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Shell’s Covert: Managing Expectations (…or a Pollinator Planting is NOT a Pollinator Garden)

When I graduated high school, my dad offered me some choices of graduation presents. We were not wealthy by any monetary measure, not by a long shot. So his offer to take me to Canada on a fishing trip meant expenses our family would feel. But off we set on a 26-hour road trip one way, four of us in an International Scout packed to near bursting like a tick on a hound dog in summer.

Our expectations were high after years of seeing the pictures in all the popular outdoor magazines, all of which we subscribed to. The brochure of our camp of choice had shown freshly painted, immaculate cabins, shiny new boats, guides and stringers full of fish. But upon arrival we found dilapidated, mouse-infested, leaking cabins, a run-down camp store, beat up boats … and no guides. We also caught very few fish. It was still a fun adventure, but our expectations had not been met. Maybe they had been unrealistic?

Lately, I have found myself talking more and more to landowners who have been disappointed in their wildlife plantings. Many times these plantings have been “pollinator projects.” It has reached a point where some conservation professionals have become hesitant to promote pollinator plantings. I have planted quite a few myself – meaning me with partners out in the field preparing seed beds, mixing seed, and conducting multiple site visits for follow-up on multiple projects. I have enjoyed varying degrees of success, but would generally rate 90% or better as projects with good results. And in most cases, where results were not good, we had cut corners on proper establishment techniques. There are some keys to getting good results that I will mention later, but right now I want to address managing expectations.

Pollinator plantings are not pollinator gardens. Accept the fact that a few “weeds” will come up on their own. Many are great for wildlife.

I fear some wildlife professionals might be guilty of over-selling, or improperly selling, pollinator planting projects. First off, just about every picture a landowner sees of pollinator plantings is one showing a beautiful field of wildflowers in perfect bloom, many times with bumblebees or butterflies on some of the spectacular flowers. This is not helped by magazines that foster the utopian view of such plantings. This sometimes does happen, but guess what – in most cases when you plant wildflowers, the native seedbank – meaning those seeds naturally in that soil for perhaps decades, will also join the party. Believe it or not – not all of them have beautiful flowers. Ragweed, for example, often shows up. There is not a better plant in the world for quail, but it ain’t pretty and does nothing for pollinators. Horseweed is another common culprit of “plainness.” A few landowners go aghast that flowers other than yellow, red and blue somehow show up in the plantings. This year, common fleabane with tiny white flowers was ubiquitous in many pollinator plantings I saw. While it is not real showy, it is used heavily by a lot of small native bees.

I think one thing that can be done to manage expectations is to use a variety of photos to promote these plantings, not just the perfect ones. Landowners need to know that pollinator plantings are not “pollinator gardens.” Professionals also need to highlight the value of some of the non-planted “weeds” that show up for free. Basically, we just need to be honest about expected results, possible issues, and the need for long-term management, which may include addressing non-native invasive plants, too.

So here are a few of my suggestions for those interested in developing successful pollinator plantings (or other wildlife plantings in many cases).

  • As the landowner – avoid the utopian vision of how the project will turn out. Pollinator plantings require a lot more than “just adding water.”
  • Scout the site properly and look for potential invasive species that could derail a project. If the proposed site is infested with Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, Bermuda grass, or other such hard-to-manage invasives, consider another site if available. If not, be realistic. Will the expense and time required to address such sites “pay off” in the end? One way to deal with the invasives would be to plant the area to an herbicide compatible crop for several years to gain control over the invasives well before starting the pollinator planting.
  • Have patience. Properly preparing for and implementing a pollinator planting can take a couple years if it is done correctly. The project may require several herbicide treatments, and/or cover crop plantings to get the area “right” for pollinator mixture seeding.
  • Prepare a very good, firm seedbed. This usually requires culti-packing before and after seeding if planting on disked ground.
  • Make sure you have the time and equipment to properly implement the planting, or have the means to hire a wildlife planting contractor that is knowledgeable and capable of seeing the project through.
  • Learn to identify “good” weeds and wildflowers that you do not plant, and accept them as welcome and free additions to your plantings.

If a pollinator garden is truly what you want, pick a small site that can be weeded by hand, because over time that will be required. Most pollinator gardens are also implemented using potted plants, not seeds. Work with a good biologist to develop a list of plants you’d like to have and develop a plan for how they should be arranged. The plan should include sources and best planting times.

