My daughter and I were out in our yard last week playing with our dogs and enjoying the sunny afternoon. I spotted a tiger swallowtail perched on our lilac bush nectaring. Grace asked, “Can I try to touch it?” I replied “Well…it probably won’t hold still long enough, but you can try. You have to be very careful as the pretty colors are actually scales that rub off easily.” She approached softly and slowly raised her hand with one finger out and touched the butterfly…and it just sat there nectaring without regard. It must have known somehow she was a kid who meant no harm. It eventually flew off unfazed. I did not have a camera. I hope that memory lasts a long time for both of us.

That butterfly captured her imagination in a way most other animals can’t. Its coloration, approachability, beauty and charisma were all right there at her fingertips. I have struggled for two decades trying to find out what it takes to create enough spark and interest in early-succession habitat – thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses – to have a habitat renaissance catch fire and burn like a rank field of broom straw in March (and then burn long like a bag of charcoal).                                                                                     

 
   

 

This brings me to the story of the Monarch butterfly. A story of more fascination I challenge any of the best fiction writers to top. At first glance they appear to be delicate sky jewels, flitting about rapidly if we are lucky enough to see one. An investigation into their life cycle will reveal an organism that is anything but delicate. I urge you to do a search of your own on their life cycle. One fascinating aspect of Monarch ecology is their migration to wintering grounds, in some cases exceeding 3,000 miles.That alone would be drama enough for most of us. Imagine trying to travel that distance through rainstorms, high winds, and other natural conflagrations – it is hard enough in a car, much less in the tiny package we call a Monarch. But this is only one part of their amazing life. You see, it is the fourth generation, typically, that does the fall migration back to Mexico, California and other wintering areas. Those that make the fall trip and successfully overwinter, then take flight in spring heading north into the vastness of Texas and other areas. That part is not so hard to understand. They flew down that way in fall and now they fly back in spring. But they must continue north and continue to breed because those that arrive and breed first, their offspring are not the ones that return to overwinter. It takes several more generations to insure the last one has the longevity to return to Mexico, overwinter and then fly north and breed the following spring.

My mind had to rest on that thought for some time before I could truly grasp its meaning. In terms of salmon, most of us know they are spawned in the headwaters of cold streams. They leave those streams and go out into the ocean for sometimes a few years, then return to their headwaters to spawn themselves. A striking journey in its own right, it still only spans one generation. The same generation that left the stream came back. The Monarch life cycle spans four generations. How does that last generation know to return to Mexico? How do they know how to get there? And how do they then know to return north in spring? I have to think more is at work than pure genetics.

As we know, unfortunately their populations have declined steeply in the last few decades; as have many other pollinating insects, most notably many of our native bees. With regards to Monarchs, declines in milkweed (asclepias sp.) plants have contributed greatly to this crash. Monarchs have another interesting aspect in their ecology – they lay their eggs on milkweed because their larvae after hatching must feed on milkweed to store energy enough to develop into pupae which is the chrysalis stage of their four stage true metamorphosis – egg, larvae, pupae, and adult. And while milkweed is the main theme of the story the public has gotten, there is much more to Monarch habitat. It turns out that native bees, butterflies and bobwhites share one thing in common ... many of them need diverse early-succession habitat to survive. Many of the same things we prescribe for creating and maintaining bobwhite cover like prescribed burning and rotational disking, also provide for an enormous number of pollinating insects.These critters need flowering plants available for nectar throughout the entire warm season.

Our DGIF staff has done quite a bit of prescribed burning this spring on some of our wildlife management areas. Over the last month I have spent a great deal of time getting photographs of some of these burned areas. It is amazing how rapidly the vegetation greens up after prescribed fire. Two weeks ago, while photographing in an old field we’d burned off to rejuvenate it, I saw two pairs of zebra swallowtails, heard at least four different gobblers thundering, heard one quail covey giving their morning covey call, and saw too many types of songbirds to name.

What does it takes to ignite enough interest in these habitats to make a difference? Maybe the Monarch is the butterfly that will save the bee that might save the bobwhite?

Thoughts?

