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.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Volunteer Quail Departments’

   
Steering Committee_RESIZED_CROPPED  

 

Before I bite into the meat of this post, I want say what a privilege it was to serve as chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee these last two years. The years were not without substantial challenges, but with such a fine group of steering committee members, NBCI staff, subcommittee chairs and general NBTC members, there was nothing we could not work through. I thank all those who helped me along the way, tolerated my stress, and persevered with me. I look forward to continuing on the steering committee as past-chair through 2016. I also want to thank Todd Bogenschutz, of the Iowa DNR for the great job Todd and his staff and partners did in hosting the 20th annual meeting of the NBTC in Des Moines Iowa last week. Superb job gang!

Now to the title of my post – Volunteer Quail Departments.

It struck me recently that what we are trying to do for quail, that being to develop locally led, community sponsored wildlife conservation, is not unlike the Volunteer Fire Department model. Their model works well and I think it needs to be applied to quail, and perhaps to wildlife conservation in general on private lands. Not every community can afford a full time, professional fire- fighting staff. In fact, most communities can’t. But what they can do is organize volunteer fire departments. These departments rely on government to help them fund equipment, provide training and generally facilitate their efforts, but they are self-driven and rely on local leadership to flourish. They also conduct fund-raisers of their own that contribute significantly to their ability to serve their communities.

I have mentioned in as many places and venues that I can that if you’re sitting around waiting for the government to come rescue quail on your land – you may be waiting a long time. We basically have a “skeleton crew” when it comes to quail recovery. In Virginia there are about seven of us that work most of the time on quail, but none of us work full time on quail. In addition, we have many partners that contribute some of their time to various forms of early-succession wildlife recovery. There are 47,000 farms in Virginia. The math does not add up. At best, we can facilitate, encourage, provide technical expertise and in many cases help secure funding, but the proverbial “quail buck” stops with the landowners. We cannot be everywhere at once and with the huge number of counties each of us covers it is hard to avoid the occasional landowner falling through the cracks. A note on that: if you are a landowner who feels like you may be one of those that have fallen through the cracks, please pick up the phone and let us know – we are human, we make mistakes.

When we started the Quail Management Assistance Program, we envisioned dozens of locally led efforts, spreading “quail quilts” over large areas of Virginia. I still believe that is possible and will ultimately work.

August Blog_ quail habitat workshop at James Hancock property_RESIZED  
   

One of the most recent and best examples is the “Botetourt County Quail Quilt.” Their effort is an example of a “volunteer quail department” at work. Built around the Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, it is a community led effort assisted by private lands wildlife biologist Andy Rosenberger, DGIF District Biologist Dan Lovelace and several other partners.

When he first contacted me, Chairman Ed McCoy was a bit shocked at my candor. When he asked what their chapter could do to help us, my answer was perhaps not what was expected. I told him that what we did NOT need was another chapter of an NGO raising money to hand us a check to go do great things with. Furthermore, we did NOT need a chapter to buy more equipment for our small staff to then have to haul all over the state, taking even more time from their ability to visit new landowners.

I went on to say what we DID need were locally led teams of people willing to work closely with their neighbors and actually help them implement conservation practices (H.I.T. – Habitat Implementation Teams). I told him that we DID need people with equipment in the local area willing to loan it to neighbors, or we DID need a chapter to buy equipment and learn to use it, and then volunteer to help others use it locally.

In addition, we DID need groups of people willing to learn about the habitat requirements of quail and then be willing to fill in the gaps, making landowner site visits when demand was too high for our staff to meet.

Well, their group took the message to heart, having already sponsored a workshop for interested landowners, with another occurring this week. They also plan to have an exhibit at the local county fair. In short, they are taking it upon themselves to grow the effort, and we are supporting them any way we can. This is an excellent example of what we’d call a “volunteer quail department.”

