Shell’s Covert: ‘Where are they going to come from?’

My landowner friend of over 20 years and I stood and looked out over almost 900 contiguous acres of clear-cut, or “cut-over” as most folks in Southside Virginia know it. Now please don’t start a

"Found" Bobwhite Habitat

“Found” Bobwhite Habitat on Cut-Over

 letter writing campaign about the wholesale pillaging of the landscape. Most of these acres came from old farm land replanted to loblolly pines years ago. And they have now become a retirement fund. Keep in mind if the land does not pay in crop or timber, it’s likely to pay in house lots sold piece-by-piece. Forestry Best Management Practices were followed in the harvest and what exists now is 900 acres of brand new, one, two or three years post planting pines. In addition to that, my friend is an “old time bird hunter.” He plants most of his log decks, road edges, and power line rights-of-way with legumes.

As we stood looking over the land, I mentioned I was sure quail would return here quickly. My friend was less sure. He asked me “Marc, where are the birds going to come from? There’s none nearby to repopulate the area. We need to bring some quail in.” I made a bet with him … if quail did not show up this spring I’d bring in some quail.

This morning I got up at 4:30, got in my work truck and made it to the gravel road that bisected this cut-over area by 6:50. It was an absolutely magnificent morning with cool, clean skies the likes of which we see few of during summer. I did five “official” points between then and 8:00 a.m. and…I heard 13 different bobwhites calling, an average of 2.6 per point. The points did not cover the entire area. So there may have been many I did not hear. I would say this habitat had been “found.”

Quail move more than many people think. I have mentioned in posts before they are ”hardwired” to move and that it is a genetic mechanism that has helped them survive at low densities for many decades. And it also allows their populations to “explode” when conditions are ideal.

If you picture a covey of 12 quail on April 1, they soon “disintegrate” with some moving very little, some moving a bit and some moving several miles. Thinking of their “radius of influence,” though, it might span several miles in any direction from their winter range. And this increases the chances that they can “find” new habitats and mates.

But, most folks don’t have 900 acres of contiguous habitat. And 50 acres of cut-over within the context of 1,000 acres of more cut-over has a much greater chance of being occupied through time than 50 acres of cut-over isolated from other such areas. So what’s a landowner to do who only owns 100 or 500 acres?

Talk to your neighbors. Develop quail cooperatives. Help each other. Quail cover can be produced on cut-overs, in fallowed crop fields and power line rights-of-way, around field edges, and in a variety of other ways. And the bottom-feather is, the more acres the merrier.

By the way, why translocate wild quail to anyone’s property if quail show up on their own? Very good question and one that is still undergoing research, but the short answer is – it might speed up recovery, inject some new genetics into a population, and keep landowners interested in continued habitat management. It may also help existing quail populations to overcome an unknown threshold preventing their recovery.

Much “to do” has been made about translocation efforts in other states. Criteria being used now for those translocations require a minimum of 1,500 acres of contiguous high quality quail habitat before quail will be translocated to those properties, and all the translocations are experimental. In some cases “success” has been declared. To me that is akin to if the Allies had declared success a week after D-Day. In my opinion these projects are showing short-term success and I am optimistic, but long-term success has yet to be demonstrated. We are developing similar criteria for research in Virginia, so start thinking ahead about how to put together habitat cooperatives, something we have referred to in the past as “Quail Quilts.”

Another intriguing aspect of quail ecology is “where do they disappear to in winter?” Many landowners and quail hunters enjoy hearing a good number of quail in summer, only to have a hard time finding these “ghost” quail in winter. Though we do have some older data on winter habitat use by quail in Virginia, we don’t have much from modern times.

We have long theorized that the “modern quail” has adapted to survive and those remaining have become harder and harder for hunters and predators to locate. We have observed from some late winter trapping for summer quail studies, that in late winter during the day quail inhabit the thickest tangles of cut-over or creek bottom canebrake they can find. And they leave it only long enough to feed and quickly return. I caught very few quail in places where I was not getting scratched severely by briers and brush when putting the trap in.

We have a couple places in mind for a study where we hear good numbers of quail during summer and early fall counts, but where hunters struggle to find a covey or two in winter. We’ll be submitting a request for proposals for a research project to help us find some answers specific to Virginia. In the meantime, go enjoy June – get up early and go listen for some bobwhites.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Planting’ Lines in the Sand — The Natives vs Non-Natives Debate

Author’s Preface: I discovered quickly when writing this post that this topic cannot be done much justice in a short article. It is not my intent to imply right or wrong. My main goal is to say the issue is not as simple as some would like it to be and that we ought to refrain from a “one size fits all” approach. I would encourage everyone to delve into the issue more. The book “Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species” By Dr. Sylvan Kaufman and Wallace Kaufman(2007 – Stackpole Books)would be a good starting point if interested.

I had a great uncle who shall remain nameless. He wore an old hat covered with various pins and medals. After a drink or two on a Friday night my Dad tells me he would walk into a West Virginia backwoods bar, throw the hat on the floor and say “I’m going to whip anyone who touches that hat, and anyone who doesn’t grab it is a coward “ … but using more expressive language. He loved a good fight even though he weighed about 140 lbs. drenched. And there’s no better way to start one than to make a declaration, draw a line and dare someone to cross it.

Hack and squirt_Ailanthus 2_REDUCED

The hack & squirt is a management technique for Ailanthus

Lately, one such line seems to be developing over non-native plants versus natives. On the surface it seems like a simple issue. After all, the first thing a person has to do to get out of a hole is to stop digging…right?  So let’s just make a simple statement – use native plants always, no exceptions ever and be done with it. One thing we might quickly notice if we could make non-natives vanish instantly is that there would be no soybeans and cotton or red, white and crimson clover, along with yellow and white sweet clover would be gone from our continent. Not to mention the European honeybee.

