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Shell’s Covert: “Working Smarter, Not Harder”

The worn old saw “Work Smarter, Not Harder” comes to mind as I begin this month’s blog post. And as I approach 58 in a few weeks, it rings truer every year. There are times when stopping for a few moments and thinking about a situation from a new angle could lead to a great reduction in work and a big increase in efficiency.

Let’s look at cut-back field borders as an example. And by that, I mean the practice of cutting back a wooded edge to create early-successional habitat. It is one way to eliminate the “hard edge” biologists refer to along fields—which often go from mature woods to crop or hay with no “in between” habitat. Note that lots of animals depend on the “in between” habitats to exist. A landowner may not be willing to sacrifice an acre of cropland for early-successional wildlife cover, but may be willing to sacrifice an acre of wooded land. At first blush, one acre of cut-back field border does not sound like a big job. But with chainsaw in hand wading into that edge and starting to fell saplings and trees back into the woods to a depth of at least 30 feet and preferably 50 feet… the math changes. At a width of 50 feet, one has to go 871 linear feet to make one acre. On a warm day while breathing chainsaw fumes… that’s a long dang way.

An alternative is to let the loggers do the work for you. A cut-back edge becomes a non-replanted, clear-cut edge. Now rather than spending days with a chainsaw in hand, you can spend hours with a back-pack sprayer selectively managing the edge the loggers cleared for you. Obviously, this won’t always work, as some timber stands are of low value and hard to sell. But sometimes, it will work perfectly. And it does not necessarily have to involve a clear-cut, it can be done as part of a hardwood timber stand improvement cut or a pine thinning operation. All it takes is planning ahead.

In the case of a clear-cut, the landowner works with their forester to plan ahead and insure a border along however much of the clear-cut is desired, is not planted back to pine, or allowed to regrow hardwood. It is set aside to manage through time as shrubby/weedy cover. It is easy to figure “lost” future timber acres by simply doing the math “length x width” and using 43,560 sq. feet per acre to divide it out. But as already explained, a ton of linear edge can be created with a small loss in acreage.

Nice shrubby field border cover created by selective cutting, spot-spraying and neglect.

Now, how to manage this area? It will require some knowledge of trees and shrubs, and the ability to identify the “good” and the “bad.” During the first growing season post timber cut, the landowner or their forestry/wildlife consultant walks the border and starts identifying sprouting seedlings that need to be sprayed (or clipped off, if averse to herbicides). The goal is to prevent tall growing trees from dominating the border. In Virginia, trees to be spot sprayed would be those such as red maple, sweetgum, yellow poplar, sourwood, etc. Even some oaks should be eliminated, though keeping a few in such a border would be good. Stop yelling at me as you read this—these trees are not bad in one sense, they provide forage for pollinators, food for squirrels, etc., but the assumption is you still have plenty of these trees in other areas of your property, so you can do without them in this early-successional border. Recall that a weed is any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. Over time, your selective herbiciding will transition this edge into one dominated by sumac, plum, blueberry, blackberry, green brier, etc. It will become an area that provides escape cover and much soft mast for many wildlife species.

Generally speaking, the herbiciding is done during late summer for foliar applications on smaller seedlings. But larger saplings can be treated during winter by cut-stump, basal bark, or hack-and-squirt methods. Work with your forester or wildlife biologist for specific formulations and methods.

Back to non-herbicide methods—the drawback is that repeated cutting of the undesirable species leads to more stump sprouting, and it may take many years to deplete the root stock and eliminate the undesirable trees. A good saw-head weed-eater can make short work of the cutting though. It can be done without herbicides, it is just a bit less efficient. Also, note this cutting can be done in winter as long as you can identify the undesirable species with the leaves off, and this has the obvious benefits of being tick, chigger, and yellow jacket free. I know all this sounds like work, and it is, but compared to actually cutting the border back out of a wooded stand with a chainsaw, this is much easier. And that border will also have to be maintained.

