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Native Grass Gazette: The Longest Excuse Ever!

Big bluestem and pin oaks following a February ice storm

I told myself at the beginning of the year I would do a better job of writing blog posts, trying to write one a month or at least one every two months. Well, here it is April and this is my first post of 2018. Time has simply gotten away from me, but I haven’t been remiss in my duties (other than writing a blog post). These first three months have been busy, mostly with Natives First, but there are also a lot of other things going on. I thought I’d take this post to catch you up on a few of those things.

I started out the year wrapping up a project that began last year. Through a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agreement with Pheasants Forever, NBCI and the Center for Native Grasslands Management received an award (originating from NRCS) to conduct a series of technical transfer workshops about establishment, management and grazing of native warm-season grasses for bobwhites in support of the Working Lands For Wildlife Bobwhite in Grasslands (WLFW BIG) project. The workshops will have two components, first is an in-service training for NRCS staff, NGO partners, Extension and state wildlife agency personnel. The second component will be producer oriented to introduce producers to native warm-season forages and their management. Requests for workshops will originate from the NRCS State Offices in the WLFW BIG states (AR, IL, IN, KY, MO, NC, OH, TN, and VA) interested in hosting one. These workshops will be completed over the next 3 years.

While on that subject, as part of the coordination team for BIG, I developed draft technical content for a Northern Bobwhite story board. (It is being modeled after a Monarch story board http://nrcs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=8c9b052d51214cc3b6742a4ddf0a98cc) Other members of the coordination team have been reviewing and editing the story board as well as identifying photographs and images to include. NRCS National Headquarters Public Affairs department will handle the graphic development and distribution. I hope it will be out by May. The purpose will be to promote the WLFW BIG project, primarily prescribed grazing of native forage for bobwhites.

As I mentioned, Natives First activities have been monopolizing most of my time. In January, I established a Natives First Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/natives1st/. For those who are Facebook savvy, that may not sound like much, but for me there was a learning curve. I originally published a personal Natives First page, then discovered I should have published a community page, which I did after some investigation into why the original Natives First page wasn’t working the way I wanted. Rookie mistake, right?

Natives First Facebook page cover image

A lot of the Natives First activity has been providing follow-up to questions and comments. Some to several members of congressional staff, other to NGO’s curious about the proposal and investigating whether they want to support Natives First or not.

One of the most common concerns is what impact Natives First will have on the use of non-native plant material when there are justifiable reasons to use non-native. My first response is, it is a natives “first” proposal, not natives “only.” My second response is, if Natives First is implemented as NBCI suggests, each State Technical Committee will determine which non-native plants can be used under what circumstances. Another question that has arisen is about seed availability and cost. Having worked in the native seed industry I know that seed companies will respond to increased demand. Seed producers are understandably reluctant to expand production of a crop without knowing there will be a somewhat predictable demand. Natives First will help provide predictability, which will stimulate production and stabilize supply and prices. I have been working with the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) since the beginning, keeping them informed. In fact, an ASTA member worked to help develop the language in the Natives First proposal as it relates to seed, sourcing and availability.

Natives First seems to be gaining some momentum … if not momentum then certainly recognition. In February, Tom Franklin, NBCI’s Ag Liaison, and I worked with an outdoor writer providing background and information for an article about Natives First. In late March, Ensia Online published the article by Andy McGlashen, A U.S. Farm Bill Even A Butterfly Could Love? https://ensia.com/articles/farm-bill/. We have received quite a bit of feedback from that article and continue to follow-up on inquiries.

In support of Natives First, on March 1 I presented a webinar, Native Vegetation Investments Pay Conservation Dividends, on Sothern Regional Extension Forestry’s Webinar Portal for Forestry and Natural Resources. It was live viewed by nearly 100 and is available as View on Demand at: http://www.forestrywebinars.net/webinars/native-vegetation-investments-pay-conservation-dividends. This was my first webinar and combined with the technical nature of the content, preparation was very time consuming.

