Here are a few short notes on quail and eye worms before I share a fall hunting story with you…
Much attention has been directed towards the Rolling Plains of Texas this past year. A number of articles have appeared in various publications about the research Dr. Dale Rollins and others are leading on eye worm infestations in bobwhite quail. I have had many concerned quail hunters send me copies of articles and ask me what I was doing about this in Virginia? This year I corresponded with Dr. Rollins by e-mail. There is no better communicator or researcher on quail than Dr. Rollins and I have been fortunate to know him through our mutual membership in the National Bobwhite Technical Committee.
Dr. Rollins will be testing 100 quail from Virginia for us later this spring as part of his ongoing research. I asked Dale if he thought there was reason for concern in Virginia. He said he doubted we’d find them here. He went on to tell me that so far outside the Rolling Plains, though they had tested in numerous southeastern states, including some bordering Virginia, they had found only two with eye worms in Alabama. In his words, “It seems like the Rolling Plains is the epicenter for eye worms in quail.” For the time being, we do not feel eye worms are an issue in Virginia. Dr. Rollins will no doubt find out exactly what is going on in the Rolling Plains. And we will all be well prepared in the future if eye worms become significant in other regions. We thank Dr. Rollins for helping us test quail throughout their range.
Now on to a hunting story…Last Friday I left work early because I had started at 4:00 a.m. off to Sussex County to conduct a quail covey count. I decided to go for a fall turkey up on the State Forest. I grew up hunting National Forests and I have missed the room to roam here in Central Virginia. The Appomattox-Buckingham and Cumberland State Forests come close though. If you find your spot occupied, there are 15 more to go to within 15 minutes.
At my first spot on the walk in I flushed a fat covey of quail. At least fourteen birds came out of a thicket along a forest road edge and I looked closely to see what they may have been feeding on. Sure enough there was ample lespedeza and also a few acorn fragments. The cover in the field I was stalking had improved and it made me feel good to know I had found quail in this same area many years ago. Where there is habitat, these birds are holding their own. The first old field had plenty of grasshoppers which I thought might attract the turkeys, but no turkeys could I find.
As I pulled up to my next spot another turkey hunter was just getting out of his vehicle, so I went to Plan C. Ten minutes later I found that location unoccupied and I set off for another old field on foot. I could not believe my eyes when I spied the emerald field through the oaks from a distance, and as I drew close I knew this would be a great spot. Fresh winter wheat, already ten inches tall and lush made up the left half of the field, and the fellows with Department of Forestry most have gotten it planted just before the rains came in. And the right half of the field…you guessed it, a perfect stand of chufa. Is this a great country or what?
I eased along the left edge and found a great place to set up at the lower end of the field which ran about 300 yards stem to stern, being about 100 yards across at its widest, it was only 30 or so yards across at my blind. And I began the waiting game. As one approaching 53 often does, when the warm sun hit me I felt the head nodding and was soon into my favorite part of most hunts, the power nap.
Upon waking, I saw black moving out of the corner of my eye well up at the upper end of the field. The day had gotten late on me fast, and I muttered under my breath I should have known better and set up higher, as the sun stayed on the field’s upper end much longer. I was reaching in my vest for my slate call when I suddenly noticed the black forms were larger than turkeys. And blacker. They were bears!
With nothing to compare them to size wise, I asked myself “What would two bears be doing together this time of year?” That was when the third much larger bear came out behind them and my “Duh, huh” moment occurred. It was a sow with two large cubs. I watched them feed for a while before the thought hit me that I had to get past them somehow to get back to my truck. I watched in fascination as the cubs often laid down and pulled in the green wheat, eating huge mouthfuls. The mother bear did, too.
