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!

Shell’s Covert: Can’t See the Quail for the Feathers?

DSCF2419_feathers close up  
   

 

Recently, a small group of gamebird oriented non-governmental organizations, along with several Game and Inland Fisheries staff, met on a Saturday afternoon in Farmville. The meeting stemmed from a conversation between me and a Ruffed Grouse Society member all the way back at our national quail meeting in Roanoke in summer 2013.

The entire theme of that meeting was overlap – in mission, in habitat needs, in outreach, in communication, in audience, etc. between various conservation entities desiring more early-successional habitats. Early-successional habitat equals thickets, weeds, wild flowers, brush, native grasses and young forests. Our hope was that the many entities recognizing the need for such habitats could work together towards a unified, simple, direct and effective message promoting and encouraging cooperative efforts to create what we all want – more habitat to support the respective critters we want to see more of.

Take note of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or the National Soybean Checkoff – both national advertising campaigns that don’t focus on the type of cow, or soybean, but rather on the common needs of them all. Our wildlife community lags behind many other entities in effective marketing. One reason is lack of funds. But that is not the only reason. I fear all too often we are guilty of not being able to see the quail for all the feathers, which is a weak attempt at humor and a re-statement of the proverbial “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

If you have read this blog over the years (yes, going on 5 years now) you have noticed that though it is on a quail website, and I am a quail oriented biologist, many of my posts have not been about quail. First, even as much as I love quail, I can’t write about them exclusively. But more importantly, I long ago recognized the importance of partnering and collaborative efforts. I also believe that as a community we tend to be small when divided into respective interests and it will only be through unified messaging that we will be able to affect the types of attitude changes necessary to bring about landscape level habitat recovery.

Many years ago while working as a private lands biologist with DGIF’s quail program, I had a couple of years of experience under my belt promoting quail habitat. One day while in Halifax County around lunchtime I developed a craving for country cooking. I stopped at Ernie’s Restaurant, an iconic mecca of deep fried southern food at the time. Upon exiting the buffet line I spied two Natural Resource Conservation Service employees sitting at a table. They spotted me and invited me to sit down and eat with them. Most of us eat on the road from a bag, but every now and then it is nice to actually sit down, eat and enjoy a conversation.

Our talk gravitated towards quail, and I expressed my frustrations in not understanding why more landowners were not interested in creating quail habitat. Mr. Eugene Morris, NRCS District Conservationist at the time cleared his throat in preparation to speak. Eugene was and is a man not prone to wasting words or beating around the proverbial bush. Mr. Morris stated in the eloquent Southside accent I have come to love (notwithstanding my mountain roots) “Marc, I hate to hit you in the forehead with a hammer, but most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking about wildlife, much less quail.”

I guess I must have looked a bit like a quail in the “headlights” of a fox, as I stopped chewing my chicken for a few seconds.  It took that message a few years to sink in. As devoted conservationists we each like to believe that there are masses of humanity out there longing to help our species if only they had the information and funding available to them. But the truth is when you divide us all up into our respective favorites – that is just not the case. There simply are not enough grouse, woodcock, quail, golden-winged warbler, honey bee, monarch, and regal-fritillary butterfly people in any one category to move the needle. That is my belief. You may disagree. I believe deeply that until we figure out how to unite better in our message and marketing, we’ll continue to fail divided. The “masses” out there tend to understand the value of mature forests. They are becoming better at understanding the value of wetlands. They lag far, far behind in coming to value what many still see as unsightly cut-overs, or brush in need of mowing.

The Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (of which VDGIF is a part), in conjunction with the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Wildlife Management Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell University, the Nature Conservancy, Woodcock Unlimited, UP Wildlife Habitat Fund, and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve developed the Young Forest Initiative (I may not have them all listed, my apologies – as the YFI varies by region). This initiative is the best I have seen so far in terms of a united message about the value of young forests.

I hope we’ll take this concept a step further – is it time for a Young Habitats Initiative? Y-HI? As lovers of early-successional habitats, one thing we continue to struggle with is what to call our habitats that might resonate with more people. What I struggle with is how to connect the dots between weedy fields and continued human existence on this planet. I believe those connections exist, but most days, even for me, the next vet bill, or my daughter’s school tuition takes precedence.

We’ll keep plugging – one thing I learned in various leadership training events, more than charisma, more than flash, more than raw ability, more than being able to speak eloquently, there is no substitute for long-term, dogged determination.