My last piece of advice involves being honest with yourself. If you want to be in the quail business, or even in the pollinator business, and you cannot tolerate a few native weeds and some unkemptness to your property, you may want to reconsider and spend your time and money elsewhere.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Old Croaky’

Upon my front porch last week early on a Saturday, by 0600, I was out enjoying the fact I was off, and at home. I live in the country for a reason. City folks might pay to spend a week at my house and consider it an outback adventure. This day and age what passes for hardship would be our poor cell phone coverage and slow internet. After a week at our place, I can see an urbanite hustling into their car and scurrying back to the city decrying the abhorrent conditions and seeking a refund. “Not enough biscotti, shadegrown freshly ground coffee, or peach flavored beer” perhaps being stated as reasons for restitution.

Thankfully, I never plan to do any time sharing, and my house is for me and my family to enjoy. My front porch is a wildlife mecca at times. I particularly enjoy spring, as I mark the first calls of migrating birds. I think none have a more beautiful song than the orchard oriole. I see deer, squirrels and rabbits daily. And have occasionally seen bears, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Yellow-billed cuckoos seem especially numerous this summer. And I get to watch blue-grey gnatcatchers sometimes. Now these are birds that never sit still. They flit from limb-to-limb combing branch after branch for insects. I suppose they stop at nightfall. At dusk and dawn I hear many Chuck-Wills Widows, and have been fortunate to see a few. They are larger than whippoorwills and impressive in flight. I am not sure why it seems they have increased in number and their close relative, the whippoorwills, have declined? Off this same porch I watched a hummingbird once sit in the top of my redbud tree. About every five or six seconds he would dart rapidly upwards, snatch something out of the air and then return to his branch. On closer observation I noticed a cloud of gnats about 10 feet above him. I realized he was getting his fill of them. I was surprised to find upon investigating that hummingbirds eat a lot of insects. Yes, they love nectar, and they’ve become addicted to sugar water in feeders, but they can make a living on insects in a pinch. It is amazing what we could all make do on once the veneer of luxury is eroded away.

But this post is about the bobwhite I call “Ole Croaky.” I have heard him for two years now off my front porch, and say “him” singularly because he has his own call (that said, there is no certainty it is the same male bobwhite). You have to be close to hear him, within a hundred yards I’d say, if not closer. Reason being, he sounds as if he has the proverbial “frog in his throat.” There are the three clear syllables common to all bobwhite calls (yes three, but only two can be heard if you are not close “bob-Bob-Whiiiiittte!”) but each note is a muffled, scratchy poor substitute for a bobwhite whistle. His effective search radius for a female bobwhite must be very small, and whether they’d actually even recognize his call or not, I don’t know … and if so, they may have no interest as his call may be some ecological measure of fitness. Who knows how quail think? I think I know what they need, what kind of cover they are typically found in and how to produce it…but I don’t know how they think.

Ole Croaky got me to thinking, though. It made me wonder about all the hurdles quail, or any other organism out there, has to face on a daily basis to survive and reproduce. As biologists we tend to focus on things that kill quail outright, but we don’t give as much thought to things that, while they may not kill a quail, or even a quail chick,  may inhibit some vital activity, like finding a mate, or getting enough food, etc. It made me wonder why Croaky’s call had gone awry. Did he ingest a grasshopper and have it get stuck in his crop, and after a few weeks went back to calling normally? Did he have some kind of parasite or infection? Was it a genetic defect? I don’t know. I assume it is not common, because I have not heard this call very often (one other time years ago in Cumberland County), but then if I was not close enough to hear them, how many did I pass by?

I know you are wondering “Where the heck is he going with this?” So if you are still reading, it is this … like a good friend of mine from Georgia likes to say “It’s hard to know what you don’t know.” I fear we live in a world where fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what’s going on outside. And as biologists we get into the mental equivalent of wagon wheel ruts in an old country road. Back in the old days, wagons would rut a road, and then they’d take a horse drawn grader and pull them down by dragging them, and so on and so on until you couldn’t see the wagon above ground anymore. I still find remnants of those old wagon roads from time to time while hunting in remote areas. I wonder sometimes if our entire profession (wildlife biology and research) is in such ruts in some ways. I guess my main reason for saying all that is to say this – I hope we can all challenge ourselves as individuals to get out of those ruts. Let’s not become unbending patrons of the current dogma. Let’s not assume we know it all. And let’s turn the iPads off from time to time, and get out of the truck and walk … and slow down long enough to think. After all, most of learning is about figuring out the right questions to ask…and that comes from simple observation most of the time.

From the Farmhouse to the White House: A Tectonic Shift

Major wildlife conservation policy gains come infrequently. Even rarer are victories so profound as to cause tectonic shifts in the conservation arena. The NBCI’s flagship Natives First concept, included for the first time in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report, is a victory that can shift the tectonic plates in favor of grassland birds.