They were about 125 yards above me. I decided I had best get moving while it was light enough for them to see me. I stood up and whistled. No response. I gathered my gear, took my camo hat off and replaced it with a blaze orange one and walked out into the field all the while watching the bears. As I got about half way across, the mother bear stood up and eyed me, and both cubs quickly followed. Another sight I’ll not forget, three bears all standing up watching me from about 100 yards away. I waved my arms and clapped my hands and they ran off into the woods. What a privilege. What a blessing. What a great country we live in.
Put the smartphone down, turn the TV off, and get out into it.
November 2, 2015
We need your help.
Our team hopes you will join us on the first annual Virginia “Great October Quail Covey Count.” You can solicit your neighbors’ help, too. As the saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, involve me and I learn.” By mid-October, most quail coveys have formed after going through what biologists call the “fall shuffle.” Late summer and early fall is a period of great flux among quail. They move about a great deal, groups form, then break up, and re-form with new members, and mixing and matching is the name of the genetic diversity game. But by the cool days of mid-October, they start to settle into their winter units we all know and love - coveys. And it is during this time that quite a bit of fall “covey calling” occurs…as coveys settle into a range and let other coveys know their whereabouts. This makes it the perfect time to get an estimate of your population.
Tall Timbers Research Station, along with many partners, pioneered the method beginning in the late 1990s and it has grown in use since then. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative has adopted the fall covey count as one of several surveys they and member states are using to monitor quail for the NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program. (You can find out more about the method on the Tall Timbers website (http://talltimbers.org/how-many-bobwhite-coveys-are-there/ ). We hope you will spend some time on this site.)
The method is very simple, but logistical complexity increases with property size. The larger your property, the more observers you will need, or the more mornings you will need to conduct point counts on your own. But don’t get bogged down in complexities. For our purposes this year we want to keep it simple. As you read through the method description on the TTRS website, you’ll come to a section that shows some crazy looking formulas – don’t sweat those, all we want you to do is count coveys and report the number heard per point to us. We will do the rest and we’ll give you an approximate assessment of your population. The main thing is, it is fun to go out on a crisp, frosty morning and “see what you hear.” About every time I go, something interesting happens.
All you really need to do is get to your listening post 45 minutes before sunrise and listen for calling quail coveys until sunrise. Studies have shown that most calling occurs between 18 and 22 minutes before sunrise, but it varies. Getting there a few minutes before peak insures coveys have time to settle down and you don’t miss any calling. Never heard a covey call? Many have not, but on the TTRS website there is a playable MP3 file. You can also visit the Cornell University Ornithology Lab website (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Bobwhite/sounds ) and listen to the “Hoyee-like” call.
Setting up your listening point, or points, is fairly simple. Most of us can hear a quail covey for about 500 yards, so if you have a small property, a few hundred acres or less, one or two points may be all you need. It is best to use an aerial photograph, or map of your property, along with your knowledge of the land to set up points. Try to minimize listening area overlap where possible.
If you believe you have a low density of quail, it may also help to use a stimulator call. I use an old “boom box” with a tape of the covey call. If I do not hear coveys calling on their own by about 15 minutes before sunrise, I play the call loudly and listen for responses. Some quail hunters I know can make the call reliably with their own whistling. Hey, whatever works! If you have a high density of quail, one covey calling will stimulate the rest to call and stimulators are not necessary.
But this year, just go out and listen and have fun, don’t stress over details unless you really like details. We’ll make our survey period this year October 15th through 31st. If you have help you can do multiple points in one day, or if going it alone, do as many as are needed at different points during that time period. Report your results to me by a simple e-mail stating: date, county, number of acres covered, number of points surveyed, and number of quail coveys heard per point.
For example – you survey three points – you hear 1 covey at one point, none at another and 4 at the third point – That’s 5 coveys divided by 3 points, or 1.7 per point. If you have a large property and get help from your family or friends, tally up the results from all points surveyed by everyone. Or, to keep it simple, just send in the number of coveys heard and the number of points surveyed, we’ll figure out coveys per point.
