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Shell’s Covert: The Subtle Things

I have been absent from the blogosphere since early June. It has been a busy summer so far. Not to mention a very troubling one with regards to some of what has transpired in our great country and around the world. I made the comment to a friend and colleague last week that I was afraid we ought to just put our American flags at half-mast and leave them there. It seems no sooner than we raise them back to full staff that another tragedy unfolds. I hope the future can return us to some sense of “normalcy,” but throughout history I am not sure that ever really existed for very long.

Pasture / hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

Pasture/hay field converted to short-leaf pine and pollinator cover

One thing I really struggle with sometimes given all that is going on in the world is how do I continue to believe in what I am doing? Some days I suffer from an existential crisis mood. I ask myself – why should anyone care about quail? About bees? About butterflies? About thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses? About wetlands? About forests?

There has never been another species that has had as great a capacity to inflict atrocities on one another as ours. Going back as far in history as one can go, examples of the wholesale slaughter we have leveled on ourselves are limitless. But so are examples of our capacity to survive those cataclysms. It occurred to me as I thought about this that barring nuclear holocaust, we are not likely to bring about our extinction through war. As bad as things get, as horrible as times become…our species can survive those things.

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail and Sulphur butterflies on butterfly weed in quail planting area

But what we will not survive is the continued erosion of our ecosystems, or our continued loss of what Aldo Leopold referred to as a “land ethic.” It occurred to me that it won’t be the dramatic events that bring about our demise as a species. It will be the underlying, sometimes subtle things that go on around us every day that cause the “bottom to fall out” at some point. And therein were my answers.

I spent a good part of the last two weeks traveling around to various parts of our state looking at habitat projects of differing kinds. All around us was life and positivity on our site visits. Examples of landowners who, while still making income from their property, made decisions reflecting their love of the land and wildlife.

Projects ranged from reforestation of declining species of pines to incorporating wildlife considerations like reduced stocking rates and lower intensity herbicides, to a single project that incorporated hundreds of acres of native grass and pollinator plantings. These landowners counted on our professional recommendations to design and help them accomplish their projects. Many also relied on financial assistance from conservation cost-share programs.

Dedicated conservation professionals helped walk them through the process. At nearly every site we heard the “bob-bob-whiiiittte!!!” call. We saw countless numbers of pollinating insects. Plant diversity was improved at all sites. The only thing that dampened our thinking was the distance between good sites at times. We simply need more landowners inclined to do conservation-minded habitat work. And that is a goal worthy of our work. Our life’s chosen calling will become increasingly critical to the continued existence of our species. Our jobs are not glamorous, we rarely work in the spotlight (good or bad), and in most cases we do not risk our lives unreasonably in our profession. But what we do matters to our future on this planet.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Bittersweet Birding

 

A solo birdwatching trip to an east Arkansas national wildlife refuge last weekend took me physically and mentally away from work’s reports, contracts and budgets.  Spotting scope and binoculars in hand, I anticipated that waterbirds and maybe even some early-dispersing shorebirds at this Mississippi Alluvial Valley refuge would be the day’s features. Instead, the surprise highlight was found among the numerous former crop fields that have been planted with tidy rows of bottomland hardwood trees.  

Driving slowly along the gravel road, windows down and head out, listening, I heard an unusual but vaguely familiar bird song. Reflexively braking the truck, I stopped along a large field of young planted hardwoods that sported a robust native herbaceous community between the rows. A minute later the bird sang again, causing my mental hard drive to search its archives… darned if it didn’t sound just like a painted bunting, but that seemed too unlikely. I parked the truck, got out, listened and looked. Field sparrows, yellow-breasted chats, eastern towhees, dickcissels, and indigo buntings were singing all around … and a Bell’s vireo cut loose close by, the first of the year for me. Finally, as I was about to leave, the mystery bird sang again. I searched more intensely and finally found it, a painted bunting perched near the top of a young oak tree, singing its head off, brilliantly illuminated in the sunlight. I high-fived myself right there in the road because PABUs are rare sightings for me; plus, who could ever tire of seeing them?!

