Shell’s Covert: The Last Bird Hunter

The year is 2047. The old man, now in his early eighties, struggles up over the ridge top, out of breath and wondering if he’d pushed himself this time too far. Maybe he’d die right up here in these laurels where he’d brought down many grouse and woodcock over the decades before it all began falling apart. That would be an end that suited him. He’d felt alone for so long now anyway save for his dog. The dog kept him going. He just wanted to outlive his last dog so he could make sure the old friend lived out his days in the woods. The thought of himself dying before Buster…well, he would tear up picturing the old fellow wandering aimlessly in the mountains for days until starvation overcame him. So he always quit a little before he was on his last breath.

Of course, what would it matter if they both died right here, right now? Who would care, or even know he was the last bird hunter? His way of life peaked in the mid-20th century, well before he was ever born, some would say. And in spite of valiant efforts by many agencies and non-governmental groups to “save” upland bird hunting, it died anyhow.

At first, there was a lack of birds, and scientists scrambled for a few decades piecing together the whys of the decline. There were many. Some could be addressed … like habitat loss…but in the end the innate quest for expansion by human beings led to increasing pressure to produce food and fiber. And this led to less and less land to set aside to be managed for wildlife.

The production of food and fiber in the best days of bird hunting actually was what produced the highest number of birds ever known…just by accident. And no one could have ever imagined it wouldn’t always be so good. For a couple decades, old bird hunters blamed wildlife agencies and private entities for not caring enough, or working harder, or cutting more timber, or using fire more. Toward the end of their lives though, they came to a sad realization…in all but the most remote parts of our land, or some of the wealthiest, you simply could not manage enough to offset the loss of the accidentally created habitat of yesteryear. The intensity with which land now had to be managed to meet basic human needs left little space for wildlife. But it hardly mattered anymore.

The decline in upland bird hunting…well, all hunting, really…was only partly due to lower game populations. Society changed, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly every year. Reality became increasingly replaced by virtual reality. The human mind expanded, as the human leg muscle declined. Going outside became something folks did just to get to their newest mode of computer-guided transportation. People could place a device over their faces and experience virtual reality giving them sensations beyond anything they felt while walking through the woods following an old raggedy dog around trying to kill something.

The old man had shut down years ago. He’d seen it coming. At some point, any species that goes extinct first takes a wrong evolutionary turn or two. And, of course, the vast majority of them don’t realize it. He’d realized that the further removed we became from the earth that produced us, sustained us, the lower our chances of ever persisting as a species. He knew it was beyond bird hunting. He finally gave up on cell phones when it reached the point that you had to subscribe to a company and get a new phone delivered every week with the latest installments in order to communicate. The few people who knew him thought he was either very brave, or completely nuts, for venturing more than a few hundred yards from his house without phone communication ability. They had never read about Lewis and Clark, or Livingstone, or Teddy Roosevelt on the River of Darkness.

For a few decades, he’d also made his life working for an agency. He had done all he knew how to do to try to right the ship, so to speak. But he was a biologist, not a psychologist, or an outreach specialist. He’d blamed himself and been blamed by others for not doing enough. He’d lain awake at night for years wracking his brain into a fever…what is the magic bullet? Or how many smaller things can we try to maybe add up to more bird hunters again, more quail, more grouse, more woodcock. Should we use pen-raised birds to promote upland bird hunting? Should we try fall pre-season release on some of our WMAs?

He’d written articles about how to become a 21st Century Bird Hunter. He’d often wished a movie mogul would make a movie about bird hunting similar to the great movie built around a family’s struggles and their love of fly-fishing for trout. After “A River Runs Through It” was released, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of fly-fishers.

He never gave up until the day he retired. They did see some successes, though limited geographically. He’d also seen an uptick in habitat management interest over the years. But this was accompanied by an uptick in the need for other critical agency jobs such as human/wildlife conflict resolution. And he’d seen a continued decline in the number of wildlife professionals per capita in most states. He and all of his colleagues lived the adage “more with less.” He did find some hope in the fact that there were a lot of bright young biologists sharper than he ever was coming along.

But after he retired he reached the conclusion that the best thing he, and all the remaining bird hunters, could do to keep bird hunting alive, was to keep going themselves. To keep talking about it, writing about it, and living it. Every time he saw an old bird hunter hunting alone he’d ask them why they did not try to find a protégé. Every time someone complained to him about how bad things were going he’d ask them “What have you done to help today?” Every time someone saw his dog, he’d tell them not only about the breed, but about its history, and then about the dog’s life itself.

Someone asked him once “Why do you care if bird hunting survives? What’s it matter to you? You have birds now, and a dog, so why waste your time on people who don’t want to live your life?” He touched the young man on the arm softly, then grabbed a bit of the cloth of his shirt, just enough to make sure he was listening and he said “Because I see where we’re headed when it’s gone.”

