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.

Shell’s Covert: Making Sense of ‘Basal Area’

Seeing the Light:  a simple way to estimate

whether your timber stand is open enough for bobwhites

 

As biologists, foresters or other resource professionals, we tend to speak a language all our own. And it’s easy to forget most people we work with don’t speak that same language. I’m reminded of this every time I make a statement to a landowner like, “Your timber basal area is too high for quail. You have about 80 square feet of basal area per acre. With this age pine, you need that basal area down to about 40 to 50 square feet per acre to benefit quail.” 

It took me a while to realize the blank stares I received back were not because of an overdose of cold medicine. In an

Open pine savanna perfect for bobwhite quail (Photo: David Bryan)

effort to make it simpler, I’d say something like, “Well, for trees of this age, a basal area of 40 to 50 square feet per acre would mean you would have about 50 to 60 trees per acre.” Huh? Thus, many a landowner has been forever lost to the babblings of a professional.

Let’s define basal area, then put it in context. Simply stated, basal area is the area in square feet of timber stumpage if you were to cut off every tree about 4 feet off the ground and measure the area of the stumps in square feet.

View through a densitometer shows where cross hairs and circle intersect there is tree limbs. This counts as canopy coverage. By running transects through a pine stand and taking periodic readings with the densitometer – you can get an accurate assessment of canopy coverage.

Envision a stand of older pine trees where each stump cut-off “at breast height” measured out at about 1 square foot of basal area. At this point in their growth, basal area and trees per acre would be exactly the same. To find the area of a circle, the equation A = π x R², or (R x R) where “R” equals the radius of the circle. If you do the math, what it boils down to is a tree that is about 13.5 inches in diameter produces 1 square foot of basal area. Let’s keep it simple and just say 14”. Thus if you had 60 trees of 14” diameter on an acre, you’d have about 60 square feet of basal area.

What a mess, eh? Clear as hot chocolate, right? My point, exactly.

But one thing should be obvious – it takes more trees per acre at smaller diameters to equal 1 square foot of basal area, and fewer larger trees. The good news is none of this math nonsense matters to a quail…what quail care about is how much sunlight reaches the forest floor at mid-day during summer. And it is not really the sunlight they care about. It is what the sunlight produces…more seed and insect-laden herbaceous growth down where they need it.

Let’s think about canopy closure, a concept I believe more people can relate to. Canopy closure ranges from 0% to 100%. A brand new cut-over has 0% canopy coverage. A triple canopy tropical rain forest has nearly 100% canopy coverage. So let’s forget about trees per acre and basal area and just keep it simple … think about sunlight reaching the forest floor. The general rule is this: “At mid-day during summer, when the sun is high in the sky, nearly directly overhead, a properly thinned stand of pines for quail will see about 60% – 65% sunlight on the forest floor at mid-day.” This translates roughly to 35% – 40% canopy coverage.

Simply put, when you stand under your thinned pine stand and look up, you should see a good bit more sky than tree crowns. This can be measured in many ways, one being with a densitometer. But understanding the concept is more important than taking exact measurements.

Most likely when you approach thinning your pines, you will work with a consulting forester. The forester will understand basal area and trees per acre. As the landowner, your job is to clearly state your goals to the forester. You need to make sure they understand you want to see your trees thinned a bit heavier than normal. The forester then translates your desires to the wood cutters.

Many cutters are accustomed to doing things a certain way. In order to communicate effectively how you want your trees thinned, it may be necessary to have a portion of the stand “marked.” The forester will use timber marking paint to mark “leave trees.” The cutter then harvests all but the un-marked trees. It costs money to have trees marked, but you do not have to have the entire stand done. For example, on our stand of loblolly pines, we had our forester mark five acres out of 65. These five acres gave the cutter a visual image of what we wanted and he took it from there. Our forester deducted the price of the marking out of our timber profits.