If you are interested in forming one in your area, note that they can be built around a chapter of a non-governmental organization like NWTF, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, The Ruffed Grouse Society or others. By working through an NGO you can get help with fund-raising and promotion. But you do not HAVE to go through an NGO.  Your group may choose to develop your own totally local effort. Regardless, I believe this is the way to large scale quail recovery – locally led efforts that focus habitat work, capitalize on government assistance and become force multipliers building a cadre of community volunteers capable of independent operation on behalf of bobwhites.

 … a veritable volunteer quail department at the ready to go light quail fires, not put them out. 

Shell’s Covert: Our Successful ‘Failure’

Some would say that the phrase “successful failure” would be an oxymoron. I would not.

Some may say that makes me the last half of the last word in the first sentence. Time will tell.

Our quail recovery initiative has hit the 5 year mark here in Virginia. As hard as we have worked and as much progress as we have made, many may still consider us a “failure” because their sole measure of success is  restoration of quail throughout the entire Commonwealth. Well…that won’t be done in 5 years, or 10…it may take 15 or 20, or 25 or more … as  it did for deer, turkey, bear and others.

I know I am very proud of our quail team. And the key word is TEAM, and the dozens of landowners, conservation professionals, non-governmental organization members and other entities comprising it. And I believe if we have been a failure we have been a remarkably successful failure. In fact, I’d be proud to be associated with failures of this magnitude. Indefinitely.  And I would further say if we continue to fail at this rate, we’ll restore quail in my lifetime (I am 51 now – this is if I live to be 71 – and there are no guarantees on that).

Last year our quail team was presented the 2013 Merit Award by the Virginia Society of Soil and Water Conservation. The award was given to us for team building and partnership. Our core quail team consists of the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, our private lands wildlife biologists and the DGIF small game team. Many, many others are part of this team and have graciously partnered with us over the past five years.

What have we done? For starters over the last 5 years our private lands wildlife biologists have made over 2,000 site visits, to almost 1,400 unique landowners, writing over 1,200 management plans, participating in over 950 outreach events, and created or maintained over 33,400 acres of early-succession habitat. This represents $4,307,900 dollars in cost-share – or an average of about $128.00 per acre of habitat. The landowners they have worked with collectively own over 229,000 acres of land.

Virginia Landowner Workshop_resized  
   

During this same time period we distributed over 2,000 promotional DVDs, over 2,000 habitat management DVDs, conducted workshops for more than  525 people, enrolled 320 landowners in our Quail Management Assistance Program, have appeared on Virginia Farming several times, have had articles on quail recovery in all major newspapers and magazines, organized the Virginia Quail Council with 28 signed conservation partners, worked with the Virginia Department of Forestry to implement a new wildlife friendly forestry best management practices program, completed two research pilot projects, planned for new research, helped develop several quail habitat demonstration areas, supported prescribed fire training for all our staff, continued  our yearly quail surveys, and simultaneously enhanced our survey methods to include numerous species of early-succession habitat associated song-birds such prairie warblers, field sparrows, and towhees.

Simultaneously, several of our staff have held office in the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, and its strategic implementation component, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Virginia is one of seven pilot states testing NBCI’s new model focal area program – designed to document the association between habitat and quail, and to provide opportunities for even small, quail-range outlying states to show meaningful progress. And in summer 2013 we hosted the 19th annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee with help from many of our members and sponsoring entities.

Along the way our Virginia Quail Council members also collected goods and sent care packages to our troops in Afghanistan.  The 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) 25th Infantry Division presented a Certificate of Appreciation and Unit Flag to our Virginia Quail Council.

I think no species has allowed wildlife professionals to train more landowners or partner agency staff about real wildlife habitat management than has the bobwhite quail. When we go back to Aldo Leopold’s “fire, cow, ax and plow” as the basic four wildlife management tools – the bobwhite has allowed us to bring those tools and many modifications to more landowners than any other species I can think of.