Concerning the hardwood timber stand improvement harvest or pine stand thinning—when developing the timber sale bid packet, it would include that an area of so many feet wide along a specified length of edge be clear-cut. The logger doing the timber buying will have to know in advance that this extra cutting is part of the sale. The border will have to be flagged or marked in some way, too, prior to the harvest beginning. You will be left with a much improved stand of pines or hardwoods, with a nice early-succession border around as much of if it as you want. And if along the way you decide you can’t maintain as much of the border as you envisioned, just let it go back to what it wants to be on its own, no harm done. After all, much of wildlife habitat management is not really about doing good or bad (with the exception of planting highly invasive non-native species—which is bad), it is more a matter of which species benefit from management—and some benefit when you do nothing at all.

Brood Habitat: Create or Prepare it Now

Steven Mitchell
Wildlife Biologist and Quail Coordinator
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Fall is here in Alabama, or it’s supposed to be. We are still having those warm days mixed in, but our current temperatures are a welcome relief from the hot, humid days of summer. Leaves have started to turn color and drop, and many weeds have started to brown. Hunters are getting stirred up and tuning up bird dogs for the approaching quail season. Fall quail surveys are being conducted and population trends investigated. Folks that hear increases in the number of calling coveys reflect on their hard work and management practices that may have contributed to even the slightest population increase. A combination of many management practices is bound to be included in any successful quail management program. Brood habitat management is going to be near the top of the list, and now is the time to plan and prepare for next year.

Why is it important and what is brood habitat? If quail broods or chicks can’t survive to join the fall population, there will be less or not enough quail for hunting. Research in Alabama and Georgia rank brood survival as second on the list of parameters (factors) that determine population growth, right behind over-winter survival. The research has also shown that brood survival is directly related to quality and quantity of brood habitat on any property.

Brood habitat or brood-rearing cover consists of plants (e.g., weeds such as ragweed) where adult quail raise their chicks for the first few weeks after hatching. Pretty simple, right? Not quite. Good brood habitat is often the most lacking cover type on any property, state- and region-wide. If they make it out of the egg, quail chicks are about the size of a bumblebee at hatching and must make it two weeks before they can fly. Their flightless condition and tiny size make them prime targets and highly susceptible to most all predators. Good brood-rearing cover provides protection and food for quail chicks, at the same time. Quality brood habitat has an overhead canopy, bare ground underneath or openness at ground level, and an abundance of insects. Those components provide protection from predators and allow chicks to easily move and catch insects which make up almost their entire high protein diet for the first few weeks.   

Ragweed stand.

How do you create and maintain brood habitat? Brood habitat can be provided in multiple ways but usually involves some type of soil disturbance. Fall disking is probably the most popular method used around the South for creating brood habitat. Disk fields, logging decks, and forest openings in fall and allow them to grow up in weeds during spring and summer. Ragweed is the preferred weed that managers like to see for brood cover, but it doesn’t have to be all ragweed. As long as the weeds form an overhead canopy, are open at ground level, and attract a lot of bugs, you’re in business. If the proper weed response isn’t achieved, plant a mixture of ragweed, partridge pea, and other legumes. Fallowed planting of grains also works well. Maintain by disking a third each fall. Prescribed fire in open pine stands can also produce brood cover but tends to produce better results on rich soil sites.

Disking wildlife openings.

Brooding season usually lasts from mid-May to October in the Deep South. Chicks need good brood habitat for that entire time period. Proper brooding cover is critical for increased brood survival and overall population increases. On the best quail producing lands I’ve worked on (south GA), brood habitat makes up anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of each property in evenly distributed two to five-acre weed fields. Those numbers may not be possible for many properties, but providing as much quality brood habitat as possible is vital when managing habitat for bobwhite quail.

