... or, You Don’t Have to Have 500 Acres to Make a Difference

Happy Fall to everyone! Though I do not like the shortening days, I do love college football (and if the Texas A&M / South Carolina game is any indication – what a season we are in store for), dove season, fall colors and cooler weather.

I titled this month’s post the way I did because I want people to know many of us in this profession do try to practice what we preach. There is no substitute for “doing” to truly learn how to accomplish something. This month I hope to let photos do some of the talking for me.

I wrote last year about the start of my small home project on a logging deck below my house. But I have been working on all aspects of my project for 10 years now. My goal was to develop my small property into a microcosm of a larger farm field. All totaled, counting my yard and logging deck, I have about 2 to 2.5 acres in this project. All managed with hand tools and small yard equipment like a back-pack sprayer, walk behind seeder, and lawn mower. I am battling numerous invasive species, but I am winning, or at least adapting. It's a work in progress, but it is at a point now where I can bring landowners to see it and show them everything they’d need to do on a larger scale to create a quail haven (and songbirds, pollinators, etc.) on their farm.

Picture 1) My “yard border” – yes, it includes some invasives like sericea, but also showing up this year were wild senna – a great August blooming yellow flowered legume -- and mist flower, a great pollinator plant. This edge resulted simply from letting the disturbance go after it was a logging road. I seeded a cover crop of millet on it and this is its second growing season.

 
   

Picture 2) Winged sumac thicket – sumac is an EXCELLENT mid-summer pollinator plant, it makes great summer loafing cover for quail and songbirds, rabbits love to eat its bark during winter and quail eat its seeds, too. It does not make great winter cover because it becomes sparse, but it is a great plant to have…and it tends to keep less desirable plants at bay – I have yet to see ailanthus come up within a sumac thicket.

 
   

Picture 3) This is my native warm season grass logging deck. This year making its first appearance was bee balm, or wild bergamot – an excellent pollinator and seed producer. I also had a lot of black-eyed Susan, some Indian blanket, and now blooming well – a ton of partridge pea. Partridge pea is not only a great bugging cover for quail chicks, it also produces a good winter food seed crop. And while we all know how much pollinators like its blooms, the larvae of many butterflies feed heavily on the plant itself. There is still a good bit of bare ground on this deck in places, making it good for quail. Notice the logging road which has now been seeded 3 times with fescue and ryegrass is still 50% bare. These native warm season grasses tend to do well on your poorest sites.

 
   

Picture 4) This is a close-up of Indian grass and big blue stem. There are two tier, one butterfly species in Virginia – meaning they are species of great conservation concern. One is called the Arogos skipper and guess what its larvae feed almost exclusively on? Big bluestem grass.

Picture 5) Thicket cover and edge. This is a shot of where I planted indigo bush about 11 years ago, it is now also grown in very well with blackberry, and though you see fescue on the edge of it coming from my yard, underneath it is open and free of grass – the shrubs having done their job of shading it out – along with some spot spraying by me during times when the shrubs were dormant, but the grass was growing – like late October. The shrub loving song bird diversity around my yard is fantastic – I often see towhees, brown thrashers, field sparrows, yellow-breasted chats, white eyed vireos, cardinals, and more.

 
   

Picture 6) Un-mowed mess. Yes, this is an un-mowed mess – exactly what I wanted. I still have work to do in getting rid of fescue, but the area is providing some wildlife cover, and it is saving me from mowing an additional 1/3 acre every week. I mow it once during late winter every other year with a rented walk behind brush mower.

 
   

In this small “habitat project” I have also had quail, though they did not stay. The satisfaction I have obtained while watching this project grow, pardon the pun, has been enormous. I can now show any landowner in a very small area what they need on a larger scale to have multiple coveys of quail. I have also been able to test some ways of controlling invasives – a work in progress.

More than anything I think I can show them that these grasses, thickets, weeds and brush are so much more than that. They are habitats to be cherished and valued.

   
 

 

Before I bite into the meat of this post, I want say what a privilege it was to serve as chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee these last two years. The years were not without substantial challenges, but with such a fine group of steering committee members, NBCI staff, subcommittee chairs and general NBTC members, there was nothing we could not work through. I thank all those who helped me along the way, tolerated my stress, and persevered with me. I look forward to continuing on the steering committee as past-chair through 2016. I also want to thank Todd Bogenschutz, of the Iowa DNR for the great job Todd and his staff and partners did in hosting the 20th annual meeting of the NBTC in Des Moines Iowa last week. Superb job gang!

