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December 2019 — Back in the Hunt

Dear Quail Hunters:

It is with great happiness that I write this note to share with you how nice it is for me this year to be “back in the hunt.” My dog, Tilley, is doing well. Just a little over 2 years old, she is smart, happy, biddable, friendly to all (humans, dogs and about everything else), hunts very well, stays in close, listens, has a knack for finding birds that are moving and is just generally a pleasure to hunt with.

Tilley on a woodcock point, crouching like a setter should do. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

Those of you who have gone without a good dog for a few years like I did know what I mean by being “back in the hunt.” Upland bird hunting is not the same when you don’t have a dog in the running. Tilley is still a work in progress. Her backing manners need some work. But I like a dog that adjusts and relocates, as long as they are right and not bumping birds. Of course I don’t take much credit for the way Tilley turned out (other than I spent time with her every single day, rain, cold, heat or snow – every day…the gift of time). Most of it was good lineage, and the rest was due to a patient friend of mine who helped me train. He’s trained enough bird dogs and labs to fill a football stadium over the years. You know who you are. Thanks!

Speaking of hunting, we have been out a number of times this year. We have witnessed some really good dog work. I won’t go into detail here – some of it was worthy of a magazine story, but one I’ll likely never find time to write. The older I get the more I just try to be in the moment. I take fewer photos and feel less and less need to let the world know about anything I experience. Maybe someday when I am too old, or too sick to get out myself, and if my memory still serves me, I’ll write some of these stories for the simple reason they might bring a smile to an old bird hunter’s face, or spark a kid to give bird hunting a try. In the meantime, there’s already a lot more sand in the bottom of my hour glass than in the top and I plan to spend as much of what I have left out doing what I love, not talking about it. I’ll see you out there sometime.

Also – this link will take you to the annual State of the Bobwhite report – many thanks to John Doty and all who made it happen again this year. It is no small feat. The work it describes ongoing on behalf of bobwhites and their habitat cohorts is monumental.

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbcis-bobwhite-almanac-state-of-the-bobwhite-2019/

Lastly, just a few inadequate words to say thanks to three men who spent most of their adult lives working diligently in the world of wildlife conservation. Longtime NBCI Director Don McKenzie stepped down from the position after 15 years at the helm. The list of NBCI accomplishments under his tenure is long and well noted in the State of the Bobwhite Report. For those of us in this business we know the moniker “swimming upstream” is an understatement. Don “fought the good fight” and left “nothing on the field” and speaking as one who knows that feeling, it takes a toll. Thanks to Don for giving it all he had – no regrets my friend.

Lifelong, well known, quail and turkey scientist and Science Coordinator and Assistant Director of NBCI since 2010, Tom Dailey, retired in September. Tom spent a highly productive career working for Missouri DNR for decades, before retiring from there and joining NBCI full time. I don’t know how old Tom is, but I suspect he worked into his 70s with passion right up to the end. His knowledge, integrity, ability and humility were unparalleled. I suspect he is out bird hunting today with one of his grandkids. Thanks, Tom, for all you did for bobwhites!

And long-time wildlife conservationist in Washington DC, Tom Franklin, retired and stepped down from his NBCI position of Agricultural Policy Director also at the end of September. Tom spent several decades working for The Wildlife Society in Washington. He later joined the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership as Washington liaison. Part way into that role, NBCI picked up half of Tom’s salary and time and for nearly a decade he represented the interests of bobwhite enthusiasts in Washington helping see through several key habitat initiatives, including CP-33 Center Pivot Corners being allowed under the Conservation Reserve’s Buffers for Bobwhites program. This inclusion has literally helped establish thousands of acres of early-succession habitat in states with large scale center pivot agriculture. This was but one of the things Tom helped accomplish by knowing how to communicate with politicians in our Nations’ Capitol. Thanks for all you did Tom and happy hunting!