Shell’s Covert: A Christmas Quail Management Package

Another short but sweet post…

It occurred to me that there are a lot of resources available to people interested in learning more about quail and early-successional habitat management. Many are available electronically and are FREE, but they are scattered across multiple locations. This post compiles links for you (in one document) that will take to you valuable quail management resources. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but these links are some of the best resources in my opinion…and again, for FREE!

Bargain Basement Bobwhites

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bargain-basement-bobwhites-an-affordable-diy-approach-to-managing-land-for-wild-bobwhite-quail/ prepared by Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Justin Folks with assistance from our quail team.

NBCI’s Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving and Managing Bobwhite Habitat

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbci-the-comprehensive-guide-to-creating-improving-managing-bobwhite-habitat/ Prepared by staff of various wildlife agencies and NGOs coordinated by NBCI/NBTC.

Bobwhite Basics

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bobwhite-basics-2016/ Prepared by various agency and NGO personnel with assistance from NBCI / NBTC.

Managing Your Pine Forest for Sunlight, Fire and Quail

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/managing-your-pine-forests-for-sunlight-fire-quail/ Prepared by the forestry coordinator of NBCI, Steve Chapman, along with the Forestry Sub-committee of NBTC.

Ecology and Management of Oak Woodlands and Savannahs (PB-1812)

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/ecology-and-management-of-oak-woodlands-and-savannahs-pb-1812/ Prepared by University of Tennessee Extension.

Old Field Management

https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/Old-Field_QW.pdf Prepared by UT Extension Dr. Craig Harper and John Gruchy.

Wildlife Considerations When Haying or Grazing Native Warm Season Grasses

http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-H.pdf Prepared by multiple professors from UT Extension.

This selection provides something for nearly everyone in Virginia in settings from oaks, to pines, and from old fields to pastures. Like most things in life, success depends on personal initiative. But sometimes reading is not enough. If you review this literature and you still have questions, that is what our biologists are for. Contact me at marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov or 434-392-8328, and I will connect you with a highly skilled biologist who is dedicated to helping you. The more homework you do before their visit, the more you will benefit from the visit.

Happy Holidays!

Shell’s Covert: How Much Will Quail Cost Me in Future Timber Income? (Or … Balancing Timber Production & Wildlife Habitat)

Author’s note: Some of this BLOG is derived from a very recent article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management entitled: “Economic Tradeoffs of Managing for Timber Production or Wildlife Habitat.” The article was written by Phillip Davis, Ian Munn, James Henderson (Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University) and Bronson Strickland (Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Mississippi State University). Interpretations of the article and opinions included in this BLOG are mine alone.

A pine stand managed for bobwhites & grassland wildlife

Landowner – “So, if I manage as you say, by heavily thinning my loblolly pine timber, really opening it up, letting that sunlight in, and then using prescribed fire to manage for quail, what is it going to cost me down the road in future timber profit?”

Marc – “Dang it!” I think to myself, “I almost had him.”

In reality, I feel it is my obligation to let the landowners know, whether they ask or not, that there will be economic costs associated with pine timber management that heavily favors the quail side of things. It’s a fair question…that I don’t have a great answer for.

My response usually goes something like this: “Well, I can’t tell you down to the dollar what it will cost. First, you have to remember that initially you will get more money from the thinning because you are taking out more trees. Second, timber markets vary from year to year and it’s hard to say what products will be bringing 10 or 15 years down the road when you prepare to clear-cut. Third, there are “value added” aspects to managing timber for wildlife that it is hard to put a finger on the financial benefits of, but…my guess is anywhere from 10% to 25% of the future timber income.”

And it is a crystal ball “sort of” educated guess…just to be honest. In all fairness to me, if I could accurately predict timber markets, product preferences and prices 15 years out, I’d be in the timber business…and probably retired by now. There’s an old saying when it comes to money, “If you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it.” Maybe managing timber for wildlife is no different, but I’d argue it is not a zero sum game, there are a range of options and you may be a landowner who can see benefits beyond dollars…that are, as the commercial says, “Priceless”…and for everything else there is a not-named-here-for-fear-of-being-seen-as-an-endorsement credit card.

In my opinion, no forester or wildlife biologist can tell you with 100% certainty what the future costs are in timber production if you choose to manage intensively for bobwhite quail. There are simply too many variables and too much can change over the life of a timber stand. You may have it figured to the last dollar and two days before you are ready to sell a category 4 hurricane makes it all moot. My advice to you is that if it is critical to know right down to the dollar how much future timber costs are associated with quail management, stick to growing timber. But if not, here are a few things to consider.

In the article I referenced in my opening note the authors wrote: “Maximizing timber production usually yields the highest land expectation value (LEV) return when compared to maximizing wildlife habitat, but improving wildlife habitat can result in higher hunting lease revenue to supplement foregone timber revenue.”

The authors of this paper used five basic models for evaluation: 1) timber maximization, 2) deer-timber compromise, 3) deer oriented, 4) quail-timber compromise and 5) quail maximized (my interpretation in layman’s terms) with “quail maximized” being the heaviest thinning. Many variables were incorporated into their models too numerous and complex to detail here. But all management scenarios were based on common forestry and wildlife management practices.

