Blogs

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.

Shell’s Covert: Apple Pie, Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, Baseball…Cattle and Quail.

For multiple decades eastern wildlife biologists were fond of saying cattle and quail did not mix. This must have come as a great surprise to all those western ranchers who had more quail on their typical pastures than most of the best remaining quail lands in the east.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and blanket statements like those above are ripe for having holes shot in them like pop cans in front of a kid with a BB gun. It is obvious to all but the densest fence post that when we talk about cattle and quail we need to specify within which ecosystem we are referring. Henceforward I am referring to the humid, subtropical at times, eastern U.S.

Cattle grazing native forage grasses in Virginia. (Marc Puckett)

Thus cattle and quail don’t go together, right? Well…they don’t go together under the typical eastern system which is one of an over reliance on cool season hay (that we often see rotting along fence lines), and overgrazed cool season pastures. But the native quail in our lands several hundred years ago would have been right at home with the large grazing animals that not only shared their landscape, but actually helped form it.

It was a fairly simple equation. Lightening or native American-ignited fire, held down woody growth, created new green grazing forage and then large grazing animals such as bison, elk and deer did the “light disking” with their hooves. There was no fencing, thus animals were able to move to the best new grazing growth…which was the year of a spring fire. Their light soil disturbance created the bare ground quail enjoyed, and stimulated the growth of wildflowers and legumes, and the cycle continued for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course, a quail back then would have had to endure the quite common surprise of looking up from its 6 inch perspective only to see itself reflected in the eye of an animal like a bison. Perhaps a bison might have also made a quick refuge from a circling Cooper’s hawk.

Well, that’s all fine and good and heartwarming – makes you want to hug, eh? And it is also a thing of the distant past unless the planet’s recovery from the apocalypse does not include humans. So what’s a rancher in the east to do? He loves his cattle and his / her way of life, and also loves quail and rabbits and butterflies and so it is a shame they can’t go together. Blog over…bye.

Not so fast. Enter the modern way of eastern cattle ranching that includes appropriate fencing and watering system installation, fencing cattle out of streams, use of temporary and moveable fencing in many cases, incorporation of native warm season and wildflower pastures, sometimes including native cool season forages, some prescribed fire, and systematic rotational grazing.

This new method of ranching can be used to create a microcosm of the ecosystems similar to those created by bison and fire hundreds of years ago. It might sound complicated, but I’d argue it is no more complicated than the usual system of making two hay cuts a year, keeping haying equipment in good condition, moving and storing huge volumes of hay, feeding heavily all winter and generally trying to force a cool season grass system to work 365 days a year.

If you are a rancher and you are tired of the status quo and want to get off the cool season reliance treadmill, there’s no time like the present to do so. Right now multiple USDA Incentives programs exist to encourage better cattle and grazing management. These programs all offer added benefits for wildlife, especially quail. The Working Lands for Wildlife Program specifically has a practice for cattle and quail, often called B.I.G. for Bobwhites in Grasslands. This program, offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helps offset the costs of fencing, seed, and other infrastructure needed to get into establishing warm season grasses and starting to rotationally graze.

So the proof is in the pudding and I have seen this work. Right here in Virginia in our southern piedmont there is a rancher who went out on his own almost three decades ago. He incorporated 200 acres of native switch grass into his low grounds foraging base. He began using fire to manage those pastures, and he also started rotationally grazing.

He allowed us to conduct a workshop and field tour on his place a couple years ago. And he hosted a video team to record how well his cattle liked the system. (You can see the result at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PriFZweOBTg&feature=emb_logo) Healthier cattle you have never seen. I’m not good with numbers but I recall over 200 head within a cow calf operation. He relies on temporary electric fencing which is easily moved.

The cattle have come to so love the new lush warm season grass growth that they essentially move themselves. As we approached his field that day, the bulk of his cattle were already lined up near the fence waiting to be let in to the new growth area. As his family moved the fence the cattle rushed into the new area, spread out and began to feed like a well-oiled mowing machine, clipping only the top 10 to 12 inches of the most palatable new growth off the top and leaving 18 to 20 inches of new leaf regenerating plant engine underneath.

As they fed, insects sprang out ahead of them, swallows flocked over the insect rich fields to feed, and quail called from multiple locations in the distance. As I walked in the field behind the cattle I observed a lot more plant diversity than was visible from afar. Numerous legumes and wildflowers had come in on their own. The cattle’s hooves had formed bare ground paths under the grass canopy. It seemed like it all went together like apple pie and ice cream, or hot dogs and baseball…or in this case, like steak and ale. And even in the 21st century, cattle and quail can go together in the humid subtropical east.