On most sites in Virginia loblolly pines are thinned first between the age of 15 and 20 years. We usually recommend that on a first thinning to simply go with the standard rate of thinning common in the area, or what your forester recommends. These younger trees are still relatively small in diameter and susceptible to wind and ice damage. But by the time they reach the age for a second thinning, 25 years or so, they can tolerate a real “quail thinning.” They can be managed from this point forward specifically for quail if that is your goal. While most loblolly pine stands are clear-cut for saw timber at around 35 years of age, there is no reason they cannot be managed much longer if the creation of pine savanna habitat is desired.

That’s enough for today. We’ll talk more next time about the economic pros and cons of longer term pine management, and we’ll throw in a discussion about prescribed fire to round out the discussion on what our friends at NBCI call “sunlight, fire and quail.”

Shell’s Covert: Lowbrow Bird Hunting (It Doesn’t Have to be Fancy to be Fun!)

 

Author’s note: This BLOG is dedicated to my Llewellin setter, Smudge, who drifted off into the shadows of a grouse-filled thicket in heaven last week. Until we meet again my friend.

Smudge – Nebraska 2008

What’s it take to be a “bird hunter?” I think some aspiring new hunters ask themselves this question and often give up before they get started. Many of today’s young hunters never grew up around bird hunting and their only vision of the sport is that portrayed in some of the high-brow magazines that talk more about fancy clothes, fine wines and crab dip, than bird hunting. But the bird hunters I grew up knowing might find it hard to stifle a snicker, or an outright laugh, at the tweed coated, 10 grand shotgun-toting, truffle-eating bird hunters pictured in some of today’s sporting ads.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a snifter of top-shelf bourbon and a nice plate of smoked salmon from time to time, but I am equally at home with a cold beer and a cheeseburger. And if someone gave me a vintage Parker shotgun I’d have to mortgage my house to buy, I’d take it, but I find my 1974 Remington 1100 20-banger more than adequate (and it surely does not hurt as much to miss with an inexpensive gun).

Chances are you already own a shotgun worthy of bird hunting. So I call on all you oldtimers out there to lighten up, take a young hunter out on a “lowbrow” bird hunt sometime and let them know no matter how you dress it up, it is about fun and the relationship with a dog – whether the dog be from well-heeled national championship field trial stock or from unregistered “meat dog” lineage. And being a “sporting gentleman” has more to do with your demeanor than your clothing or number of digits in your salary.

Dogs ($250.00 to $1,500): Yes, you can spend a ton on a bird dog. And while sometimes you get what you pay for, it is no guarantee of success. There are many good dogs available for reasonable rates if you look. No longer is bird hunting strictly the realm of pointers, setters and Brittanys. Many breeds make fine bird dogs, German long and short haired pointers, Vizlas, and yes, pointing labs, along with many flushing breeds like Boykins and Springer Spaniels make loyal companions. It is possible to get a good dog for less than what most folks pay for one of the four TV sets in their home. In fact, many probably carry phones in their pockets that would easily have paid for a nice dog.  My suggestion is to buy a puppy as young as you can find. It is most important that a dog bond with you. The more time you spend with the puppy, the more it will love you and be your dog. Most of us don’t hunt on horseback or off mule wagons, so a close working dog that checks back with you on its own is best.

Dog training (DIY DVDs out now – $50,  unless you want to hire a professional): Some bird hunters are only happy with dogs that hold a point, hold steady to wing and shot (don’t run when the birds flush or shots ring out until released by the owner), retrieve and back well. I admire and respect this, but it is not necessary to enjoy bird hunting. If your dog will obey basic commands like “Whoa” and “Come here,” and will hold a point (if a pointing breed, or work close if a flushing dog) and back another dog’s point, a good time can be had.

Retrieving is something that comes natural to some dogs, but can be tough for others. My best dog would only retrieve if there was another dog present trying to get the bird. I have never owned a dog that was steady to wing and shot and I don’t ever plan to. Training a bird dog can be very stressful if you approach it like you have to get it all done today. But if you take the tactic of “one step at a time” you can learn to enjoy the training (and here is a hint, if you do not learn to enjoy it, you won’t be very good at it). In terms of training for dogs or people…it is always best to end on a high note and never leave the field “mad.” There are good books available on this subject – buy one.