Now to the title of my post – Volunteer Quail Departments.

It struck me recently that what we are trying to do for quail, that being to develop locally led, community sponsored wildlife conservation, is not unlike the Volunteer Fire Department model. Their model works well and I think it needs to be applied to quail, and perhaps to wildlife conservation in general on private lands. Not every community can afford a full time, professional fire- fighting staff. In fact, most communities can’t. But what they can do is organize volunteer fire departments. These departments rely on government to help them fund equipment, provide training and generally facilitate their efforts, but they are self-driven and rely on local leadership to flourish. They also conduct fund-raisers of their own that contribute significantly to their ability to serve their communities.

I have mentioned in as many places and venues that I can that if you’re sitting around waiting for the government to come rescue quail on your land – you may be waiting a long time. We basically have a “skeleton crew” when it comes to quail recovery. In Virginia there are about seven of us that work most of the time on quail, but none of us work full time on quail. In addition, we have many partners that contribute some of their time to various forms of early-succession wildlife recovery. There are 47,000 farms in Virginia. The math does not add up. At best, we can facilitate, encourage, provide technical expertise and in many cases help secure funding, but the proverbial “quail buck” stops with the landowners. We cannot be everywhere at once and with the huge number of counties each of us covers it is hard to avoid the occasional landowner falling through the cracks. A note on that: if you are a landowner who feels like you may be one of those that have fallen through the cracks, please pick up the phone and let us know – we are human, we make mistakes.

When we started the Quail Management Assistance Program, we envisioned dozens of locally led efforts, spreading “quail quilts” over large areas of Virginia. I still believe that is possible and will ultimately work.

 
   

One of the most recent and best examples is the “Botetourt County Quail Quilt.” Their effort is an example of a “volunteer quail department” at work. Built around the Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, it is a community led effort assisted by private lands wildlife biologist Andy Rosenberger, DGIF District Biologist Dan Lovelace and several other partners.

When he first contacted me, Chairman Ed McCoy was a bit shocked at my candor. When he asked what their chapter could do to help us, my answer was perhaps not what was expected. I told him that what we did NOT need was another chapter of an NGO raising money to hand us a check to go do great things with. Furthermore, we did NOT need a chapter to buy more equipment for our small staff to then have to haul all over the state, taking even more time from their ability to visit new landowners.

I went on to say what we DID need were locally led teams of people willing to work closely with their neighbors and actually help them implement conservation practices (H.I.T. – Habitat Implementation Teams). I told him that we DID need people with equipment in the local area willing to loan it to neighbors, or we DID need a chapter to buy equipment and learn to use it, and then volunteer to help others use it locally.

In addition, we DID need groups of people willing to learn about the habitat requirements of quail and then be willing to fill in the gaps, making landowner site visits when demand was too high for our staff to meet.

Well, their group took the message to heart, having already sponsored a workshop for interested landowners, with another occurring this week. They also plan to have an exhibit at the local county fair. In short, they are taking it upon themselves to grow the effort, and we are supporting them any way we can. This is an excellent example of what we’d call a “volunteer quail department.”

If you are interested in forming one in your area, note that they can be built around a chapter of a non-governmental organization like NWTF, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Ruffed Grouse Society or others. By working through an NGO you can get help with fund-raising and promotion. But you do not HAVE to go through an NGO.  Your group may choose to develop your own totally local effort. Regardless, I believe this is the way to large scale quail recovery - locally led efforts that focus habitat work, capitalize on government assistance and become force multipliers building a cadre of community volunteers capable of independent operation on behalf of bobwhites.

 … a veritable volunteer quail department at the ready to go light quail fires, not put them out. 

Some would say that the phrase “successful failure” would be an oxymoron. I would not.

Some may say that makes me the last half of the last word in the first sentence. Time will tell.

Our quail recovery initiative has hit the 5 year mark here in Virginia. As hard as we have worked and as much progress as we have made, many may still consider us a “failure” because their sole measure of success is  restoration of quail throughout the entire Commonwealth. Well…that won’t be done in 5 years, or 10…it may take 15 or 20, or 25 or more … as  it did for deer, turkey, bear and others.