Alyssa Merka, NBCI communications specialist, is working with me developing several one-pagers to help promote Natives First, one being an infographic promoting native vegetation. More accurately, I should say I am working with Alyssa, as she is doing the hard work designing and organizing the documents. The objective is to have brief, succinct facts and descriptions to give readers a quick look and understanding of NBCI, Natives First, the Natives First Coalition and why we are promoting native vegetation. We’ll make an announcement and post them online when they are done.

Promotion of Natives First continues this month. The second week of April, Tom Franklin, NBCI Forestry Coordinator Steve Chapman and I are headed to DC and will be making the rounds at UDSA, USFWS, USFS, BLM and meeting with a couple of members of Congress carrying the Natives First message and discussing NBCI’s agenda for early succession management of forests, thinning and burning, grazing as a management tool and, of course, utilizing native vegetation.

It hasn’t all been about office work. In mid- January I attended an Adaptive Multi Paddock (AMP) grazing workshop conducted by Dr. Allen Williams. We had a meeting scheduled to delve into detail about the “adaptive” part and how to adapt it for bobwhites. Unfortunately, icy weather cut Dr. Williams trip short and we were unable to meet. We’ve rescheduled for mid-April. Stay tuned for the results.

A few days later I attended the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) annual meeting in Louisville, KY where I met with their board of directors. The purpose of that meeting was to introduce NBCI to AFGC and inform them of our support and promotion of prescribed grazing of native forages … and to ask for an advisor to provide technical input to me on grazing matters. An unexpected but welcome result of that meeting is that NBCI is tentatively scheduled to sponsor a grazing and bobwhites symposium at their 2019 annual meeting in St. Louis. This represents the first, to my knowledge, entry by any wildlife interest into the core of the forage production livestock industry.

On the heels of that trip I met Don McKenzie, NBCI director, in West Virginia where, on a blustery, snowy day we toured a potential bobwhite recovery site with WV DNR personnel to give our assessment of habitat condition and readiness for translocations. Following our field tour, the next day, we met with the WV governor to inform him of our assessment. WV Governor Justice has a keen interest in seeing bobwhites recovered in the state.

WV DNR and NBCI visit potential translocation site

 

The last days of January and first couple of February I traveled to Sparks, NV to attend the Society for Range Management annual meeting where I gave a presentation on the Importance of Southern Rangelands to Northern Bobwhites and Other Grassland Birds as part of a Forgotten Southern Rangelands Symposium. You are probably wondering what that has to do with my job duties? Currently, USDA only recognizes “rangeland” in Florida of all the south/southeast. There is an attempt underway to get USDA to add the official designation of rangeland to those southern states. This change will affect practices and cost-share assistance available.

The third week of February, I attended NBTC Steering Committee and NBCI Staff meetings in Knoxville.

Knoxville skyline one morning before NBTC and NBCI meetings

 

On the grazing front I’ve been reviewing grazing allotment management plans and annual operating instructions for the Ozark and St. Francis National Forests as we look for ways to make grazing more wildlife/bird friendly on those forests. I’ve also provided input and review of grazing/wildlife presentations or study designs for Ohio NRCS and KY Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Intermingled among all of this I have been working slowly, but steadily, on the two Grazing Strategies for Northern Bobwhites publications, the western landowner-focused version and eastern, technical assistance-focused version. I’ve been conducting a literature search and review, reading common articles, interviewing grazing managers and researchers, all trying to wrap my head around all of it. Those publications are forthcoming.

So you can see, I really have been busy and haven’t had time to write a blog post.

Isn’t that just about the longest excuse ever? I probably should have gone with, “the dog ate it.”