As expected, the timber maximization model produced the highest land expectation values (LEVs), but…all scenarios, including quail management, produced positive LEVs (profits). This means that even under a quail management scenario, the timber still made money over the cost to produce it (profit over the costs incurred to plant, spray, manage through time, etc.). The authors spelled this out by saying “Thus, a non-industrial private forest owner can generate an acceptable rate of return from timber harvesting while managing their forest for wildlife habitat.”

Their examination of compensatory hunting lease rates became a bit more complex. The term “compensatory” as it is applied in this study means how much more per acre would a landowner have to charge for hunting rights to offset the lost timber income from intensive wildlife management? One interesting finding that makes sense is that on the land that is best for growing trees (land having the highest potential for pine growth that foresters call site indexes), the opportunity cost for quail management was highest, and vice versa…the poorest pine sites, had the lowest opportunity costs for quail management.

What does this mean to a landowner? If you have large acreages with varying site indexes and are willing to compromise, on the best lands for pines…you could choose to grow pines intensively, and on the poorest lands for pines you could choose to manage for quail intensively.

Regarding hunting lease rates – the authors used $44.91 per hectare (about $18.00 per acre) as the maximum reasonable compensatory lease rate. They found existing lease rates for “Sixteenth Section Lands” (public lands leased to the highest bidder for hunting to benefit Mississippi public schools) in Mississippi to range from $1.69 / acre to as high as $37.80 / acre…essentially demonstrating that it would be possible to achieve the added $18.00 per acre to offset lost timber revenues under certain scenarios. Unfortunately, under the quail management scenario, the lowest reasonable compensatory rate was $20.74 / acre – meaning they did not find a way through hunting rights leasing to offset all lost timber income.

Whew…this all makes my head spin so let’s keep it simple.

Take home messages:
1) It is your choice as a landowner whether to manage intensively to maximize timber profit, or to maximize quail habitat, or manage somewhere in between.
2) There are professional foresters and wildlife biologists that can work together to help you achieve your goals.
3) Even intensive quail oriented timber management still generates a profit.
4) Land well managed for wildlife should bring a higher hunting lease rate than land not managed well for wildlife and these increases could help offset lost timber income.
5) If you own lands that have varying site indexes – you can choose to grow pine timber where it grows best and manage for wildlife where timber doesn’t do as well.

And, I’d like to say on a personal and professional level – forests are good things. Even a loblolly pine stand that is managed to maximize timber income still provides wildlife habitat on some levels. And thinning loblolly pine stands makes sense from every angle. If you follow standard forestry recommendations and then throw some prescribed fire in after thinning – it may not be perfect for quail, but it will be an improvement for wildlife…the glass will be half full, not half empty.
So this article was not meant to criticize those who choose to maximize timber production. It was intended to show that managing timber intensively for wildlife can still generate a profit and that there may be ways to offset some of the lost timber income.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

 

Shell’s Covert: Much More Than a Quail Team

This month’s BLOG is not only late – it is short and to the point.

Click on the cover to read the document.

I am proud of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist team. We have become known as the “Quail team” but this group of biologists is so much more than that. Their capabilities have grown to include a wide array of habitat management skills across a wide range of ecosystems. And they continue to improve and broaden their capabilities. It is hard to believe they have been working with us for almost 8 years now. Many of them are playing key roles in the quail world.

Most recent examples include leading a major marketing strategy for the Communications Subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, and playing key roles in the design of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program’s new Cattle and Quail Initiative for Virginia – providing a template for many other states involved. They called themselves the B.I.G. Team – for Bobwhites in Grasslands. The link provided with this BLOG will take you to their latest edition of the Bobwhite Bulletin. It speaks for itself. We hope you enjoy it.

Happy fall!!

Shell’s Covert: Quail Science Synthesized

This year our team was lucky enough to be able to attend the Quail 8 Symposium in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was Quail Eight Logoheld in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee and heavily supported by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,  the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (a nice job to all involved!). The Quail Symposium Series is held only once every 5 years. It is said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied animals in the annals of wildlife science. I don’t know how to verify that, but in this year’s symposium series there are 94 manuscripts from 72 authors. Most of the general public and most quail hunters do not know about all this work. But it is the job of project leaders like me all across the bobwhite’s range to read, participate and understand the latest in quail science and get it to you.

Translocating Wild Quail

I am often asked why we do not actively translocate bobwhite quail like we have done with turkeys, deer, bears and other species to speed up re-population efforts. The truth is we have tried it here in Virginia back in the late 1990s. And it has been tried in multiple states with varying degrees of success (or failure in many cases). Over a 50- year period about 900 wild turkeys were relocated in Virginia. This took a lot of work and it was successful in many cases.