Shell’s Covert: A Tribute to ‘Old Number 271’

I won’t tell you who Old Number 271 is, other than that he is still out there and a finer gentleman you will never meet. His number, 271, was assigned as he became one of our very first quail hunter cooperators back in the late 1970s. And he dedicated large portions of his life working on behalf of quail and quail hunters throughout our state. Yesterday I noticed one of my quail cooperator envelopes had come in abnormally late. I could tell no wings were in it, which is not uncommon now, but I opened it anyway because sometimes I get a letter (and not always with kind words). The letter was dated May 15, 2015 and this is it verbatim:

Dear Marc,

It’s a rainy day and I’m trying to use it to catch up on things. I’m going through stuff that’s been piling up on my desk, such as the envelope I’m just now returning. The wing survey form that was enclosed is not returning nor has it been needed for several years.

I guess it’s time for old number 271 to be retired. I thought you might want to purge your records. I think 271 outlasted all prior numbers by several years. I guess I lasted so long because hunting quail was just too much fun to give up just because their numbers had dropped off a little from when I signed on in 1977.

While a little sad to think I may not be hunting quail again, I had some wonderful years in the 70s and 80s, when I didn’t kill a lot of birds but certainly found plenty to shoot at. Lots of memories to enjoy.  Lots of good dogs. Not perfect but good.

And, by my profound interest in quail, lots of opportunity came my way aside from hunting. Meeting and working with like-minded individuals. The chance to preach occasionally on behalf of bobwhites and their unique needs. I owe that little bird a lot and have for a long time.

Best success to you in your determined and ever continuing efforts.

Old Number 271

Well…I sat and reflected on this note for quite a while. I have been personally involved in quail recovery since I started reading the quail literature back in 1992 … 15 years after Old Number 271 became a quail wing cooperator for VDGIF. I count myself lucky in having the opportunity to work with him for several years before he retired. I learned a lot about quail from Old Number 271, but more than anything else I learned how much a person can love these birds…just for the splendid creatures they are.

A couple things you will not notice in Old Number 271’s letter: 1) there is no bitterness, or lamenting about why we can’t seem to reverse this quail decline, 2) no quitting either, in the belief that they can come back…”Best success to you in your determined and ever continuing efforts.”

I wrote back to 271 in an e-mail. I admit to not having many words  I thought might matter, but just wanted to say thanks. I also wrote in an effort to encourage myself … as I have seen many venerable old bird hunters fade away like the mist over a trout stream on an early May morning. I think many of us suffer from years of “winning some battles but losing the war.” And those few that age does not overtake, illness does.

Old 271’s letter made me think about all the people like him who have done all they can do for the bobwhite. I asked in the note, “I wonder how bad things would be now if no one had ever done anything for them?”

And I wondered to myself where we’d be without the 1985 Farm Bill which at long last brought the word “wildlife” into the farm conservation language.

And the subsequent 1996 Farm Bill that made wildlife an equal partner with soil and water conservation in USDA programs.

And the advent of the Southeast Quail Study Group in 1995 (now the 25 state National Bobwhite Technical Committee), and the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) and all the non-governmental organizations like Quail Forever, the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Quail Coalition, the National Wild Turkey Federation, now involved in quail recovery and more.

And I wondered about where we’d be without all the thousands of research hours and millions of dollars spent on behalf of bobwhites by so many storied quail research entities. I could go on, but I reckon my message to myself and any listening is that some may think we have not worked hard for quail, that we have not tried everything we could, but all those things did not happen by accident. Had none of us ever done anything, had there been no Old Number 271s, no one to care, we’d be far worse off today.

I am encouraged by the many exciting things I see happening not just for quail, but for pollinators, songbirds and habitats themselves. Old Number 271 carried the torch, and I believe there is a new generation coming along to keep it lit until its light falls on the bobwhite’s recovery. Those carrying the torch may not be cut from the exact cloth of Old Number 271, but they are right- minded conservationists. Lastly, thanks to Old Number 271 and all those like him who have steadfastly refused to give up on quail.

Shell’s Covert: “The Butterfly that saved the bee that saved the bobwhite?”

My daughter and I were out in our yard last week playing with our dogs and enjoying the sunny afternoon. I spotted a tiger swallowtail perched on our lilac bush nectaring. Grace asked, “Can I try to touch it?” I replied “Well…it probably won’t hold still long enough, but you can try. You have to be very careful as the pretty colors are actually scales that rub off easily.” She approached softly and slowly raised her hand with one finger out and touched the butterfly…and it just sat there nectaring without regard. It must have known somehow she was a kid who meant no harm. It eventually flew off unfazed. I did not have a camera. I hope that memory lasts a long time for both of us.