Oct. 5, 2015
I am trying to sit here and reflect back on the year in human terms. Trying to take stock and put into words so many intangible things that we do not report, so many things that are hard to put numbers on, and trying to figure out how I report on the human spirit.
You see we have a team of people that are self-motivated to do a great job. Our team of five private lands wildlife biologists routinely challenges themselves to learn more and improve our program. No one made anyone develop a Facebook page, they took that upon themselves. No one required them to re-work our quail web page, they saw the need and did it. No one made one of them try radio advertising as an outreach tool, but he did. No one forced them to become plant identification experts, or cost-share program gurus, it was simply in their DNA to strive to be better and to help each other along the way.
That is what I would call a team. And all we have done to help is foster an atmosphere that encourages initiative. We have tried to give them the tools and equipment they need to succeed. And we have tried not to stand in their way when ideas develop. We have encouraged each one of them to excel in the areas in which they wish to excel.
As time has passed, we have also started developing training opportunities that go beyond the basics for them. This year our quail team, along with several Ft. Pickett natural
resources staff, spent nearly an entire day in the field with Dr. Theron Terhune – Game Bird Research Program Leader at Tall Timbers Research Station. Theron was nice enough to spend hours with us touring the habitat on Ft. Pickett and answering questions and sharing his knowledge. It is hard to put a price tag on that experience. Thanks, Theron!
We also spent a day with VDGIF’s long-time forester, Kent Burtner. Kent was kind enough to drive down from Verona on a very hot May afternoon and teach our team all about cruising timber. For the uninitiated, that does not mean driving a log with wheels and power steering. Cruising timber is how foresters estimate the value and volume of a timber stand. It is critical to properly marketing a timber tract. Why is this important to our quail team? Most landowners we work with have timber of some kind and our team needs to be able to “talk the talk and walk the walk.” It is part of credibility and being able to relate to landowners. If you show up on a property and you don’t know what “board feet” is, or how trees per acre relates to basal area, that landowner may look at you and wonder if you really know anything about quail, either.
The team also spent two days on a specially arranged trip to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to visit with Dr. Pat Keyser, and his team at the Center for Native Grasslands Management. Dr. Keyser has done a ton of work with native grasses on working landscapes. How can we integrate cattle and quail? His research is showing that moderate levels of cattle grazing, even during the primary nesting season, actually improves native grass stands for quail and some songbirds. Left to their own devices, many native grass stands become too thick for bobwhites. What better way to manage them than a method that puts pounds on steers at the same time? Our team is out front on issues like these.
We’ve also stepped up to lead by example at the national level. Seven of our team members participated in the 21st National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Galloway, New Jersey this August. Participated is the key word because we never simply “attend.” For many years Virginia has held leadership positions on the steering committee of NBTC. That continues. This year one of our team members stepped up to become vice-chair of the Outreach Subcommittee (to become chair in two years), and another now serves as chair of the Research Subcommittee and continues to play a key role in the implementation of NBCI’s Coordinated Focal Area Program. I have one more year as past-chair and that will wrap up a six-year term for me that began in 2010. All our team members play active roles on NBTC committees. And team member Bob Glennon was presented the NBCI National Firebird Conservation Award for Virginia this year for his never-ending energy in teaching and mentoring us all.
Where am I going with all this? Not much further. I hope the point is well taken. You can’t compare Virginia’s habitat potential to states like Texas, Georgia, or Florida. That’d be like trying to compare taste between a Georgia Peach and a Virginia Honey Crisp apple. Virginia is Virginia and we are doing our best and always striving to improve. We are proud of our team and of what we have done.
September 14, 2015
We just returned from the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Galloway, New Jersey (Thanks Andrew, Jimmy and Joe!!). No, that’s not a mistake. New Jersey.