Shell’s Covert: Seven Years and Counting…

My first blog post here was in February, 2011. That’s over seven years ago. During that timeframe I have probably broken every rule of blogging. Blogs are supposed to be short and frequent. Mine have been long and infrequent. I guess that’s because I am 55, I love to read and write, and I have refused to submit to the “blurb” society where it seems folks have hours to send multiple small blurbs, but no time to write a meaningful message to anyone. It is also because I don’t think my agency is paying me to be a full time blogger. So I have limited it to once a month. I have tried to mix things up in the 85 or so posts I have done.

Some have focused on habitat management, others on quail biology. Still more have focused on upland bird hunting. But my topics have been as diverse as writing about pollinators, 17-year locusts, squirrels and the Civil War…all of which I have attempted to relate back to quail in some way or another. A few have been personal…about loss. And one or two have been philosophical…guilty as charged. But they have all come from the heart and from the caring I have about quail, wildlife, and all of you.

I do not honestly know how many folks read my blog. I hear from a few good friends from time to time that they enjoyed a particular piece. I hope it does some good for someone, somewhere. I have thought about organizing them into a book for lack of a better term, but I never seem to have time. So for what it is worth, in case any of you may wish to go back and look at some of the BLOGs, I am listing the more technical, educational ones below by month. They are all archived on the NBCI website www.bringbackbobwhites.org under BLOGs and under Shell’s Covert. These are not listed in chronological or any other order. I am just going through my list and stating a topic of interest and month and year. For what they are worth…

– Winter’s Effect – March 2014
– Quail on the Cheap (guest BLOG – Justin Folks) – January 2014
– Reforestation Education – October 2017
– Great October Quail Count (how to estimate your quail population) – October 2015
– Pen-raised Quail – November 2013
– Synthesis of Quail 8 Research papers – September 2017
– Value of Protective Cover (It’s a Shell Game) – April 2014
– Value of Weeds – June 2011
– Quail Food Habits (Lespedeza Alone) – August 2016
– Simple Changes in Mowing – November 2012
– Quail Harvest: Education versus Regulation – December 2016
– Golf Cart Quail (how small land changes affect quail populations) – April 2015
– Christmas Quail Management Package (links to multiple DIY sites) – December 2017
– Ring of Fire (history of fire and wildlife) – February 2015
– Housing Development Quail (Arrangement of cover for quail) – June 2017
– Where are They Going to Come From (notes on quail dispersal / movements) June 2016
– Seeing the Light (how to determine if your timber is open enough) – March 2017
– The Prospector (how even small patches of cover can help) – May 2012
– Natives versus Non-Native Plants: Not a Simple Issue – May 2016
– Putting the Sting back in Quail Management (pollinator / quail overlap) May 2017
– Quail Population Management for the Landowner – November 2012
– Quail Disease / Parasite Issues – November 2015
– Cost of Managing Timber for Quail – November 2017
– Quail Translocation Issues – September 2015
– Low Brow Bird Hunting (quail hunting does not have to break your bank) – February 2017
– Bird Dog Training – March 2018
– The Last Bird Hunter (future worst case scenario??) – January 2018

Those were some of the more useful posts. If you have been reading for 7 years – Thank You for sticking with us. If you are a new reader, maybe there is something here you can use. And if you have ideas for future posts send them to marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov . Happy Spring to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: Tilley Bell

I thought long and hard before I bought my latest bird dog puppy … as much about  whether to buy her, as from whom. I have watched the decline in quail numbers and the even faster decline in quail hunters for 25 years now. And my number of avid quail hunters has declined on a more personal level. Some have passed on to the great bird coverts in Heaven. If you ever wonder what that might be like you need to read the great story by long ago outdoor writer Corey Ford. Its title is “The Road to Tinkamtown.” I suggest you read it somewhere alone and keep a kerchief handy, because grown men do cry from time-to- time.

Tilbert at Seven Months

Ultimately, I decided that much like when I bought my first bird dog, not knowing much about them, but with a good friend who did, to take the plunge back into puppy-dom. I do not have a knack for training dogs, though this time I do have more patience.