That butterfly captured her imagination in a way most other animals can’t. Its coloration, approachability, beauty and charisma were all right there at her fingertips. I have struggled for two decades trying to find out what it takes to create enough spark and interest in early-succession habitat – thickets, weeds, wildflowers and native grasses – to have a habitat renaissance catch fire and burn like a rank field of broom straw in March (and then burn long like a bag of charcoal).                                                                                     

 
   

 

This brings me to the story of the Monarch butterfly. A story of more fascination I challenge any of the best fiction writers to top. At first glance they appear to be delicate sky jewels, flitting about rapidly if we are lucky enough to see one. An investigation into their life cycle will reveal an organism that is anything but delicate. I urge you to do a search of your own on their life cycle. One fascinating aspect of Monarch ecology is their migration to wintering grounds, in some cases exceeding 3,000 miles.That alone would be drama enough for most of us. Imagine trying to travel that distance through rainstorms, high winds, and other natural conflagrations – it is hard enough in a car, much less in the tiny package we call a Monarch. But this is only one part of their amazing life. You see, it is the fourth generation, typically, that does the fall migration back to Mexico, California and other wintering areas. Those that make the fall trip and successfully overwinter, then take flight in spring heading north into the vastness of Texas and other areas. That part is not so hard to understand. They flew down that way in fall and now they fly back in spring. But they must continue north and continue to breed because those that arrive and breed first, their offspring are not the ones that return to overwinter. It takes several more generations to insure the last one has the longevity to return to Mexico, overwinter and then fly north and breed the following spring.

My mind had to rest on that thought for some time before I could truly grasp its meaning. In terms of salmon, most of us know they are spawned in the headwaters of cold streams. They leave those streams and go out into the ocean for sometimes a few years, then return to their headwaters to spawn themselves. A striking journey in its own right, it still only spans one generation. The same generation that left the stream came back. The Monarch life cycle spans four generations. How does that last generation know to return to Mexico? How do they know how to get there? And how do they then know to return north in spring? I have to think more is at work than pure genetics.

As we know, unfortunately their populations have declined steeply in the last few decades; as have many other pollinating insects, most notably many of our native bees. With regards to Monarchs, declines in milkweed (asclepias sp.) plants have contributed greatly to this crash. Monarchs have another interesting aspect in their ecology – they lay their eggs on milkweed because their larvae after hatching must feed on milkweed to store energy enough to develop into pupae which is the chrysalis stage of their four stage true metamorphosis – egg, larvae, pupae, and adult. And while milkweed is the main theme of the story the public has gotten, there is much more to Monarch habitat. It turns out that native bees, butterflies and bobwhites share one thing in common … many of them need diverse early-succession habitat to survive. Many of the same things we prescribe for creating and maintaining bobwhite cover like prescribed burning and rotational disking, also provide for an enormous number of pollinating insects.These critters need flowering plants available for nectar throughout the entire warm season.

Our DGIF staff has done quite a bit of prescribed burning this spring on some of our wildlife management areas. Over the last month I have spent a great deal of time getting photographs of some of these burned areas. It is amazing how rapidly the vegetation greens up after prescribed fire. Two weeks ago, while photographing in an old field we’d burned off to rejuvenate it, I saw two pairs of zebra swallowtails, heard at least four different gobblers thundering, heard one quail covey giving their morning covey call, and saw too many types of songbirds to name.

What does it takes to ignite enough interest in these habitats to make a difference? Maybe the Monarch is the butterfly that will save the bee that might save the bobwhite?

Thoughts?

May 4, 2015

Shell’s Covert: Par for the Quail Course

I used to golf. Trouble is, I love the game but hate crowds, especially on weekends when I am trying to recreate. Thus many years ago I gave up the gaudy pants, fancy shoes and expensive sticks, for…well…gaudy dry flies, fancy waders and other expensive sticks. Back a few years ago a development entity locally was building a new golf course right here in the heart of central Virginia. I passed the entrance to this new promised-land for iron wielding, golf cart racing, Bubba Watson “wannabes” daily on my way to work. It was all the talk of the local and slightly intoxicated “19th hole” crowd.

Shortly after the grand opening, I began getting phone calls, several every week about all the bobwhite quail that were being seen and heard around the new links. I had lived here long enough for people to actually believe there is such a thing as a quail biologist, and not only that, to have made enough of them aware of the plight of these special birds that they knew I’d appreciate any stories of quail success. They were all amazed that quail were attracted to golf courses. After all, I had told them repeatedly how quail needed rough areas, weeds, thickets, wildflowers and brambles and basically how quail hated “clean.” Many went on to describe how great the new course was but lamented, “Man, stay out of the rough though, I ripped a new pair of tweeds to shreds going after a lost ball last weekend.” Or, “This new course is like playing those old Scottish links, the rough is unreal.”