I learned a lot about the Garden State on our visit. Some facts that might surprise you … New Jersey is one of the most wildlife and habitat diverse states in the lower 48. Habitats there range from coastal plains, wetlands and peat bogs (they are huge producer of cranberries), to upland pine “barrens” and hardwood covered mountains. Cape May New Jersey is known as one of the east coast’s bird watching hotspots. New Jersey also has the densest human and black bear populations in the country and those two ingredients often don’t mix well. And one other thing, in spite of the New Jersey clichés brought on by TV shows The Sopranos and Jersey Shore, you can still find remote areas where quail may thrive again.
This brings me to the efforts ongoing in New Jersey, and it also provides a chance to consider “context” as it relates to quail recovery. We’ve all listened to politicians or TV stars bemoan the misuse of quotes attributed to them. They state, “The words were taken completely out of context.” And we all understand what that means. Clipping a few words out of a three-page statement and using them as an independent quote can relay a totally different meaning than if the words were read within the complete statement.
Simple enough, right? A concept harder for many to grasp is how the landscape context relates to a particular parcel of land’s ability to sustain a quail population.
For example, you own 100 acres of land that you plan to manage expertly for the bobwhite. Your results will vary depending on the landscape context within which your acreage lies. Having 100 acres surrounded by a mixture of row crop farmland, active timber management sites and dozens of other conservation projects suggest that you will have a high degree of success in your quail management.
Those same acres sitting as an island in a sea of mature hardwood forest and fescue pasture will not net you the same return.
Does this mean you should give up in those settings? Not if you are willing to work with neighbors and build landowner cooperatives to package acres into what we have termed a quail quilt, and what the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative deems a focal area.
The NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program is designed to allow multiple states to build focal areas and document success on a wide scale. The basic focal area unit is a 10-square-mile area (6,000 acres approximately) and within that area 25% of the landscape should be useable by bobwhites (1,500 acres). These numbers were derived after much research and debate, and they should be encouraging to all landowners, because with good local leadership you can work to build your own bobwhite conservation area.
New Jersey has one such area under development now. A large corporate landowner (a cranberry producer) set aside 17,000 acres of their lands in central New Jersey and has created quality bobwhite habitat by intensive pine thinning and burning. The landowner is also working with New Jersey Audubon, the New Jersey Division of Wildlife and Tall Timbers Research Station, which is providing habitat assessment expertise as well as trapped and transferred wild bobwhites. That’s right, in the area under study, no remaining wild quail exists to repopulate the area, hence the introduction of wild bobwhites from north Florida.
We are considering developing a similar program in Virginia for landowners in areas where quail have been largely extirpated. Where local leaders can build effective cooperatives and create habitat of sufficient quality and scale, we will consider bringing in trapped and transferred wild bobwhites. The program is under development and requirements will be stringent, as they have been in other states like Georgia and South Carolina. But perhaps this will be the impetus needed to encourage landowners in areas without bobwhites to build the quail quilts needed to developed source quail populations in their areas.
It will take us year or two to work out the details and get the necessary infrastructure in place. The rest is up to you, the private landowner. In Georgia, after nine years of efforts, six properties have been successful and there are nine other properties in six states with projects under development. We’d like to add Virginia to that list.
Last note – we want to congratulate Bob Glennon, one of our five private lands wildlife biologists for being presented the NBCI’s National Fire Bird Conservation Award for Virginia this year. Bob is a retired NRCS program manager with a lifetime of conservation work behind him. He shows no signs of slowing down and he was presented the award for his mentorship and patient teaching of our team. His knowledge of plants is unparalleled. Great work Bob!
Recently, a small group of gamebird oriented non-governmental organizations, along with several Game and Inland Fisheries staff, met on a Saturday afternoon in Farmville. The meeting stemmed from a conversation between me and a Ruffed Grouse Society member all the way back at our national quail meeting in Roanoke in summer 2013.