Steven Mitchell
Wildlife Biologist and Quail Coordinator
Alabama Department of Natural Resources

The Three-Bedroom House: An Analogy for Quail

Tell Judkins
Upland Game Biologist & Quail Coordinator
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

As a wildlife biologist focusing on upland game like Northern Bobwhite, it does not take long to hear EVERY reason for their decline. Anything from nest predators or mesocarnivores (e.g., raccoons or skunks), to parasites, cattle egrets, swamp gas, radiation from Area 51, and even fighter jets (a funny story for another time) catch the blame from time-to-time. The truth is, most people are either quick to dismiss or unwilling to admit the two biggest factors making an impact on upland species: weather and us.

Weather is by far the leading driver in the cyclical abundance of these birds in Oklahoma. Drought, heavy rains, late or early freezes, and even our changing climate play a huge role in year-to-year numbers, especially out West. What about the years of ‘good’ weather? Why aren’t we seeing a bumper crop then?? That’s where we come in. Humans play a pretty big role in shaping quail trends, and I don’t mean the impact we make with a shotgun each fall. I am referring to the habitat decisions we make on our properties that impact upland birds; the good news is, there is still plenty of time to make changes and improve your land for quail!

Imagine if you will a three-bedroom house, not a mansion by any means, but a typical family home. Can you live there? Of course. What about with your spouse and two kids, can you all still have plenty of room? Yes!

Now, I want you to imagine that something happens to half of your house: a semi-truck crashes into it, a train de-rails into it, a fire, flood, tornado… anything, you simply now don’t have access to two of the bedrooms, half the kitchen, and half of the living-room. Can you still live there, all four of you? It may be cramped, but you could survive there; importantly, you would still have a place to sleep, eat, relax, and freshen up.  

Now imagine that the roof starts leaking in the master bedroom, can you still live there? You and the family are probably going to have to move out until some repairs are made. But, you wouldn’t move out of your home just because of a leaky roof, right? Under normal circumstances, probably not, but remember in this scenario you had already lost half of your house… half of your habitat. 

Just like our friend Mr. Bob White, you too, have now experienced habitat loss. And all the reasons I mentioned earlier? Well, those are leaky roofs. The main difference between you and bobwhite in this analogy is that quail don’t have half a house, they have a coat closet. The amount of habitat loss they have experienced makes every little issue seem like a huge problem, when in fact the real issue is the lack of suitable habitat and the fact that they have been left with a scrap of actual usable space..

When I talk with a landowner I typically hear, “nothing has changed on this property since the 1900s. The quail just… disappeared.” But have you ever watched a friend or relative’s child grow up? You go about a year without seeing them and are stunned by how much bigger they have gotten. But most times these changes are subtle, occurring over decades, and can be hard to catch until it’s already become an issue; other times, change happens overnight. So how do we recognize these changes or start making improvements? I am not going to try to list out all the issues we can try to tackle. In Oklahoma alone there are too many for one list. Instead, I am going to hit a on a few categories that apply across the Northern Bobwhite range.

Invasive or ‘Improved’ Species: Bermuda grass, fescue, sericea lespedeza, eastern red cedar, Callery or Bradford pear, kudzu; these are a few prime examples of species we once believed were better suited for our needs than what occurred naturally at some point. Few of us thought, or realized, what the long-term consequences would be to our native grasslands and forests. I won’t go into why each one of these are bad for quail, but simply put, the footprint each of these take up might as well be a Wal-Mart parking lot to a bobwhite. These parking lots, or dead zones, provide few of the resources bobwhite need to survive and reproduce.

Prescribed Fire: Fire can be a scary thing for a landowner, especially with the abundance of wildfires in the west. But prescribed fire can also be a tool for managers. Have you ever heard the expression to ‘fight fire with fire’? Prescribed fire can not only help rid a property of the species listed above, but it also helps to restore native plant communities, and remove the fuel load or amount of dead plant material that drives wild fires. Some of the fires in the West could have been mitigated or even prevented with proper fuel management and/or prescribed fire.