Generally a bit slow on the uptake, even I was quick to realize what was afoot around the new green ribbons of golfing glory. And sadly just as quick to realize how short-lived this new quail kingdom would be. I knew it would not be long until the regulars, who golfed here and not on the PGA tour for a reason, would grow tired of losing expensive golf balls in that rough. I don’t see how anyone without a sponsor can afford to play golf. And speaking of sponsors, I knew it also would not be long until those paying for signage around the links would demand that the unsightly weedy mess be cleaned up – as if God himself had no clue what kinds of plants should inhabit earth.

One day after work I took a drive down around the place. As you might imagine, when building a golf course from scratch, it takes quite a bit of heavy equipment. Dirt piles overgrown with ragweed abounded (some topped with clay covered golf balls). Brier thickets covered all the scarred areas, and broomstraw covered what had previously been fescue pasture. In short, quite inadvertently, and right here in the 21st century, a quail playground was created in a most unlikely place. I never got around to calculating by GIS exactly how many acres of quail cover had been accidentally established, but I suspect it was less than 10% of the total landscape encompassed by the fairways. You see, arrangement and distribution of cover has almost as much to do with quail habitat as does total acreage.

Within a year or two those calls stopped coming in. Upon driving by now, all that remains of that beautiful native cover are a few clumps of broomstraw poking up through the fescue, about as effective as a few hairs sticking up on a bald man’s scalp (Bald is Bold, Baby – I’m bald, I can joke about it). Occasionally I get a call that goes like this, “Man, there were quail out here a couple years ago like crazy, I almost hit one with a 5-wood out on number 6 (I did not know how to yell Foooouuouuuuurrrrr! In quail-ease), I don’t know what happened to them.” And so it goes – ah yes, maybe it’s predators, or some disease, or a parasite?

Take home lessons – quail can and do re-populate an area quickly when there is enough cover in the right distribution as long as there is seed stock (a few other quail) within a few miles. It is not overly difficult to create quail cover, but keeping it around is harder. There are challenges such as “How do we create good quail cover without increasing soil erosion, or decreasing water quality?” We can answer those kinds of questions, but the one I have the hardest time with is “How do we get enough people to care about quail and quail cover to make a difference?” When we live in a country where barely 40% of eligible voters make an effort to be involved, there are bigger issues at play.

Next month’s post: “The butterfly that saved the bee that saved the bobwhite.”

 

March 30, 2015

Shell’s Covert: Rediscovering Discovery

I was talking with a colleague this morning discussing youth hunter recruitment and how difficult it is given all the things kids and their parents are now involved in. Just to get a commitment for a one day hunt, or even part of a day, is difficult. Where does that hunting spark come from? What makes a kid burn with desire to go afield? I know when I was a kid some of my earliest memories were of my dad returning home with game. I can still vividly picture a big greenhead mallard he pressed into the window of our front door, when I was four or five, as I gazed at it in awe. But it was more than that, and exactly what I am not sure.

Regardless whether your kid ever hunts or fishes, I hope you somehow manage to kindle their interest in the outdoors. Without that basic curiosity towards nature, there is little likelihood a child will ever grow into a conservationist. I hope you help your kid find a way to rediscover discovery. You just might have fun yourself.

My daughter and I have worked together on her school science project now for the past 3 years. As we scanned the internet looking at page after page of age appropriate science projects for this year’s assignment, nothing really spoke to us. Last year we did the “floating egg” experiment, where we tested the buoyancy of water. As we added salt, low-and-behold the egg that sank in freshwater now floated. Her thoughts may have been, “OK Dad, my choices for fun are, play cool video games, or watch an egg float in water.” One of the biggest challenges any parent faces is how to make things productive, but also fun.

I gave up on the internet projects this year. I put my own meager brain to use. What might be easy, involve nature andMarch Image_resized be fun? “What do you think about testing to see which seeds in a bag of store bought bird food the birds actually prefer?” I asked Grace.  She thought it was “cool.” Most store bought bird seed is comprised of millet, milo, sunflower and cracked corn. Some contain wheat, barley, or a few other seeds, but your standard bag of bird seed is not a sack of gourmet bird food.

Daddy’s bright idea was to get a sifter and separate the seeds…which did not work at all, and we had a ton of fun laughing at my stupidity. I ended up buying the four basic seed types separately. We then had a great time building a 4-chambered tray to put the different seeds in. Nothing hi-tech, we use plywood and some 1’ x 2” stripping pine to make our testing device.

My daughter, wife and daughter’s science teacher all had worries about “how will you know whether squirrels ate the seed? How will you control for seed being blown out by wind? Will you weigh the seed each morning and evening, etc.?” I explained to them all – this is an observational experiment. It will require Grace to sit and watch the birds feed during peak feeding times and record what seed they choose. Thus Daddy is not as stupid as many would like to believe (though my life does have a Forrest Gump quality).