May 4, 2015

I used to golf. Trouble is, I love the game but hate crowds, especially on weekends when I am trying to recreate. Thus many years ago I gave up the gaudy pants, fancy shoes and expensive sticks, for…well…gaudy dry flies, fancy waders and other expensive sticks. Back a few years ago a development entity locally was building a new golf course right here in the heart of central Virginia. I passed the entrance to this new promised-land for iron wielding, golf cart racing, Bubba Watson “wannabes” daily on my way to work. It was all the talk of the local and slightly intoxicated “19th hole” crowd.

Shortly after the grand opening, I began getting phone calls, several every week about all the bobwhite quail that were being seen and heard around the new links. I had lived here long enough for people to actually believe there is such a thing as a quail biologist, and not only that, to have made enough of them aware of the plight of these special birds that they knew I’d appreciate any stories of quail success. They were all amazed that quail were attracted to golf courses. After all, I had told them repeatedly how quail needed rough areas, weeds, thickets, wildflowers and brambles and basically how quail hated “clean.” Many went on to describe how great the new course was but lamented, “Man, stay out of the rough though, I ripped a new pair of tweeds to shreds going after a lost ball last weekend.” Or, “This new course is like playing those old Scottish links, the rough is unreal.”

Generally a bit slow on the uptake, even I was quick to realize what was afoot around the new green ribbons of golfing glory. And sadly just as quick to realize how short-lived this new quail kingdom would be. I knew it would not be long until the regulars, who golfed here and not on the PGA tour for a reason, would grow tired of losing expensive golf balls in that rough. I don’t see how anyone without a sponsor can afford to play golf. And speaking of sponsors, I knew it also would not be long until those paying for signage around the links would demand that the unsightly weedy mess be cleaned up – as if God himself had no clue what kinds of plants should inhabit earth.

One day after work I took a drive down around the place. As you might imagine, when building a golf course from scratch, it takes quite a bit of heavy equipment. Dirt piles overgrown with ragweed abounded (some topped with clay covered golf balls). Brier thickets covered all the scarred areas, and broomstraw covered what had previously been fescue pasture. In short, quite inadvertently, and right here in the 21st century, a quail playground was created in a most unlikely place. I never got around to calculating by GIS exactly how many acres of quail cover had been accidentally established, but I suspect it was less than 10% of the total landscape encompassed by the fairways. You see, arrangement and distribution of cover has almost as much to do with quail habitat as does total acreage.

Within a year or two those calls stopped coming in. Upon driving by now, all that remains of that beautiful native cover are a few clumps of broomstraw poking up through the fescue, about as effective as a few hairs sticking up on a bald man’s scalp (Bald is Bold, Baby – I’m bald, I can joke about it). Occasionally I get a call that goes like this, “Man, there were quail out here a couple years ago like crazy, I almost hit one with a 5-wood out on number 6 (I did not know how to yell Foooouuouuuuurrrrr! In quail-ease), I don’t know what happened to them.” And so it goes – ah yes, maybe it’s predators, or some disease, or a parasite?

Take home lessons – quail can and do re-populate an area quickly when there is enough cover in the right distribution as long as there is seed stock (a few other quail) within a few miles. It is not overly difficult to create quail cover, but keeping it around is harder. There are challenges such as “How do we create good quail cover without increasing soil erosion, or decreasing water quality?” We can answer those kinds of questions, but the one I have the hardest time with is “How do we get enough people to care about quail and quail cover to make a difference?” When we live in a country where barely 40% of eligible voters make an effort to be involved, there are bigger issues at play.

Next month’s post: “The butterfly that saved the bee that saved the bobwhite.”

 

March 30, 2015

I was talking with a colleague this morning discussing youth hunter recruitment and how difficult it is given all the things kids and their parents are now involved in. Just to get a commitment for a one day hunt, or even part of a day, is difficult. Where does that hunting spark come from? What makes a kid burn with desire to go afield? I know when I was a kid some of my earliest memories were of my dad returning home with game. I can still vividly picture a big greenhead mallard he pressed into the window of our front door, when I was four or five, as I gazed at it in awe. But it was more than that, and exactly what I am not sure.

Regardless whether your kid ever hunts or fishes, I hope you somehow manage to kindle their interest in the outdoors. Without that basic curiosity towards nature, there is little likelihood a child will ever grow into a conservationist. I hope you help your kid find a way to rediscover discovery. You just might have fun yourself.

