While I grew up around farms and bobwhites, I have officially been working with quail since 1992. At that time we were just realizing the order of magnitude of the quail decline. Some predicted that bobwhites would be extirpated through vast portions of their range by now. Like firefighters during a 5-alarm fire tone in the local station house, quail lovers scrambled to action. There has never been a time in history when more was done for bobwhite quail than over the last 20 years. Momentum continues to grow, and there have been largescale successes.
Some of the most notable of these are the successes seen in North Florida and South Georgia in what is known as “The Red Hills” and also as the “Thomasville- Tallahassee Region.” The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, along with the Albany Area Quail Project and the respective state agencies and regional research universities, managed to piece together over a half million acres of what has been deemed “purposefully managed” quail lands (note the term “purposeful quail management” was coined several years ago by researchers in Texas and Florida – and I am not exactly sure who brought the phrase to common use so my apologies for not being able to give a citation). The properties in the area tend to be large scale quail plantations under intensive quail management regimes. The landowners involved not only have the desire, but the means to manage on a grand scale. Management here includes supplemental feeding, predator control, relocation of wild quail, heavy timber thinning, widespread use of prescribed fire and adaptive harvest management. These lands now have more quail than at any time in recorded history. Even if a landowner does not have these kinds of means, they should take heart in the fact that it can still be done.
And in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in areas where vast landscapes still have quail habitat potential, hunters have experienced one of the best seasons in memory this year. Newmethods of pasture and rangeland management, recognition by landowners of the value of quail cover over immense portions of these states, and dedicated research along with favorable weather (rainfall) has led to this boom. In these areas, some of the resurgence has been due to purposeful quail management and some has been due to favorable circumstances…the most notable being low human population density and a more quail conducive climate.
Multiple pockets of smaller scale success can be seen in other states where purposeful quail management is being done. Virginia is not exempt from these. Several hunters have noted to me in the past couple years they are experiencing a resurgence in quail. I know many will disagree, and I am not trying to paint a rose-colored glasses image, but these comments have become more common in recent years. Just last week, in a county where substantial habitat work has been done, one hunter found 9 coveys in a single day, in another county further north, a hunter found 7 coveys in one day. Our team has dozens of examples where, when landowners have done good quail habitat management on a substantial number of acres, bobwhites have returned. Even in areas west of the Blue Ridge and in the Northern Piedmont, we have examples of quail showing up again after substantial habitat projects have been completed. Purposeful quail management works, not in every case, but in many.
That’s the good news…now for the bad…there are two fronts in our battle to bring back bobwhites. There is the front where we encourage as many landowners as possible to conduct “purposeful quail management” and then there is the front where we battle to bring back what was termed long ago “by-product quail” – those that occurred on the landscape because things that were being done, or not being done, in agriculture, forestry and land management were accidentally favorable for quail. We keep chipping diligently away on the purposeful front, and I think we are making some progress, but an enormous marketing / outreach campaign is needed to truly reach the masses about the value of thickets, weeds, wildflowers, and native grasses.
But on the by-product battle front…demand continues to increase for agricultural and forestry products, while acres on which to produce those products declines. This can only mean one thing, to meet human needs these activities must increase in intensity. The future to the wide-scale recovery of bobwhites and many other species using similar habitats is to try to find cracks in the way things are being done where some wedges of gains can be made for these animals, which include pollinating insects. The battle throughout human history has been one between short term gains versus long term losses. Many times we seem not to have a choice between meeting our immediate needs and thinking ahead 50, 100 or more years. I am not complaining or pointing fingers at anyone for this - it is part of our human existence.
What to do? 1) Keep encouraging purposeful quail management on as many acres as possible; these areas will serve as source populations through time. And document and promote successes in every possible outlet 2) continue to look for ways to incorporate gains for wildlife into agricultural and forestry systems to bring back some by-product quail, and encourage those things via innovative incentives programs.
Hope continues to thrive: we are seeing renewed interest in the use and promotion of prescribed fire, an increase in the appreciation of the habitats created by timber harvest and management, and widespread recognition of the value of pollinator habitats. Future solutions lie in working side-by-side with forestry and agriculture industry professionals to find common ground.
February 2, 2016
Frank Beamer, who just retired after 29 years, became the Virginia Tech football coach the year I exited my all-expenses-paid, 4-year tour with the U.S. Army. In the Army one is often asked “Where are you from?” I became accustomed to saying in my mountain drawl at that time “Southwest Virginia.” To which many would say “You mean southern West Virginia?”