I believe there is a quail recovery brewing. Our ability to detect it is in development but not yet fully formed. But we have “sown seeds with faith,” thousands of them.  And many of them “have fallen on fertile ground and are producing fruit.” I believe if we continue to “fail” as well as we have in the last 5 years, and if the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative is given the chance to “fail” in such a manner on a larger scale, the bobwhite quail has a bright future. We can “snatch quail victory from the predatory jaws of defeat.”

Thanks to everyone who has supported us in these efforts over the past 5 years, and we hope you will continue to support us in the future.

Members of the Virginia Quail Council include:  Virginia USDA NRCS, and USDA FSA, Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, the U.S. Forest Service, Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, Virginia Department of Forestry, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Angler Environmental, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Divisions of, State Parks, Natural Heritage and Soil and Water Conservation, including the Agricultural Cost-share Program, Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dominion Virginia Power, American Electric Power, Quantico Marine Corps base, U.S Army – Ft. Pickett and Ft. A.P. Hill,  U.S. Army Radford Army Ammunition Plant, American Woodcock Initiative, Reese, River Birch and Falkland Farms (Halifax County), Central Virginia and Rappahannock Electric Cooperatives and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.

Shell’s Covert: Thoughts on D-Day

Just a Simple Whistle…

D-Day Thoughts_Photo_10

I left my house at 4:15 this morning to go out to do what hundreds of biologists do for dozens of species every year –

conduct wildlife surveys and monitor their populations.Invariably I’ll have at least one or two people stop and ask me what I am doing. When I tell them they almost always reply “Man, what a cool job, you got it made” and then drive off. Hard to argue with that most of the time…unless you factor in the stress that comes from trying to bring back an entire species across land areas measured in hundreds of thousands of square miles. Especially if you really care about these little chicken-like birds we call bobwhites.

As I drove around today between stops I could not help but to think a little bit about what those soldiers, airmen and sailors were thinking about 70 years ago when they got up at 3:30 to run headlong into danger. Today of course is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. I also wondered what would they think of what I was doing? Would they think that anything I ever did was worth risking their life for?

Truth is most of them were scared young kids who were not thinking of anything other than whether they’d survive the day, and then the next day, and then the one after that. Soldiers will tell you when the chips are down they don’t fight for God or country, but for each other. One other thing they’ll tell you – those lucky enough to survive that is, that upon returning to this world, it was the simple things they found they loved the most. An ice cream cone on a Sunday afternoon after Church, watching a Little League baseball game after work, the simple pleasure of driving a car, in a free country, on roads that belonged to everyone, and I’d be willing to bet, the simple whistle of a male bobwhite on a clear June morning.

On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I am glad I live in a country where plenty of people still care about the environment and our surroundings; and not simply care about what is here today, but what will be here for their kids on the 100th anniversary of D-Day, and the 200th. I am also glad that even though we do not always agree about how to conserve resources, we all agree we should be free to argue about it, even with our government, without fear of being purged, imprisoned or eliminated.

I heard nine bobwhites singing this morning, along with many indigo buntings, field sparrows, prairie warblers, and even two grass hopper sparrows. My reports will be but one speck of data in an ocean of it that collectively allows us to make informed decisions about species management. But to me, those bobwhite calls are a part of my heritage and something I love. Something I also believe to be part of the thousands of American fibers that form the fabric that collectively makes up our way of free life … and worth dying for.

Shell’s Covert: ‘What do you do, Daddy?’

Any parent knows that kids can ask some pointed and surprising questions…and generally in the most embarrassing place possible. As a wildlife biologist, I was not totally unprepared for this question from my daughter, “What do you do, Daddy?”

 “Say what?”

 “Daddy, what do you do for work?”

 “Well Sweetie…I am a wildlife biologist.” To which more quickly than a striking snake she replied, “No, Daddy…what do you do at work?!”

Naturally, this was in front of several other parents … who probably wondered the same thing. Well, having talked to numerous school groups in various settings, I had become accustomed to starting my talks to them with a question, “What do you all think a wildlife biologist does for a living?” Hands would go up and as surely as kids love cake, the first answer was always “Study wildlife!!!” expressed with a bright-eyed sparkle of satisfaction. “Yes, we do study wildlife, and why do you think we study wildlife? Well, because if we did not know much about them, we would not be able to manage for them very well.”