Timber thinning: Again, I won’t go into state-by-state specifics, but if you manage or own a closed canopy forest and want to bring back bobwhites, you are going to have to cut down some trees. Timber thinning can boost shrub, grass, and forb growth, improve soil quality, reduce wildfire risk, and be extremely beneficial to wildlife by providing more food and shelter.

Leaky Roofs: Let’s talk about those leaky roofs. If we as land managers start to make changes to improve quail habitat, we are essentially taking away predator habitat. Every brush pile you get rid of, stand of timber that you thin, prescribed fire that you perform, or anything cloaked in kudzu that is treated… that takes away habitat for a potential predator. When we do these things and allow native grasses and forbs to reclaim their rightful place on the landscape, we are also providing better nutrients to our wildlife. If we eat nothing but fast food, we are probably not going to be very healthy; but if we eat a nutritious, balanced diet, we have a much better chance at a healthy life. Having a smorgasbord of insects and native seeds gives quail a much better chance of combatting parasites or disease.

While we cannot change the weather, we can change our properties. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to even come up with a starting point, but how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do we improve quail habitat and quail numbers? One three-bedroom house at a time; making sure they have a place to sleep, eat, relax, and even freshen up. For more information on habitat management check out the NBCI’s Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving, And Managing Bobwhite Habitat.

Tell Judkins
Upland Game Biologist & Quail Coordinator
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Shell’s Covert: Reducing Cool Season Sod-Forming Grasses Without Herbicides

On nearly every farm in our area, unless it is totally wooded, you will find cool season non-native sod-forming grasses like fescue and orchard grass. Ridding an area of these grasses can be one of the first and most important things a landowner can do to manage habitat for early-successional wildlife (if they are not needed for hay or stock grazing). I am encountering more and more landowners who wish to do this without herbicides. No soap box today. It can be done, but not without some patience and a lot of work. One more note—one never really rids an area of invasive species, one merely reduces them as much as possible and manages them through time.

For those not opposed to herbicides, I suggest you get a copy of Dr. Craig Harper’s booklet entitled “Managing Early-Successional Plant Communities for Wildlife in the Eastern U.S.” It can be found, along with other books by Dr. Harper, at https://fwf.tennessee.edu/craig-harper/. This booklet gets to the point about many scenarios commonly encountered on properties in the east and gives very good information on how to employ herbicides and other techniques with the most effectiveness.

Why now for this topic? Because fall, beyond a doubt, is the best time to start killing cool season grasses, whether with herbicides or not. I encounter many landowners who have recently purchased a farm and no longer plan to run cattle or cut hay, or they may be older landowners getting out of the business. Conditions range from pasture or hay fields in good condition to old fields having not been hayed or grazed for years, but still undergrown with cool season grasses. The goal is to reduce the cool season grasses and increase forbs. I’ll begin with the lightest footprint possible and go from there.

If you have old fields that have many beneficial plants growing in them—like goldenrods, partridge pea, pokeweed, black-eyed Susan, broom sedge, Indian grass, etc.—but still contain a good bit of fescue or orchard grass, one of the simplest things you can do to reduce these cool season grasses over time is to stop mowing or bush-hogging in the fall. Not only does fall mowing remove the beneficial plants at a time when they are most needed by pollinators, leaving no cover until spring, it also exposes the fescue and other cool season grasses to the sun when they are STARTING to grow best. In essence, you have removed their competition for sunlight and given them a shot in the arm… or leaf, in their case. If you delay mowing until early spring, you will begin to favor the more beneficial perennial plants in the stand. You will still accomplish your goal of keeping the trees from taking over.