That’s when the first bobwhite whistled.  Then another; and another.  I soon counted four bobwhites singing in that same area with the painted bunting along with all the other early-successional songbirds that typically share habitats with bobwhites.  Some – such as the painted bunting, eastern towhee, field sparrow and Bell’s vireo – have Continental Concern Scores equal to or higher (worse) than the bobwhite’s, according to the Partners in Flight Species Assessment Database.

This memorable birding moment was a gratifying example of some of the NBCI’s core tenets: 

– Habitat still makes bobwhites; 

– Create enough of the right habitat in the right locations, and bobwhites likely will come and thrive, as will lots of their songbird neighbors; 

– Wildlife managers have the technical knowledge and ability to restore bobwhites, as well as grassland and early successional birds.

This moment also illustrated a confounding dilemma of the societal challenges of bird conservation:  the greater bird conservation community long ago decided that public conservation land in this particular region is not intended to benefit bobwhites. Nor migratory birds like painted buntings, field sparrows, or Bell’s vireos that share the bobwhite’s early successional and grassland habitats.  Regardless of its demonstrable management potential for this set of priority early successional habitat species, this land has been deemed to be devoted to bottomland hardwoods and wetlands.  With the realization of the planned obsolescence of this ephemeral-by-design habitat before me, the memorable moment turned bittersweet. 

In about five years, this quality early successional habitat, and the community of priority resident and migratory birds that it supports at this location, will be gone.  Probably for good.  Just as planned by the greater bird conservation community’s deliberate trade off.  And that final song of the last individual among these species at this site will demonstrate another core tenet of the NBCI:  unmanaged or neglected bobwhite (and painted bunting, and field sparrow, and Bell’s vireo) habitat soon will grow out of it.

Beltway Bobwhites: Taking a Fork in the Trail Toward a Brighter Future for the Bobwhite

 

Jack Ward Thomas

Jack Ward Thomas

Jack Ward Thomas is on my mind as I pen this article, because he very recently passed away. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1934, Jack was an extraordinary leader in the wildlife profession, starting with his first job as a wildlife biologist with the Texas Game Department in 1957 after graduating from Texas A&M. He then forged an amazing career in wildlife research with the US Forest Service, was an advisor to the President of the United States, and in 1993 became the first biologist to be appointed Chief of the Forest Service. Later, he became the Boone & Crocket Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Jack grew up hunting bobwhites on his grandfather’s farm near Handley, Texas. In his fascinating memoir “Forks in the Trail: a Conservationist’s Trek to the Pinnacles of Natural Resource Leadership” Jack recounted his career by telling fascinating stories, often using the metaphor of encountering a fork in the trail during critical decision points in his career. At the fork in the trail there was a post with two directional signs. One fork led to the “rest of your life,” the other to “no longer an option.”  In reflecting on his amazing career in conservation, Jack asked “Looking back, what are the actions of which we are proud? What do we regret? Then we can look forward and contemplate the next fork in the trail, better informed as to our personal and societal decisions. It is well to remember and ponder the words on that post at the fork in the trail: ‘No longer an option’.”

I believe we are rapidly approaching a fork in the trail that will determine the future of the bobwhite and our quail hunting heritage across the country. The decisions made during the next few years in Washington, DC about agriculture and wildlife policy likely will determine the future viability of this beloved species.

We are rapidly approaching the time when “no longer an option” could become the reality for bobwhites in much of Texas and throughout most of the rest of their historic range. Bobwhite populations have been in sharp, steady decline during the last half century due primarily to landscape-scale habitat loss and degradation. Changes in agricultural practices during that period have destroyed large expanses of native grassland and rangeland on which the bobwhite depends.

Unfortunately, national policies are contributing to this loss. The introduction of aggressive exotic grasses, intended to boost livestock production, and the intensification of row cropping have replaced or eliminated the native plants that provide the nesting, brood rearing and protective cover on which quail depend. Conversion of native habitats to “tame” vegetation has led us to a fork in the trail. What are we prepared to do?  Will we commit to take the necessary action to reverse the policies that have created the bobwhite decline, or will we continue down the trail where wild bobwhites are no longer sufficiently abundant to sustain hunting… i.e., “no longer an option?”