I know I am very proud of our quail team. And the key word is TEAM, and the dozens of landowners, conservation professionals, non-governmental organization members and other entities comprising it. And I believe if we have been a failure we have been a remarkably successful failure. In fact, I’d be proud to be associated with failures of this magnitude. Indefinitely.  And I would further say if we continue to fail at this rate, we’ll restore quail in my lifetime (I am 51 now – this is if I live to be 71 – and there are no guarantees on that).

Last year our quail team was presented the 2013 Merit Award by the Virginia Society of Soil and Water Conservation. The award was given to us for team building and partnership. Our core quail team consists of the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, our private lands wildlife biologists and the DGIF small game team. Many, many others are part of this team and have graciously partnered with us over the past five years.

What have we done? For starters over the last 5 years our private lands wildlife biologists have made over 2,000 site visits, to almost 1,400 unique landowners, writing over 1,200 management plans, participating in over 950 outreach events, and created or maintained over 33,400 acres of early-succession habitat. This represents $4,307,900 dollars in cost-share – or an average of about $128.00 per acre of habitat. The landowners they have worked with collectively own over 229,000 acres of land.

   
   

During this same time period we distributed over 2,000 promotional DVDs, over 2,000 habitat management DVDs, conducted workshops for more than  525 people, enrolled 320 landowners in our Quail Management Assistance Program, have appeared on Virginia Farming several times, have had articles on quail recovery in all major newspapers and magazines, organized the Virginia Quail Council with 28 signed conservation partners, worked with the Virginia Department of Forestry to implement a new wildlife friendly forestry best management practices program, completed two research pilot projects, planned for new research, helped develop several quail habitat demonstration areas, supported prescribed fire training for all our staff, continued  our yearly quail surveys, and simultaneously enhanced our survey methods to include numerous species of early-succession habitat associated song-birds such prairie warblers, field sparrows, and towhees.

Simultaneously, several of our staff have held office in the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, and its strategic implementation component, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Virginia is one of seven pilot states testing NBCI’s new model focal area program – designed to document the association between habitat and quail, and to provide opportunities for even small, quail-range outlying states to show meaningful progress. And in summer 2013 we hosted the 19th annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee with help from many of our members and sponsoring entities.

Along the way our Virginia Quail Council members also collected goods and sent care packages to our troops in Afghanistan.  The 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) 25th Infantry Division presented a Certificate of Appreciation and Unit Flag to our Virginia Quail Council.

I think no species has allowed wildlife professionals to train more landowners or partner agency staff about real wildlife habitat management than has the bobwhite quail. When we go back to Aldo Leopold’s “fire, cow, ax and plow” as the basic four wildlife management tools – the bobwhite has allowed us to bring those tools and many modifications to more landowners than any other species I can think of.

I believe there is a quail recovery brewing. Our ability to detect it is in development but not yet fully formed. But we have “sown seeds with faith,” thousands of them.  And many of them “have fallen on fertile ground and are producing fruit.” I believe if we continue to “fail” as well as we have in the last 5 years, and if the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is given the chance to “fail” in such a manner on a larger scale, the bobwhite quail has a bright future. We can “snatch quail victory from the predatory jaws of defeat.”

Thanks to everyone who has supported us in these efforts over the past 5 years, and we hope you will continue to support us in the future.

Members of the Virginia Quail Council include:  Virginia USDA NRCS, and USDA FSA, Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, the U.S. Forest Service, Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, Virginia Department of Forestry, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Angler Environmental, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Divisions of, State Parks, Natural Heritage and Soil and Water Conservation, including the Agricultural Cost-share Program, Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dominion Virginia Power, American Electric Power, Quantico Marine Corps base, U.S Army – Ft. Pickett and Ft. A.P. Hill,  U.S. Army Radford Army Ammunition Plant, American Woodcock Initiative, Reese, River Birch and Falkland Farms (Halifax County), Central Virginia and Rappahannock Electric Cooperatives and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.

Just a Simple Whistle...

I left my house at 4:15 this morning to go out to do what hundreds of biologists do for dozens of species every year –

conduct wildlife surveys and monitor their populations.Invariably I’ll have at least one or two people stop and ask me what I am doing. When I tell them they almost always reply “Man, what a cool job, you got it made” and then drive off. Hard to argue with that most of the time…unless you factor in the stress that comes from trying to bring back an entire species across land areas measured in hundreds of thousands of square miles. Especially if you really care about these little chicken-like birds we call bobwhites.