I actively involved my daughter in observing birds. At the same time I eliminated all the potential biases associated with a non-observational experiment. If a squirrel comes along, we’ll shoo him away. And we won’t worry about times, if Grace watches for 10, 20 or 30 minutes over several days – it does not matter because in the end we will have the total number of each variety of seed chosen by type of bird, and collectively.

Some of our results: sunflower was chosen 286 times, millet 26 times, milo 23 times and cracked corn 27 times. The most common choosers of sunflower were the tufted titmouse and the chickadee. We can unequivocally say tufted titmice and chickadees prefer sunflower. Juncos fed on the ground almost exclusively and visited the tray only 2 or 3 times. Doves also fed exclusively on the ground. Cardinals preferred to feed from our bird feeder which was close by, but began to visit the tray once they got used to it. The towhees were the last to show up. They only began using the feed we put out after it snowed. We also found that Cardinals eat sunflower seed by taking the entire seed inside their bill, then spitting out the hulls, but the chickadees and titmice have to grasp the sunflower with their feet and peck out the seed inside. Thus cardinals can eat sunflower a lot faster than other birds. Interesting also was that blue jays, while a large bird, do not have a beak adapted to take in the seed like a cardinal. They, too, had to hold the sunflower seeds and peck them open. The chickadees would pick the seed up and fly to a nearby tree to eat it. The titmice would as often as not, simply peck it open right on the edge of the tray – all this from one simple experiment.

Seed for further study…we wondered how far away birds would come to a feeder? We observed them flying in from a distance of well over a hundred yards. Maybe this study has been done? Regardless, I hope I sparked in my daughter the seeds of a conservationist. Today, songbirds, tomorrow, who knows? But it has to start somewhere.

Shell’s Covert: Ring of Fire

????????????????????????????????????

There is a primordial link that modern humans cannot escape when we stand near the ocean and look at its vastness and taste the salty sea breezes. Likewise, I feel that same connection when sitting near a campfire. There’s just something about fire and smoke … and the visions and memories they evoke. Transcending time, apparitions of faces, echoes of voices telling stories all rise like the smoke, then waft away quickly on the evening breeze. I can see friends in the flames appearing as they looked 25 years ago.

I built a nice big fire ring in the northern portion of my backyard out of “found” rocks. I don’t have to camp to have a fire now. I feel no guilt in burning wood I cut with my own hands from time-to-time for the sheer joy of it. As I sat by the fire a few nights back, I watched the small pile of wood I brought up from the barn disappear rapidly. The colder it got the more I poured on the red oak. Within three hours what I thought would have lasted most of the night was nearly gone (and so was the drink I sipped on).

Much as I try to forget work on weekends, a bobwhite quail flew up out of the fire and into my thoughts. In the east, the father of modern quail management Herbert Stoddard called the bobwhite the “fire bird” in his classic “The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation and Increase” back in the late 1920s. It has been postulated to me by several biologists over the past year that perhaps we were working very hard to restore bobwhite quail to a landscape where they were never abundant pre-European settlement. After all, the tendency in the east for land left to its own devices is to become mature forest.

I agreed to a point with these colleagues, but as I sat by my fire I imagined Native American villages, perhaps consisting of dozens, sometimes hundreds and occasionally maybe thousands of humans living in one area and depending on the resources in their immediate surroundings. Those people not only needed fire to stay warm in winter, they used fire to cook with routinely, daily almost. Fire was also used in canoe making, land clearing, preparing land for farming and promoting ample game populations. When I looked at how much wood I had used to stay moderately warm for a few hours it struck me that Native Americans must have used vast quantities of wood in the areas in which they lived. And fire must have been as common a daily tool for them as a microwave oven is to us.

I further imagined their imprint on the landscape. It was not benign. As they exhausted resources in one area over a period of years, they were likely forced to move to new areas and begin the process again. I am not an archaeologist, but I have read quite a bit about this, and what I am describing is well documented in various places. The notion that there was an unbroken, mature forest from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River is somewhat misleading. And, while I believe quail populations peaked in our state shortly after the Civil War, I do believe they were abundant well before that. When you add to the Native American use of fire, lightning struck fire, and also toss in large grazing animals like elk and buffalo, I believe early-succession habitats were common.