I always used this question as an introduction before demonstrating and letting them use numerous wildlife management equipment like radio-telemetry gear, or quail traps, or a bear tranquilizing pole syringe (with no syringe attached). The adage “Tell me and I forget, involve me and I learn” applies. These events usually went well, but at the end I never felt like I had truly captured the essence of what the job is.

What do you do Daddy_resized

That was until my wife and I bought land of our own. I, like many, had always dreamed of owning a small slice of this earth, or at least borrowing it for a few decades (the earth will own us all someday). Upon owning our 42 acres I came to realize I had taken a lot of things for granted as a seasoned wildlife biologist…because I knew how to make the land work for me to create the wildlife habitat and thus the wildlife I wanted.

A big part of my job has always been helping private landowners evaluate and manage their land. Whether it is strictly in the name of quail (great quail management tends to be great early-succession habitat management for dozens of species), or simply helping landowners conduct sound habitat management, one of our key roles is being able to guide landowners and help them achieve their goals. 

How do you help a landowner “see” their land? There is science involved, but mainly it is a feel developed over years of a life outdoors thinking about how animals relate to their surroundings. This then has to be combined with the technical knowledge and communications skills necessary to convey the best information they can put to use “in real time.” While it may not be rocket science, it is a whole lot more than buying a couple bags of the latest food plot mix and planting some “patches” and thinking you’ve done “wildlife management.”

Over the years the most rewarding moments for me have been when that special landowner “gets it.” They see for the first time how habitat is not static, how manipulating it is not bad, how cover types interact, and that it takes some effort over time … but they can indeed learn how to manage their land to have their own wildlife paradise.

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p align=”left”>In short, their dreams can come true. So as terribly sappy as it may sound, when my daughter asks me now what we do as biologists I can answer with a straight face, “Little Buddy – at least some of the time we help fulfill dreams.” At the end of the day, regardless of what species initiative we may be working on or what regional or national goal we may be working towards, we serve private landowners – citizens with personal dreams.

Shell’s Covert: Applying the Shell Game Theory to Bobwhite Management

It’s A Shell Game Out There

(… Or, These Ain’t Your Grandpa’s Quail)

                                                                                        
Thicket Photo_ Resized

All of you should be familiar with a “shell game.” No reference to my old setter, Shell, who played her own games when it was time to get back in the dog box. What I refer to is the simple old shell game. A dozen walnut shells, perhaps painted in bright colors to fascinate kids and hidden under one was a dime, or a quarter – back in the late 19th or early 20th century these weren’t amounts to scoff at.

 These games may have been used to entice citizens at county fairs to come in and then spend money on more elaborate games, always rigged in the house’s favor. (My daughter and I still attend our county fair every fall, and while some may say these fairs have become less than desirable places for families, I still find a magic in them worth sharing. But that’s another story.) However – what follows is a very simple shell game analogy as to how you should view your land and manage it to provide cover for quail.

I hear on almost a daily basis from so many well meaning sportsmen their views on what has been and is causing the quail decline. Predators, pesticides, pollution, mowing, and more top most lists. Some of these things we can do more about than others, and trust me we are trying to address them all every day. With regard to predators – I believe there are more predators now and I believe quail have adapted to some extent to their higher numbers. Quail undergo a new generation every year – thus in terms of evolving, they can change much faster than humans when conditions warrant it. Hence my sub-title, “These ain’t your Grandpa’s quail, Boooooyyyyyy!”

My belief is that they have adapted to using heavier cover than ever before, and that thicket cover is more important now to quail than it was 100 years ago. Remaining quail fly farther, faster and deeper into thickets than their predecessors. I’m also convinced that while we have undergone an enormous quail population decline, there are more quail out there than hunters find and they are in places where what I call “old time bird hunters” don’t really go.