My daughter and I have worked together on her school science project now for the past 3 years. As we scanned the internet looking at page after page of age appropriate science projects for this year’s assignment, nothing really spoke to us. Last year we did the “floating egg” experiment, where we tested the buoyancy of water. As we added salt, low-and-behold the egg that sank in freshwater now floated. Her thoughts may have been, “OK Dad, my choices for fun are, play cool video games, or watch an egg float in water.” One of the biggest challenges any parent faces is how to make things productive, but also fun.

I gave up on the internet projects this year. I put my own meager brain to use. What might be easy, involve nature and be fun? “What do you think about testing to see which seeds in a bag of store bought bird food the birds actually prefer?” I asked Grace.  She thought it was “cool.” Most store bought bird seed is comprised of millet, milo, sunflower and cracked corn. Some contain wheat, barley, or a few other seeds, but your standard bag of bird seed is not a sack of gourmet bird food.

Daddy’s bright idea was to get a sifter and separate the seeds…which did not work at all, and we had a ton of fun laughing at my stupidity. I ended up buying the four basic seed types separately. We then had a great time building a 4-chambered tray to put the different seeds in. Nothing hi-tech, we use plywood and some 1’ x 2” stripping pine to make our testing device.

My daughter, wife and daughter’s science teacher all had worries about “how will you know whether squirrels ate the seed? How will you control for seed being blown out by wind? Will you weigh the seed each morning and evening, etc.?” I explained to them all – this is an observational experiment. It will require Grace to sit and watch the birds feed during peak feeding times and record what seed they choose. Thus Daddy is not as stupid as many would like to believe (though my life does have a Forrest Gump quality).

I actively involved my daughter in observing birds. At the same time I eliminated all the potential biases associated with a non-observational experiment. If a squirrel comes along, we’ll shoo him away. And we won’t worry about times, if Grace watches for 10, 20 or 30 minutes over several days – it does not matter because in the end we will have the total number of each variety of seed chosen by type of bird, and collectively.

Some of our results: sunflower was chosen 286 times, millet 26 times, milo 23 times and cracked corn 27 times. The most common choosers of sunflower were the tufted titmouse and the chickadee. We can unequivocally say tufted titmice and chickadees prefer sunflower. Juncos fed on the ground almost exclusively and visited the tray only 2 or 3 times. Doves also fed exclusively on the ground. Cardinals preferred to feed from our bird feeder which was close by, but began to visit the tray once they got used to it. The towhees were the last to show up. They only began using the feed we put out after it snowed. We also found that Cardinals eat sunflower seed by taking the entire seed inside their bill, then spitting out the hulls, but the chickadees and titmice have to grasp the sunflower with their feet and peck out the seed inside. Thus cardinals can eat sunflower a lot faster than other birds. Interesting also was that blue jays, while a large bird, do not have a beak adapted to take in the seed like a cardinal. They, too, had to hold the sunflower seeds and peck them open. The chickadees would pick the seed up and fly to a nearby tree to eat it. The titmice would as often as not, simply peck it open right on the edge of the tray - all this from one simple experiment.

Seed for further study…we wondered how far away birds would come to a feeder? We observed them flying in from a distance of well over a hundred yards. Maybe this study has been done? Regardless, I hope I sparked in my daughter the seeds of a conservationist. Today, songbirds, tomorrow, who knows? But it has to start somewhere.

There is a primordial link that modern humans cannot escape when we stand near the ocean and look at its vastness and taste the salty sea breezes. Likewise, I feel that same connection when sitting near a campfire. There's just something about fire and smoke ... and the visions and memories they evoke. Transcending time, apparitions of faces, echoes of voices telling stories all rise like the smoke, then waft away quickly on the evening breeze. I can see friends in the flames appearing as they looked 25 years ago.

I built a nice big fire ring in the northern portion of my backyard out of “found” rocks. I don’t have to camp to have a fire now. I feel no guilt in burning wood I cut with my own hands from time-to-time for the sheer joy of it. As I sat by the fire a few nights back, I watched the small pile of wood I brought up from the barn disappear rapidly. The colder it got the more I poured on the red oak. Within three hours what I thought would have lasted most of the night was nearly gone (and so was the drink I sipped on).

Much as I try to forget work on weekends, a bobwhite quail flew up out of the fire and into my thoughts. In the east, the father of modern quail management Herbert Stoddard called the bobwhite the “fire bird” in his classic “The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation and Increase” back in the late 1920s. It has been postulated to me by several biologists over the past year that perhaps we were working very hard to restore bobwhite quail to a landscape where they were never abundant pre-European settlement. After all, the tendency in the east for land left to its own devices is to become mature forest.