One of the biggest things I learned in training dogs before Tilley Bell was no matter what, always end a training session on a high note. I have also learned a few things about what you want to see in a good bird dog. Some hard-headedness is good because hard-headed dogs don’t tend to be quitters or slackers. Intelligence is very important – and  if you look close enough when picking a pup you ought to be able to see “someone is home” up there between those ears. And they need some drive. This is again hard to tell at first, but it will become quickly apparent.

Tilley Bell (Til for short, but now Tilbert for some reason) will retrieve a quail dummy as many times as I stand there and throw it for her…she seems to have a limitless supply of energy and optimism. She is also a happy dog, not a worrier. So with a dog like Tilly Bell, it becomes a matter of molding that talent into a hunting companion that you can rely on. Time will tell whether I can turn her into such a dog or not, but I can assure you I won’t do it by breaking her spirit. That’s not what a bird dog trainer means by “breaking a dog.” You have a lot of raw talent that any coach would recognize, now you remove bad habits, build good ones and use encouragement, reward and sometimes toughness to allow that talent to reach its potential.

I named my new dog, now almost eight months old, Tilley Bell, after my Mom. She is now 83 and that was her nickname as a kid. Tilley Bell. And she was a marble-shooting, athletic Tom Boy who has faced down many health struggles now for decades with a smile, kindness, perseverance, faith and love. It’s how we ought to treat each other, and how we ought to train our dogs. A good Mom would never criticize a child without first having built that child’s confidence up with praise. A good coach would never berate a player unnecessarily in a mean- spirited way. And a good bird dog trainer won’t either.

My dogs have always been what some refer to as “meat dogs.” Which suits me, as if I were defined in dogs terms, that’s about what I’d be. What it means is no frills, businesslike, hard-working, not fancy, but always enjoying the hunt and driven to find birds. And I’d also say more steady than flashy, able to hunt all day and not burn out in two hours.

I have great respect for those who run their dogs in field trials. Their skill with dogs and often horses is amazing. Think about how hard it is to train one of these animals or the other – then combine the two. But field trials are not my mug of Joe. I’m not a social person in the sense that on weekends I seek solitude or a few close friends, not crowds and competition.

If you are thinking of getting into bird hunting don’t be scared off by believing your dog needs to be steady to wing and shot, with a high tail on every point followed by a perfect retrieve every time. The only judges you really have to face are yourself, and maybe an understanding friend from time to time (because why have any friends who are not understanding)?

By the way – “setters” were trained to crouch or “set” when they pointed birds centuries ago – because the hunters then used hoop nets, not shotguns, and the nets were thrown over the dogs, just past them, in an attempt to encircle the gamebirds…therefore a high standing dog would have then been a hindrance. I still love seeing some of that trait in a setter today (Tilbert is a Llewellin Setter).

As far as bird hunting in the 21st Century…in Virginia…it is being done successfully by many. Is it back to being the “good ole days?” No. And it may never be. But is it fun? Yes. Is it good? Yes, at times. Does it take extraordinary ability? No. Does it take work? Yes. Does it take perhaps a change in your view of success? Yes. Is it worth getting into now? Absolutely. I would not have bought Tilley if it were not.

Several of my friends and I have noticed what appears to be an uptick in participation. There’s some excitement brewing on upland bird hunting chats. There are pockets in Virginia where quail are quite abundant. Woodcock seem to be fairing OK, though still declining nationally…largely due to habitat loss. And much like for quail and grouse, complicated by other factors like predation and disease. But there IS hope. Once hope is lost, all is lost. If all we focus on is gloom and doom there won’t be any new hunters wanting to find out what it’s like to ease up on a point and feel those bugs churning in your gut, and bracing for that flurry of activity called a flush…and no matter how many times it happens, every time is like the first time all over again. So go forth young men and women, and get that first bird dog puppy.

