Shell’s Covert: The Spirit of Adventure (…and some kudos to Nebraska’s quail program)

Our quail team’s longest serving private lands wildlife biologist, Andy Rosenberger, recently took an upland bird hunting trip out to “fly over” country – parts of Nebraska. For upland bird hunters, that part of the world is not “fly over” country. It is “drive to” country. Andy has been a part of our “quail team” for nine years and is an avid bird hunter. For hunters like Andy, myself and many others, the spirit of adventure and learning is not dead. And you don’t have to go to Nebraska to find it, but a trip to new country from time-to-time sure goes a long ways towards keeping your inner kid alive. He shares some of his thoughts with us below.

Andy sent us all a few key observations from his venture west. “Our trip was a reminder that “doing” is a better learning tool than talking about something. Despite being in this job for nine years, I still learned a few things and am still digesting what I saw.” Andy goes on to reflect on avian predation…”If you like avian predators, the Plains are the place to be. I saw enough red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and Merlins for a lifetime. I have always liked harriers and get excited when I see them. While in Nebraska I saw hundreds of them. It is like seeing blue jays here. As we have said before, birds of prey will eat quail, but I think seeing the numbers of them in Nebraska in comparison to a good quail population is proof that quail and birds of prey can live just fine together.” (Note: as long as protective cover is in good supply.)

“Nebraska has a nice quail population. We were never specifically looking for quail (pheasants were first choice), but did quite well with them. We

Virginia’s Andy Rosenberger in the Nebraska Plains with his dog, Otter

obviously did not experience “Tall Timbers” densities, but we found at least five coveys a day. If we had been focused more on quail I think we could have found more. Nebraska may be one of the better public quail hunts out there. In one week of hunting we could not cover all the available public lands in just a two-county area. Lots of native grasslands and plum thickets. If we saw plum thickets, we knew we were going to find quail.”

Andy on quail foods: “I know we promote natural foods, but I am beginning to wonder if it might also be a good idea to incorporate some row crops into quail management. Out of all the quail I shot, not one had anything in their crop other than corn or milo from adjacent fields. I know quail can get by without crops, but I wonder if population success has something to do with row crops out there? We killed quail that were almost a mile away from the nearest crop fields and they still had corn in their crops. They had to be moving that far between cover and food daily.” (A note here on what we’d tell Virginians – by all means planting some milo or corn food strips, well woven throughout winter protective cover is a great idea. What we don’t encourage is the old stand-by “food patch” isolated from everything else a covey needs to survive winter.)

And what about native grasses and protective cover? “When it was cold, the quail were just like the pheasants and in the thickest native grass stands you can imagine. The kind that were so thick it was difficult to walk through them. But the quail were also almost always near plum thickets and that’s where they flew when flushed from the grasses.”

Observations on weather and cover: “The weather in Nebraska is just as harsh, or harsher than in the mountains of Virginia. I think the difference in why they have quail and we have very few in our mountains has a lot to do with the vast openness of the country, the surrounding row crops (which we used to have in large supply in our mountains), and the fact that when left fallow, their lands tend to come up with lots of beneficial native grasses and other plants, as opposed to here where now when left alone, fescue dominates for years, then underlies any native cover that develops on its own. So weather can have an impact, but if the habitat is there, they’ll be just fine. One other note, sometimes we found quail out in large fields of native grasses with no thickets nearby.” (An editor’s note on native grasses in Virginia: the main thing is not to plant pure, overly dense stands. Mixed native grass fields can provide winter cover on their own, especially when intermixed with tall growing, stouter plants like golden-rods, native sunflowers, and others that stand up to snow better.)

A few questions from Marc for Andy… “Andy, some may think that a trip like this is costly, but I suspect it’s not as bad as they may think?” Andy: “We drove about 3,000 miles round trip so likely bought about 150 gallons of gas, which at $2.25 / gallon comes to $337.00 on fuel, and you can divide that by the number of hunters pitching in on costs. Licenses were $122 per hunter. In our case, we stayed eight nights in a two-bed cabin at $75 per night equals $600. We bought our own food, but we’d have been doing that at home, so as long as you don’t eat out every meal, it is a nominal factor. Shells – maybe $30 to $50 worth. Of course, the more you have to buy the more birds you’d found. So overall for two hunters it cost us each about $615.00. Of course the biggest “cost” is what we owe our wives for letting us to go”

Marc: “What does a trip like this mean to you on a personal level?”

Andy: “I could write several pages on what a trip like this means to me, but in a nutshell, first I love to bird hunt, but a big factor is the family time. We live widely scattered, so these trips bring us close for an extended period. Because of trips like this I am much closer to my uncle, dad and brother. The enjoyment of bird hunting elevates the trip’s importance for all of us. It’s because of the fun of the hunting, but also the fun of being together. We are also all grown men now. The relationship between fathers and sons changes. It has gone from being one of where a dad makes the decisions for his sons, to a true friendship. I won’t remember my dad as the man who set my curfew or punished me for something stupid I did, I’ll remember my Dad as the friend I went bird hunting with. As my brother told his friends when they gave him a hard time about not going elk hunting with them, but going with us instead, ‘What would you give to hunt with your dad again?’”

Marc: “Any other tips you’d offer for those who’d like to reignite their adventuresome spirit?”

Andy: “Study the maps, and call the local state game agency. They really want to help make sure you have a good trip. Plan in advance, too, these communities are small, and numbers of hotel rooms limited. If you wait to the last minute to plan, you could be sleeping in your truck. Also, don’t wait to the last minute of the day to try to buy groceries, stores close early and are few and far between.”

I’ve said before upland bird hunting is not dead in Virginia. It takes effort, it always did. And it may take some shift in thinking… but by combining hunting for multiple species, and by taking a trip or two to local hunting preserves, and then by going “west” from time-to-time to keep that inner adventurer quenched, there’s nothing but excuses standing between you and being a 21st Century Upland Bird hunter. Don’t be like a worried dog, stop whining and start hunting. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.

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