The concept is straightforward: establish a native vegetation preference standard for all USDA agricultural conservation and cost-share programs. That is, reverse the traditional USDA default of relying on aggressive introduced vegetation from other continents by making native vegetation the first choice for publicly funded programs, unless there is a specific compelling reason not to. The USDA agriculture agencies are the only federal conservation agencies lacking a native vegetation preference policy.

Across the bobwhite range, some 90 million acres of “improved” pasture—established to near-monocultures of introduced forages from other continents—have been encouraged and subsidized by USDA. These 90 million acres provide poor habitat for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds, and are lost conservation opportunities for bobwhites, most grassland birds, and pollinators. Likewise, USDA soil and water conservation practices on croplands still rely heavily on aggressive introduced vegetation that minimizes wildlife habitat opportunity, even though native plants provide similar or better soil and water conservation benefits as the exotic plants.

In the 1980s, federally subsidized wetland drainage and conversion was still standard business. Waterfowl conservationists were slowly accelerating the pace of wetland restoration, but couldn’t keep up with the continuing wetland losses. Waterfowl groups engineered a bold effort to shift the playing field in their favor, convincing the George H.W. Bush Administration to institute a “No Net Loss / Net Gain” federal policy for wetlands. This policy succeeded in reducing wetland acreage losses to a point that wetland restoration caught up and began overtaking the losses, reversing longstanding trends. “No Net Loss / Net Gain” was a tectonic shift for wetlands.

Serious bobwhite conservationists understand and are united about native vegetation being as important for bobwhites as wetlands are for ducks. Native vegetation won’t automatically provide good bobwhite habitat, for ongoing active management is necessary to maintain the habitat quality. However, every acre dominated by aggressive introduced grasses such as fescue, bermudagrass, smooth brome, bahiagrass, weeping love grass, and old world bluestems is automatically a poor quality acre for bobwhites and most declining grassland birds.

The old rationales for clinging to aggressive exotic species are obsolete and wearing thin. New localized varieties of natives are continually being developed and produced for more ecoregions. Establishment of new stands of natives now is routine technology. Profitable management practices for native livestock forages are being developed. A dependable, predictable demand (such as would be created by a federal native vegetation preference policy) would enable seed producers to address lingering supply and cost concerns. The increased resource benefits of natives for soil, water, and wildlife would improve benefit/cost ratios for public expenditures. Finally, a new generation of resource conservationists is more aware of the values and willing to use native vegetation.

NBCI conceived and developed Natives First in 2011. National leadership in Washington, DC, by then-NBCI staff Bridget Collins and Kyle Brazil quickly began raising attention to the foundational problem and advancing the native vegetation preference concept among USDA leadership. NBCI and the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) have since been persistently shepherding a slowly growing national native vegetation movement of determined bobwhite and grassland conservationists. The tectonic plates shifted when then-Chair of the House Agriculture Committee Michael Conaway (R-TX) heard NBCI’s case, and he and his congressional colleagues included unprecedented instructions to USDA in the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report:

“The Managers recognize the benefits of native vegetation to improve water and air quality and enhance soil health. By encouraging the adoption of native vegetation seed blends, USDA programs are supporting habitat restoration for the northern bobwhite, lesser prairie-chicken, greater sage-grouse, other upland game birds, songbirds, monarch butterflies, and pollinators. The Managers encourage the use of native vegetation where practicable.”

It took eight years of persistent education and advocacy by NBCI (led in recent years by Jef Hodges and Tom Franklin, with vital support from the Park Cities Quail Coalition) and the undaunted professionals of the NBTC’s Grazing Lands/Grasslands Subcommittee to achieve this milestone victory. This language is a gentle start down an important path, and may need to be reinforced in the next farm bill. However, I contend that no other single federal policy improvement could have as much long-term value for bobwhites and grassland wildlife in agricultural landscapes as this Natives First victory.

We bobwhite folks have earned the right to celebrate and enjoy this hard-earned moment, so I will be sure to toast all my quail colleagues and friends tonight! But only briefly. We have been in this game long enough to know that an improved federal policy is only as good as its effective implementation at the national, state, and local levels… and that effective implementation requires the bobwhite community’s continuing advocacy and vigilance.

Shell’s Covert: Taking Our Measure

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day being tomorrow (June 6th), the marking of important events is on my mind. June 6, 1944, certainly ranks as one of the most important dates in history. The events of that day and those that followed to bring World War II to an end opened the doors to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature” to prevail. They haven’t always, but the balance is still in their favor after 75 years.