The Importance of Scientific Wildlife Research

I have heard some folks say, “What do you all need to waste money on studying this or that species for? You know everything you need to know to manage for quail (or grouse, or bears, or whatever it may be). All that money could be going into habitat management.” Well…I am glad the people who discovered penicillin did not declare, “We’re done here. We’ve got this whipped.”

Ecosystems are not static. They evolve, conditions change and the need to continue to do sound wildlife research will always be with us. I have also heard a few folks criticize researchers for always ending their presentations by saying “More research is needed.” Exactly! It most certainly is. Questions are answered, but many times new questions arise and this is how our society has advanced through time…upon millions of building blocks, all beginning with hunches, and ending in discoveries. And… one rule (of several key ones) I have in life, I never trust anyone who claims to know everything about anything.

Scientific research is an ongoing need, even for bobwhites.

It’s been said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied birds in the history of wildlife science. I am not sure who counted the studies and compared them to other species, but it is probably high on the list. Regardless, we are still learning and new questions come up routinely. For instance … on our National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program Model Quail Focal Area we hear lots of quail during the summer, but we hear very few during our fall counts and the hunters using the area find very few in winter.

Have they died? Are they using the cover very differently than hunters imagine? Do they move off the focal area in search of something they are not finding within it? Are surviving quail simply much better at avoiding hunters than generations past? Have their habits changed over the last decades (meaning 30 or 40 generations for quail) in order to survive in an evolving ecosystem? And, more importantly, can we learn something by studying the situation that might lead us to management decisions that would be good for quail and quail hunters?

Scientists sometimes use the terms “anecdotal” or “ancillary observation” to describe things they or others have observed in nature that are not part of scientific testing. A simple example might be one in which a person observed quail feeding in a partridge pea patch many times. They assume the quail are feeding on partridge pea seeds. But without further examination, it cannot be said with any certainty that is why they are there. They can say “based on anecdotal evidence, I feel quail like partridge pea.” But, many other things grow in conjunction with partridge pea, and it is also a great attractant for insects, upon which quail would rather feed than anything. But this “hunch” can be tested by scientific study, such as trapping quail in the area, and examining crop content and drawing a conclusion that quail do like partridge pea, but as much because it has good structure and attracts insects as for other reasons.

This also leads us to a term called “replication.” In a nutshell, just because you test an idea in one area, or one situation, does not mean what you find there can be applied everywhere. To be truly good, a study requires replication in a wider variety of circumstances.

Scientific ability also evolves and old findings sometimes need re-testing. I can’t recall the class, but one of my professors “back in the day” made a comment that “Mother Nature was very good at fooling people into believing things that were not true.” A classic example of this is the case of the cotton rat being labeled as a bad predator of quail eggs.

Back in the 1920s, using the best techniques available at that time, the famous quail biologist Herbert Stoddard (of Tall Timbers Research Station and prescribed fire fame) stated that cotton rats were bad predators of quail eggs. Managers since that time have worked under that assumption. But recently, researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station, using modern techniques which included remote video cameras set up on hundreds of quail nests discovered beyond doubt that cotton rats do not prey on quail eggs very often at all, they merely clean up egg shell fragments left by other predators that destroyed the nest and eggs before them.

Further, they discovered that cotton rats serve as “buffer” prey for quail and that the higher the cotton rat density, the lower the quail predation – all other factors being equal (this information can be found in the new Tall Timbers Quail Management Handbook available for purchase on their website www.ttrs.org ). Quail managers on modern quail plantations now try to manage to increase cotton rat abundance. A note – Herbert Stoddard was ahead of his time and right about the vast majority of what he studied….but like most of us he was not right 100% of the time.

On our focal area, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are the primary species of concern (and rightly so because they are endangered and quail are not). Other questions we have are: How do we tweak habitat management to benefit quail without being detrimental to RCWs? Can we adjust the size of prescribed fire units, making things better for quail without harming RCWS, or reducing the total amount we need to burn each year to sustain the RCW ecosystem? If the quail are staying on the area and not dying or moving away, where are they during winter? And what can be done to increase the critical winter escape cover we find them using?