The entire theme of that meeting was overlap – in mission, in habitat needs, in outreach, in communication, in audience, etc. between various conservation entities desiring more early-successional habitats. Early-successional habitat equals thickets, weeds, wild flowers, brush, native grasses and young forests. Our hope was that the many entities recognizing the need for such habitats could work together towards a unified, simple, direct and effective message promoting and encouraging cooperative efforts to create what we all want – more habitat to support the respective critters we want to see more of.
Take note of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or the National Soybean Checkoff – both national advertising campaigns that don’t focus on the type of cow, or soybean, but rather on the common needs of them all. Our wildlife community lags behind many other entities in effective marketing. One reason is lack of funds. But that is not the only reason. I fear all too often we are guilty of not being able to see the quail for all the feathers, which is a weak attempt at humor and a re-statement of the proverbial “can’t see the forest for the trees.”
If you have read this blog over the years (yes, going on 5 years now) you have noticed that though it is on a quail website, and I am a quail oriented biologist, many of my posts have not been about quail. First, even as much as I love quail, I can’t write about them exclusively. But more importantly, I long ago recognized the importance of partnering and collaborative efforts. I also believe that as a community we tend to be small when divided into respective interests and it will only be through unified messaging that we will be able to affect the types of attitude changes necessary to bring about landscape level habitat recovery.
Many years ago while working as a private lands biologist with DGIF’s quail program, I had a couple of years of experience under my belt promoting quail habitat. One day while in Halifax County around lunchtime I developed a craving for country cooking. I stopped at Ernie’s Restaurant, an iconic mecca of deep fried southern food at the time. Upon exiting the buffet line I spied two Natural Resource Conservation Service employees sitting at a table. They spotted me and invited me to sit down and eat with them. Most of us eat on the road from a bag, but every now and then it is nice to actually sit down, eat and enjoy a conversation.
Our talk gravitated towards quail, and I expressed my frustrations in not understanding why more landowners were not interested in creating quail habitat. Mr. Eugene Morris, NRCS District Conservationist at the time cleared his throat in preparation to speak. Eugene was and is a man not prone to wasting words or beating around the proverbial bush. Mr. Morris stated in the eloquent Southside accent I have come to love (notwithstanding my mountain roots) “Marc, I hate to hit you in the forehead with a hammer, but most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking about wildlife, much less quail.”
I guess I must have looked a bit like a quail in the “headlights” of a fox, as I stopped chewing my chicken for a few seconds. It took that message a few years to sink in. As devoted conservationists we each like to believe that there are masses of humanity out there longing to help our species if only they had the information and funding available to them. But the truth is when you divide us all up into our respective favorites – that is just not the case. There simply are not enough grouse, woodcock, quail, golden-winged warbler, honey bee, monarch, and regal-fritillary butterfly people in any one category to move the needle. That is my belief. You may disagree. I believe deeply that until we figure out how to unite better in our message and marketing, we’ll continue to fail divided. The “masses” out there tend to understand the value of mature forests. They are becoming better at understanding the value of wetlands. They lag far, far behind in coming to value what many still see as unsightly cut-overs, or brush in need of mowing.
The Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (of which VDGIF is a part), in conjunction with the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Wildlife Management Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell University, the Nature Conservancy, Woodcock Unlimited, UP Wildlife Habitat Fund, and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve developed the Young Forest Initiative (I may not have them all listed, my apologies – as the YFI varies by region). This initiative is the best I have seen so far in terms of a united message about the value of young forests.
I hope we’ll take this concept a step further – is it time for a Young Habitats Initiative? Y-HI? As lovers of early-successional habitats, one thing we continue to struggle with is what to call our habitats that might resonate with more people. What I struggle with is how to connect the dots between weedy fields and continued human existence on this planet. I believe those connections exist, but most days, even for me, the next vet bill, or my daughter’s school tuition takes precedence.
We’ll keep plugging – one thing I learned in various leadership training events, more than charisma, more than flash, more than raw ability, more than being able to speak eloquently, there is no substitute for long-term, dogged determination.