And what about this word “invasive?” Just what is meant by that? I have spent the last 24 years of my life trying to elevate the appreciation for early-successional plants and habitats. By their very nature, they are invaders, which when they invade where we want them to we restate as “colonizers.” It is only when things start to appear where we do not want them that we use the term invaders. If you are a forester in Southside Virginia, you might consider the native redbud tree to be invasive when it takes over a newly planted pine stand. As defined by Executive Order 13112 – 1999: “An invasive species is a species that does not naturally occur in a specific area and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

There are obvious examples of plant introductions that have gone horribly wrong. I heard a biologist once lament “I wonder what’s going to happen when the ‘vine that ate the South’ – kudzu, meets the ‘vine that ate the North’ – mile–a-minute vine?”

There is a long list of early naturalists, scientists and even Founding Fathers who contributed. Thomas Jefferson wrote “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” (Randall 1994). The list of invaders is long, but some of the more notable in Virginia include ailanthus, Autumn olive, multi-flora rose, Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, and phragmites. Over 50,000 species of plants have been introduced into North America since the beginning of European settlement. They provide 98% of our crops. Of the 50,000, about 5,000 have become competitors with over 17,000 native plants (Kaufman and Kaufman, 2007).

USFS Autumn Olive sign 1969_REDUCED

Times change as this USFS sign, designating an autumn olive planting for wildlife back in 1969, suggests.

In the case of our Quail Team, we have been criticized for continuing to recommend the planting of the non-native Korean (Lespedeza stipulacea) and Kobe lespedezas (Lespedeza striata). Both are reseeding annuals that typically do not grow above knee high. In the mid-twentieth century hundreds of thousands of acres of these lespedezas were planted across the country primarily for hay. They were often referred to as “the poor man’s alfalfa” being cheaper to establish and maintain. Though I have never personally witnessed it, I am told they can become invasive. While alternative native legume seeds are available, they tend to be astronomically priced compared to Korean and Kobe lespedeza. We often recommend them in conjunction with the native annual partridge peas (Cassia fasiculata and Cassia nictitans). Our goal with all of them is to help provide some quickly establishing legumes to supplement a native seed bank that is often depleted.

Are we inadvertently altering an ecosystem? Or is the ecosystem already so altered as to make it hard to identify? One thing I do know is that during the 20 years I have worked for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, we have become much more conscious of the issue and much more careful about how we approach plantings. “Think before you plant” is not a bad mantra.

Rather than advocating “Natives only,” the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) is advocating “Natives First” – meaning when good native options exist choose them first…whether for wildlife, hay or pasture. And further, they advocate that government cost-share programs should not help pay for establishing non-natives.

Quoting again from Kaufman and Kaufman 2007, “To see the invasive species issue as a choice between the native environment and alien species, between preservation and human meddling, obscures the real issue. All “native” dominants from ponderosa pine to American bison and the Canada goose were all once invaders. The invasive species issue is real, and environmental pessimists can take a major part of the credit for bringing it onto the public stage.

The heart of the matter, however, is not how to restore some “native” ecosystem. To do that would we choose from pre-Columbian, pre-Indian, ice-age or pre-ice age? The choice is arbitrary. We will make intelligent decisions only when the debate shifts from the unsupportable notion that “native” is always better to the all-important question of how do we manage change in that dynamic system of tradeoffs that is our natural economy.”

For my part I will continue to recommend Kobe lespedeza — but will point out that it is a non-native — and I’ll continue to battle ailanthus viciously, but I doubt I’ll try to do much about Japanese honeysuckle, … and I’ll continue to watch my bees enjoy white clover.

For those of you looking for some alternatives to non-natives here are a few:  instead of bi-color or VA-70 lespedeza, try bristly locust or indigo-bush; rather than sericea lespedeza, try partridge pea or round head lespedeza; instead of oriental bittersweet, use coral honeysuckle, trumpet creeper or American bittersweet; rather than Chinese privet, use American holly; instead of multi-flora rose, use hawthorn; instead of Autumn olive, try Chickasaw and American plum; instead of sawtooth oak, try chinquapin, hazelnut, and white, red or other native oaks; and instead of fescue and orchard grass, use purple-top, little bluestem, and deer tongue (Condensed from Tarheel Wildlife, 2010). But before you plant anything, you might try waiting a year or two and just observing what you have in the local seedbank.

Literature cited:

Kaufman, S.R and W. Kaufman. 2007. Invasive plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species. Stackpole Books.

Randall, W.S. 1994. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Harper Collins.

Sharpe, T. 2010. Tarheel Wildlife: A Guide for Managing Wildlife on Private Lands in North Carolina. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Shell’s Covert: Paw Paw Crosses the River

My father-in-law, Harry Byrd Elam, Sr., passed away last Thursday night, March 31, 2016. He died in the house he was born in back in 1932. From that you might guess he lived an uneventful life, but a lot happened during those 83-plus years between then and now.

Though Mr. Elam was known by his middle name to most who knew him, he was known as “Paw Paw” to his 10 grandkids (one of which belongs to my wife and me). Few people can claim to live in the small community named for their ancestors, but the Elams are from Elam, Virginia, and still own most of what came to them by a 400-acre land grant from King George II in 1745. (We liked to call Paw Paw the “Mayor of Elam” – population about 11).

That too is one line that does not tell much of the story. As with many families, time takes a toll, and land gets divided among siblings. If close watch is not kept, acres soon dissolve and wash away like dirt in a heavy rain. Paw Paw moved back to his childhood home to raise his family back in 1970 and set about rebuilding the land base. By the time he died all the original land, and some more, had been secured.

Paw Paw's Fescue Field_RESIZED

Paw Paw’s Fescue Field

Mr. Elam’s father died when he was a teenager, and one might think options for a young man were limited under such circumstances, but Mr. Elam joined the Army, obtained money for school, and came home to attend Hampden-Sydney College. Though a farmer at heart, he loved math and physics. He graduated with a degree from Hampden-Sydney in physics in 1960.

