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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

The Root of It All … Don’t Forget Natives’ Role in Soil Health

2015 was the International Year of Soils and the fervor over cover crops that resulted still continues today. It seems every time I turn around I’m seeing another notice about a workshop or webinar addressing cover crops and their benefits.

Though the line between fact and commercial claim is somewhat blurred, it is generally recognized that cover crops provide the advantages of reduced soil erosion, increased water infiltration and water holding capacity, increased soil organic matter, reduced compaction and nutrient recycling.

To a large part, owing to their multiple benefits, is their claimed deep rootedness. With many of the common cover crop species, their roots fall within 2 to 3 feet of the soil surface, with some

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

Relative Root Depths of Various Grasses

reporting rooting as deep as 5.5 feet. Impressive to the uninformed, but amusing to those familiar with the roots of native vegetation.

As early as 1919 research of the roots of native prairie plants was conducted, followed by a number of other research projects through the 1930’s. While there are a handful of prairie plants whose roots lay within the upper 2 feet of the soil, the vast majority of native grasses and forbs root to a depth of over 5 feet with many well beyond that, some to depths greater than 15 feet.

In healthy prairie, below ground biomass far exceeds above ground biomass by two times or more depending upon species. Studies on big bluestem and little bluestem reported 5.4 tons/acre and 4.4 tons/acre respectively of root material in the upper 12 inches of soil. Talk about erosion control … every one of those root fibers is like re-bar in concrete!

All of those roots in the upper soil lead to increased water infiltration by increasing the macropore space (along with earth worms and other in-ground fauna), allowing the water a route to travel into and through the soil. Those roots and their ancillary structures also increase the micropore space which creates the water-holding capacity along with soil organic matter.

Over a three year period, depending upon the species and environmental factors, a very small percentage to as much as 100% of the root system dies and is regenerated. Using 50% just to provide an example and the examples of big bluestem and little bluestem above, 2.7 to 2.2 tons per acre of organic matter are added to the soil. It is a perpetual cycle that constantly replenishes itself.

The sources of compaction on native grasslands are entirely different than on cropland, thus the issue is different; however, when crop land is converted to native grass/forb mixtures, compaction issues are eliminated, or at least significantly mediated, through the deep rooting structure of the native plants.

A large part of the nutrient recycling provided by cover crops is due to nutrient uptake and subsequent release through decaying plant material. In a perennial plant such as native grasses or forbs this is much less significant, but the deep roots are able to tap into nutrients otherwise unavailable. This, in combination with associated mycorrhizal fungi, make native plants very efficient users of nutrients and moisture, thus their reduced or lack of need for supplemental nutrients and drought tolerance.

Following the International Year of Soils and all the attention given to cover crops, give some consideration to the value of the roots of native vegetation and their role in supporting soil health.

 

From the Farmhouse to the White House: New PIF Conservation Plan Reinforces Bobwhite Urgency

Partners in Flight (PIF) recently released a comprehensive revision of the network’s landmark 2004 North American Landbird Conservation Plan.  Formed in 1990 with the vision to keep common

Partners in Flight new conservation plan

PIF’s new conservation plan

 

birds common, PIF initially focused on unique and overlooked needs of migratory forest interior songbirds but has gradually broadened to consideration of the full spectrum of North American landbirds.  Bobwhite folks long have actively engage the PIF community, motivated by the power of unity and the reality of shared habitats among numerous priority species.  PIF folks have been receptive, responsive and mutually engaging, resulting in minimizing the old game/non-game attitudes and barriers that once impeded collective action and progress. 

The 2016 PIF Plan (www.partnersinflight.org) provides updated information, a refined assessment of priority species and conservation urgency, regional profiles (by joint ventures) and highlights on interesting species or initiatives.  As it illuminates that many of the steepest recent declines are among grassland birds, the Plan includes a full-page spotlight on the NBCI and bobwhites, and the native grasslands habitat overlap with priority songbirds such as painted bunting, dickcissel, scissor-tailed flycatcher, field sparrow and loggerhead shrike.  Bobwhites are a priority in 11 joint venture features, with pictures and discussion in at least two of those, while the Plan also highlights priority status of other declining resident game birds in numerous places, further erasing old divisions.

More important is the substance of the new Plan’s findings.  Six species of resident game birds “earned” spots on the PIF Watch List of species of continental concern:  Gunnison sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, mountain quail, scaled quail, greater sage-grouse and greater prairie-chicken.  Bobwhites “earned” a spot near the top of the PIF list of Common Birds in Steep Decline, with an 83% population decline since 1970.

The most disconcerting findings arise from PIF’s innovative new “half-life” analysis, predicting the period in years for a species’ current continental population to decline by half.  Of PIF’s 24 Common Birds in Steep Decline, the shortest predicted continental half-life is for bobwhites:  10 years.  Further, of the 86 species on the new PIF Watch List, only one species has a shorter predicted half-life than bobwhites:  scaled quail.  Finally, of all 448 North American landbird species included in the new PIF Plan, none have shorter predicted half-lives than bobwhites and scaled quail.  The Plan also illuminates predicted bobwhite half-lives by joint venture: 

Joint Venture

Predicted Bobwhite Half-Life (years)

Appalachian Mountains

7

Atlantic Coast

13

Central Hardwoods

12

East Gulf Coastal Plain

13

Gulf Coast

21

Lower Mississippi Valley

10

Oaks and Prairies

6

Playa Lakes

9

Rainwater Basin

9

Rio Grande

5

Upper Mississippi River / Great Lakes

9

 

This thought-provoking PIF half-life approach to assessing the conservation urgency of bobwhites and other declining species is simply sobering.  But the new PIF Plan can and should be motivating, for it highlights urgent common interests among diverse, capable bird conservation groups.  PIF, NBCI, joint ventures, federal and state agencies, and non-government organizations have collective capacity to make positive change if we can double down on our collaborations.  Meanwhile, half-lives are ticking away.