Tying this back to my title, beyond the bonfire ring, I imagine a ring of fires influence across wide areas of our eastern landscape. Early-successional habitats were perhaps not as evident here as they would have been in our mid-western prairies, or in the Texas scrublands, but they were critical components of our eastern ecosystems. Vast acreages of fire-dependent long-leaf pine existed with significant acres occurring in Virginia. Piedmont prairies, and open mixed short-leaf pine and oak woodlands were common throughout central Virginia. Large open lands occurred west of the Blue Ridge in extensive, fertile valleys and on mountain “balds” maintained by lightning struck fire and grazing.  And southwestern facing mountain ridges burned frequently, keeping them in a successional sere dominated by open stands of fire adapted pine. These habitats were important then and they are important now. Until Virginia’s landowners, public and private, learn to recognize, appreciate and manage these sometimes “scruffy” looking habitats, our state’s biodiversity will continue to decline.

However, there is good news. A culture of prescribed burning for ecosystem management is beginning to emerge again among many agencies and among several non-governmental organizations in our state. This has not occurred by accident. Many dedicated professionals in both the public and private sector have worked hard to reignite (don’t groan out loud or roll your eyes) and fan the flames of interest in prescribed fire. So next time you see smoke in the air, don’t assume the worst. There is still a place on Virginia’s landscape for properly applied fire and the habitats it produces.

Shell’s Covert: Thanks! … And Friends Helping Friends

I hope all of you had a nice holiday season. Breaks are nice, but it’s always good to get back in the work “groove.” Yesterday, as on most Sundays, I was reading our weekly edition of the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I get it primarily for sports and comics, and I especially enjoy Tee Clarkson’s outdoor column. This week in the Flair section I noticed a blurb stating that “January is national ‘Thank You’ month.” I thought to myself, “Do we really need an official ‘thank you’ month to remind us to be nice?”

A friend of mine and I were talking Saturday between woodcock coverts (Thanks for the invite, Sandy!) about how shocked some people seem to be nowadays when you do something nice for them. It’s a shame, and I sure hope we can get back to a world where doing nice things for people is as common as air. It got me thinking about all the folks who have been nice to me over the last year. I hoped to myself that I had thanked them sincerely. They are too many to recognize in this post, but I did want to mention a few, not by name, but they will know who they are.

Many fellow quail enthusiasts sent me e-mails or gave me phone calls to simply say, “hang in there, we appreciate what you all are trying to do.” That means a ton, as we get negative comments sometimes and they can get to you. Thanks to those of you out there who understand and who are trying to help bobwhites…those who recognize that you have to be part of the solution.

In a class on leadership I took with some of my peers a few years ago we learned that within our fair species there are three basic types of people “Poopers, pointers and pooper scoopers.” Poopers make messes, pointers say “look at that mess” but do nothing to help, and then there are the pooper scoopers – who take action to solve the problem. Don’t point unless you are willing to help scoop. THANKS to all of you out there who are “quail pooper scoopers.”

I am “between bird dogs” as bird hunters say who do not have a good dog to take afield. I have three dogs at home that I love and feed, but due to a combination of my circumstances and ineptness at dog training, I don’t hunt with them. One is my Daughter’s little “country mutt” that we adopted from the local pound at about 8 weeks – the dog loves me, as I fed, cradled, and cleaned up after her until she could fend for herself. But she’s into squirrels not birds.

A special “friend” in King and Queen County, who would not want his name mentioned, invites me at least once or twice a year to benefit from his enormous habitat efforts, and his pre-season release system that has worked well for him (not to mention his superior bird dogs). We went the Sunday before Christmas and found 11 coveys in 3 hours.

Thanks to all of you who have taken pity on me and shared your dogs and coverts with me. I am getting a puppy this spring – I’ve come to see there is never a “good time” to buy one, and as each year passes my bird hunting life ebbs. What’s one more dog anyway? Hopefully next year I’ll at least be able to get out and train and at some point again enjoy that relationship with a good dog. It’s all about friends, both canine and human.

I got an e-mail back in October from a “quail friend” over in Chesapeake. He’d seen my blog post on my home habitat project back in summer. In it I mentioned renting a heavy duty mower to help me keep my wildlife cover from converting back to trees. In my case, I am not in a good position to conduct prescribed burning (though I plan to try) or disking, but I can mow in rotation, in late winter and still keep some cover in fair shape. He e-mailed to say he had an older brush mower that he had become “too old” to run anymore and I could have it free if I was willing to come get it. I told him I couldn’t take it for free, but would be willing to come get it.

Long story short, I hitched up my trailer one day over the holidays and rode to Chesapeake, about 3 hours for me one way, but well worth the trip. I got a used, but very good condition walk behind brush mower for a low, but fair price according to my friend. It will work great for keeping my habitats from being overwhelmed by trees, and also for mowing fire-lines. Friends helping friends is what it takes.