One of the first differences between quail and turkeys is that there were millions of acres of turkey habitat into which to transport turkeys. Another big difference shown by modern research is that it takes far more quail to engender a response than it does turkeys, or deer, or bears. The synthesis of the best information available today states that in order to successfully repopulate an area with quail: 1) the area must be at least 1,500 acres of very good quail habitat; 2) target bobwhite population at the end of the translocation period should be about 800 quail. This is accomplished by translocation of 100 wild quail per year for 3 years and then hoping for good reproduction from those translocated individuals, 3) some wild quail should be present on the site before any translocation occurs, 4) and source populations should be disease free and obtained from as close a source as possible (Martin et.al – 2017).

There is more, but I hope this illustrates that translocating wild quail effectively will be an intense process that will only work well in select settings. We are exploring the possibilities in Virginia, and it is in our future, but we will do it right or not at all.

Population Assessment

Many landowners struggle with assessing their quail populations. Traditionally, some form of June whistling male counts are used to track trends. In the last decade the practice of using fall morning covey counts became the gold standard. This method allowed a very solid assessment just prior to hunting season, and could be used to adjust harvest levels on individual properties.

The fall method tends to be more time and labor intensive than June whistle counts. A study was conducted to assess whether June whistling male counts could be correlated to fall density (Sisson and Terhune. 2017). The study showed that: “Peak number of males heard in spring and number of coveys heard in autumn were strongly correlated for all points combined; indicating that spring whistle counts are a reliable tool for assessing bobwhite relative abundance on sites where autumn covey counts are precluded or the information is needed before autumn.”

Landowners who are interested in learning how to do June call counts on their properties should contact us. It is fairly simple and we can talk you through it.

Finding Quail in the Field

One often hears quail hunters lamenting how tough it is to find quail, even in areas where they know there are quail. A study using radio-collared quail coveys, led by Tall Timbers Research Station, showed that, on average, good pointing dogs only cover enough area within a given property to have a chance of detecting about 52% of available coveys (Terhune et al. 2017). The overall probability of a dog finding a covey is about 38%. I interpret this to mean hunters should more thoroughly cover the grounds they hunt, particularly when they believe “quail should be there.”

I understand to train and keep a dog in birds now-a-days often means hunting pen-raised quail. But a study conducted in Kentucky suggests that when hunters have become accustomed to hunting pen-raised quail, their expectations when hunting wild quail may be unrealistic (Orange et al. 2017). Using radioed wild coveys and pen-raised coveys on public lands, it was demonstrated that hunters found only 29% percent of wild coveys. And they were 8.6 times more likely to find pen-raised coveys. This suggests that hunters pursuing wild quail must be educated about the differences in detection rates and expectations should be realistic to maintain support for wild quail restoration on public hunting lands.

Eye Worms

That’s me, far right, in back

And what about eye worms? No, they do not look like eyes, but they are often found in a quail’s eyes, especially in Texas. Over the last few years there has been a great deal of publicity surrounding eye worms being detected at high levels in Texas quail. Our quail hunters often asked me about eye worms in Virginia’s quail, so we reached out to Dr. Dale Rollins and his team in Texas to help us examine some Virginia quail. Their study, surprisingly, did find some eye worms in Virginia’s quail (Kubečka et al. 2017). Eye worms were detected at rates of 59.1% in Texas, 52.1% in Oklahoma, 14.8% in Virginia (4 out of 27 submitted – low sample size) and 1.6% in Alabama. They were non-existent in other states tested. There were also many more eye worms per quail in Texas. Of the 4 that had eye worms in Virginia, only 1 or 2 worms were detected, where as many 109 were detected in one Texas quail. While at Quail 8, Dr. Rollins team (THANKS!) gave us a hands-on class in how to examine quail for eye worms and we will be examining about 250 more heads collected by hunters here last year But currently we do not believe eye worms are an issue in Virginia. Texas is still working on the situation there.

… just some of what we learned at Quail 8 while working 12 to 14 hour days on behalf of bobwhites.

A session at Quail 8

Sources all came from this year’s Quail 8 Proceedings.

  1. Martin, R. Applegate, T. Dailey, M. Downey, B. Emmerich, F. Hernández, M. McConnell, K. Reyna, R. Ruzicka, and T. Terhune, II. 2017. Translocation as a population restoration technique for northern bobwhites: a review and synthesis.
  2. Clay Sisson and Theron Terhune, II. 2017. Use of spring whistle counts to predict northern bobwhite relative abundance.
  3. Terhune, II, D. McGrath, S. Wood, and J. Martin. 2017. Hunter-Covey interactions using pointing bird dogs.
  4. Orange, J. Yeiser, D. Baxley, J. Morgan, and B. Robinson. 2017. Evaluating hunting success of pen-reared and wild northern bobwhite in a reclaimed Kentucky mineland.
  5. Kubečka, A. Bruno, and D. Rollins. 2017. Geographic survey of Oxyspirura petrowi among wild northern bobwhite in the United States.

