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/ ).
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.
Prescribed burning in grasslands during the growing season as a management practice has been quietly taking place for a number of years, primarily by out-of-the-box thinking land managers. It is only recently that researchers have been looking at the practice and others are beginning to take notice. I suppose you could say it is in the early adoption phase.
Many are skeptical that a burn can be conducted during the growing season. After all, how can something that green burn? What about fuel moisture and the humidity? Typically, those are higher than what we normally conduct burns under. Then there are others concerned about the loss or damage to flora or fauna, and while those concerns are warranted, if the burn is planned and implemented properly, those impacts are minimal.
First, as long as there is residual dead material from previous years’ growth, lush, green native grasses will burn during the growing season. Surprisingly well, in fact. The key is enough residual old growth to be fuel for the fire. Without that, it won’t burn – except under extreme circumstances under which you shouldn’t be conducting a prescribed burn anyway. Second, fuel moisture is much higher in the new green growth but fuel moisture in the dead residual material is much lower, though not as dry as during the dormant season; humidity varies greatly from west to east and relative to rainfall zones but is usually higher than during the dormant season as well. These two factors combined actually make growing season burning safer and less work than dormant season burns because the fire is less volatile, much slower moving and easier to extinguish.
Finally, to address the potential loss or damage to flora and fauna, burn only a portion of the total area within the field or planning unit. While burning during the growing season will damage some plants and animals, if areas are left unburned, they will serve as refuges, thus not eliminating entire populations of susceptible species and providing sources to repopulate the burned area.
I will provide a personal example of how growing season burning can create biodiversity. I don’t recall exactly when, but somewhere around 2000 I decided to try a growing season burn on an old big bluestem seed production field that was no longer productive. I conducted the burn in late July. The first thing I noted was the regrowth the bluestem put on after the burn. Within just a few days, bluestem shoots were emerging from the ground and by the time of our first frost plants were 12 – 18 inches tall.
From the bobwhite management perspective, this is an ideal height for nesting cover the next spring and the residual leaves can provide nest building material. The following summer I saw a number of different forbs begin to show up, ones which I’d never noted before. The balance of grasses to forbs was shifting. After several years of growing season burns the area is now a mixture of grass and forbs with about a 50:50 ratio of the two.
Recent research supports my unscientific observations. Researchers are finding nearly two times the plant biodiversity in growing season burned plots compared to unburned and even traditional spring burned. They are also finding more insect abundance.
June is a good time to start planning your growing season burns, in preparation for late July or August. If planning to burn CRP as a mid-contract management practice be sure to check with your state about the primary nesting season dates and be sure to burn outside of those. If not burning CRP, burning can be conducted anytime, just be sure to leave unburned areas as refuges.
NOTE: there is always concern about destroying or disrupting bobwhite or other grassland bird nests with growing season burns. Weigh the risks against the benefits when deciding when to burn, keeping current habitat condition in context. If the grasses are thick and rank with lots of accumulated litter, odds are against quail nests or broods being present, whereas newly burned areas will provide ideal nesting in the future.
You should also prepare your fire guards. If mowing, mow them regularly to keep them functional. Fire guards mowed a few days before the burn don’t function very well; duff from the mower is likely to carry fire. Bare dirt fire guards left idle can grow up in annual plants, providing brood cover and high energy food sources later in the season.
Other considerations about growing season burns:
- Growing season burns are easy to control and take minimal effort for those involved, however, it is important to recognize that heat can be an issue and everyone involved needs to stay hydrated and aware of their physical wellbeing.
- Growing season burns spread out the workload and allow for more burn days in a year instead of trying to pack all your burns into a 6 to 8 week spring burn season, thus increasing capacity.
- Growing season burns are very, very smoky. Smoke management is extremely important.
- Growing season burns are slow. Allow 2 to 4 times as much time to complete burns as with similar sized dormant season burns.
- Growing season burns when timed just before seed set can suppress sericea lespedeza and limit its spread.
- Growing season burns provide good woody plant control.
- Growing season burns provide spikes in forage crude protein just as burning does with spring burned native pastures.
There are many benefits to growing season burns, but also a number of precautions. Consider each on their own merit, weigh your objectives and begin planning your growing season burn.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), announced in December the availability of $10 million dollars to provide financial incentive to eligible CRP participants to promote pine savanna habitat or other beneficial wildlife practices such as tree thinning and prescribed burning. These management tools are critical for restoring and creating diverse and healthy savanna ecosystems, and will help address the habitat needs for threatened and endangered species, candidate species, northern bobwhite and other grassland and early successional birds, state species of greatest conservation need, pollinators, and others.