So what about this shell game theory for quail thicket management? If you think of a quail covey as the dime and thicketsas the walnuts they hide under, as a predator would you rather have to look under 2 walnuts, or 20 to find your covey? It is estimated that 25% of your land needs to be in some form of thicket cover to be ideal for quail. I suggest 10% to 15% is a minimum that is more workable for most landowners. The good news is, these thickets do not have to all occur in your fields. They can occur just as effectively within thinned and burned pines or hardwoods. The thickets within your cut-overs also count – which brings me to another point, using less intense site preparation herbicides when preparing to plant pines will help leave a lot of good blackberry and other thickets out in those cut-overs, and further down the road, within those thinned pine stands.

So how do you visualize the arrangement of this cover? It’s best when it occurs randomly and well distributed throughout a property. One way I have illustrated this is to say visualize a checkerboard, with its red and black squares. If you were to number each square, then put those numbers in a hat and draw 15% of them out and paint each square whose number you drew green, you’d see random visualization of how thickets should be arranged on the landscape.

I recall hunting in western Kansas back in the mid 90s – and how perfectly well distributed the plum thickets were. You really didn’t need a dog to hunt quail there (though shame on you if you don’t have one). All you had to do was look under enough of the plum “shells” and you’d find some quail to shoot at … and miss. Those that were missed had vast numbers of other coverts to fly to, thus making an attempt to relocate them harder.

The point is, stop worrying over things you can’t control and go do something about the things you can control. For landowners the number one thing you can control is habitat. (And to some degree pesticides – remember, it is your choice if, how and when you use them.)

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p align=”left”>April 14, 2014

Shell’s Covert: Bobwhites & Blizzards

… Or, How do Bobwhites Fare in Bad Winters?

Winter in SW Virginia Photo By Mike Jones  
   

 

The topic on everyone’s mind these past few weeks has been, “When will this blasted winter ever end?” Few Americans escaped winter’s effects this year. In my home state of Virginia it has been one of the worst 3 or 4 winters in my 51 years of breathing air on this planet. I do recall back in the late 1970s a couple of winters in southwest Virginia that were severe by most standards. Of course, compared to Wisconsin where quail used to thrive, and where some important early research was done on quail (Paul Errington – Aldo Leopold’s first doctoral student in wildlife), I suspect our winter would not have been considered severe.

I won’t get too scientific on you, partly because I don’t have a great deal of time to really delve into old literature and see what I can find about winter weather’s effects on bobwhite populations. But also because I prefer to take a practical approach whenever possible. I picture a bobwhite covey out there making a snowman of their own, using partridge pea seeds for buttons, of course, lespedeza for eyes and maybe a beggar weed pod for a long nose. Sorry, I’m digressing.

Bobwhites occur in a very wide geographic area – from Mexico all the way into the northern prairies and east through Michigan, Wisconsin and even into southern Maine at one point – though I doubt many occur there now. Obviously, they can adapt to extreme winter weather. Some say, perhaps, that a Texas quail is vastly different from a Wisconsin quail, but in reality those who get into sub-speciation are truly hair splitters –the similarities among sub-species far outweigh the differences.

What we do know about bobwhites, as for just about any other animal, is that when they become stressed by cold they need more calories to maintain their body heat. Guthery (2000) in his book “On Bobwhites” (available in NBCI’s online store at https://bringbackbobwhites.org/donate-2/online-store) states that at 32 degrees (F) a bobwhite needs 50 kilocalories a day to maintain itself. This equals about 550 milo seeds per bobwhite.

Of course, bobwhites have other ways of mitigating for cold weather. They roost at night in a tightly packed disk which helps them conserve heat, among other things. They also seek areas where cover and terrain gives them protection from winds. During the day they may seek small micro-climate areas on southern slopes where the sun provides some thermal relief. And, of course, they eat more.