Shell’s Covert: From the Civil War to the Coordinated Implementation Program

Hot cannon metal under my hands, I peered down the barrel and across the open lands to where the Union troops under General John Pope poured from the wood line and into the hail of artillery from 36 Confederate cannons on Battery Heights not far from the Brawner House. It was on the afternoon of the 3rd day of the battle, on August 30th, 1862, that these cannon played the decisive role in the Second Battle of Manassas, (Bull Run). On this day, August 1, nearly 155 years later, I stood on the ground where over 3,000 men died in combat all those years before.

View from ridgeline where cannons fired in support of Stonewall Jackson’s troops on the third day of the 2nd Battle of Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

I had slipped away from our group of biologists, having seen a rail fence on the ridgeline, my one moment of digression during this quail habitat monitoring workshop. Once there and seeing the cannon I had to take a closer look. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in souls. Closing my eyes for a brief moment a chill went down my spine and my eyes misted. I believe wherever we travel a small part of us stays behind forever. For an instant I felt the same fear and exhilaration those men on that fateful day felt. What goes through a man’s mind when he charges headlong into such carnage? The rest as they say is history and what is arguably one of the most important events in the story of humankind ended 100 miles to the south in Appomattox less than 3 years afterwards (though we are still trying to heal some of those old wounds).

I doubt those men could have had even the slightest inkling of how much change would occur over those next 150 years. The constant sounds of commercial airliners approaching Dulles International Airport, or Reagan National Airport served as the backdrop for most of our day in the field. Traffic on the nearby highways was never ending. Yet Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) serves as a unique oasis for wildlife in the middle of a metropolis. With over 5,000 acres of habitat, wildlife thrives. And yes, even the bobwhite quail remains – largely due to the extraordinary efforts of the Manassas NBP staff.

Think about that for a second. In one of the most human dominated landscapes in America, with enough land and the right habitat management, bobwhite quail can find a way to win. If this does not give you hope for bobwhites, or convince you that habitat does work, there is not much more I can say to you, or is there?

Monarch butterfly on a milkweed at Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

And this was one of the primary reasons our group of about 25 biologists gathered at Manassas NBP earlier this week. We were there to practice conducting habitat monitoring as part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). Developed by the science subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee among others (our own Jay Howell played a key role), the CIP will prove to be the largest coordinated monitoring effort ever undertaken for bobwhites (and several songbirds, too.) Virginia was proudly one of the first seven pilot states. The number of states now involved has soared to 21 and at some point we hope all 25 NBTC states will come on board.

But why do all this?

No matter how hard biologists stress that while other factors may play a role in bobwhite decline habitat loss is still the driving factor, many people simply did not believe us. Further, though many states did have evidence of habitat’s effectiveness, each state did their own thing and trying to compare survey results was like comparing anvils and kitchen knives. Beyond being made of metal, they do not have much in common.

All states participating in the CIP will be using the same methods to monitor habitat and bird response. Further, they will use the CIP to layout and design their focal areas. The monitoring protocol is designed to work across the vast array of ecoregions where quail occur. Take a deep breath and then think about the power of this program. Potentially 25 or more focal areas across 25 states all replicating the same methods and analyzing their results to form a massive data set that will answer this question once and for all. But the CIP is more than a monitoring program; it is a catalyst for quail habitat work and partnerships.

One group of trainees at Manassas habitat assessment training (Photo: John Doty)

Witness how the National Park Service (NPS) has embraced this program (along with others like the U.S. Forest Service). The first official NPS CIP Focal area was Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas and they are smack in the middle of implementing their focal area. Their staff came to Virginia this week to help their peers at Manassas NBP. In addition to the Pea Ridge staff, our group this week included key national staff from NBCI, national level NPS staff, Manassas NBP key staff and field biologists, staff from Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, a West Virginia DNR quail program biologist, a Quail Forever coordinator from South Carolina who is leading their focal area, a biologist from Virginia Working Landscapes, a teacher (our instructor this week) from Northwest Arkansas Community College, and our own VDGIF staff.

Ours was the second of such training workshops, the first being in Kentucky last year and more are already scheduled. I won’t ramble on anymore today about the CIP, but I hope that for those of you who feel not enough is being done for quail, we are doing more for them now than at any time in history. You will be hearing more about the CIP and I believe it will lead to you hearing more quail in the future.

Having been an infantry soldier, I know what those Civil War soldiers were thinking about when they were baking with sweat streaked faces in the hot summer dust, or freezing to death in the dank winter mud, the only intangible thing holding them to that particular spot on earth being their own honor. They thought about simple things … a home-cooked meal shared slowly around a table with good conversation, a clean, dry and safe place to sleep, the rhythmic sounds of summer katydids on a moonlit night or the sound of a bird coming from the fence lines at least as peaceful as the call of the mourning dove. Softly at first, “bob-BOB-WHITE,” …“bob-BOB-WHITE,”…”it’s ALL RIGHT,”…it’s ALL RIGHT” – I’m still breathing in and out.

