funding sources, burn planning and much more. A tour of the world renown Konza Prairie is being offered as a post-conference activity.

Registration and additional information can be found at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fire-summit-2016-changing-fire-regimes-tickets-27490002337

 

Northeast Oklahoma Trex – Monday, March 13, 2017, 8:00 AM – Friday March 17, 2017, 5 PM
Vinita, Oklahoma

TREX is a prescribed fire training exchange that brings together fire practitioners from diverse backgrounds to obtain hands-on fire experience, share knowledge and expertise, and better understand the art and science of fire management and ecology.

In the field, hands-on training in prescribed fire planning, preparation and implementation, along with classroom sessions on fire ecology and fire line communications, will combine to form a busy week for participants in this first TREX (training exchange) ever for Oklahoma. We will be burning on several sites in an oak-pine ecosystem in northeast Oklahoma.

This training is for all interested fire practitioners and no NWCG certification is necessary to participate. College students, private landowners, tribal members, and fire fighters who are interested in learning more about utilizing prescribed fire as a land management tool are all welcome.  Registration for this training is limited to 20 people.

To Register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/northeast-oklahoma-trex-tickets-29086926781

 

Progressive Cattleman – an online publication from Progressive Publishing recently posted a two-part series, Straight Talk on Native Grass Forages – by Patrick Keyser of the Center for Native Grasslands Management.

In my opinion, this is one of the best, most comprehensive, straightforward presentations of the facts about native grass forages, as well as some practical information. It addresses many of the myths and long-held misconceptions about native grasses as forages and backs it up with research evidence, not hearsay. Well worth the read and worthwhile to save to have on hand for future reference or to provide a copy to anyone interested in the facts about native grass forage.

You can find Part 1 at: http://www.progressivecattle.com/topics/range-pasture/7439-straight-talk-on-native-grass-forages. Be sure to click on the link to Part 2 to get the full story.

 

The National Provisioner reports on a study from Mississippi State University about native grass grazing and beef quality. Bottom line, no difference in quality but research also found steaks from cattle fed a big bluestem, indiangrass and little bluestem mix were less susceptible to lipid oxidation and had lower total fat percentage compared to cattle fed bermudagrass. You can read the article here: http://www.provisioneronline.com/articles/103632-does-native-grass-grazing-affect-beef-quality  Related article: http://mafes.msstate.edu/discovers/article.asp?id=18