All wild animals are extremely resourceful when it comes to surviving, but they can and do reach a point when cold weather becomes deadly…well at least it is the proximate cause. I would argue the ultimate cause is often the fact that they inhabit “sub-optimal range.” In layman’s terms that means their habitat is not adequate.

During the mid-1990s I was a field crew leader on a  Virginia quail study involving numerous bobwhites with radio-transmitters affixed during February. We were actually able to track them through 2 substantial snowfalls during the first and third weeks of February that year. We found  they shifted their range and moved into pine forests where heavy cover limited snow depth and also where numerous greenbrier thickets occurred. We did not do a food analysis, but assumed that they were feeding on abundant greenbrier berries, as grouse often do. There were a couple of occasions when we did believe quail died due to exposure. These were  instances when the weather changed rapidly, going from very warm to very cold overnight in late winter – similar to some conditions we have seen in Virginia this year.

In Oklahoma, during a study in the early to mid-1990s (Peoples et al., 1994 – Progress Report Packsaddle Northern Bobwhite Mortality Study), researchers found that as much as 19% of winter mortality was due to severe weather. However, when averaged out over all seasons and areas, weather only accounted for 2% of annual mortality. When an average quail population suffers 80% to 90% mortality annually – which is a now a known, well-accepted fact throughout much of their range – it would seem that winter weather overall is a minor mortality factor. I believe that to be true here.

This winter’s weather probably did kill a few quail. But quail are adapted to high mortality rates and if they have adequate habitat and a good nesting season, they can bounce back faster than a super ball coming at you off a brick wall. Our primary problem here in Virginia has been, and continues to be, too little good quail habitat. Other factors compound this problem. New research on neonicotinoid (nicotine based) pesticides suggests they could play a role.

Regardless of other factors, quail can’t survive on concrete, asphalt or fescue. Every landowner’s best insurance for having quail year-in and year-out is to have excellent quail habitat. And as much of it as you can stand.

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p align=”left”>March 21, 2014

Shell’s Covert: Time for a Little Less Talk and a Little More A.C.T.I.O.N.

                Action – a simple word and one that so many know, but so few take to heart.  A “little less talk and a lot more action” as an infamous country song states so emphatically is what many circumstances need.  In his book “We Are Soldiers Still” General Hal Moore wrote in his chapter on leadership that every day you need to answer two basic questions: 1) What am I not doing that I should be doing to influence the situation in my favor, and 2) What am I doing that I should not be doing? General Moore was a famous leader of soldiers in Korea and Vietnam, most noted for his book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young.”

                In a much less dramatic context, I use the word A.C.T.I.O.N. as an acronym for how landowners should approach their wildlife management projects.

“A” is for ASSESS

You — and that means you landowner — need to have an aerial photo, or access to aerial imagery that allows you to see your land from the “helicopter’s” perspective. And not just your land, but how your land fits into the landscape around it. It should be as up to date as possible and with today’s technology it is not hard to find an image no more than a year old.

Assess also represents assessing your goals – what do you want out of the management? With regard to quail, do you want a few coveys to see from time to time or hunt occasionally? Do want enough quail to hunt routinely? Or would you be happy just having one resident covey of quail? These questions will have a bearing on your actions. In some cases your goals may be unrealistic based on the land you have. In those situations – maybe you can manage for another species.

“C” is for CONSULT

To further your assessment, bring in the professionals. Consult with your private lands wildlife biologist, your forester, your Natural Resources Conservation Service specialist and others if necessary. The more you prepare before their visit and the more you know about your goals, the more you will get out of their visit.

In some cases I have shown up to a property, asked the landowner about their goals and the reply was “We just want to do something for wildlife.” I have grown better over the years at asking subsequent questions to help the landowners determine their goals. But the bottom-line is you need to think ahead about what you want from the property. There is nothing at all wrong with buying a piece of property and simply walking through and enjoying it … and not managing anything on it but your time. This won’t get you any quail, though. If you want quail and their species associates, some actions will be required.