Though a man of few words, sometimes he would tell us a story or two. He once described to me working towards his degree in physics. By the time he graduated only two remained in the major – him and one other fellow. He told me “the other guy was a lot smarter than me, I got lost in quantum mechanics.” And, this quiet and unassuming farm boy went on to work toward a Master’s degree in engineering studies from the University of Virginia.

Before moving back to his childhood farm, he moved away and began life as an optical engineer. He designed optical systems for periscopes in U.S. Navy submarines and traveled the world over working on them. He also worked for Sperry Rand Space Division at NASA’s Goddard Space station leading design work on orbiting telescopes. But his heart was always back home, and after moving back in 1970 he never left again. He drove an hour and a half each way to Charlottesville every Monday through Friday for over 20 years to continue his career as an engineer. During that time his kids tell me he never missed a ballgame any of the four of them were involved in, always finding time to coach their teams and support his community.

As for me, I knew Paw Paw as a gardener, and most of what I came to know about him was shared in the occasional story he told me while I helped the little bit I could around his garden. He planted what I like to refer to as a “depression era, feed-a-family garden.” In short, it tended to be big. Once he told me, “Come by this evening if you have time and help me set out a few tomato plants” – which to him meant 50 or more. Have you ever seen how many tomatoes one plant can produce? Imagine 50 plus.

When I first visited my future wife’s family farm, all I saw was fescue, as green and pure a stand as ever grew covered the 100 acres of fields – which was hard to take as a quail biologist. But though I have never been known as the sharpest fillet knife in the drawer, I was at least smart enough to know that in the beginning of a new relationship it was probably not the brightest of ideas to start off criticizing Paw Paw’s fescue fields.

As time passed, I learned a lot more about the farm. When Mr. Elam moved back with his wife Joanne (a force in her own right), the farm was in a state of disrepair. The fields where his Dad, a full time farmer, had once grown corn, wheat and tobacco, had grown up into thickets of sumac, sweetgum and blackberry brambles. In his eyes the farm he had always taken great pride in had become unsightly.  So he singlehandedly undertook the transformation of those fields back into productive farmland. With nothing more than a chainsaw, tractor and fire he cleaned up those fields and planted them to fescue. But as with much of Paw Paw’s life, there was still more to the story.

This is what he told me once as we sat by his garden. “When we moved back here, these fields were a mess, Buddy. But I got them cleaned up. It took a while. Sawing, chopping, pushing with the tractor and burning, it was some real work. Once I got them cleaned up, I restored an old wooden-paddled combine of my Dad’s and I combined the last good patches of fescue we had to get seed. Then I bought two electric seed cleaners and between the two of them I got one running good and I cleaned the seed myself. And I planted these fields back with seed from the fescue my Dad sowed here years ago.”

After he told me that story, I had to stop and think about it for a long while. I still think about it often. It told me a lot about Paw Paw and his love of self –sufficiency. He could have run down to Southern States and bought seed like everyone else. It also taught me a lot about how much pride people take in their land. And it made me rethink my approach to landowners.

Yesterday afternoon after Paw Paw was laid to rest, as we gathered with family and friends at my brother-in-law Harry Junior’s home, I found myself sitting on the front porch. As Uncle Emery Wilkerson was leaving he stopped to talk to me. Uncle Emery is 95 now, but he still stands straight as an arrow and looks like he could go bird hunting tomorrow if he wanted to. He is an “old time bird hunter” and every time he sees me, he likes to talk quail. “Marc, I remember hunting up here at Byrd’s back when the farm was grown up. There were quail and woodcock everywhere. We’d park the sedan by the first tobacco barn and hunt all day, maybe cross over onto Buck Phillips’ place, too. We had some shooting in those days.” I just grin knowingly.

By-the-way,  I never had the heart to try to talk Paw Paw into letting any of the fields grow back up. My wife and I were lucky enough to buy land that borders their family farm and to have shared together the last 13 years living on a farm where three generations still thrive. We are thinning our pines and allowing our own place to produce quail cover. As for Paw Paw’s fields, maybe someday we’ll plant some pollinator cover around the edges. While Paw Paw hated a weed, he would have understood the value of wildflowers to pollinators.

Shell’s Covert: The ‘Best Use of the Land’

I won’t mention any company names or exact locations, but this is a true story, and one that I hope illustrates some of the dilemmas faced by agencies and those of us trying to recover habitats and species. I surely do not have every fact, but here is the gist of it.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s a large corporate outfit purchased about 150,000 acres of coastal plain wetlands in the east. This was back before “swamp buster” and provisions of law that prevent the ditching and draining of wetlands today. The company set about clearing, ditching and draining their holdings, which for centuries before their acquisition had been hardwood and pine swampland. It may have been one of the last great areas of such land in the Southeast.

The company’s goal was to make this land into productive farm land. I have been told that at one point they had over 100 bulldozers and various large pieces of equipment working full time on the project. But once they got about 5,000 acres into it they realized that such a proposition was a money pit. They subsequently sold the land and, long story short, it eventually came under ownership of the Nature Conservancy and ultimately the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is now a National Wildlife Refuge.

During this process of ditching, draining and filling wetlands, the company managed to create some of the best quail habitat the East has ever seen. You can imagine with thousands of acres of freshly disturbed soil, and long windrows grown up in pokeweed, blackberry and various other quail friendly cover, that this 5,000 acres produced quail hunting rarely seen on such a scale off of certified quail plantations.

Of course, this was at the cost of some of the best wood duck, cane brake rattlesnake, and marsh rabbit habitat the world has ever seen. I was fortunate to have done my graduate work on this refuge back in the mid-90s. I talked to some of the old quail hunters who remembered hunting the lands back when the company owned it. They pined for those days and part of my heart went out to them.