Dog Training Aids ($200 – $800): There are some basic necessities like a check cord, a good whistle, a bell or beeper collar, and perhaps a blank, or starter pistol (a decent cap gun can work well). As time progresses you may require an electronic stimulation training collar. This can come in handy for safety when breaking a bird dog from running deer, which increases their risk of being hit crossing a road. At some point you may want to build a quail recall pen for housing pen-raised training quail. And you might also want an electronic bird launcher. But you do not have to have all this stuff at once.

Dog Boxes: I have seen dog boxes that would have been an improvement on places I have lived myself in my younger days. My dog rides up front with me…costs me nothing but the occasional electricity required to vacuum out the dog hair.

Places to hunt: A good friend of mine took the time one day and figured up all the public land within 2 hours of us here in central Virginia, almost 200,000 acres. Does it all have upland gamebirds…yes…just about all of it. These lands contain a lot of woodcock at times, a few quail and a few grouse, not to mention doves. Is it great hunting? Not by Texas standards. Can fun be had hunting birds on it? Yes! It requires an adjustment of what you might consider good hunting – does finding 5 to 10 woodcock in a day sound good? Does finding a covey or two of quail from time-to-time sound good? Many modern hunters have lost the fine art of “scouting,” which for me is half the fun, riding around during the off season and looking for new coverts, marking places on topo maps for future looksees – it is all part of an enjoyable process.

Hunting companions: I suggest you keep in mind hunting is supposed to be fun. Several of my hunting companions and I have remarked that the older we get the more we like to be around dogs and the less we like to be around people. I do know this… the older I get the more I like to be around people who are like my dogs…they don’t judge me, they accept my short-comings and are always happy to see me (of course they don’t have to jump up on me, or roll in deer poop to qualify). So stop talking about becoming a bird hunter. Take all that money you were going to spend on an exercise bike with a video of spandex-clad personal trainer barking at you, and invest it in a way to get the best exercise one can have, out in the fresh air with a good bird dog (P.S. – I average walking about 6 miles per bird hunt over rough terrain).

Shell’s Covert: Pictures on my Memory

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words…but I think what they are really worth is 1,000 memories. These days they’ve gotten so easy to come by. The digital world has improved some things, but I still miss the feeling I had back when I turned in a roll of Kodachrome and went to see them “again for the first time.” The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I am actually writing this on December 30th, 2016.

The office is quiet today and I am able to look around my small portion of it at some of the photos that clutter my wall. I had a fellow tell me one time, “Wow your office is like a monument to you.” I don’t think he meant to insult me, and if he had looked closely he would have seen all the other people and pets in those photos. I did not bother to try to explain to him that these photos are like my “Linus blanket.” These office walls and this job can close in sometimes and it is hard to explain the suffocating feeling I get from time to time when I feel like all I can do is never going to be enough. So I surround myself with people and places that take me to someplace warm.

Grace’s Trout Painting (My present this Christmas)

I see friends when we were young. Like that time we went to Santee-Cooper South Carolina and caught enough catfish to fill two big coolers with fillets. One night we fished through a violent thunderstorm. Those were the “bullet proof” days. We were fishing two poles each until the storm hit and as the rain pelted the water, the fish began to hit so fast we had to reel in one pole and focus on one. We caught them up to 40lbs. The next day we took these pics, hauling them in a wheelbarrow to the cleaning table.

I see a picture of me and a friend back in 1983 on a rabbit hunt while I was home on leave from the service. I am holding a rabbit and I’m wearing a pair of blue coveralls my Mom gave me for Christmas and a white toboggan – back before blaze orange became mandatory. Yes, luck sure plays a role in our continued existence sometimes.

And there is a photo of most of the core members of the 5 Bs Hunt Club posing in front of our deer hanging tree with 7 deer in the background and all of us striking a pose like we had just conquered Normandy. Of the six of us in that picture, two have now gone on to hunting grounds in the sky and our club as a whole has seen seven members pass on since its heyday. We visited the old cabin this November on the anniversary of one of those lost. The old Catalpa tree that hung our deer had also succumbed to time. But those memories hung on the fall air like wood smoke and, if you listened real close, you could hear feet falling on the old cabin floor.