A back and forth would ensue and I’d say, “No, Virginia, near Blacksburg.” To which the response most often was “Blacksburg, where the heck (more dramatic words generally used by Army personnel not suitable for this blog) is that? To which I’d reply, “in Southwest Virginia.” And on and on. To say we were not well known is an understatement along the lines of saying this year’s election atmosphere is slightly abnormal.
Frank is a native southwest Virginian, one of whose goals must have included putting us on the map because that's what he did, in addition to many other things. Mr. Beamer demonstrated every aspect of the word “character.” Humble to a fault, but every bit confident, Mr. Beamer showed the country that small town values and high school football loyalty and closeness could be successful in the “big leagues.”
For 29 years and through emotions ranging from a heartbreaking loss in a national championship game to the highs of beating a state rival routinely, Frank did us proud. Never gloating and never sulking he went about his business with determination and enthusiasm every day. He taught so many players valuable football lessons, but, more importantly, life lessons as well. Since this is a blog about quail, let’s take a look at how some of his lessons apply to quail management. Let’s play “Beamerball* with Bobwhites.”
1) Make good use of the off-season: Recruitment is everything in football, and if you don’t win the recruiting battles, you won’t win much else.
Application to quail management: Recruitment of baby quail is the key to annual population recovery. If you don’t have lots of first and second year weedy fields, you won’t recruit many new quail, and you won’t find many come fall. For those of you who don’t have a team in the big game next Monday night, the off-season is now until about mid-March. And you recruit quail by conducting prescribed fire or rotational disking between now and then.
About 1/3 of your habitat should be in first or second year disturbed areas consisting of ragweed, beggar-weed, partridge pea and a few clumps of native grasses – what we call brood-rearing cover (which doubles as winter feeding cover). If you don’t find some bare dirt under a canopy of weeds on a substantial portion of your property, your quail management program will be in a downhill slide until you get your recruiting in order. The second part of the recruiting game for quail is nesting cover. Nesting cover is brood-rearing cover with a little more grass – a weedy field that has been allowed to grow a bit longer between burns or diskings. About how much? Well…about 33%, or one-third. Beginning to sound familiar, eh?
2) A great defense is what wins the tough games: Well…what is there to be said here other than by hiring Bud Foster and his defensive genius, the “Lunch Pail Defense” was established as one of the best in college football.
Application to quail management: Without good “defensive cover” in the form of thickets, your quail won’t make it through the winter. This is the cover that gets them through the “tough games.” Think of a thicket like that football safety that intercepts a pass when the opposing team is in the red zone. About a third of your cover should consist of thickets of wild plum, indigo bush, sumac, hawthorn, blackberry, green brier, VA-70 or bi-color lespedeza, or some mix of these. Repeatedly, in many different parts of the bobwhite’s range studies show that quail don’t like to be more than 30 – 40 yards from thickets. The thickets don’t have to be huge, 30 by 50 feet is plenty in most cases, but they should be well distributed throughout the property.
And quail don’t need “umbrella brush.” They need thickets that have stem density at ground level. Some shrubs tend to grow like an umbrella, with one stem at ground level that does not branch out until several feet above ground. This creates a tunnel at ground level that predators can maneuver through easily.
If you ever get a chance, compare a native clump of wild plum to a row or two of planted non-native Autumn Olive and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll have to get down on your hands and knees and get some dirt on your pants to take a look and truly understand this concept. When planting shrubs of any kind for quail, make sure and plant them close together but staggered, and avoid creating “tunnels of death” for bobwhites.
3) Focus on the basics: From time to time there will be a flashy “new” college football program that finds a niche in piling up points and developing a playbook about five chapters too long. You’ll notice them for a while, then they’ll fall off the charts faster than a “one hit wonder” country singer. Flash is useless unless you have the basics down cold.
Application to quail management: You will see a lot of fancy seed mixes, new quail stocking techniques guaranteed to work, new brands of larger pen-raised quail (in Colonel Sander’s language – “a family fill-up” for a predator) with the promise of being more “hardy” and other such “snake oil.” It’s OK to try new things. Some supplementation with food plots, or seeding to increase low native plant diversity may be needed, and some use of released quail to supplement and encourage quail hunting is fine, but the backbone of wild quail recovery should be the habitat basics.
4) Don’t overlook things that might at first seem unimportant: Frank Beamer’s brand of football came to be known as “Beamerball” in part because of his focus on special teams, something some programs may overlook at times. He realized that special teams are part of the basics. A blocked punt here, a snubbed kick there, a punt returned for a score…these things win close games.