But I also enjoyed immensely all the varied wildlife I was blessed to encounter in the surrounding swamps and pocosins. As much as I loved quail, I was glad that the entire 150,000 acres had not been converted. It was one of the few places in my life that I felt remained wild, where the sky was still darkened by migrating waterfowl at dusk, where bobcats bawled in the distance and black bears were almost as common as opossums.

As managers of public lands, we have to decide how a piece of land is managed. And we have to do this knowing that there are multiple user groups that expect us to manage for their needs. Thus it is an impossible task at times to try to keep everyone happy. Something we try to do is to manage the land for its best wildlife uses. Not every tract of land is amenable to quail management. And in truth, single species management is rarely the best goal. What we try to do is manage for the ecosystems that are most aligned with the ecosystem that should be present on that land. If we purchase a tract of upland that has a long history of farming and openness, it makes sense to continue early-succession habitat management on it. Likewise, uplands purchased with large stands of loblolly, or other pine types, are readily amenable to thinning, and prescribed burning that is so beneficial to quail and a multitude of other species. But when we purchase lands that historically were highly valuable swamps or wetlands, even if they have had a history of being ditched, drained and farmed, the highest use for that land is to try to convert it back to what it was meant to be.

We had a recent case where we bought a tract of land, and just prior to our acquiring it, it had been clear-cut (which in and of itself is not bad) by the owner to glean their income from it before sale. The first few years we owned it, it had a good quail population, but as time passed, we began reclaiming it to wetlands and converting it back to Atlantic White Cedar which is a rare and declining ecosystem. We also managed it for the endangered canebrake rattle snake, and other species needing similar habitats. Those who had hunted quail on it during those first years we owned it were upset by the loss of quail cover.

I bring this case up to illustrate that there are many species in decline just like our beloved bobwhite quail. Quite a few of them have populations in far worse shape than quail. Even though we have a quail recovery initiative, that does not imply or justify managing every acre we own for quail. I know our agency and our partners are intensively managing lands for a variety of species. We are often caught in the lag time between acquiring land and getting enough staff to manage those lands. Over time we continue to work to improve our ability to manage lands to their highest uses. I only ask that our constituents know our intent is good, if not always immediately evident, and over time our goal is to do what is best for the land and species meant to inhabit it.

March 16, 2016

Shell’s Covert: Bobwhite Battle Fronts

While I grew up around farms and bobwhites, I have officially been working with quail since 1992. At that time we were just realizing the order of magnitude of the quail decline. Some predicted that bobwhites would be extirpated through vast portions of their range by now. Like firefighters during a 5-alarm fire tone in the local station house, quail lovers scrambled to action. There has never been a time in history when more was done for bobwhite quail than over the last 20 years. Momentum continues to grow, and there have been large scale successes.

Some of the most notable of these are the successes seen in North Florida and South Georgia in what is known as “The Red Hills” and also as the “Thomasville- Tallahassee Region.” The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, along with the Albany Area Quail Project and the respective state agencies and regional research universities, managed to piece together over a half million acres of what has been deemed “purposefully managed” quail lands (note the term “purposeful quail management” was coined several years ago by researchers in Texas and Florida – and I am not exactly sure who brought the phrase to common use so my apologies for not being able to give a citation).

The properties in the area tend to be large scale quail plantations under intensive quail management regimes. The landowners involved not only have the desire, but the means to manage on a grand scale. Management here includes supplemental feeding, predator control, relocation of wild quail, heavy timber thinning, widespread use of prescribed fire and adaptive harvest management. These lands now have more quail than at any time in recorded history. Even if a landowner does not have these kinds of means, they should take heart in the fact that it can still be done.
And in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in areas where vast landscapes still have quail habitat potential, hunters have experienced one of the best seasons in memory this year. New methods of pasture and rangeland management, recognition by landowners of the value of quail cover over immense portions of these states, and dedicated research along with favorable weather (rainfall) has led to this boom. In these areas, some of the resurgence has been due to purposeful quail management and some has been due to favorable circumstances…the most notable being low human population density and a more quail conducive climate.

Multiple pockets of smaller scale success can be seen in other states where purposeful quail management is being done. Virginia is not exempt from these. Several hunters have noted to me in the past couple years they are experiencing a resurgence in quail. I know many will disagree, and I am not trying to paint a rose-colored glasses image, but these comments have become more common in recent years. Just last week, in a county where substantial habitat work has been done, one hunter found 9 coveys in a single day, in another county further north, a hunter found 7 coveys in one day. Our team has dozens of examples where, when landowners have done good quail habitat management on a substantial number of acres, bobwhites have returned. Even in areas west of the Blue Ridge and in the Northern Piedmont, we have examples of quail showing up again after substantial habitat projects have been completed. Purposeful quail management works, not in every case, but in many.

That’s the good news…now for the bad…there are two fronts in our battle to bring back bobwhites. There is the front where we encourage as many landowners as possible to conduct “purposeful quail management” and then there is the front where we battle to bring back what was termed long ago “by-product quail” – those that occurred on the landscape because things that were being done, or not being done, in agriculture, forestry and land management were accidentally favorable for quail. We keep chipping diligently away on the purposeful front and I think we are making some progress, but an enormous marketing / outreach campaign is needed to truly reach the masses about the value of thickets, weeds, wildflowers, and native grasses.

But on the by-product battle front…demand continues to increase for agricultural and forestry products, while acres on which to produce those products declines. This can only mean one thing, to meet human needs these activities must increase in intensity. The future to the wide-scale recovery of bobwhites and many other species using similar habitats is to try to find cracks in the way things are being done where some wedges of gains can be made for these animals, which include pollinating insects. The battle throughout human history has been one between short term gains versus long term losses. Many times we seem not to have a choice between meeting our immediate needs and thinking ahead 50, 100 or more years. I am not complaining or pointing fingers at anyone for this – it is part of our human existence.