We have a study proposed to help us answer these questions. We’ll use two other areas for comparison to give our study more “strength.” Time will tell if the funding comes through. No matter what happens we hope that our constituents, and even some in our own profession, continue to see the value in wildlife research. And further – that it will also be recognized that state wildlife agencies are the best liaison between our research universities and our state wildlife user groups. No one understands or works harder for our constituents than we do.

It’s Time for a Native Plant Policy at USDA

It is time for the US Department of Agriculture to embrace a native vegetation standard across all its agencies and programs. Such a move will be good for the birds, the pollinating bees, the monarchs and many other butterflies. And for soil health, water quality and clean air. And for taxpayers. And, yes, also for producers and landowners.

USDA does not keep good data on introduced versus native plantings. But reading between the lines of USDA data on just one program, NBCI estimates roughly 1.25 million acres of aggressive, introduced vegetation that provides poor habitat was subsidized on private lands across the bobwhite’s range in 2014 by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. In contrast, NBCI’s annual habitat management inventory documented only about 750,000 acres of private lands bobwhite habitat management fostered by state wildlife agencies that same year (https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbcis-bobwhite-almanac-state-of-the-bobwhite-2014-is-now-available). Across USDA, multiple programs in multiple agencies are working at cross-purposes with themselves: supporting native grassland restoration while subsidizing the spread of aggressive introduced plantings for agricultural and conservation purposes that replace and degrade native habitats. Bottom line: bobwhites and many other at-risk grassland species still are losing ground every year.

The waterfowl conservation community figured out decades ago the fundamental dilemma of such an imbalance. A potent concept, known as “No Net Loss / Net Gain,” highlighted the need for a two-fold approach to restore ebbing waterfowl populations. Minimizing wetland losses was necessary before wetland restorations could catch up and begin rebuilding the continent’s total wetland habitat acreage. The duck guys acted and fixed their problem by supporting legislative and regulatory policy reforms for wetland conservation.

The quail/songbird/monarch/pollinator guys should take heed. The nation’s native grassland habitats and wildlife populations cannot be stabilized or restored until the federally subsidized losses and degradation are minimized. Quail conservationists have been talking about this problem for many years, with no traction and no resolution. Meanwhile, the major federal public land management agencies already have adopted native vegetation policies – US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service. Even the USDA Forest Service has a native vegetation policy. But not USDA’s agriculture agencies.

Natives First is NBCI’s national leadership effort to reform USDA’s decades-long tradition of relying primarily on aggressive plants introduced from other continents for conservation and production programs. Natives First would establish a new standard at USDA, so that native plants that provide high-quality wildlife habitat would become the default preference for all publicly funded financial and technical assistance programs. Note that our concept is not called “Natives Only.” We know some introduced plants that are not aggressive can provide suitable habitat for some wildlife. We also recognize some specific, narrowly-defined situations may require reliance on introduced plants that provide poor habitat. But those examples are, and should be treated as, just the exceptions.

NBCI is circulating a letter to Congress asking for a native vegetation standard at USDA to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. That community letter has been signed by 50 partners, and more are asking to be added. NBCI also has established a Natives First Coalition, a more enduring alliance of partner groups committed to this cause for the long term. Check out NBCI’s website (https://bringbackbobwhites.org/conservation/natives-first/) and our Natives First Facebook page for more information. We invite you, we need you, to join the Natives First Coalition.

The dire native grassland decline has been 75 years in the making; it won’t be solved overnight. But until a native vegetation standard is established at USDA, the problem won’t be solved at all. This is big ball. Adoption of Natives First by USDA could be the single most important conservation action to tilt the nation’s private land playing field in favor of restoring at-risk grassland wildlife.