A quick habitat note: most mornings rather than watch the news, I sit on my front porch and watch the day take shape (as long as it is above 25 degrees). One morning last week I watched a Cooper’s Hawk glide with his tell-tell quick three or four wing beats followed by soaring and then repeated, just a few feet off the ground. He flew into the woods west of my driveway and as he entered the woods, an up roar of song birds exploded from within. Every cardinal, towhee, chickadee and tufted titmouse in there blew out, crossed my yard and flew into the thickets I have established along my yard edges. The cardinals flew out so fast their wings sounded like a covey of quail. This year’s challenge for you all – tell a neighbor about the importance of thickets and then help them create some.  

God Bless all of you and Happy New Year.

Shell’s Covert Blog: Realistic Expectations

‘…There are no silver bullets and chasing red herrings is costing us dearly.’

It is arguable that a person could not be in this quail business without being an optimist (or perhaps delusional). Many well-intended folks threw in the quail towel years ago. But “diehards” remain. In the articles I have written over the years I have always tried to focus on the positives. My fear was that too much pessimism would cause the few remaining quail enthusiasts to abandon ship.

But “rose colored glasses” are not doing us any favors in quail recovery. The situation is dire, and in spite of enormous efforts, quail continue to decline in all 25 states that comprise the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI).

There are bright spots.

  • Large portions of Texas are reporting increased quail numbers this year largely due to favorable weather (In parts of Texas, when it rains, it pours quail).
  • Portions of western Kansas, where hundreds of thousands of acres of native mixed prairie abound, still harbor impressive quail populations.
  • And in north Florida and south Georgia, across over 350,000 acres of quail oriented conservation easements primarily under the supervision of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, bobwhites are doing exceedingly well. This is a result of intensive management on a large scale.
  • And even in Virginia, in portions of counties where years of conservation work overlap with favorable timber management practices, quail thrive.
 
   

But in much of the rest of the heavily populated eastern seaboard, the decline continues at rate of between 4% and 7% per year. It’s time to take off the rose colored glasses, wipe those lenses clean, take a stiff drink of coffee and look at the situation with a degree of realism. To do less is a disservice not only to the bobwhites themselves, but to those of us who work hard under duress trying to do the impossible.

That is correct. I said it. The bobwhite quail is not going to be restored to the entire state of Virginia in my lifetime. I have heard repeatedly now for decades “we did it for deer, bear, turkey, geese (on some levels) and other species, why not quail?”

First of all – these species did not come back overnight. When you examine the history, it took 50 to 75 years of concerted efforts on the part of many entities to “bring back” these great animals. Further, the landscape we live in today, largely by accident, favors deer, turkey, bear and other animals far more so than quail, grouse, woodcock or golden-winged warblers. And this is not likely to improve on a large scale (there are some “unlesses” I’ll talk about in a minute).

If you examine human population growth and growing global demand for food, fiber and wood products it won’t take you long to figure out that forestry and agricultural intensity is going to increase. This means “cleaner and cleaner” farms and timber plantations, and by “clean” I mean cleaned of competitors for water and nutrients. In short, things that compete with crops and pine trees like blackberry, broom sedge, partridge pea, plum, sumac, beggar weed – those things that landowners tend to want to bush-hog, or spray to control, will be reduced on our landscape. And of course these same things serve as critical habitat for dozens of declining species like quail. Our dilemma as humans is that we are always pitting our short term gains as individuals against our long-term survival as a species. And big money tends to cloud our view of anything beyond the next decade.

So what keeps me in this game? What allows me to continue to go for it on 4th and 6? It’s the “unlesses” I mentioned.

One great thing is most of the land in Virginia is privately owned by individuals. This means that they can make choices that favor quail if they choose to. The big money entities cannot force landowners to manage their land any particular way. Quail will continue to decline in my home state unless a major campaign is undertaken to educate “the masses” to the value of thickets, weeds, native grasses, wildflowers and brush.

Much as we have educated generations to value mature forests and wetlands, we must educate current generations of landowners about the value of transitional habitats. Landowners must come to know they have choices and what those choices are.

For example, fall mowing (Bush-hogging) runs rampant over Virginia every year. By simply changing the mowing to late winter or early spring (February to early March), and not mowing it all every year (but mowing in rotation, 1/2 or 1/3 annually), positive changes will be seen in your wildlife populations.

If you sometimes substitute disking for mowing, even more results will be seen. Or instead of relying totally on cool

 
   

season, non-native forage grasses like fescue, as a landowner you make the decision to convert 20% of your forage base to native warm season grasses, mixed with legumes, you will become part of something bigger than yourself.

And consider that when you are deciding how to prepare to replant your recently clear-cut pines, you choose less intense herbicide options. Yes, this may cost you 5% or 10% of your future timber income, but you may be OK with that if you know your choice benefits bobwhite quail. I am optimistic that landowners will make good choices when they know what those choices are and what the costs are.