“T” is for TACTICS

How will you produce the desired habitats to bring onto your land the types of animals you’d like to see more of? How will you maintain those habitats? What tactics, otherwise called management techniques, will you use, when will you use them, and how will you make them happen to produce your desired outcome?

Your consults with professionals and personal research should lead you to the answers. This is a big part of the job for our private lands wildlife biologists, and for our district wildlife biologists in some cases. Tactics begin with some broad brush, general situations that occur throughout much of Virginia, such as how to convert fescue to better wildlife habitat, how to properly manage pine or hardwood timber for certain wildlife species. From here things become more specifically tailored to your property.

Once this general overview and basic outline for managing your property is determined, this is where an agency biologist, or a private contractor if you prefer that option, can prepare a long-term wildlife management plan for you. It is important to note that it is impossible to get every detail into a written management plan. Much of the future management and maintenance of habitats depends on conditions that change, weather patterns, etc.,  so don’t try to plan every detail.  Base your future management on the “O” in our acronym.

“I” is for INITIATIVE

Short and sweet – Without initiative none of the above will happen. The laws of physics apply – things at rest tend to stay at rest. Same with people. Get off the couch, put the laptop down and get outside. And what about taking the kids with you? I have said before and at the risk of being repetitive – the government folks like me can help, advise, recommend, teach, help develop favorable policies, and encourage, but there are too few of us to show up and get it done for you.

“O” is for OBSERVE

 Observe your management efforts. Evaluate the results. Re-assess every year, and modify management as needed to continue to keep the habitats you want. Don’t hesitate to bring the professionals back in to help observe and re-assess. I personally prefer relatively general management plans that require landowners to be engaged and to actually learn how to assess and modify management based on existing and expected conditions. The old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish applies. This leads us to our last and maybe most important letter.

“N” is for NEVER (as in NEVER giving up)

The first thing a landowner has to do is learn to love the management. If the work becomes something you enjoy and look forward to, you’ll continue to do what is necessary. But if the work required is something you loath…chances are you will not be able to keep the management up.

 In my Army days the training sergeants and later our platoon sergeants had a saying “You have to love the training men; you have to make friends with it.” I also recognize that not every landowner is in the physical condition to do the work on their own. In this case, private contractors can be used to help continue the work. In many cases, cost-share programs help pay for these efforts.

Like any other worthwhile goals in life, wildlife management goals need long term commitments of time, funds and energy. But it can and should be fun!

February 5, 2014

               

Shell’s Covert: An Appeal for Support of NBCI

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I am writing this during the season of Thanksgiving and celebration. I am thankful for so many things, family, job, the ability to live in a free country and practice the religion of my choice, my right to keep and bear firearms, my access to millions of acres of public lands managed in trust for all of us, an open society where we can criticize our leaders without fear of retaliation, and a strong military which allows us to keep all these things – the list goes on.

I am also thankful we have a National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative and an NBCI staff. As Chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee’s Steering Committee, I have been intimately involved in the discussions regarding state use of a small portion of windfall Pittman-Robertson (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration dollars- excise taxes on firearms and ammunition) funds to provide increased support for NBCI staff in the short term. I have been involved with the NBTC and the NBCI since only a few years after their inception in1995 (my involvement began in 1997). I have seen the group grow from a relatively small, southeastern-based Southeast Quail Study Group, to a 25-state range-wide entity (NBTC) with a parallel core group of “quail dedicated” staff (NBCI) – currently at very little cost to the states, and no cost for some. No growth comes without pain, trial and error and soul searching.

I think we are at a crossroads for bobwhite recovery and the next 3 to 5 years will be pivotal for bobwhite conservation.

When we moved to enlarge the SEQSG to become the 25-state NBTC I guess we knew that perhaps not all states would be fully on board. I understand that and I want to say in advance, whether a state is on board with NBCI or not, I appreciate their dedicated field staff and all they do on behalf of quail and so many other species every year. I will also say that we should appreciate good quail work whether it is done under the flag of NBCI or not.