There is hope, however. Thanks to the generosity of Park Cities Quail, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is working hard in Washington, DC to persuade our federal agency leaders and members of Congress to take the trail that will change the course of agricultural policy to restore bobwhite habitat and reverse the bird’s population decline. We’re doing this in part through changes to the practices that are funded through the federal Farm Bill that is reauthorized about every five years. Park Cities Quail has generously funded an NBCI professional in DC who is laser focused on identifying ways to revise current federal policies to benefit bobwhites. Examples of this work include educating congressional staff by holding tours of farms and ranches that are restoring and managing grassland habitat for wildlife. Getting congressional people out of their offices and onto a farm or ranch to meet with the producers and see how the practices are applied on the ground are real eye openers for policy makers.  The NBCI plans to hold congressional tours in key bobwhite states in 2017.  

The NBCI also is making important progress in engaging federal agencies in bobwhite conservation actions. As a result of our work, the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior have formally endorsed NBCI’s coordinated quail conservation strategy and have pledged support for bobwhite habitat restoration on private and public land. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and Forest Service are all pitching in like never before. And the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service are beginning to take action. Each agency is providing funding and/or technical assistance to put quail habitat on the ground. Plans to establish official quail focal areas are being made for National Forests, National Military Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. The Forest Service has already pledged at least $100,000 to implement bobwhite habitat restoration actions on National Forests and plans are being made to increase funding for doing so on surrounding private lands.

With further regard to private lands, we’re encouraged with the progress that state wildlife agencies and quail conservation groups are having in signing up landowners into the new NBCI-initiated center pivot corner habitat practice that amounts to a new $250 million value for quail habitat. Financial assistance to landowners for enrolling center pivot corners habitat was approved in 2015 under the Conservation Reserve’s habitat buffers for upland birds practice (CP33).

The NBCI also is working with the Farm Service Agency to develop an exciting new Butterfly, Bees and Birds Initiative that will make sure bobwhites and other grassland birds are included in the USDA effort to enhance conditions for Monarch butterflies and pollinators. Under the NBCI proposal, multi-species habitat would be enhanced via prescribed grazing, prescribed fire and otherwise making plantings more effective for these beneficial critters.

These are but a few highlights of the recent progress that NBCI, our 25 state and additional NGO partners have been able to make for bobwhites by having an Agriculture Liaison working diligently in Washington, DC thanks to the generous financial support of Park Cities Quail. The NBCI would gratefully welcome any additional pledges of support from other quail conservation groups as we aspire to follow Jack Ward Thomas’ vision of a fork in the trail leading to a better future for bobwhites and the people who enjoy them.

Native Grass Gazette: 2 Upcoming Meetings of Importance to the Grassland Community

July 17-20 the 24th North American Prairie Conference kicks off at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. Information about the conference can be found online at: http://nap2016.illinoisstate.edu/. This year’s theme is From Cemetery Prairies to National Tallgrass Prairies. The conference includes plenary and breakout sessions on Monday and Wednesday with a number of field trips to choose from on Tuesday.

The 10th Eastern Native Grass Symposium is in Evansville, Indiana August 29-31 at the Tropicana Hotel. Follow discussions and announcements about the symposium on the Eastern Native Grass Symposium Facebook page, along with an agenda. Conference registration and information is online via Eventbrite service. Hotel registration can be made by calling 800-544-0120 and using the group code: GEGGSYM. This block of rooms has been set aside for Monday – Tuesday on a first-come, first-served basis. The symposium rate is $89 per night and reservations need to be made by July 29.

Anyone interested in exhibiting or sponsoring the symposium should contact me at jhodge34@utk.edu.

Meetings like these provide an opportunity to meet and network with many other like-minded people, hear the latest news related to grasslands and help shape the direction of future grassland issues. Don’t miss an opportunity to be educated, make new friends and be involved in the process.

Keep the tall grasses growing and burn on!

Shell’s Covert: ‘Where are they going to come from?’