As I drove around today between stops I could not help but to think a little bit about what those soldiers, airmen and sailors were thinking about 70 years ago when they got up at 3:30 to run headlong into danger. Today of course is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. I also wondered what would they think of what I was doing? Would they think that anything I ever did was worth risking their life for?

Truth is most of them were scared young kids who were not thinking of anything other than whether they’d survive the day, and then the next day, and then the one after that. Soldiers will tell you when the chips are down they don’t fight for God or country, but for each other. One other thing they’ll tell you – those lucky enough to survive that is, that upon returning to this world, it was the simple things they found they loved the most. An ice cream cone on a Sunday afternoon after Church, watching a Little League baseball game after work, the simple pleasure of driving a car, in a free country, on roads that belonged to everyone, and I’d be willing to bet, the simple whistle of a male bobwhite on a clear June morning.

On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I am glad I live in a country where plenty of people still care about the environment and our surroundings; and not simply care about what is here today, but what will be here for their kids on the 100th anniversary of D-Day, and the 200th. I am also glad that even though we do not always agree about how to conserve resources, we all agree we should be free to argue about it, even with our government, without fear of being purged, imprisoned or eliminated.

I heard nine bobwhites singing this morning, along with many indigo buntings, field sparrows, prairie warblers, and even two grass hopper sparrows. My reports will be but one speck of data in an ocean of it that collectively allows us to make informed decisions about species management. But to me, those bobwhite calls are a part of my heritage and something I love. Something I also believe to be part of the thousands of American fibers that form the fabric that collectively makes up our way of free life … and worth dying for.

Any parent knows that kids can ask some pointed and surprising questions…and generally in the most embarrassing place possible. As a wildlife biologist, I was not totally unprepared for this question from my daughter, “What do you do, Daddy?”

 “Say what?”

 “Daddy, what do you do for work?”

 “Well Sweetie…I am a wildlife biologist.” To which more quickly than a striking snake she replied, “No, Daddy...what do you do at work?!”

Naturally, this was in front of several other parents ... who probably wondered the same thing. Well, having talked to numerous school groups in various settings, I had become accustomed to starting my talks to them with a question, “What do you all think a wildlife biologist does for a living?” Hands would go up and as surely as kids love cake, the first answer was always “Study wildlife!!!” expressed with a bright-eyed sparkle of satisfaction. “Yes, we do study wildlife, and why do you think we study wildlife? Well, because if we did not know much about them, we would not be able to manage for them very well.”

I always used this question as an introduction before demonstrating and letting them use numerous wildlife management equipment like radio-telemetry gear, or quail traps, or a bear tranquilizing pole syringe (with no syringe attached). The adage “Tell me and I forget, involve me and I learn” applies. These events usually went well, but at the end I never felt like I had truly captured the essence of what the job is.

Author's daughter swinging on a grapevine

That was until my wife and I bought land of our own. I, like many, had always dreamed of owning a small slice of this earth, or at least borrowing it for a few decades (the earth will own us all someday). Upon owning our 42 acres I came to realize I had taken a lot of things for granted as a seasoned wildlife biologist…because I knew how to make the land work for me to create the wildlife habitat and thus the wildlife I wanted.

A big part of my job has always been helping private landowners evaluate and manage their land. Whether it is strictly in the name of quail (great quail management tends to be great early-succession habitat management for dozens of species), or simply helping landowners conduct sound habitat management, one of our key roles is being able to guide landowners and help them achieve their goals. 

How do you help a landowner “see” their land? There is science involved, but mainly it is a feel developed over years of a life outdoors thinking about how animals relate to their surroundings. This then has to be combined with the technical knowledge and communications skills necessary to convey the best information they can put to use “in real time.” While it may not be rocket science, it is a whole lot more than buying a couple bags of the latest food plot mix and planting some “patches” and thinking you’ve done “wildlife management.”

Over the years the most rewarding moments for me have been when that special landowner “gets it.” They see for the first time how habitat is not static, how manipulating it is not bad, how cover types interact, and that it takes some effort over time … but they can indeed learn how to manage their land to have their own wildlife paradise.

In short, their dreams can come true. So as terribly sappy as it may sound, when my daughter asks me now what we do as biologists I can answer with a straight face, “Little Buddy – at least some of the time we help fulfill dreams.” At the end of the day, regardless of what species initiative we may be working on or what regional or national goal we may be working towards, we serve private landowners – citizens with personal dreams.

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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.