What to do? 1) Keep encouraging purposeful quail management on as many acres as possible; these areas will serve as source populations through time. And document and promote successes in every possible outlet 2) continue to look for ways to incorporate gains for wildlife into agricultural and forestry systems to bring back some by-product quail, and encourage those things via innovative incentives programs.

Hope continues to thrive: we are seeing renewed interest in the use and promotion of prescribed fire, an increase in the appreciation of the habitats created by timber harvest and management, and widespread recognition of the value of pollinator habitats. Future solutions lie in working side-by-side with forestry and agriculture industry professionals to find common ground.

February 2, 2016

Shell’s Covert: ‘Beamerball’ & Bobwhites — A Quail Blog Tribute to Frank Beamer

Frank Beamer, who just retired after 29 years, became the Virginia Tech football coach the year I exited my all-expenses-paid, 4-year tour with the U.S. Army. In the Army one is often asked “Where are you from?” I became accustomed to saying in my mountain drawl at that time “Southwest Virginia.” To which many would say “You mean southern West Virginia?”

A back and forth would ensue and I’d say, “No, Virginia, near Blacksburg.” To which the response most often was “Blacksburg, where the heck (more dramatic words generally used by Army personnel not suitable for this blog) is that? To which I’d reply, “in Southwest Virginia.” And on and on. To say we were not well known is an understatement along the lines of saying this year’s election atmosphere is slightly abnormal.

Frank is a native southwest Virginian, one of whose goals must have included putting us on the map because that’s what he did, in addition to many other things. Mr. Beamer demonstrated every aspect of the word “character.” Humble to a fault, but every bit confident, Mr. Beamer showed the country that small town values and high school football loyalty and closeness could be successful in the “big leagues.”

For 29 years and through emotions ranging from a heartbreaking loss in a national championship game to the highs of beating a state rival routinely, Frank did us proud. Never gloating and never sulking he went about his business with determination and enthusiasm every day. He taught so many players valuable football lessons, but, more importantly, life lessons as well. Since this is a blog about quail, let’s take a look at how some of his lessons apply to quail management. Let’s play “Beamerball* with Bobwhites.”

1)      Make good use of the off-season: Recruitment is everything in football, and if you don’t win the recruiting battles, you won’t win much else.

Application to quail management: Recruitment of baby quail is the key to annual population recovery. If you don’t have lots of first and second year weedy fields, you won’t recruit many new quail, and you won’t find many come fall. For those of you who don’t have a team in the big game next Monday night, the off-season is now until about mid-March. And you recruit quail by conducting prescribed fire or rotational disking between now and then.

Burn or disk for bobwhite

Burn or disk for bobwhite

About 1/3 of your habitat should be in first or second year disturbed areas consisting of ragweed, beggar-weed, partridge pea and a few clumps of native grasses – what we call brood-rearing cover (which doubles as winter feeding cover). If you don’t find some bare dirt under a canopy of weeds on a substantial portion of your property, your quail management program will be in a downhill slide until you get your recruiting in order. The second part of the recruiting game for quail is nesting cover. Nesting cover is brood-rearing cover with a little more grass – a weedy field that has been allowed to grow a bit longer between burns or diskings. About how much? Well…about 33%, or one-third. Beginning to sound familiar, eh?

Typical Nesting Grass Density

Typical Nesting Grass Density

2)      A great defense is what wins the tough games: Well…what is there to be said here other than by hiring Bud Foster and his defensive genius, the “Lunch Pail Defense” was established as one of the best in college football.

Application to quail management: Without good “defensive cover” in the form of thickets, your quail won’t make it through the winter. This is the cover that gets them through the “tough games.” Think of a thicket like that football safety that intercepts a pass when the opposing team is in the red zone. About a third of your cover should consist of thickets of wild plum, indigo bush, sumac, hawthorn, blackberry, green brier, VA-70 or bi-color lespedeza, or some mix of these. Repeatedly, in many different parts of the bobwhite’s range studies show that quail don’t like to be more than 30 – 40 yards from thickets. The thickets don’t have to be huge, 30 by 50 feet is plenty in most cases, but they should be well distributed throughout the property.

And quail don’t need “umbrella brush.” They need thickets that have stem density at ground level.  Some shrubs tend to grow like an umbrella, with one stem at ground level that does not branch out until several feet above ground. This creates a tunnel at ground level that predators can maneuver through easily.

 

Wild plum provides the right kind of cover for bobwhites

Wild plum provides the right kind of cover for bobwhites

If you ever get a chance, compare a native clump of wild plum to a row or two of planted non-native Autumn Olive and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll have to get down on your hands and knees and get some dirt on your pants to take a look and truly understand this concept. When planting shrubs of any kind for quail, make sure and plant them close together but staggered, and avoid creating “tunnels of death” for bobwhites.

3)      Focus on the basics: From time to time there will be a flashy “new” college football program that finds a niche in piling up points and developing a playbook about five chapters too long. You’ll notice them for a while, then they’ll fall off the charts faster than a “one hit wonder” country singer. Flash is useless unless you have the basics down cold.

Application to quail management: You will see a lot of fancy seed mixes, new quail stocking techniques guaranteed to work, new brands of larger pen-raised quail (in Colonel Sander’s language – “a family fill-up” for a predator) with the promise of being more “hardy” and other such “snake oil.” It’s OK to try new things. Some supplementation with food plots, or seeding to increase low native plant diversity may be needed, and some use of released quail to supplement and encourage quail hunting is fine, but the backbone of wild quail recovery should be the habitat basics.

4)      Don’t overlook things that might at first seem unimportant: Frank Beamer’s brand of football came to be known as “Beamerball” in part because of his focus on special teams, something some programs may overlook at times. He realized that special teams are part of the basics. A blocked punt here, a snubbed kick there, a punt returned for a score…these things win close games.