FSA is taking requests from landowners and will close out the second batching period today, Wednesday, May 31. Although today is the deadline for the current batching period, landowners should have ample opportunity to take advantage of this incentive. FSA is expected to take requests for this incentive until all the funding has been utilized. If you are a landowner that is enrolled in CRP with tree practices and you are interested in improving habitat for bobwhites, bees, butterflies, other pollinators, deer, turkey, certain songbirds and other wildlife you should consider visiting your local FSA office (http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/).
If a landowner chooses to prescribe burn and thin their CRP trees they could receive up to $150.00/acre. Prescribed burning alone or thinning alone means that the landowner would receive a lower incentive payment. Before landowners can be paid for this work, they need to insure that they have a current conservation plan or schedule of operation with these practices included in them.
To maintain savanna/bobwhite habitat, both the thinning and burning practices should be included in a landowners habitat management practices plan. Thinning without prescribed burning or prescribed burning without thinning will not maintain the habitat in the proper scale. (To maintain bobwhite habitat it is recommended to thin down to a density of 40 – 50 sq. ft. of basal area in pine stands and to a density of 20-30 sq. ft. of basal area for hardwood stands. In southern pine stands prescribed burning should occur on a 2-3 year rotation. If there a 2-year rough and it will carry a fire then a prescribed burn should be conducted. For hardwood woodlands, prescribed burning should occur every 2-6 years.)
I am sure you’ve all heard the old saying “Taking the sting out of it.” Something said like this “Man, the post-game picnic sure took the sting out of losing by eight runs.” I guess only a rare few people out there cherish being stung, literally or figuratively. So why would I write “Putting the sting in quail management?”
I was invited to give a talk this summer to the annual meeting of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association. Over two hundred people generally attend this meeting! Wow! And take a look at this link to see how many bee keeping chapters there are https://www.virginiabeekeepers.org/local-groups/local-groups-map . Many years ago, quite a few of us in the quail world began to see parallels between pollinating insect habitat and quail habitat; and, for over 8 years I have been giving a presentation titled “The Bobwhites and the Bees.” I am honored to “bee” speaking to the bee people!
The world of honey bees is fascinating. I know enough to get “stung” trying to talk about them, but while sharing programs with several superb bee keepers, I picked up a few things. Did you know that one out of every three bites of food is attributed to being visited by pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds and other animals?
Recently I watched a gray squirrel go through a tulip poplar, limb by limb, poking his nose into every flower – never thought of squirrels as pollinators, huh? The truth is animals pollinate about 85% of plant species worldwide. And pollinating insects are in decline. European honeybees help offset the decline in native pollinators and many growers of produce and fruit rely on them to meet the demand of consumers. But there are over 4,000 native bee species in North America and more 500 species of butterflies. So why do we rely on honey bees so much?
The habitat for all these species, like the habitat for bobwhite quail, has declined markedly. And I am sure you have all heard of honey bee “colony collapse disorder.” Declining habitat may not be the only cause of the declines in these species, but it is a major factor.
One thing I learned while listening to the North Carolina apiarist give a talk last summer is that honeybee keepers often have to feed their bees. There was a lot of talk about what types of feeds were best, and when feeding was necessary. That struck me as odd. I wondered to myself, “Was there not a day when bees could feed themselves year around?” To enhance quail conservation efforts in some areas, quail, too, are sometimes being supplementally fed. This suggests that modern ecosystems cannot naturally meet the food demands of many organisms. As a kid in the 1960s, I remember bumble bees being everywhere and wild hives of honey bees were common. Just as common was the whistle of the bobwhite. It simply seemed like the land bore more “fruit” then than it does now.
The overlap between quail habitat and that for pollinators is striking. I now judge the quality of quail habit during summer based on the number of bees I hear buzzing or butterflies I see nectaring as I walk through it. Many fantastic quail plants are equally great for bees. For example, the black and gold bumble-bee (Bombus auricomus) visits bee balms and night shades, which provide insects and good brood-rearing habitat structure for quail chicks. Partridge pea (Chameacrista fasciculata), a common native legume cherished by bees, is a key larval host for several butterfly species (like the Cloudless Sulphur, the Sleepy Orange and the Little Yellow) and makes great brood-rearing cover for bobwhites. And all you need to do in the month of May is walk by blooming blackberry thickets to know that this escape cover for quail is frequently visited by bees and insects of many varieties (not to mention quail relish eating the ripe berries).
Perhaps the most notable bee in decline is the Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), which was recently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its populations have declined by over 80% and it is only found in small portions of its native range. It nests in the ground and has an affinity for native sunflowers and golden-rods (Solidago sp.), two plant types that provide good habitat structure for quail, are rich with insects and covered with butterflies during fall.