Shell’s Covert: I Still Love the Bobwhite Quail

I have been off on a much needed break for a bit now. After 21 years with DGIF and over 25 working with quail, burnout can ensue. While home the other day I was doing some “cleaning out” when I found a 1998 issue of Virginia Wildlife. In it was an article I had written titled “A Quail for the Heart.” It reminded me of the many reasons I continue to enjoy this job. It reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for, too.

For wildlife professionals my age (54), the last decade has been a little confusing. We have lived and worked during a time of rapid change in our society and profession. What professional statisticians like to call “demographics” – meaning the makeup and interests of our human population –has changed. The short story is folks are less connected to the land now, less likely to spend time outdoors and much less likely to hunt and fish than they were 50 years ago. This has translated into declines in revenues for many state wildlife agencies and the last decade has seen great effort expended to seek remedies. Some have been found, but no perfect fix exists.

One thing many of us realized quite some time ago is that our constituency is very diverse now, and we need them all to succeed. And we believe they need us, too, in order to truly have the kind of future they desire. At some point in the lives of many people they find something is missing. For many, what is missing is a connection to nature and their ancient roots.

Our “Quail Team” has embraced the idea of partnerships quite well. We call ourselves the “Quail Team” quite frankly because it is much easier to say than “early-succession habitat / species team.” And we simply have not struck upon a better name (if you can think of one, please let us know). In the back of our new quail and early-succession species recovery plan (available at this link:  https://bringbackbobwhites.org/about-us/nbci-statescoordinators/virginia-nbci/  then click on the tab for the plan – thanks to NBCI for working with states to create these pages) is listed 35 partners from a very diverse array of entities that we work with and rely on routinely. And we have a team of private lands wildlife biologists with impressive backgrounds that include remarkable knowledge about songbirds, deer, pollinating insects and plants. I am proud of the small role I have played in helping them in their careers, but they have helped each other a great deal more than any of their managers have, like a true team. Our goal as cooperative managers via DGIF, NRCS and CMI has been to allow them to work to their strengths, and encourage and facilitate them when we can.

With all this partnership though, and much talk about the huge declines in upland gamebird hunters, I fear our upland gamebird hunting constituents might worry they are being forgotten. My main reason for writing this post is to assure them they are not being marginalized. In our new “quail plan” – in quotes because it is much more than that – we identified several key areas where significant improvement is needed, and one of those is our efforts to continue to recruit and support upland gamebird hunters. Maybe this phrase has been overused, but “it is not a zero sum game.” This means that we do not have to either be “game species” managers or “non-game species” managers. The more I work in this job the more I realize how important what some call the 80:20 rule is. Written about in the most recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, this rule states that when bringing diverse partners together, focus on the 80% of things you agree on and forget about the 20% you might disagree on. Whether your favorite species is the monarch butterfly, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the southeastern fox squirrel or the bobwhite quail – there is a good chance their habitat needs are similar. And it will only be through the “strength in numbers” that evolves when we come together with a common message that allows us to “move the conservation needle” in the right direction. Ouch – enough quotes!

As for myself, I have a new bird dog puppy on the way. I look forward to picking her up in late August. I have been too long without a puppy to love and train. I am looking forward to that bonding process again that unless you have experienced it you may not understand. It is hard to put into words the feeling you get when you see something as tiny, dependent and innocent as a Llewellin Setter puppy develop into an independent, hardworking companion that lives for you and to hunt upland gamebirds. There is some luck and magic involved in this process. Special touch is required to understand how to keep a bird dog enthusiastic and pointed in the right direction. You have to guide them, but you have to keep it fun. You have to allow them to train themselves as much as you train them and you have to be forgiving of mistakes. In short, it is not altogether different to how we might raise a child, or how we ourselves might like to be “trained” to do things we have the heart and instinct to do but not the experience.

As long as I am in this job role, and alive on this earth with the health to do it, I’ll be a proud “bird hunter.” You might say I was born into it.  When I entered this world back in “those good old days” on a cold November Sunday, my Dad brought my Mom a meal of pan fried wild quail as she recovered in the hospital. A peer once said to me “Marc, the quail is never going to be everyman’s bird.” I have thought about that for many years now. I am not sure any bird will ever be everyone’s bird. But I can assure you of this – the bobwhite quail is this man’s bird, and will continue to be a primary reason I come to work every day.

Shell’s Covert: Housing Development Quail Management

Housing development quail cover – note wide roads and openings, these pines can still be thinned more heavily to help fund management. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

This is a true story about a man devoted to quail management. I won’t give his name or tell you exactly where his property is other than – it’s in Central Virginia. About a decade ago he began managing a 60-acre tract. His property truly represents maximizing habitat work. He has sought advice from many professionals. Most importantly, he took action. His farm is a showcase and he has from 2 to 4 coveys on that 60 acres year in and year out (don’t let anyone say you cannot contribute to quail recovery on small acreages – it is possible, but depends at least in part on what types of lands surround your land). Over the years he expanded his landholdings, his management and his quail population. His main goal is not hunting quail, though he does like to have a hunt or two each year.