Shell’s Covert: The Charismatic Bobwhite

Way back when, at one of our quail team meetings, a member of our distinguished crew mentioned, “We’ve been using these same quail photos forever. We need to get some new ones.”  Admittedly, nearly two decades had passed since our former quail team gathered some pen-raised quail and did our best to get some “realistic” field photos of bobwhites.

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll get us some pen-raised birds and we’ll see what we can do.” I then sent a note to some of my DGIF friends who edit our magazine and direct art for the agency. I queried “Would you all be interested in working with us to get some new quail pics?” The reply was quick “Sure, we’d love to.” All set, I thought. Nothing to this! We have some of the finest photographers in the world working with us. All I have to do is get some quail. But many of my ideas don’t quite pan out to be as simple as I envision them.

Puckett's modified chicken coop

Puckett’s modified chicken coop

I won’t bore you with every detail, but here are some snapshots of the struggle to get some nice pen-raised quail and properly house them and then get them to the photo shoot: the purchase and assembly (not in the1-hour suggested on the box, which failed to mention metal fabricating skills would be needed) of a nice chicken coop modified for quail (using personal funds – not license dollars); a 5:30 a.m. departure on the delivery date to meet a very generous supporter two and a half hours east in King and Queen County to pick up 26 high quality quail he donated to our cause; the realization that getting these pen-raised quail out of the chicken coop was not going to be nearly as easy as getting them in; the near-dark dash to secure the quail coop in the face of a tornado and hail warning (forgetting about the house I live in and more worried about the quail); the comedic capture of the fine feathered bobwhites using a long-handled trout fishing net; and, once in the field, multiple attempts to get them to pose for photos – which they are not of a mindset to do. There is still a good bit of wild left in these pen-raised pompadours.

My hat is off to the patience exhibited by our professional photographer friends. They did capture some good pics, but I think we all realized the best way to get real wild quail photos would be to find a place with a lot of them, set up blinds, perhaps do some baiting, and plan on spending days in the field. Those places are few and far between north of South Georgia.

In the course of all this I realized something else. I have been too far removed from the animal I work so hard to try to help recover. I had lost my own personal fascination with the quail itself and had forgotten how much charisma these birds have. My life has become about workshops, field tours, meetings, pamphlets and giving talks. How long had it been since I held in my own hands a living quail? My daughter had the answer. She is 11, and upon seeing these cool puffs of feathers said “Wow! They’re neat! I have never seen one before up so close.” She marveled at the soft sounds they make among themselves, as did I, having forgotten many of them myself. She is helping me take care of them.

The pen-raised bobwhite is much maligned by some, especially those of us who are biologists. But I have to think that as wild bobwhites become more difficult to find and see, these pen-raised quail have a role to play in quail recovery. It’s hard to appreciate an animal that you never see. We can debate the pros and cons of stocking pen-raised quail all day, but I think they have a valid place in education. Trout Unlimited™ has a fantastic program called “Trout in the Classroom©” where they expose young people to living trout. I see this as a role the quail non-governmental organizations could play in quail recovery. Maybe by becoming interested in the quail as an individual, a young person may be inspired to create habitat for them someday. I know I have seen the spark of life-long interest ignited in the eyes of many kids who attend wildlife educational events featuring live animals they can see and touch.

I also see the long tradition of quail hunting and bird dog training slipping away from a land where 50 years ago a person could never have imagined it. To help keep the tradition of quail hunting alive, an increasing number of quail hunters who own land are incorporating fall pre-season release of high quality pen-raised quail into their management system. This also helps keep alive the “drive to hunt” lifeblood in dog lines for future generations. It can also provide a realistic experience for grandsons and granddaughters that may not be able to take a trip out West, or have access to good wild quail lands here.

I’m not advocating the establishment of state run game bird stocking programs. The programs are enormously expensive and consume staff and time. And I still do not believe stocking pen-raised quail will bring back wild bobwhites. But I am saying that landowners who really want to create great habitat first – because that is what it takes — and then use some stocked quail to supplement their sport and help keep it alive are not doing any harm, as long as they use well tested, disease-free, pen-raised quail. And they may be helping develop the wild quail managers and bird hunters of the future.

Some may ask “Who cares if bird hunting dies out?” But for those of us who have lived this life that is like saying “Who cares if baseball dies out as our national pastime?” On my end, I plan to keep trying to help wild quail, native bees, butterflies and songbirds come back through habitat creation and management. It is the long-term key, but having a helping hand to keep traditions alive from a few charismatic captive-raised quail can’t hurt. And I know when I talk about quail now with my daughter she appreciates them much more now than before she saw one alive and up close.