Note also that prescribed fire can be applied in this manner to reduce cool season grasses to some extent. Understand that this is different than using fall fire to control woodies in conjunction with herbicides. Fall fire used without any follow-up herbicides will function similar to fall mowing in that it exposes the cool season grasses to sunlight and reduces their competition at a beneficial time for them. Fire will not kill cool season grasses unless multiple fires are used over a long period of time during the early summer growing season. Ideally, you would use fall fire followed by spot herbicide treatment to rid an old field of cool season grasses and control woody encroachment.

If you have a field that is vigorously growing cool season grasses better than everything else, more must be done. What follows also depends on site conditions, which includes slope and soil depth. These techniques won’t work well on shallow, rocky soils or on steep slopes. Some common sense has to be applied.

Natural succession on fescue field after heavy fall disking (vegetation the following summer).

It is possible to use a mold board plow, or in some cases a sub-soiler and ripper, to turn cool season sod over in the fall. If you do not have access to these implements, a heavy offset disk can also work to some degree. The idea is to expose the roots of the grasses to the cold weather all winter long, which will reduce them in the stand. To do this you have to get down deep enough in the soil to get those roots up and exposed to the air. Light shallow disking will accomplish very little. Prior to attempting this, the grass should be hayed, mowed, or burned off to reduce the heavy thatch and make pulling these implements through the soil easier. A fairly strong tractor will be required, 50 horsepower or greater in most cases. Timing should be just before frost in the fall, usually mid-to-late October in our state. If the ground is nearly level, it might be fine to leave the soil exposed with no cover crop. If you have concerns about soil erosion and want to plant a cover crop, the plowing can be followed up by disking and then sowing an annual cover crop like wheat, rye or oats (1.5 to 2 bushels per acre). If the land is sloped to some degree but not severely, the plowing and disking should be done perpendicular to the field’s slope, or on contours, to further reduce rain runoff. If the area is very steep, you should find another place to do this work (or consider using herbicides).

Heavy buckwheat cover crop.

Once the grasses have overwintered with exposed roots and a cover crop, I suggest repeating this process by disking and sowing a summer cover crop like buckwheat. A heavy cover of buckwheat (20 lbs. drilled, 30 to 35 lbs. broadcast) will help shade out the crabgrasses and continue to suppress the cool season grasses. Buckwheat also provides for honey bees and other pollinators. In fall, repeat by disking and planting a fall cover crop. Leave the field fallow the following summer and see what comes in on its own. At some point, you might want to plant a wildflower mix, but give it some time. The natural seedbank can be quite good. And no seed from a vendor will be as good as what’s in the soil naturally.

There are too many scenarios to cover in a blog post, but suffice it to say, by repeatedly using fall and summer cover crops, you may be able to deplete cool season sod forming grasses without herbicides. There are also some new techniques being investigated, such as propane burner systems that actually cruise slowly over sods to raise the grasses root temperature enough to kill them. This method has been effective on some smaller areas so far, and if it can be perfected, may hold promise as another non-herbicide method in the future. We’ll keep trying to think differently and keep you informed of advancements.

Shell’s Covert: 11 Years in Review with Optimism for the Future

This post provides links for those who wish to explore more fully the past 11 years of what we now call our “Quail and Early-Successional Species Recovery Initiative.” In our 2017 evaluation and revision of our program, we drafted a comprehensive report that not only graded our efforts to date but provided a path forward. Note that the path forward was under ideal conditions and did not include budget cuts, position vacancies, and a global pandemic.

Our quail plan emphasized private lands work in targeted sections of the state, but our team helped any and all landowners in all counties, whether targeted or not. Over my career, which now approaches 25 years, I have found maintaining focus on specific counties or regions to be difficult through time. I have also found that predetermined areas do not always work out to be best, and am beginning to believe that focus areas should be expanded where they develop on their own due to local interest.