Application to quail management: Be honest with yourself about all aspects of your management program. Have you done your special teams work? Did you spot spray those thickets where taller trees were beginning to take over? Did you renovate those thickets where fescue was creeping back in? Do you really have enough bare dirt under your field vegetation? Can you really do without that hedgerow out in the field?
In a nutshell: Good quail defense equals great thicket cover, good quail offense equals lots of brood –rearing and nesting cover, and quail special teams equals paying attention to detail. I’ll end by simply saying “Thank you, Frank Beamer, for showing the whole country what a humble but confident and determined ‘mountain boy’ from Southwest Virginia can accomplish with enthusiasm, loyalty and dedication to teamwork.”
And for those of us from Southwest Virginia, thanks for saving us a lot time in having to explain that anymore.
During Beamer's tenure at Virginia Tech, putting points on the scoreboard became a full team effort with the offensive, defensive and special teams units. Often when the team scores one or more non-offensive touchdowns, the style of play is described as "Beamerball." Since Beamer's first season in 1987, a player at every position on the defensive unit has scored at least one touchdown, and 35 different players have scored touchdowns on Virginia Tech's special teams.
For more information about Frank, visit these locations on the web:
January 6, 2016
Do you believe in magic?
I suppose every parent at some time or another has been asked by their child “Do you believe in magic?” It’s not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, you want your child to believe in some things that are beyond proof. And you want their life to be magical in every way possible within reason. But on that rather big other hand you don’t want them to believe in hoaxes or to come to think magic can substitute for hard work. And you don’t want them to think all their life ought to be gravy or ice cream.
My answer continues to be “I believe in magical things.” Even things that do have perfectly complete explanations can be magical. I ask you, how is it that a clump of leaves in a briar patch suddenly turns into a woodcock erupting into flight right before your eyes? As if out of the soil itself it formed, then rose and flew off in a matter of seconds. And speaking of woodcock, as if “by magic” they are here today in places where they had not been yesterday. Maybe they were swept up by the Northern Lights and deposited as softly as snowflakes overnight in your favorite coverts.
And how was it that the biggest whitetail buck you ever saw in your life hid in a ditch no deeper than the bed of an F-150 while you and your setter walked past him three times? You only saw him because you happened to catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye as he was sneaking out of the ditch behind you. And where did a 20-pound gobbler disappear to when he saw your gun barrel move an inch? Now you see him, now you don’t. How did he vanish behind an 8” diameter pine tree? You jumped up, took two steps to the right, gun up and he had vanished.
I have no good answers, but I have witnessed “magic” in nature throughout my blessed life. I think there may have been some magic involved when I managed to land a 21 lb. musky on a closed-face reel with 8 lb. line on it. The rod was barely stout enough to cast the Mepps Musky Killer spinner I had switched to after a morning of trout fishing. My Dad and me, we had no landing net. We fished on blind faith and never considered what we’d do if we hung a brute. I kept that musky on for over an hour as my Dad drove up and down country roads looking for someone who would loan us a net big enough to land the “leviathan.” He came back with a curious farmer and an old hay hook that served as a gaff.
I recall finding an old Forest Service map in a pile of junk in my basement back in the 70s. It’s worn surface unfolded into magical adventures, opening a door for a group of still-too-young-to-drive boys to a deep woods native trout stream and the thrills that came with camping miles from home in “the wilderness.” There is some magic involved when a boy can turn a length of fishing line, a hook, a worm from under a rock and a hand cut, off-the-banks stick pole into an 11” dripping gem of a brook trout. How can a small blue line on a crude map become the sound of water rushing over granite into a pool of lifelong memories? “There’s magic in them thar hills, boy!” even if there’s no gold.
And what kind of magic is involved in turning a fat, furry ball of gangly legs, stomach and ears into a “bird dog?” Yes, lots of training is one key, but what spark gets ignited inside that dog brain that suddenly makes the scent of a quail the thing sought after more than food? How is it that your dog knows the instant you walk out the basement door, before you bring out the gun and the game bag, whether you are going hunting or not? I don’t understand it, but I don’t understand a lot of things I love.
This reminds me of a line in one of my favorite movies “A River Runs Through It.” In the end, having lost a son a he never understood, the pastor played by Tom Skerritt states very eloquently, “It is possible to love completely without completely understanding.” Whatever your beliefs may or may not be, this is a season of belief and magical things. I hope “you and yours” enjoy it.
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