And did I say “nest in the ground?” Yep. Though quail nest on, not in, the ground they do need bare dirt under their feet to prosper. This does not mean open exposed bare ground. It means some open-ness and bare dirt under a canopy of herbaceous vegetation. Aha! The same is true for many of our native bees. In addition to bumble-bees that nest in the ground, there are many species of digger bees that need access to bare ground for nesting. Those of you who garden know the ones I’m talking about. They can be very numerous around your garden in spring and at first may alarm you, but they almost never sting. They love to nest in the bare ground of a garden and while there they help pollinate your vegetables.
Here are some plants that really benefit bees and other pollinators: giant yellow-hyssop, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, spotted Joe Pye weed, flat-topped goldenrod, St. John’s wort, blue lobelia, stiff goldenrod, hairy beardtongue, narrow-leaf mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, green-headed coneflower, rough-leaf goldenrod, white heath aster, blue vervain, New York ironweed, Culver’s root, partridge pea, sumac, desmodiums (beggar-weeds or tick trefoils), sunflowers, and many more. If everyone interested in bees, butterflies, and bobwhites would learn to love and manage for weeds, wildflowers and thickets, collectively we could all “put the sting” back into our environment, and in so doing put the life back into it. Call us if interested in learning how … 434-392-8328.
Sources of information for this BLOG:
Virginia Working Landscapes (a branch of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) – www.VAWorkingLandscapes.org
The Xerces Society – www.xerces.org
The Virginia Native Plant Society – www.vnps.org
It’s been a while since I’ve posted to the blog. Part of the reason for that is one of the topics I am covering in this post. I apologize for being so long between posts.
Make Safety a Priority
This is off topic for a grassland blog … but not entirely. However, I think it is an important message to share. When I was working as a conservation contractor, felling trees, for one reason or another, was part of that work. As a result, I established a policy related to using chainsaws. There were three simple rules: 1) always wear saw chaps; 2) if felling trees, always wear a helmet; and 3) if felling trees over 8” dbh, always have another person present.
Earlier this year I was taking out some frustration on some trees (that’s how grassland people release frustration, that or burn something) when a 20” dbh tree I was felling started to lean one direction then took an unexpected change in direction, falling back towards me. I ran, but was unable to get out of the way before it came down on top of my head. I suffered a severe concussion along with some nerve and muscular injury to my neck and back. Had it not been for rule #2 and #3, rules I still follow though not doing contracting work any longer, it is likely I would not be writing this blog.
The message I want to share: always wear your safety gear. If you don’t have it, buy it. It’s a cheap investment. In this case, the quick action of the person that was with me and a $75 helmet, I’m convinced, saved my life.
A Culture of Prescribed Fire
One of the projects I’ve been working on is a video on prescribed fire for cattle production in rangeland. Recently I was in Kansas shooting video, upon completing shooting for the day I headed from Kingman, KS to Medicine Lodge. At one point during the drive I could see no less than a dozen smoke plumes rising into the sky. In any other part of the county there would be general alarm at such a site, but in some parts of Kansas during the spring it’s part of everyday life, the people are accustomed to it. Though seeing a dozen smoke plumes was significant enough, it wasn’t nearly as significant as where it was. Last year, the Anderson Creek wildfire, which gained the dubious distinction of being the largest wildfire in Kansas history (312,427 acres) occurred just south and west of the town of Medicine Lodge in Barber County, KS (and other counties). This year, just 30 miles west of the area impacted by the Anderson Creek wildfire, the Starbuck wildfire in Clark and surrounding counties eclipsed the previous year’s record fire consuming 502,000 acres. You would think that following two consecutive years of record breaking wildfires, ranchers and citizens would be leery of fire, but not so. The locals have learned, many passed down through generations, that fire is good for rangeland; in that part of the country ranching is the primary industry and the economy is based on the productivity of the rangeland.
I certainly don’t mean to minimize the effect of wildfires on the ranchers and homeowners who were directly affected. Losing their homes, cattle and miles upon miles of fence will certainly have its financial and emotional impact, my thoughts and prayers go out to them, as well as my respect and admiration of what they are enduring. But if there is any silver lining in the tragedy at all, it is the fact that the rangeland will be more productive, which will translate to better cattle performance and hopefully better returns at the sale barn.
Driving back to Missouri through Kansas took me through the southern Flint Hills. Arguably, the Flint Hills are the longest, most continuously burned landscape in the US and world. Indigenous people burned this landscape to facilitate bison hunting and that legacy has continued ever since as free roaming bison herds transitioned to domestic cattle production. Burning the Flint Hills is an annual ritual and part of the culture. If you live in or around the Flint Hills, you expect a good portion of them to burn each year. In some cases, too much burns; to the detriment of wildlife through the destruction of cover over a wide range, sometimes thousands of acres in one block. But given the choice of burning or not, in this landscape, burning is better.