I see a photo of an Oregon license plate from 1994. It was the year a good friend and I cut two weeks of grad school classes to fly to Oregon and hunt for 13 days. I killed a grand total of 13 game birds on that trip – one for each day, I spent a thousand dollars I did not have and probably sunk my chances of graduating with honors, but one thing I did not do was acquire any regrets. I don’t remember a single thing from any of the classes I cut, but the memories of that trip are a wonderful tattoo on my mind. In one photo the mountains slant to the right, the hunter stands straight with his gun slanting upward, and the clouds in the sky slant to the left, and it tells the story of that land of angles. The only flat place in that country is the bottom of a well. Like the author Cormac McCarthy said “It’s no country for old men.”

There’s a picture of when I first started working for this outfit. One of my co-workers and me posing with two nice jakes during spring gobbler season. We got ribbed pretty hard for killing jakes, but we didn’t care. I have hunted turkeys all over, and I have been defeated by wary old long beards way more often than I have won, but those two jakes…what a hunt. Long story short, my friend taught me a lesson about teamwork that spring. We hunted as a team and in this case we had been after these birds for a couple days, we had a decoy set-up and we sat about 2 yards apart with our backs to a downed stump ball. Over the hill they came running to the decoy, both like high school boys at their first dance. Our shots rang as one sound and the two birds dropped within feet of the decoy. I have never been more proud of a turkey.

There’s one of my wife before we were married. She was learning to fly-fish, but this day we used fly-rods and bait to fish for stocked brook trout on the South Fork of the Piney River in Amherst County. Of course, I was trying to impress her with my skills and she caught the biggest brook trout to date either of us has ever caught. Life gets crazy and we don’t fish together much anymore. It seems to me relationships have a way of going around some bends, but then coming back someday. Her smile that day raised the temperature along that chilly creek by 10 degrees.

One is a classic “tailgate” shot of bird hunters after a day afield. Some kind friends took me to a preserve one day. There’s Raymond, Bill, John and “Grunt”, Raymond’s son who was about seven at the time. He is well into his twenties now. And in front of them is Shell, grungy as usual, her woolly fur holding every bur, twig and clod of dirt she rubbed up against. And she is looking up at the hunters, tired but not out, and seeming to say “You done good.”

I could keep on for many more hours talking about these memories. I hope you have many of your own. I hope every day you wake up you say to yourself, “Let’s go make some more.” The last one I’ll mention today is of my daughter and me at a fee trout pond in Nelson County. When she was young I took her to a place I knew she could have success. The trout were expensive, but she didn’t know that. She had a ball. But what I remember most when I look at this picture is not that day itself, but a day a couple years later when I asked her, “Do you want to go back to the trout pond, or do you want to try fishing for them in the river?” She said “Daddy, I think I’d like to earn my trout, let’s fish in the river.” I think I’ll sit here and look at these pictures a while more…and just keep the thoughts for myself.

Shell’s Covert Blog — Quail Harvest: Regulation Versus Education

‘…with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level.’

Our agency is currently implementing our biennial hunting regulations review and amendment process. We have been taking public comments for three months. The initial online commenting period closed November 30. More comment periods will follow as regulations are proposed. As a project leader, one of my duties is to lead discussions with our small game committee on public comments and ascertain whether any small game seasons or regulations need modification. We take this process seriously and all public comments are presented to the committee. As a member of the public it is important for you to note that having your comments heard does not mean all comments or suggestions will lead to the changes requested.

Much of our small game committee discussions revolve around whether the quail season and bag limits need adjusting. To be frank, we get very few comments on quail seasons. But we agonize over this issue as dedicated staff wanting to do what is right. I have stated many times that biologists generally believe quail hunting has not been the cause of the quail decline. And quail hunter numbers are at historic lows. We had almost 145,000 quail hunters in the early 1970s and we are now down to less than 9,000. Most of those are incidental quail hunters, meaning they do not pursue quail purposefully, but generally encounter them while hunting other species.