Indigobush Hedgerow

Indigobush Hedgerow

Application to quail management: Be honest with yourself about all aspects of your management program. Have you done your special teams work? Did you spot spray those thickets where taller trees were beginning to take over? Did you renovate those thickets where fescue was creeping back in? Do you really have enough bare dirt under your field vegetation? Can you really do without that hedgerow out in the field?                                                                                                                                                                       

In a nutshell: Good quail defense equals great thicket cover, good quail offense equals lots of brood –rearing and nesting cover, and quail special teams equals paying attention to detail. I’ll end by simply saying “Thank you, Frank Beamer, for showing the whole country what a humble but confident and determined ‘mountain boy’ from Southwest Virginia can accomplish with enthusiasm, loyalty and dedication to teamwork.”

And for those of us from Southwest Virginia, thanks for saving us a lot time in having to explain that anymore.

*Beamerball

During Beamer’s tenure at Virginia Tech, putting points on the scoreboard became a full team effort with the offensive, defensive and special teams units. Often when the team scores one or more non-offensive touchdowns, the style of play is described as “Beamerball.” Since Beamer’s first season in 1987, a player at every position on the defensive unit has scored at least one touchdown, and 35 different players have scored touchdowns on Virginia Tech’s special teams.

–Wikipedia

 

For more information about Frank, visit these locations on the web:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Beamer

http://www.hokiesports.com/staff/beamer.html

January 6, 2016

Shell’s Covert: ‘Tis the Season

In this modern era we live in I admit to not being able to keep up with communications. As small game project leader for VDGIF I get a lot of messages every day, dozens by e-mail  – some good and some bad. As an aside, though our communications methods may be quick, we need to all remember (me especially) there is a person on the other end of the note and a phone call, or meeting in person is always best.

FlushingQuail_Dog_Hunter_CROPPED_RESIZED  
   

A topic that has caused me to receive some “forceful” commentary lately is that of the quail season and bag limit. As many of you know, we (VDGIF) still allow quail hunting statewide with a bag limit of six per day. Many of you also know we have been working on a quail recovery initiative for many years now. We are doing that because across their range (in all 25 states of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative) quail continue to decline, markedly in some places. So why then do we still allow quail hunting?

“Geeze…you had to ask me that question again,” I may mumble to myself (because I struggle with the issue personally and it is not easy to answer). Every two years VDGIF takes public input on our game laws. (Essentially we always take public input, but this is officially for regulations).  A series of committees composed of agency staff considers each and every comment. This does not mean each one is acted on or becomes a change. It does mean that they are all taken seriously. These committees debate and eventually make staff recommendations to our Board of Directors. The Board ultimately decides, after considering input from all parties involved, what changes are made.

OK, back to quail. I have been with VDGIF for 19 years and for the last 7 years have been the small game co-project leader. This is the 4th regulations cycle that I will have overseen for small game. Our small game team will again debate the issue of the quail season and bag limit. Each time in the past we have concluded that changes would make no biological difference to quail populations. Let’s look at why before we discuss sociological reasons for changing or not.

To a large degree quail hunting pressure is self-regulating. Where quail populations are low, quail hunting effort is low to non-existent. Generally speaking, as you move from east to west in Virginia, the quail population declines. Our hunter surveys show that there are about 9,000 quail hunters in Virginia (down from a high of 143,000 in 1973), but this includes incidental quail hunters who may see quail while hunting other species. To the best of our ability to determine it there are fewer than 500 avid quail hunters left in our state, and most of them can be found in the East where quail populations still produce some good hunting (some hunters finding over 100 unique coveys in a season). Avid quail hunters tend to also be avid quail conservationists. This means that they do not shoot coveys down below eight quail, and they don’t hunt them until dark. They’ll quit early enough to allow the coveys to regroup for roosting. They, more than anyone else, recognize the plight of the bobwhite.

Quail are also what biologists call R-selected species. This means they live short lives, suffer high mortality annually and have the ability to recover quickly in suitable habitat. Most quail populations, even in an un-hunted environment, suffer 80% or greater mortality annually. It is generally accepted among quail biologists that a population can suffer 20% to 40% hunting mortality without long term negative population consequences. However, it has been shown that not all quail mortality is created equal. The closer to spring a quail lives, the greater its chances of producing little quail. Studies have shown that late winter mortality (February and beyond) has more of an effect on the population than earlier mortality. This is why Virginia closes our quail season at the end of January, while other states seasons remain open through February and into March in some cases.

It is agreed among wildlife professionals that hunting is not the cause of the bobwhite quail decline and eliminating hunting will not bring them back (and reducing bag limits would have no affect at all). If we look at ruffed grouse for example, the season was closed in Virginia east of I-95. This was done primarily because restocking efforts were attempted there that ultimately failed. Though the grouse season has been closed east of I-95 for decades, grouse have not recovered there. We also note populations of many non-hunted species that use similar habitats to bobwhites are declining, too. Birds likes grasshopper sparrows, Bachman’s sparrows, prairie warblers, field sparrows, along with numerous pollinating insects, are declining primarily because of habitat loss (other factors contribute, but not hunting).

We try to base our recommendations on science to the extent possible, but there are social aspects that factor into decisions – we are humans after all. One reason we have hesitated to close the quail season in parts of the state where populations are low is that we feared it would send the wrong message. By closing the season the general public may be led to think hunting is the cause of the decline. So why close a season when we know it will have no impact on the population at all and may send the wrong message? You hopefully can now see the decision is not as simple as you might have thought.

But what about sending the right message? Should we close portions of our season to demonstrate the dire straits quail are in throughout much of Virginia? Would closing the season finally get that message out? Should we consider closing or reducing the season in central Virginia, where pockets of good quail numbers remain, but where much of the area has low quail populations? Should we consider imposing a daily time cut-off like many western states do (many end all bird hunting at 4:00 p.m.)?