In the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks), as he lay dying after a grueling battle, touched Private John Francis Ryan from Iowa (played by Matt Damon) on the shoulder lightly and said, “Earn this.” What might have seemed like nothing more than a touching moment in a movie to many meant so much more. That line was a statement to all of us to go earn the sacrifices made by so many so that we might have a free future.

So much of what we do may seem trivial and unimportant compared to the fighting of a World War, but it is the collective of all the positive things done since then that honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. All anyone owed them was to wake up every day and go do an honest day’s work and appreciate the opportunity.

Wildlife conservation is a luxury in the sense that it can only occur where societies successfully rise above subsistence and oppression. The conservation of wildlife species will never be as dramatic or noted as events such as World Wars. But our own existence may depend as much on the conservation of those species and their environments as it does on more immediate events. After all, their environment and ours is one and the same.

This year, Illinois will host the 25th meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (including its former days as the Southeast Quail Study Group). I don’t know what a soldier under fire in France in 1944 would have thought of our group (of course, at that time they were thinking of nothing but surviving and not letting their fellow soldiers down). I do know that no generation of people has embraced the outdoors more than those that survived World War II. Those men and women and their children (the Baby Boomers) took to our fields, streams, mountains, campgrounds, parks, and trails like none since. I think it is telling that the generation that perhaps sacrificed more than any other, found their solace, comfort, and joy in our natural environment. For as many as five decades, they provided the lion‘s share of the funding for state wildlife agencies via their gusto for purchasing hunting and fishing licenses, registering boats, and paying taxes on goods related to those activities. Taking that as evidence, I think they would feel that we earned the sacrifices they made. I don’t think they would consider our collective work as trivial.

As for the quail world, we have plenty to show for the last 25 years. Keep in mind, our work has to be measured in ways that account for the difficulty of the task compared to some other species. Encouraging the creation and maintenance of millions of acres of ephemeral habitat is a monumental undertaking. In many parts of their range, the tide of decline has been stemmed, or at least slowed dramatically. Populations are showing resurgence in many places like Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky. Significant state recovery initiatives exist in multiple states within their range. Right here in Virginia, we see population surges in places where significant habitat work has occurred in a landscape still dominated by agriculture and forestry.

To define what I call the “quail world,” it consists of all the state agencies, federal partners, non-governmental organizations (both game species and non-game species related), research institutions, and others that collectively work on behalf of bobwhites and many species that rely on similar habitats. It might better be called the “early-successional species cooperative” – but that is a lot to say. A short list of major accomplishments of this collective would include: taking the Southeast Quail Study Group to the next level of a range-wide organization that includes 25 states under the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC); developing and staffing the “full-time infrastructure” of the NBTC in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI); the establishment of the state agency director-led NBCI Management Board; the completion of a comprehensive analysis of the population and habitat status of the bobwhite’s range; conducting multiple successful Quail Symposiums; volumes of successful and illuminating quail research; the development of special USDA financial incentives programs, such as the FSA’s center-pivot irrigation corners CP-33 and NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife programs specific to bobwhites; the increase in the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s mandated wildlife funding from 5% to 10% of the budget; and the development of the NBCI-led Coordinated Implementation Program, which is the largest, most comprehensive (almost all 25 states now involved), most well-designed quail habitat and population response study ever undertaken. A national marketing firm-designed promotion campaign has also been planned to accompany these efforts.

I don’t want to be accused of painting an overly rosy picture, but it is important to understand a lot has been accomplished. Even so, this is not the time to ease up. Funding for the NBCI continues to remain problematic and insecure. Quail populations continue to decline in many areas. World-wide declines in insects, birds, and amphibians point to underlying problems that need attention at levels much higher than those of a single species, agency, or entity.

Much as those who had just fought their way through North Africa gathered themselves, took a deep breath and waded ashore in Normandy, it is time for those of us in the quail world to gather ourselves to take our battle to the next level.

 

Shell’s Covert: The Eastern Tree Elk and Other Wonderful Projects

I like to refer to the southeastern fox squirrel as the “eastern tree elk.” For people who have never seen one, their first experience with the east’s largest squirrel subspecies can be exhilarating. There’s just something about them that can’t be defined.

There are four subspecies of fox squirrel that inhabit Virginia. Over in the very farthest tip of southwest Virginia, there are a few of what are referred to as the mid-western subspecies of fox squirrel (Sciurus niger rufiventer), and they are very common in the mid-west. Moving a bit further east into the Ridge and Valley region of Virginia is our most common subspecies, known as the mountain fox squirrel (Sciurus niger vulpinus) to many. While well known in the mountains, this subspecies is moving further east. It is now quite common along the east slope of the Blue Ridge and is becoming more common in the western piedmont, with occurrences in central Virginia also increasing.