Merry Christmas to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: Public Lands Paradise

A Happy Dog and Bird Hunter on Public Lands in Virginia

These last few days have put just enough crisp in the air to make me begin to feel the tingle in my stomach when I think about getting my 2-year old Llewellin setter out in the brambles again. The swish of bird pants on briers, the smell of wet leaves and creek bottoms, and the unfettered joy of seeing a young bird dog running free is almost close enough to touch.

“If only I had some place to go,” you say. Huh? In my best Jersey accent, “Yuse Godda be kiddin’ me!”

Chances are there is a good public lands upland bird hunting opportunity within no more than 45 minutes of where you live. That is if you enjoy the scouting and adventure as much as I do. If not, go buy yourself one of these new electronic “wall popper” games, get another bag of chips and some dip, and keep lengthening your belt size on your couch.

I upland bird hunt almost exclusively on public lands. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to go, don’t have to call ahead, and don’t have to worry about owing anyone anything in return for my access. They are our lands, yours and mine. A recent issue of the Quail Forever magazine was dedicated to public lands. “Hunt America: The Public Lands Issue” arrived at my home a few weeks back, not long after the Upland Bird Hunting Super Edition. Both were excellent. Kudos to Quail Forever on their magazine work.

The latest issue gave me the idea for this blog and I’ll try not to plagiarize their content, but I do want to make some of the same points … and maybe a few new ones. The issue focuses on a few germane topics: public lands hunting should matter to all hunters, especially upland bird hunters, we should all advocate for public lands, they should be kept public, and opportunity is ample on public lands across America. Even in the heavily populated East.

Most public hunting lands in Virginia also tend to be large enough that if you show up and someone is in your favorite spot, there is another place just down the road that will be almost as good. There’s room to roam! I hunted the Jefferson National Forest extensively in my youth (the better spent part of it anyway). The sheer joy of having hundreds of thousands of acres at my disposal and the energy to explore it was exhilarating. Find a map, get an old 4-wheel drive vehicle and set out. We’d leave before the sun made any heat and come home well after the moon was making shine, and never leave “the Jeff” all day.

We found a lot of special places along the way – some I still go back to and some I may never see again except in my dreams, but we never ran out of new sections to explore. And all of that without GPS, Google Earth and cell phones…I wonder what we could do now if we were still in our 20s? Maybe you are? What are you waiting for? Check out the USFS Young Forest Finder at this link: https://dgif-virginia.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=189fab6e47cc4de089a6eec6750ea187&utm_source=dgif_hunting_page .

Here in Central Virginia we have multiple DGIF-owned Wildlife Management Areas. Most are in the 2,000 to 4,000-acre range, not so large that they can’t become well known to you in a few seasons. Our agency manages 44 WMAs comprising over 225,000 acres well distributed throughout the state. The area managers work hard for you every day and they want you to use their areas. They take pride in them. Information about them can be found at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wma/ .

In addition to those areas, the Department of Forestry also has some large publicly huntable areas – their State Forests. The Appomattox-Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward-Gallion States forests are about as central in our state as you can get. These three state forests alone represent over 40,000 acres of public lands. More information about all the state forests as well as regulations pertaining to them can be found at: http://www.dof.virginia.gov/stateforest/list/index.htm .

Most of Virginia’s military bases also offer ample public hunting opportunities with certain restrictions. And don’t forget about the over 40,000 acres of hunting lands surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kerr Reservoir (26 wildlife management areas – many offer some form of upland bird hunting). Or all the opportunities on State Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and others. Not all these lands offer upland bird hunting, but many do. Information about all these lands can be found through our agency’s website at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations/publiclands/ .

I had a hunter friend text me last winter. He had spent the day hunting one of our wildlife management areas in Central Virginia. He found six coveys of quail that day, along with some woodcock. Another life-long “old time” bird hunter I know found 56 coveys hunting public lands over the course of the season – in Virginia. These are men I know and trust. These stories are not made up.

The common denominator among the successful bird hunters I know in the modern era is hard work and passion. They wear out their boots before the seats of their pants. I encourage you to make use of all the modern scouting tools at your pleasure, but don’t forget in the end it will take a substantial investment of your boot leather to have success.