Every year, our team has also prepared a report and summary of the past year’s efforts. This special 10-year edition focuses on our private lands work. It is as much a “human” overview as it is facts and figures. All too often, we forget the human element of our work, which, in the end, is most important. Special thanks to Scott Klopfer, director of the Conservation Management Institute (CMI) of Virginia Tech, for his work on this 10-year Bulletin. Without Scott, and CMI, this report would not be in its current format and we would not have this link to it. Scott’s and CMI’s services to so many entities in the wildlife profession often go unheralded. Our quail team and the past 11 years of our work would not have been possible without Scott and CMI. We recognize all our partners in the reports provided, without whom we would fail.

Our original “quail team” in January 2010. Left to right: Drew Larson, Marc Puckett, Carol Heiser, Jay Howell, Tiffany Beachy, Ken Kesson, Katie Martin, Galon Hall, Andy Rosenberger, and Mike Budd.

Multiple states have enacted “quail plans” over the past decades and have met with varying degrees of success. Ours is no different. Some have focused more on public lands and research, others have concentrated on particular Farm Bill programs. Common to all these efforts are the ebbs and flows of funding and interest among agency and partner leadership. Occasionally those things align, and funding, agency leadership, and partner interest drives a wave of quail work. I want to thank the leadership of our own agency, the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), for continuing to support our efforts over 11 years. We have become so much more than simply a “quail plan.”

With regards to private lands, our team’s efforts have benefited butterflies, bees, and songbirds as much or more than bobwhites. We have also worked hard on some of our public lands. Most notably on our NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program Focal Area. Our Big Woods/Piney Grove focal area in southeastern Virginia is a partnership between the DWR, the Nature Conservancy, and the Virginia Department of Forestry. It is a national red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) management unit, having the most northern population of RCWs in their range. It is a work in progress for quail and is improving every year. Just last week, the Big Woods Management Area Supervisor, along with two of us quailophiles, completed spot spraying of encroaching sweetgum on our logging deck renovation project there. And much work has also been done on our northern Virginia focal area Manassas National Battlefield Park. Surrounded by an ever growing suburbia, the team at Manassas is still able to maintain and increase quail numbers on the park.

As an agency bound by our mission to serve multiple constituencies, it is difficult to dedicate any entire wildlife management area (WMA) to one cause or species. And we have been unable to dedicate any of our WMAs solely to quail management. That said, our WMA staff have done an outstanding job of incorporating early-successional habitat management on their WMAs. With 44 WMAs totaling nearly 220,000 acres, they have a big job with a lean number of staff. There has been an increasing interest in properly applying prescribed fire on our lands. And no single management technique can treat as many acres as quickly and at as low a cost as can prescribed fire.  There is a new level of interest in the professional development required to allow our staff to up our ability to manage with fire through time.

Our most recent and last “complete team” in 2018. Left to right: Lorien Deaton, Jay Howell, David Bryan, Andy Rosenberger, Jeff Jones, Bob Glennon, (kneeling) Justin Folks, and Marc Puckett.

Like many agencies, ours is seeing an increase in the retirements of long-term staff. They take with them a lifetime of knowledge that is hard to replace. But from my perspective, I am excited by the enthusiasm and level of knowledge I see in their young replacements. Time goes on, and older generations make way for newer ones. I am enormously proud of the wildlife work done by my generation and the ones before it. But I am equally optimistic that this younger generation, while perhaps not doing things exactly as we would have, will do things extremely well… and most likely, better than we did.

My first hand experiences hunting our public lands in central Virginia have convinced me that upland bird hunting is alive and well in Virginia. I am also optimistic that we are seeing a modest resurgence in our quail population in some areas. The work to do will never end, though. Quail recovery will span my career and the careers of several more generations to come. Our team will continue to do all we know how to do, and all we have the means to do, as long as we can do it to promote the development of the habitats used by bobwhites, rusty-patched bumble bees, Monarch butterflies, brown headed nuthatches, wild turkeys, golden-winged warblers, rabbits, red-cockaded woodpeckers, deer, and grouse.  Regardless under which species name the work is done, the results are for the good of all.