Matt Kline, Big Woods Area Manager, hanging one of 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes

Traveling up to the eastern shore, you can find the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus). While still very rare and on the state list of threatened species, due to successful reintroduction efforts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently removed the Delmarva fox squirrel from the endangered species list. And back to my primary topic the southeastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger), the last of the four subspecies occurs in the southeastern region of Virginia, and becomes more numerous in North Carolina’s coastal plan and further south through South Carolina, Georgia and into Florida. While locally abundant in some states, this subspecies is considered to be in decline, largely due to habitat loss. They only occur in Virginia in pockets where suitable habitat exists in enough quantity to support long-term populations, mostly in the counties east of I-95 and south of I-64 – our southeastern coastal plain.

Fox squirrels are perhaps the most variably colored mammals in North America. They occur in colors from oranges, to reds, to whites, blacks and all mixes of the above. They are about twice the size of the average gray squirrel. It is believed that the southeastern fox squirrel used to occur up into south central Virginia in counties like Nottoway, Amelia, Lunenburg, Dinwiddie, Brunswick and Mecklenburg. The southeastern subspecies tends to have more black coloration than other subspecies, often having a black belly and a lot of black on its face, but with white ears and nose markings. Very little is known about this squirrel in Virginia, however substantial studies have been conducted in North Carolina and further south. We are currently working in cooperation with multiple partners on a southeastern fox squirrel study in Virginia. There are two study sites, one consists of The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve combined with DGIF’s Big Woods Wildlife Management Area over in Sussex County. A long-term population of southeastern fox squirrels occurs on these areas, though we do not know how numerous they are. In an effort to better understand them, we erected 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes (15 at 5 sites) on these areas. Our hope is that we will be able to capture and place radio-telemetry collars on at least a few to gain a better understanding of how they use the habitat. The southeastern fox squirrel is known further south as a denizen of the open long-leaf “piney woods” (especially where prescribed fire is used routinely), but here in Virginia they have adapted to a mixture of mature, open loblolly pines, adjacent to hardwood drainages.

Our second study site is on Ft. Pickett Army Maneuver Training Center in south central Virginia. Ft. Pickett Environmental Program Funds are our primary funding source for the entire project. The research is being conducted in partnership with Virginia Tech and the Conservation Management Institute. At Ft. Pickett we also erected 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes. We do not know if any fox squirrels exist on Ft. Pickett, but we hope if they do we can document them via the nesting boxes and trail camera usage. Phase 2 of this project might also include some trapping and translocation of southeastern fox squirrels from North Carolina to Ft. Pickett. We continue to develop the project and work out the details.

What is interesting about southeastern fox squirrels is that their habitats are highly compatible with bobwhite quail, and also the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which is an important consideration of management at Piney Grove and Big Woods in Sussex County. All these species are adapted to open canopy pine forests where fire is frequently applied.

The Piney Grove – Big Woods complex (which includes Big Woods State Forest) also serves as Virginia‘s primary National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Quail Focal Area. This makes it part of the nation’s largest ever coordinated bobwhite quail study. I’ll also mention that deer, turkey and many other species benefit greatly from the management being done to help an endangered species. Add to this our recent partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation on Big Woods WMA and State Forest, and I hope you can see the value of partnerships in ecosystem management. Our team at Big Woods was awarded a Superfund Project Grant from NWTF this spring that is allowing us to revamp multiple logging decks, turning them into brood fields for turkey poults and quail chicks, and also creating good pollinator habitat. Over time some of the native plant species we will use to re-seed the logging decks will spread into the surrounding areas increasing the native plant diversity.

And at Ft. Pickett, even though military training takes precedence over habitat management, wildlife and habitat are a top priority. The quality of the deer, turkey, squirrel and quail hunting found there is hard to beat. Their long-term use of prescribed fire as a management tool, combined with fires that result from military live fire training within impact zones, creates some of the most unique habitats in Virginia.

Both of these areas, the Piney Grove – Big Woods Complex and Ft. Pickett have several things in common. They are relatively large, contiguous blocks of habitat (10,000 acres and over 40, 000 acres, respectively), they actively manage timber with an emphasis on creating wildlife habitat, they routinely use prescribed fire, they welcome partnerships, and they are practicing ecosystem management, not single species management. These are just two examples of where synergy and partnership converge in Virginia and throughout the nation to benefit multiple public user groups. Whether you hunt, fish, hike, camp or watch wildlife, or “all the above,” wildlife benefits most when we work together to actively manage the contiguous blocks of public lands over which we have been given stewardship.