Shell’s Covert: Seeing Through the Smoke…Responsible Fire Application

A well contained prescribed burn With residual smoke. Photo: Marc Puckett

I remember the first prescribed fire I participated in as a new Game and Inland Fisheries employee almost 24 years ago. It was September. I’d had no formal fire training, did not know what a “pack test” was, and the only personal protective equipment (PPE) I had on were leather gloves. There was no written burn plan, no pre-fire safety briefing (other than a statement “Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t do anything stupid”), and very little else in the way of planning. We did have hand held radios. One other thing we had going for us was there were some “old hands” in charge. These guys had a lot of experience, a knack for understanding fire and the confidence to develop a burn plan on site the day of the burn. They looked out for us “newbies.” The burn was also in a remote area with good man-made and natural fire lines in place.

That particular burn went well. But anyone who has practiced prescribed fire knows they do not always go well. An old saying that I think applies is “Failing to plan, means you are planning to fail.” I’m not knocking those old timers. I learned a good bit from them, but as we sit here 20% of the way through the 21st century, more training, planning and care is required to insure we can continue to apply fire into the foreseeable future – particularly in the increasingly populated east. You will now find our staff much better trained and equipped. And we strive to improve. Continued professional development is the mark of a true professional, whether in the public or private sector. It is up to all of us to responsibly apply fire.

What does that mean? First, I think it means recognizing that your actions as a fire leader don’t just affect you and your immediate team. Mistakes made in today’s society could affect everyone trying to apply fire in an entire state or region. Burn managers need to assess every burn for its value in relation the potential costs if something goes wrong.

In my opinion, an agency or organization should not undertake more acres of burning than can be well managed on a fire rotation through time. Rather than trying to maximize acres burned, the goal should be to maximize acres burned well with a very specific purpose. In my opinion it should mean exactly the same thing to private landowners.

One of the most impressive uses of fire through time I have seen is a pine stand managed by Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division in Sussex County, Virginia. The approximate 150-acre tract has been burned 9 times in 18 years. It is a true demonstration of how fire needs to be applied properly over time to establish a wonderful fire adapted native plant and animal community. In my opinion, this is how all agencies should approach their fire programs. Focusing on areas where it makes the most sense and that are most conducive to fire over the long term. And those areas should provide critical habitats for species in need. And they should serve as examples for all to see, becoming prime educational venues.

Another huge component of responsibly burning means worrying as much about smoke management as about the fire itself. We have weather forecasts available to us that are very detailed down to the hour of the day for several days. These forecasts allow us to be able to understand how smoke will disperse, where it will go and when and where it will come back down. Ideally the weather will allow us a long enough window to complete the burn, and provide for smoke dispersion well after the fire itself has died down. Real thought has to be given to smoke, not just during the fire, but the night after it, and in the following days if fuels are expected to smolder. The old attitude of “Well, a little smoke won’t hurt them”, or “They’ll get used to it” needs to disappear.

Prescribed burning is a fantastic teambuilding activity, but it should never be applied just for that purpose. Part of the teambuilding should include a discussion of why the fire is being planned. Future burn practitioners should begin to learn the lesson very early that we are not out burning just because it is fun. With massive declines in pollinating insects, songbirds and many other organisms being very recent in our news, it should not be too hard to explain that we are burning to recover ecosystems that are critical to our planet.

We all know Smokey the Bear and how effective he has been in wildfire prevention. We need a similar mascot in the prescribed fire community that actively promotes the wise use of prescribed fire. In order for all of us to be able to continue to apply one of the most cost-effective wildlife management tools in our toolbox, we need to be doing as much public relations work as we do prescribed burning. And we all need to be aware of the image we project when we talk about fire when among our constituents. Wildland fire fighting has its own language and approach. I admire all wildland firefighters, and firefighters in general. But I think more care needs to be used in making sure the public knows the difference between the world of wildfire and prescribed fire.