I agreed to a point with these colleagues, but as I sat by my fire I imagined Native American villages, perhaps consisting of dozens, sometimes hundreds and occasionally maybe thousands of humans living in one area and depending on the resources in their immediate surroundings. Those people not only needed fire to stay warm in winter, they used fire to cook with routinely, daily almost. Fire was also used in canoe making, land clearing, preparing land for farming and promoting ample game populations. When I looked at how much wood I had used to stay moderately warm for a few hours it struck me that Native Americans must have used vast quantities of wood in the areas in which they lived. And fire must have been as common a daily tool for them as a microwave oven is to us.

I further imagined their imprint on the landscape. It was not benign. As they exhausted resources in one area over a period of years, they were likely forced to move to new areas and begin the process again. I am not an archaeologist, but I have read quite a bit about this, and what I am describing is well documented in various places. The notion that there was an unbroken, mature forest from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River is somewhat misleading. And, while I believe quail populations peaked in our state shortly after the Civil War, I do believe they were abundant well before that. When you add to the Native American use of fire, lightning struck fire, and also toss in large grazing animals like elk and buffalo, I believe early-succession habitats were common.

Tying this back to my title, beyond the bonfire ring, I imagine a ring of fires influence across wide areas of our eastern landscape. Early-successional habitats were perhaps not as evident here as they would have been in our mid-western prairies, or in the Texas scrublands, but they were critical components of our eastern ecosystems. Vast acreages of fire-dependent long-leaf pine existed with significant acres occurring in Virginia. Piedmont prairies, and open mixed short-leaf pine and oak woodlands were common throughout central Virginia. Large open lands occurred west of the Blue Ridge in extensive, fertile valleys and on mountain “balds” maintained by lightning struck fire and grazing.  And southwestern facing mountain ridges burned frequently, keeping them in a successional sere dominated by open stands of fire adapted pine. These habitats were important then and they are important now. Until Virginia’s landowners, public and private, learn to recognize, appreciate and manage these sometimes “scruffy” looking habitats, our state’s biodiversity will continue to decline.

However, there is good news. A culture of prescribed burning for ecosystem management is beginning to emerge again among many agencies and among several non-governmental organizations in our state. This has not occurred by accident. Many dedicated professionals in both the public and private sector have worked hard to reignite (don’t groan out loud or roll your eyes) and fan the flames of interest in prescribed fire. So next time you see smoke in the air, don’t assume the worst. There is still a place on Virginia’s landscape for properly applied fire and the habitats it produces.

By Justin FolksJustin Folks poses with dog, Shelby
Private Lands Biologist
Virginia Quail  Recovery Initiative

Field of Dreams is a fantastic movie, and one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps the most memorable line from the movie comes from “the voice” that speaks to Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, throughout the film: “if you build it, he will come.” We find out toward the end of the movie that the “it” the voice refers to is a baseball field and the “he” is John Kinsella, Ray’s father who passed away years ago. After being jeered by everyone for plowing under his corn and constructing a full-sized diamond, the ghost of Ray’s father eventually emerges from the surrounding corn (where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and other greats of the time also appeared beforehand) and they have a game of catch. Obviously, not a work of non-fiction.

Our Quail Team hears a similar voice. It is a FACT that the underlying cause of the plight of the bobwhite is habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. By adhering to the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, we aim to stitch together patches of quail habitat and recover this once-familiar Prince of Gamebirds to sustainable population levels. Do we expect these ghostly birds to just appear out of the woods like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson? Is our approach as far-fetched as Ray Kinsella’s? I submit that it is not.

Bill Fletcher, a resident of Rappahannock County, has been working with the Virginia Quail Team for the last 3 years to create quail habitat on his property. Bobwhites have not been observed there in 5 years or so, but Mr. Fletcher aimed to change that. Mr. Fletcher has completed 2 large habitat projects in which he has converted marginal crop land, hay land, and pasture land to suitable quail cover. While establishing quail cover may be hard work, the hardest part is perhaps the waiting game afterward.  Will they come, or won’t they?