So what does our quail recovery effort hope to accomplish? Why not give up if we feel widespread recovery is not likely in the short term? Because it can be done in the long term if we do not give up. Our goal now is to “hold the line” in as many places as possible. We are trying to build some pockets of wider success (in keeping with NBCI’s Focal Tiers concepts and to demonstrate that it can be done with habitat), and establish some source quail populations in areas where they are nearly extirpated.

Our quail efforts are focused for a reason, and what we do now we hope will set the stage for wider scale recovery when landowners are awakened and excited about the choices they can make on a large scale to impact our environment for decades to come.

There are no silver bullets and chasing red herrings is costing us dearly. The time is now to refocus on spreading the message on a grand scale, sparing no expense, that transitional habitats matter.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Practice-What-You-Preach’

… or, You Don’t Have to Have 500 Acres to Make a Difference

Happy Fall to everyone! Though I do not like the shortening days, I do love college football (and if the Texas A&M / South Carolina game is any indication – what a season we are in store for), dove season, fall colors and cooler weather.

I titled this month’s post the way I did because I want people to know many of us in this profession do try to practice what we preach. There is no substitute for “doing” to truly learn how to accomplish something. This month I hope to let photos do some of the talking for me.

I wrote last year about the start of my small home project on a logging deck below my house. But I have been working on all aspects of my project for 10 years now. My goal was to develop my small property into a microcosm of a larger farm field. All totaled, counting my yard and logging deck, I have about 2 to 2.5 acres in this project. All managed with hand tools and small yard equipment like a back-pack sprayer, walk behind seeder, and lawn mower. I am battling numerous invasive species, but I am winning, or at least adapting. It’s a work in progress, but it is at a point now where I can bring landowners to see it and show them everything they’d need to do on a larger scale to create a quail haven (and songbirds, pollinators, etc.) on their farm.

Picture 1) My “yard border” – yes, it includes some invasives like sericea, but also showing up this year were wild senna – a great August blooming yellow flowered legume — and mist flower, a great pollinator plant. This edge resulted simply from letting the disturbance go after it was a logging road. I seeded a cover crop of millet on it and this is its second growing season.

 
   

Picture 2) Winged sumac thicket – sumac is an EXCELLENT mid-summer pollinator plant, it makes great summer loafing cover for quail and songbirds, rabbits love to eat its bark during winter and quail eat its seeds, too. It does not make great winter cover because it becomes sparse, but it is a great plant to have…and it tends to keep less desirable plants at bay – I have yet to see ailanthus come up within a sumac thicket.

 
   

Picture 3) This is my native warm season grass logging deck. This year making its first appearance was bee balm, or wild bergamot – an excellent pollinator and seed producer. I also had a lot of black-eyed Susan, some Indian blanket, and now blooming well – a ton of partridge pea. Partridge pea is not only a great bugging cover for quail chicks, it also produces a good winter food seed crop. And while we all know how much pollinators like its blooms, the larvae of many butterflies feed heavily on the plant itself. There is still a good bit of bare ground on this deck in places, making it good for quail. Notice the logging road which has now been seeded 3 times with fescue and ryegrass is still 50% bare. These native warm season grasses tend to do well on your poorest sites.

 
   

Picture 4) This is a close-up of Indian grass and big blue stem. There are two tier, one butterfly species in Virginia – meaning they are species of great conservation concern. One is called the Arogos skipper and guess what its larvae feed almost exclusively on? Big bluestem grass.

Picture 5) Thicket cover and edge. This is a shot of where I planted indigo bush about 11 years ago, it is now also grown in very well with blackberry, and though you see fescue on the edge of it coming from my yard, underneath it is open and free of grass – the shrubs having done their job of shading it out – along with some spot spraying by me during times when the shrubs were dormant, but the grass was growing – like late October. The shrub loving song bird diversity around my yard is fantastic – I often see towhees, brown thrashers, field sparrows, yellow-breasted chats, white eyed vireos, cardinals, and more.

 
   

Picture 6) Un-mowed mess. Yes, this is an un-mowed mess – exactly what I wanted. I still have work to do in getting rid of fescue, but the area is providing some wildlife cover, and it is saving me from mowing an additional 1/3 acre every week. I mow it once during late winter every other year with a rented walk behind brush mower.

 
   

In this small “habitat project” I have also had quail, though they did not stay. The satisfaction I have obtained while watching this project grow, pardon the pun, has been enormous. I can now show any landowner in a very small area what they need on a larger scale to have multiple coveys of quail. I have also been able to test some ways of controlling invasives – a work in progress.

More than anything I think I can show them that these grasses, thickets, weeds and brush are so much more than that. They are habitats to be cherished and valued.