 

From the Farmhouse to the White House: Work Worth Doing – Don McKenzie’s Farewell

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” —Theodore Roosevelt

We built something from nothing. Over the last two decades, the bobwhite quail community started from scratch and created a force for a worthy mission: stemming the decline and starting the restoration of the northern bobwhite and numerous companion species.

The many passionate, dedicated, and intrepid biologists of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee created and continue stoking the fires of their restoration strategy, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Breck Carmichael stepped up immediately, leaping off the starting line in 2003 and setting a brisk pace as the first-ever NBCI Coordinator. In 2004, he and the NBTC handed the baton to me. I’ve put everything I have into it ever since.

Day-to-day, our progress usually has been difficult to see. But looking back through the years, it is obvious we have exceeded all expectations in building a national movement! Together, we:

  • made bobwhites a national conservation priority;
  • created a national model for resident game bird conservation;
  • built NBCI’s national capacity to “lead, leverage, and enable”;
  • catalyzed more and better conservation by states and numerous partners;
  • created new federal conservation practices for grassland birds and bobwhites;
  • elevated bobwhite conservation to levels no one previously thought possible.

For example, after eight years of undaunted hard work, NBCI and the NBTC finally got one of our flagship objectives, Natives First, into the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report. That unprecedented victory will be a tectonic shift for the long-term future of bobwhites in agricultural landscapes. And it is our victory!! If not for the NBCI and NBTC, it would not have happened.

Life offers few opportunities for a person to be part of something this big and this worthwhile. Every one of us should feel proud to be a part. I know I am deeply honored to have had the privilege of leading NBCI for the past 15 years; to have been intimately involved with NBCI from its very beginning 21 years ago; and to have been actively associated with the NBTC for all its 25 years.

There comes a time for everyone when we have been in a job long enough. If we are lucky, we will recognize that time and be able to act on it. Several times in recent years, I have stated publicly that when we get Natives First language in a farm bill, I should retire, for there can be no more profound accomplishment for bobwhites than establishing a native vegetation standard at USDA.

My time has come. I announced to the NBTC’s 25th Annual Meeting in Carbondale, Illinois that I am retiring from NBCI on October 1, 2019.

The NBCI and NBTC are in a transitional period, ready for and poised to step up another level. New skills, creative ideas, and boundless leadership energy are needed to adapt to and address myriad NBCI challenges ahead. The NBTC Steering Committee, the NBCI Management Board, the University of Tennessee, and NBCI staff are already working hard to develop a transition plan to keep NBCI and our movement going and growing, in one form or another.

I have been blessed with numerous priceless friendships developed over 25 years with this tight-knit community of bobwhite fanatics. I thank each of you sincerely for your dedication to bobwhites, for your support through all these years, and for your friendship.

I especially want to tip my hat and thank the staff of NBCI for your unceasing hard work, for breaking new ground with every pioneering step forward, for your willingness to take a chance on working for an unproven concept built on soft money, for sharing an ambitious vision, and for putting up with my eccentricities as a boss.

I want to thank the University of Tennessee for 11 years of foundational support that have been vital to enabling NBCI’s growth and success. Thank you, also, to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program for working with NBCI, the states, and UT to create a unique new funding mechanism that can empower important new regional initiatives. Thank you to the federal agencies—e.g., Farm Service Agency, National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service—that are rallying to the cause of restoring native grassland habitats and species. Thanks to the many non-government organizations who bring unique capabilities and add immense value to bobwhite and grassland bird conservation. Finally, thank you to the states that comprise the NBTC and the NBCI Management Board that have created, supported, and led a movement that has become bigger and stronger than the sum of the parts.

The upcoming period of transition will test the strength and endurance of the prototype machine we have built. My confidence is high that the NBCI and the bobwhite movement will emerge stronger than ever. Indeed, it must, for we have barely begun to address a generational conservation challenge that will require monumental perseverance.

From wherever my next chapter is based, I will continue to be your loudest cheerleader as all of you continue your hard work at work worth doing, restoring our beloved bobwhite. Sammy and Teddy are counting on you!

Sammy (right) and Teddy (left)

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.