Last year he approached me about a new tract of land he was thinking of buying a few miles from his existing property. He wanted my opinion on its “quail potential.” I met him and as we drove into the property I thought to myself “someone is already managing this land intensively for quail.”

The pines had been thinned substantially, in some places almost down to what we call “quail density,” about 40 to 50 square feet of basal area per acre.  All the logging roads had been widened with nice sunlight getting in along the 30-to-50- foot expansions on both sides of the roads. It appeared multiple logging decks had been used when thinning this tract and each had been expanded into small clearings of an acre or more and already planted with legumes. A lot of the hardwood encroachment had been controlled in the understory mechanically. All that was really left to do was start a burning regimen in the pines (which has since been done), and a combination of a liming, fertilization and discing regimen on the clearings … and he’d have 200 acres of prime quail cover.

“Who has been managing this land for quail?” I asked. He grinned and said “No one, this is a failed housing development project.”

It made perfect sense then. The roads had been widened to accommodate increased vehicle traffic and paving. The small clearings were to be house lots. Enough pines had been left to provide some aesthetics and shade for new homes. I don’t know whose development it was, and I feel bad for them. I don’t want to be accused of making light of anyone’s bad luck. But for the quail on this area, their misfortune was a boon. It also made me realize that maybe I should consider new ways in which to describe “quail cover” – picture a new 5-10 acre average lot size housing development in a piney woods area without the houses, lawns and pavement. By the way, when the owner allowed a good bird dog man to hunt the tract for the first time this past winter, they found five coveys of quail in a few hours – further proof to me that quail do find new habitats and can do well in them.

In a recent article in Quail Forever Magazine by Tall Timbers Research Station researchers Clay Sisson and Dr. Theron Terhune presented evidence on how important managed clearings can be within a pine ecosystem as quail brood-rearing cover. I suggest you visit their website for more information and consider supporting their organization and subscribing to their e-newsletter (http://talltimbers.org/welcome-to-tall-timbers/ ).

This fallowed corn field is now providing great brood-rearing cover. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

Primarily, they found that these clearings made superior brood-rearing cover compared to either burned or unburned thinned pine stands under poor or acidic soil conditions. The main reason – properly managed clearings produced far more insects than surrounding pine stands. I followed up with Dr. Terhune by e-mail and he provided me this information: “The need for brood fields and the proportion of fields required is dictated by soil type. Basically, the lower the soil quality the higher the percentage of fields needed. In very low quality soils we recommend 25-30% fields. Average desirable field size is 1.5 to 2 acres and should range from 1 – 4 acres and not larger than 5 acres.  However, in higher quality soils burned piney woods often provide adequate brood-rearing habitat.”

In many parts of Virginia’s coastal plain, the soils are either sandy, which means they do not hold nutrients very well, or they are acidic. Likewise, many soils in the piedmont, though heavier than coastal plains soils, can be very acidic. This varies by site. The main lesson is to get to know the soils on your land. You can contact an NRCS soil conservationist at your local USDA Service Center for more information on your land’s soil.

Further reading of their articles led me to other findings such as how the quality of these fields tends to decline over time. There may be some need for liming and fertilization which can be expensive. Most recently the staff of TTRS has experimented with using rotational agricultural plantings and incorporation of legumes to “rebuild” these fields, as opposed to fertilization. As with all quail management, the key is rotation. The fields can be rotationally disced, or rotationally planted with agricultural crops or legumes. The key is not planting the entire field every year. There is nothing that makes brood-rearing cover quicker than fallowed crop lands.

What should you do? First, get to know your soils, have soil tests done on clearings and lime and fertilize according to recommendations to start. There are many ways to approach soil testing, but the best in my opinion is via your local Cooperative Extension Service. You can decide on how many fields, and whether to use planted crops or simple rotational discing based on your time and budget. If you do not think your burned piney woods are producing quail like they should, check the soils and consider incorporating multiple brood clearings.

Shell’s Covert: Putting the ‘Sting” in Quail Management

I am sure you’ve all heard the old saying “Taking the sting out of it.” Something said like this “Man, the post-game picnic sure took the sting out of losing by eight runs.” I guess only a rare few people out there cherish being stung, literally or figuratively. So why would I write “Putting the sting in quail management?”

I was invited to give a talk this summer to the annual meeting of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association. Over two hundred people generally attend this meeting! Wow! And take a look at this link to see how many bee keeping chapters there are https://www.virginiabeekeepers.org/local-groups/local-groups-map . Many years ago, quite a few of us in the quail world began to see parallels between pollinating insect habitat and quail habitat; and, for over 8 years I have been giving a presentation titled “The Bobwhites and the Bees.” I am honored to “bee” speaking to the bee people!

The world of honey bees is fascinating. I know enough to get “stung” trying to talk about them, but while sharing programs with several superb bee keepers, I picked up a few things. Did you know that one out of every three bites of food is attributed to being visited by pollinators like bees, butterflies, birds and other animals?