One of the most beautiful things about “quail habitat” is that the plant community and vegetation structure necessary for quail provides food, cover, and shelter for many other wildlife species—songbirds, rabbits, pollinating insects, deer, and turkeys to name a few. There aren’t many who appreciate these “fringe benefits” more than the folks with Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) out of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who have been conducting research on maximizing wildlife benefit while maintaining sustainable agriculture. Amy Johnson, one of VWL’s principal investigators, has been conducting summer and winter bird surveys at Mr. Fletcher’s property for the past couple of years. Without spitting out a bunch of data, I can tell you that the number of bird species and total number of birds using the “quail habitat” areas compared to the adjacent fescue fields and crop fields is staggering, especially in winter. There ARE immediate benefits to “quail work,” even if quail may not appear for some time.

When we began working together, Mr. Fletcher told us that he had seen or heard a few bobwhites here and there up until about 5 years ago when the area experienced an unusually harsh winter (snow depths in some areas were recorded at around 50 inches!). After the spring thaw, the birds didn’t return—that is, not until after Amy informed me recently that while conducting a bird survey at the property in December, she flushed 3 bobwhite quail! Lo and behold—we built it, and they came! I’m sure these are the first of many bobwhites to return to Mr. Fletcher’s property. He really has done some amazing work.

Would they have come back without the work? It’s possible, but I doubt they would have thrived. Bobwhites can handle marginal habitat conditions so long as weather conditions are favorable; if the weather gets bad… bye-bye bobwhites. The slow deterioration of bobwhite habitat on a landscape scale over the last 60 years (not just in Virginia, but across the U.S.) has caused a steady decline in bobwhite populations. Slow changes are hard to see with the naked eye, and it isn’t until after an extremely dry summer or one brutal winter until we notice a change—the bobwhites are gone. This is what I refer to as the “Vanishing Bob Phenomenon.” Many landowners I meet with tell me that they had quail on their properties until about 30 years ago, and then “they just vanished” (and this is usually followed by some poor excuse about there being too many hawks or coyotes). About 30 years ago, there was a really bad ice storm that impacted much of Virginia, but was especially hard on quail west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In small pockets of marginal habitat where quail were still hanging on after 40 years or so of habitat loss, that harsh winter was the nail in the coffin. The hawks did not just suddenly declare war on quail.

Quality habitat, in adequate supply, enables quail to quickly rebound after severe weather events. Quail have the innate ability to increase local population size by up to 300% in a single year if habitat and weather conditions are optimal. Mr. Fletcher’s property was marginal for bobwhites before we started our habitat work, and this is supported by the fact that quail weren’t there for 5 years following that severe winter. After some field borders and fescue conversions, we’ve been able to attract birds back to his place. I’m excited to see how things will look next year after those quail have had a chance to use Mr. Fletcher’s outstanding cover to create nests, raise broods, and form coveys (and oh, by the way: he plans on creating even more quail habitat this year!).

Your results, however, may vary. Some landowners have had quail show up within a year of management. For others, it may take longer. The important thing is to remember to enjoy the fringe benefits—what we’re doing is about so much more than just quail. You know, Ray Kinsella didn’t even know why he was chalking a batter’s box as he was doing it, but he felt there would be a big reward someday. Ray enjoyed hanging out with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the other players BEFORE his father appeared. It’s time we all have a little bit of that Ray Kinsella faith. Build your own “fields of dreams,” and we’ll all be rewarded one day by the return of the majestic bobwhite. In the meantime… “Shoeless” Joe is a pretty cool guy.

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Marc Puckett

 

 

Small Game Project Co-Leader

Virginia Department of Game and Inland FisheriesMarc and daughter

 

Marc was born in Pulaski, Virginia in 1962. He earned his BS in Forestry and Wildlife from Virginia Tech in 1992, and completed his Masters of Science in wildlife biology at North Carolina State University in 1995. Marc’s thesis focused on trapping, radio-collaring and tracking bobwhite quail within an intensive agricultural system and examining quail response to the addition of field borders. Marc went on to work on several quail research projects where he trapped and tracked over 600 wild quail. He has worked for 17 years with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as a private lands habitat biologist, a district wildlife biologist and for the last five years as small game project leader and quail recovery initiative coordinator. Marc served as an infantry paratrooper in several airborne units including the 82nd Airborne Division from 1983 to 1987. He is married to Sarah Elam of Prospect, Virginia. Marc and Sarah, along with their daughter Grace, reside in Pamplin, Virginia where they hike, fish, hunt, and enjoy the country life together.