My landowner friend of over 20 years and I stood and looked out over almost 900 contiguous acres of clear-cut, or “cut-over” as most folks in Southside Virginia know it. Now please don’t start a

"Found" Bobwhite Habitat

“Found” Bobwhite Habitat on Cut-Over

 letter writing campaign about the wholesale pillaging of the landscape. Most of these acres came from old farm land replanted to loblolly pines years ago. And they have now become a retirement fund. Keep in mind if the land does not pay in crop or timber, it’s likely to pay in house lots sold piece-by-piece. Forestry Best Management Practices were followed in the harvest and what exists now is 900 acres of brand new, one, two or three years post planting pines. In addition to that, my friend is an “old time bird hunter.” He plants most of his log decks, road edges, and power line rights-of-way with legumes.

As we stood looking over the land, I mentioned I was sure quail would return here quickly. My friend was less sure. He asked me “Marc, where are the birds going to come from? There’s none nearby to repopulate the area. We need to bring some quail in.” I made a bet with him … if quail did not show up this spring I’d bring in some quail.

This morning I got up at 4:30, got in my work truck and made it to the gravel road that bisected this cut-over area by 6:50. It was an absolutely magnificent morning with cool, clean skies the likes of which we see few of during summer. I did five “official” points between then and 8:00 a.m. and…I heard 13 different bobwhites calling, an average of 2.6 per point. The points did not cover the entire area. So there may have been many I did not hear. I would say this habitat had been “found.”

Quail move more than many people think. I have mentioned in posts before they are ”hardwired” to move and that it is a genetic mechanism that has helped them survive at low densities for many decades. And it also allows their populations to “explode” when conditions are ideal.

If you picture a covey of 12 quail on April 1, they soon “disintegrate” with some moving very little, some moving a bit and some moving several miles. Thinking of their “radius of influence,” though, it might span several miles in any direction from their winter range. And this increases the chances that they can “find” new habitats and mates.

But, most folks don’t have 900 acres of contiguous habitat. And 50 acres of cut-over within the context of 1,000 acres of more cut-over has a much greater chance of being occupied through time than 50 acres of cut-over isolated from other such areas. So what’s a landowner to do who only owns 100 or 500 acres?

Talk to your neighbors. Develop quail cooperatives. Help each other. Quail cover can be produced on cut-overs, in fallowed crop fields and power line rights-of-way, around field edges, and in a variety of other ways. And the bottom-feather is, the more acres the merrier.

By the way, why translocate wild quail to anyone’s property if quail show up on their own? Very good question and one that is still undergoing research, but the short answer is – it might speed up recovery, inject some new genetics into a population, and keep landowners interested in continued habitat management. It may also help existing quail populations to overcome an unknown threshold preventing their recovery.

Much “to do” has been made about translocation efforts in other states. Criteria being used now for those translocations require a minimum of 1,500 acres of contiguous high quality quail habitat before quail will be translocated to those properties, and all the translocations are experimental. In some cases “success” has been declared. To me that is akin to if the Allies had declared success a week after D-Day. In my opinion these projects are showing short-term success and I am optimistic, but long-term success has yet to be demonstrated. We are developing similar criteria for research in Virginia, so start thinking ahead about how to put together habitat cooperatives, something we have referred to in the past as “Quail Quilts.”

Another intriguing aspect of quail ecology is “where do they disappear to in winter?” Many landowners and quail hunters enjoy hearing a good number of quail in summer, only to have a hard time finding these “ghost” quail in winter. Though we do have some older data on winter habitat use by quail in Virginia, we don’t have much from modern times.

We have long theorized that the “modern quail” has adapted to survive and those remaining have become harder and harder for hunters and predators to locate. We have observed from some late winter trapping for summer quail studies, that in late winter during the day quail inhabit the thickest tangles of cut-over or creek bottom canebrake they can find. And they leave it only long enough to feed and quickly return. I caught very few quail in places where I was not getting scratched severely by briers and brush when putting the trap in.

We have a couple places in mind for a study where we hear good numbers of quail during summer and early fall counts, but where hunters struggle to find a covey or two in winter. We’ll be submitting a request for proposals for a research project to help us find some answers specific to Virginia. In the meantime, go enjoy June – get up early and go listen for some bobwhites.