Recently I watched a gray squirrel go through a tulip poplar, limb by limb, poking his nose into every flower – never thought of squirrels as pollinators, huh? The truth is animals pollinate about 85% of plant species worldwide. And pollinating insects are in decline. European honeybees help offset the decline in native pollinators and many growers of produce and fruit rely on them to meet the demand of consumers. But there are over 4,000 native bee species in North America and more 500 species of butterflies. So why do we rely on honey bees so much?  

The habitat for all these species, like the habitat for bobwhite quail, has declined markedly. And I am sure you have all heard of honey bee “colony collapse disorder.” Declining habitat may not be the only cause of the declines in these species, but it is a major factor.

A white checkered skipper on white aster…Halifax County Va (Marc Puckett)

One thing I learned while listening to the North Carolina apiarist give a talk last summer is that honeybee keepers often have to feed their bees. There was a lot of talk about what types of feeds were best, and when feeding was necessary. That struck me as odd. I wondered to myself, “Was there not a day when bees could feed themselves year around?” To enhance quail conservation efforts in some areas, quail, too, are sometimes being supplementally fed. This suggests that modern ecosystems cannot naturally meet the food demands of many organisms. As a kid in the 1960s, I remember bumble bees being everywhere and wild hives of honey bees were common. Just as common was the whistle of the bobwhite. It simply seemed like the land bore more “fruit” then than it does now.

The overlap between quail habitat and that for pollinators is striking. I now judge the quality of quail habit during summer based on the number of bees I hear buzzing or butterflies I see nectaring as I walk through it. Many fantastic quail plants are equally great for bees. For example, the black and gold bumble-bee (Bombus auricomus) visits bee balms and night shades, which provide insects and good brood-rearing habitat structure for quail chicks. Partridge pea (Chameacrista fasciculata), a common native legume cherished by bees, is a key larval host for several butterfly species (like the Cloudless Sulphur, the Sleepy Orange and the Little Yellow) and makes great brood-rearing cover for bobwhites. And all you need to do in the month of May is walk by blooming blackberry thickets to know that this escape cover for quail is frequently visited by bees and insects of many varieties (not to mention quail relish eating the ripe berries).

Perhaps the most notable bee in decline is the Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis), which was recently listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its populations have declined by over 80% and it is only found in small portions of its native range. It nests in the ground and has an affinity for native sunflowers and golden-rods (Solidago sp.), two plant types that provide good habitat structure for quail, are rich with insects and covered with butterflies during fall.

And did I say “nest in the ground?” Yep. Though quail nest on, not in, the ground they do need bare dirt under their feet to prosper. This does not mean open exposed bare ground. It means some open-ness and bare dirt under a canopy of herbaceous vegetation. Aha! The same is true for many of our native bees. In addition to bumble-bees that nest in the ground, there are many species of digger bees that need access to bare ground for nesting. Those of you who garden know the ones I’m talking about. They can be very numerous around your garden in spring and at first may alarm you, but they almost never sting. They love to nest in the bare ground of a garden and while there they help pollinate your vegetables.

Here are some plants that really benefit bees and other pollinators: giant yellow-hyssop, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, spotted Joe Pye weed, flat-topped goldenrod, St. John’s wort, blue lobelia, stiff goldenrod, hairy beardtongue, narrow-leaf mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, green-headed coneflower, rough-leaf goldenrod, white heath aster, blue vervain, New York ironweed, Culver’s root, partridge pea, sumac, desmodiums (beggar-weeds or tick trefoils), sunflowers, and many more. If everyone interested in bees, butterflies, and bobwhites would learn to love and manage for weeds, wildflowers and thickets, collectively we could all “put the sting” back into our environment, and in so doing put the life back into it. Call us if interested in learning how … 434-392-8328.

Sources of information for this BLOG:

Virginia Working Landscapes (a branch of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) – www.VAWorkingLandscapes.org

The Xerces Society – www.xerces.org 

The Virginia Native Plant Society – www.vnps.org

Shell’s Covert: No Wasted Words

Writing for some of us who are not gifted speakers, or ad libbers, is a way to communicate and convey our ideas and emotions. But it seems more and more if words are not written in short bursts of text, or attached to a meme, people don’t seem to have time for them these days. Thus, here is a BLOG that is mainly photos.

Smoke (from a well-planned prescribed burn), the smell of quail habitat being created in the morning, it smells like…victory.

Get serious or get lost – open those pines up for wildlife.

Have you hugged a weed today? This is what a weedy field border looks like.

This is what ragweed looks like in winter. Excellent brood rearing cover has now become excellent winter food. Studies in Virginia showed ragweed made up a huge portion of the quail diet, in November, December and even into January it still made up 10% of their food. On an ounce-by-ounce basis it is more nutritious than corn.

Thickets, thickets and more thickets – if you don’t have them, you won’t have quail for long.

This is what a quail covert looks like on the inside, open enough for them to move around and loaf, but protected from aerial predators. This is the “guts” of a plum thicket.