Our team will consider all these scenarios again in the coming months. I personally would like to think that bird hunters are special, of high ethics, and more regulations would do little to assuage the bobwhite’s plight. As a bird hunter you need to ask yourself, “Just because I can legally kill six quail, should I?” I also hope each of you, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with our logic or the results, keep in mind, we have the best intentions at heart and we do not take these things lightly.

Lastly, Merry Christmas to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: The Great October Quail Covey Count

We need your help.

Our team hopes you will join us on the first annual Virginia “Great October Quail Covey Count.” You can solicit your neighbors’ help, too. As the saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, involve me and I learn.” By mid-October, most quail coveys have formed after going through what biologists call the “fall shuffle.” Late summer and early fall is a period of great flux among quail. They move about a great deal, groups form, then break up, and re-form with new members, and mixing and matching is the name of the genetic diversity game. But by the cool days of mid-October, they start to settle into their winter units we all know and love – coveys. And it is during this time that quite a bit of fall “covey calling” occurs…as coveys settle into a range and let other coveys know their whereabouts. This makes it the perfect time to get an estimate of your population.

Tall Timbers Research Station, along with many partners, pioneered the method beginning in the late 1990s and it has grown in use since then. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative has adopted the fall covey count as one of several surveys they and member states are using to monitor quail for the NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program. (You can find out more about the method on the Tall Timbers website (http://talltimbers.org/how-many-bobwhite-coveys-are-there/ ). We hope you will spend some time on this site.)

 The method is very simple, but logistical complexity increases with property size. The larger your property, the more observers you will need, or the more mornings you will need to conduct point counts on your own. But don’t get bogged down in complexities. For our purposes this year we want to keep it simple. As you read through the method description on the TTRS website, you’ll come to a section that shows some crazy looking formulas – don’t sweat those, all we want you to do is count coveys and report the number heard per point to us. We will do the rest and we’ll give you an approximate assessment of your population. The main thing is, it is fun to go out on a crisp, frosty morning and “see what you hear.” About every time I go, something interesting happens.

All you really need to do is get to your listening post 45 minutes before sunrise and listen for calling quail coveys until sunrise. Studies have shown that most calling occurs between 18 and 22 minutes before sunrise, but it varies. Getting there a few minutes before peak insures coveys have time to settle down and you don’t miss any calling. Never heard a covey call? Many have not, but on the TTRS website there is a playable MP3 file. You can also visit the Cornell University Ornithology Lab website (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Bobwhite/sounds ) and listen to the “Hoyee-like” call.

Setting up your listening point, or points, is fairly simple. Most of us can hear a quail covey for about 500 yards, so if you have a small property, a few hundred acres or less, one or two points may be all you need. It is best to use an aerial photograph, or map of your property, along with your knowledge of the land to set up points. Try to minimize listening area overlap where possible.

 If you believe you have a low density of quail, it may also help to use a stimulator call. I use an old “boom box” with a tape of the covey call. If I do not hear coveys calling on their own by about 15 minutes before sunrise, I play the call loudly and listen for responses. Some quail hunters I know can make the call reliably with their own whistling. Hey, whatever works! If you have a high density of quail, one covey calling will stimulate the rest to call and stimulators are not necessary.

But this year, just go out and listen and have fun, don’t stress over details unless you really like details. We’ll make our survey period this year October 15th through 31st. If you have help you can do multiple points in one day, or if going it alone, do as many as are needed at different points during that time period. Report your results to me by a simple e-mail stating: date, county, number of acres covered, number of points surveyed, and number of quail coveys heard per point.

For example – you survey three points – you hear 1 covey at one point, none at another and 4 at the third point – That’s 5 coveys divided by 3 points, or 1.7 per point. If you have a large property and get help from your family or friends, tally up the results from all points surveyed by everyone. Or, to keep it simple, just send in the number of coveys heard and the number of points surveyed, we’ll figure out coveys per point.

Also, it is critical we get reports even if no coveys are heard. This is important. If you conduct a count and don’t hear any, send that report in, too, and don’t despair. Keep working on the habitat. We have an increasing number of cases where folks are doing the habitat work and quail are showing up. Remember, keep it simple, make it fun, be a part of Virginia’s first annual “Great October Quail Covey Count.” Send reports to: marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov.

Oct. 5, 2015

Shell’s Covert: A Great Group of People Virginia is Lucky to Have

I am trying to sit here and reflect back on the year in human terms. Trying to take stock and put into words so many intangible things that we do not report, so many things that are hard to put numbers on, and trying to figure out how I report on the human spirit.

You see we have a team of people that are self-motivated to do a great job. Our team of five private lands wildlife biologists routinely challenges themselves to learn more and improve our program. No one made anyone develop a Facebook page, they took that upon themselves. No one required them to re-work our quail web page, they saw the need and did it. No one made one of them try radio advertising as an outreach tool, but he did. No one forced them to become plant identification experts, or cost-share program gurus, it was simply in their DNA to strive to be better and to help each other along the way.

That is what I would call a team. And all we have done to help is foster an atmosphere that encourages initiative. We have tried to give them the tools and equipment they need to succeed. And we have tried not to stand in their way when ideas develop. We have encouraged each one of them to excel in the areas in which they wish to excel.

As time has passed, we have also started developing training opportunities that go beyond the basics for them. This year our quail team, along with several  Ft. Pickett natural

Team 9-2014 5 years plus_RESIZED  
   

resources staff, spent  nearly an entire day in the field with Dr. Theron Terhune – Game Bird Research Program Leader at Tall Timbers Research Station. Theron was nice enough to spend hours with us touring the habitat on Ft. Pickett and answering questions and sharing his knowledge. It is hard to put a price tag on that experience. Thanks, Theron!