But I also believe that if we could all work together under the umbrella of NBCI, we could be more effective nationally and within our own states. With regard to current NBCI staff funding, with the exception of Director Don McKenzie, they have been funded largely by annual grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) or the Multistate Conservation Grant Program. So every year NBCI staff not only has the fear of a short-term funded job hanging over their heads, they also have to work hard to find funding for subsequent years. This obviously detracts from their effectiveness – though they have been remarkably effective in-spite of this, in my opinion.

Our recent plea to states has been to request for a 3-year period significant use of Pittman-Robertson (P-R) funds to support NBCI staff. The intention is to allow the NBCI staff time and resources to thrive and reach their potential value and productivity, without having to spend inordinate time annually looking for money.

Simultaneously, the Bobwhite Foundation, an entity designed to eventually provide private funding through an endowment to support NBCI Staff and operations long term, would have those years to organize and develop a funding base to offset the need for annual grant writing. The amounts per state if all 25 participated would range from $20,000 to maybe as much as $75,000 annually, based on a state’s proportion of received P-R dollars. These amounts are significant to you and me, and should not be sneezed at, but as a portion of a given state agency’s annual budget, represent a very low percentage.

Well, first why do all this? Can’t each state manage its own quail recovery without NBCI?

At the risk of sounding ungrateful for all that state agencies do –and it is a ton – our record over the last 25-40 years with quail recovery is not great. This is not for a lack of trying. Many states have labored valiantly and had some successes along the way. But large scale success has been limited.

But when you compare us to “the duck folks” who have a National Wetlands Conservation Act, the federal Duck Stamp and a federal agency with significant portions of its resources dedicated to their recovery – (not to mention a very effective NGO in Ducks Unlimited) it’s not hard to see why they have had more success. There are other factors involved, but the bottom-line is – states need help.

I would argue that all NBCI is trying to do is to be that umbrella group that develops momentum at the national level for quail recovery. Much like Ducks Unlimited worked along side the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies, the quail NGOs (Quail Coalition, Quail Forever, Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more) work alongside NBCI, NBTC and state and federal agencies. NBCI is not trying to usurp anyone’s power or ability to do what they do. Rather they hope to become the force multiplier for quail recovery. The eventual goal is for NBCI to become a “giver to states” not a “requester of state funds.” But if this effort dies on the vine before that can happen – in my opinion one of the greatest opportunities for quail and early-succession wildlife in our lifetime will be lost.

Right now many states are supportive whole hog and they see the long term benefits of a strong NBCI. Our quail NGOs are also supportive and also careful to help NBCI see its role and stay within it. But some state agencies are not sold on the idea yet. And I understand where they are coming from – money is crucial to many of their programs and they do not yet believe their return on investment in NBCI will be high enough to justify the cost. It seems some states are saying “show us the results and we’ll show you the money,” and NBCI says “show us the money and we’ll show you the results.”

I personally believe in NBCI. A saying our agency senior staff uses quite often when field staff are too quick to criticize management decisions is “assume good intent” meaning “please do not be too quick to judge managers as having some subversive agenda – we have your best interests at heart.” I assume good intent from NBCI. Having known these people for years, some of them for over 20 years, I only see that they are struggling with how to do what is best for bobwhite quail range-wide…and without any authority at all.

Leadership is best defined as “the ability to get things done without any authority at all.” And that is why great leadership is one of the hardest things to achieve in life. NBCI is trying to provide great national leadership for bobwhite recovery and I for one hope states will embrace the P-R funding concept and give the NBCI a chance to show us what they can do. If the NBCI ultimately fails, I’d rather the states have first provided NBCI a real fighting chance to succeed than deny it a meaningful chance to try. 

I caveat all this by saying I have worked for a great state agency (VDGIF) for almost 18 years and recognize how many issues they all face, with quail recovery being just one of hundreds. For this reason, as much as any other, this is why I believe we need NBCI.

 

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p align=”left”>- Marc Puckett – NBTC Chair – VDGIF Small Game Team Leader