In spite of our very best efforts over the last decades, outside of pockets where quail numbers have increased or remained strong, and off properties where landowners have done significant quail management, Virginia’s quail population continues to decline (as well as those in most states). This leads some to question why we continue to allow statewide quail hunting with a bag limit of six per day. On the surface it seems easy. Simply close the quail season until numbers rebound when environmental factors and increased habitat line up to support recovery. But it is not that simple. One major thing to note right away – dozens of species of songbirds and insects that use similar habitats to bobwhite quail are also declining … and they are not hunted at all.

I have already mentioned that with so few quail hunters, they simply are not having a negative effect at a statewide level. Further quail hunting tends to be self-regulatory in some ways – meaning when quail numbers are low, hunters stop pursuing them. It costs a good bit of money and takes a great deal of time to be a bird hunter. Very few people are willing to purchase a bird dog, all the associated equipment and put in the time to become a “real bird hunter” when quail populations are poor.  However, there are places in Virginia where quail are at “huntable” numbers, and hunters still do well. I wonder who will champion quail when the quail hunters are gone? As a colleague of mine said to me “Quail will never be ‘every man’s’ bird.” I can only think that closing the quail season would hasten the extinction of our remaining quail hunters.

I proposed a few potential changes this year early on and offered them to some of our avid quail hunters for feedback. One such idea was the possibility of limiting the number of female or hen quail harvested. This should increase the number of females able to contribute to nesting in the spring and summer. Limiting female harvest has been done effectively with mallards, pheasants, turkeys and whitetail deer. But the females of those species are readily identifiable, and while there are a few quail hunters who can distinguish between male and female bobwhites on the wing, most cannot.

Feedback was negative on this idea. It was pointed out that it may be hard to enforce and that a person could violate the law accidentally. For example, if we said the quail bag limit was reduced to three per day west of the Blue Ridge with no more than one female allowed, a person shooting at a flushing covey could kill two hens without knowing it and be in violation. The same thing could occur east of the Blue Ridge if we left the bag limit at six but allowed no more than two hens and three hens were killed on a covey rise.

My take on all this is that perhaps we ought to consider education before regulation. I propose a set of “Bird hunter best management practices” or BHBMPs. These may include a self-imposed limit on the number of females harvested. For instance, if you find a nice covey of quail, kill two and they are both hens, how about considering moving on and not pursuing the singles and risking killing even more of the females. You could also consider that if you kill more than 3 or 4 quail out of a covey, you might want to leave that covey un-hunted the rest of the winter.

Further, as the law requires in many mid-western states, the pursuit of upland gamebirds should end at sunset. We could make that a law here, but in reality it comes down to an honor system and I’d like to think most bird hunters already adhere to this practice. No bird hunter that calls him or herself sporting can make that claim if they are still shooting quail near dark. The coveys need time to regroup and form a roosting disk before the night cold sets in.

Lastly, I’d say in the back of every bird hunter’s mind, they should value every quail, grouse and woodcock as much as they value turkeys, ducks and deer. Why would anyone consider a quail less valuable than a turkey? Is the size of the quarry the determining factor in how we should judge our success in the hunting endeavor?

Before I make a few comments about quail hunting on public lands, I want to point out that all private landowners have the ability and the right to limit or prohibit quail harvest on their lands. And while as a whole quail hunting is not causing the quail decline, local quail populations, particularly on small properties, can be reduced or eliminated if over hunted. Private landowners should consider determining the number of quail they believe they have before the season starts and limiting harvest to no more the 20% – 25% of that. This takes effort and would require hunters of their land to report their kill.

As an example, suppose you believe you have four coveys of quail on your land, each about 15 birds going into the fall season. You would close the quail hunting on your land when 12 – 15 or so quail had been harvested.

Concerning public lands, our department is going to begin making an attempt at getting a better idea of the quail harvest on lands we own. We want to provide opportunity, but also want to insure our policies are not hindering quail recovery on your public lands. Quail hunting on public lands may be having no negative impact at all, or it may be limiting recovery – we simply do not know. And we hope our quail hunters will support us in our efforts to make a fair assessment and modify our approach to public lands quail hunting if it is determined changes need to be made. I hope you all have a wonderful Holiday Season with your friends and family, and your bird dogs. Just remember with family or with bird dogs, it is the quality of the time you spend that is most important.