We also spent a day with VDGIF’s long-time forester, Kent Burtner. Kent was kind enough to drive down from Verona on a very hot May afternoon and teach our team all about cruising timber. For the uninitiated, that does not mean driving a log with wheels and power steering. Cruising timber is how foresters estimate the value and volume of a timber stand. It is critical to properly marketing a timber tract. Why is this important to our quail team? Most landowners we work with have timber of some kind and our team needs to be able to “talk the talk and walk the walk.” It is part of credibility and being able to relate to landowners. If you show up on a property and you don’t know what “board feet” is, or how trees per acre relates to basal area, that landowner may look at you and wonder if you really know anything about quail, either.

The team also spent two days on a specially arranged trip to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to visit with Dr. Pat Keyser, and his team at the Center for Native Grasslands Management. Dr. Keyser has done a ton of work with native grasses on working landscapes. How can we integrate cattle and quail? His research is showing that moderate levels of cattle grazing, even during the primary nesting season, actually improves native grass stands for quail and some songbirds. Left to their own devices, many native grass stands become too thick for bobwhites. What better way to manage them than a method that puts pounds on steers at the same time? Our team is out front on issues like these.

We’ve also stepped up to lead by example at the national level. Seven of our team members participated in the 21st National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Galloway, New Jersey this August. Participated is the key word because we never simply “attend.” For many years Virginia has held leadership positions on the steering committee of NBTC. That continues. This year one of our team members stepped up to become vice-chair of the Outreach Subcommittee (to become chair in two years), and another now serves as chair of the Research Subcommittee and continues to play a key role in the implementation of NBCI’s Coordinated Focal Area Program. I have one more year as past-chair and that will wrap up a six-year term for me that began in 2010. All our team members play active roles on NBTC committees. And team member Bob Glennon was presented the NBCI National Firebird Conservation Award for Virginia this year for his never-ending energy in teaching and mentoring us all.

Where am I going with all this? Not much further. I hope the point is well taken. You can’t compare Virginia’s habitat potential to states like Texas, Georgia, or Florida. That’d be like trying to compare taste between a Georgia Peach and a Virginia Honey Crisp apple. Virginia is Virginia and we are doing our best and always striving to improve. We are proud of our team and of what we have done.

 

September 14, 2015

Shell’s Covert: Quail in Jersey? You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me!

We just returned from the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting in Galloway, New Jersey (Thanks Andrew, Jimmy and Joe!!). No, that’s not a mistake. New Jersey.

I learned a lot about the Garden State on our visit. Some facts that might surprise you … New Jersey is one of the most wildlife and habitat diverse states in the lower 48. Habitats there range from coastal plains, wetlands and peat bogs (they are huge producer of cranberries), to upland pine “barrens” and hardwood covered mountains.  Cape May New Jersey is known as one of the east coast’s bird watching hotspots. New Jersey also has the densest human and black bear populations in the country and those two ingredients often don’t mix well. And one other thing, in spite of the New Jersey clichés brought on by TV shows The Sopranos and Jersey Shore, you can still find remote areas where quail may thrive again.

This brings me to the efforts ongoing in New Jersey, and it also provides a chance to consider “context” as it relates to quail recovery. We’ve all listened to politicians or TV stars bemoan the misuse of quotes attributed to them. They state, “The words were taken completely out of context.” And we all understand what that means. Clipping a few words out of a three-page statement and using them as an independent quote can relay a totally different meaning than if the words were read within the complete statement.

Simple enough, right? A concept harder for many to grasp is how the landscape context relates to a particular parcel of land’s ability to sustain a quail population.

For example, you own 100 acres of land that you plan to manage expertly for the bobwhite. Your results will vary depending on the landscape context within which your acreage lies. Having 100 acres surrounded by a mixture of row crop farmland, active timber management sites and dozens of other conservation projects suggest that you will have a high degree of success in your quail management.

Those same acres sitting as an island in a sea of mature hardwood forest and fescue pasture will not net you the same return.

Does this mean you should give up in those settings? Not if you are willing to work with neighbors and build landowner cooperatives to package acres into what we have termed a quail quilt, and what the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative deems a focal area.

The NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program is designed to allow multiple states to build focal areas and document success on a wide scale. The basic focal area unit is a 10-square-mile area (6,000 acres approximately) and within that area 25% of the landscape should be useable by bobwhites (1,500 acres). These numbers were derived after much research and debate, and they should be encouraging to all landowners, because with good local leadership you can work to build your own bobwhite conservation area.

New Jersey has one such area under development now. A large corporate landowner (a cranberry producer) set aside 17,000 acres of their lands in central New Jersey and has created quality bobwhite habitat by intensive pine thinning and burning. The landowner is also working with New Jersey Audubon, the New Jersey Division of Wildlife and Tall Timbers Research Station, which is providing habitat assessment expertise as well as trapped and transferred wild bobwhites. That’s right, in the area under study, no remaining wild quail exists to repopulate the area, hence the introduction of wild bobwhites from north Florida.

We are considering developing a similar program in Virginia for landowners in areas where quail have been largely extirpated. Where local leaders can build effective cooperatives and create habitat of sufficient quality and scale, we will consider bringing in trapped and transferred wild bobwhites. The program is under development and requirements will be stringent, as they have been in other states like Georgia and South Carolina. But perhaps this will be the impetus needed to encourage landowners in areas without bobwhites to build the quail quilts needed to developed source quail populations in their areas.

It will take us year or two to work out the details and get the necessary infrastructure in place. The rest is up to you, the private landowner. In Georgia, after nine years of efforts, six properties have been successful and there are nine other properties in six states with projects under development. We’d like to add Virginia to that list.

Last note – we want to congratulate Bob Glennon, one of our five private lands wildlife biologists for being presented the NBCI’s National Fire Bird Conservation  Award for Virginia this year. Bob is a retired NRCS program manager with a lifetime of conservation work behind him. He shows no signs of slowing down and he was presented the award for his mentorship and patient teaching of our team. His knowledge of plants is unparalleled. Great work Bob!