Contact your local NRCS district conservationist, or one of our private lands wildlife biologists to inquire further.

NOTE: This program is available in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia

Brooding over Brood Habitat

Ragweed and partridge pea on cut-over to be planted to long-leaf pine.

First, just a quick note to say our Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which has had the word “game” in its name since 1916, as of July 1st became the Department of Wildlife Resources. Over the past several decades our mission has become more diverse, as has our constituency, and the time was right for a change – after all, we are now one fifth of the way through the 21st century. I look forward to serving Virginians just as diligently for the Department of Wildlife Resources in the future as I did for Game and Inland Fisheries over the past 24 years.

On to this month’s subject – quail brood-rearing habitat. It’s early July – the time of quail magic, when chestnut oak acorn-sized eggs, in small nests on the ground, having survived multiple days of egg laying (especially if you happened to be the first egg laid…as one egg a day is the general rule with clutches of 12 to 15 eggs common) and 23 days of incubation – by some miracle, as a bumble bee-sized quail chick packed inside that tiny capsule you managed to use your “egg tooth” and cut an almost perfectly circular hole out of the big end of your calcified coating, and leave it behind, now entering the domain of two-legged mobility. I suspect you were quite relieved to be out of that cramped encasement until you realized how miniscule you were amongst this land of giants. Luckily the Lord blessed you with an innate ability to move about and feed yourself only a matter of hours after your recent squiggling emergence.

You and your relatives occupy an amazingly broad geographic range – from Mexico to Wisconsin and south back through Florida. But there is little genetic difference between a bobwhite quail from just north of Abilene, Texas, to one just south of Farmville, Virginia. Which may be hard to believe given the arid habitat near Abilene consists of cat-claw acacia, mesquite, broom snakeweed, and western ragweed, to that near Farmville consisting of sumac, blackberry, partridge pea and eastern ragweed.

One area gets 15 inches of rain in a good year, the other 50. Did you say “ragweed” two times? Yes I did. Was that an accident? No it wasn’t. You see bobwhite quail throughout their entire range need a few basic things. They need a canopy of vegetation a few feet over their heads that provides shade and concealment from predators. They need those plants to be spaced apart at ground level – with stems being a few inches apart ideally to allow ease of movement, and they need some bare ground under there – 30% to 60% dirt under their feet and the poster plant for these conditions is ragweed. And they need access to some type of thickets for escape and loafing cover…and that’s about it.

Ragweed and sunflower in field border around crop field – Sussex County Virginia.

Some biologists that are fussier than I am, add another component they refer to as a “bit grassier” nesting cover. Usually by the timing of management (disking, burning, cattle grazing) weedy brood-rearing cover, grassier nesting cover and escape thickets can be made to persist at about a 1/3 ratio on the landscape. Sounds simple enough. Quail managers refer to this as the “Thirds Rule” – 1/3 nesting cover, 1/3 brood-rearing cover and 1/3 thickets – plus or minus a few percentage points in any category.

If you manage in a rotational fashion in Virginia and you focus on brood-rearing cover and thickets, nesting cover will take care of itself. Brood-rearing cover here is created by soil disturbance of some kind, usually by the use of prescribed fire, or rotational disking, or both through time (cattle grazing if done correctly can also be effective). If you are not seeing much ragweed, you may not have the necessary brood-rearing cover. It’s not solely dependent on ragweed, but seeing ragweed, which is an annual that is dependent on it seeds falling on bare ground to persist, usually means the soil has been disturbed.  Along with ragweed comes partridge pea, beggar-weed, tickseed sunflower, bee balm and more which produce the insects that quail chicks have to have to grow flight feathers and get strong quickly during their first critical weeks post-eggshell.  In the arid west brood-rearing cover depends on rainfall, and when it is too dry, the weeds don’t come up, the insects are not produced and they have a quail population crash. In the east it’s too much rain that is our problem.  If we do not disturb the ground every 2 to 3 years, the vegetation gets too thick and lush to support quail chick foraging.

So the ragweed (and its many weedy friends) that produces grasshoppers, beetles and larvae in abundance now, provides thousands of seeds that are more nutritious than corn on an ounce-for-ounce basis during December. If you have great brood-rearing cover, you will have great winter feeding cover. Now is the time to go out and evaluate your land for brood-rearing cover. It can consist of recently logged areas that have not yet been sprayed with herbicides, or have recovered from herbicides, multiple logging decks that are managed by disking during winter, open pine stands that have recently undergone burning, fallowed crop or food plot fields full of annual weeds, or rotationally grazed pastures that are allowed to go a little “wild” with weeds in places.

To create brood-rearing cover on your land, fallow some cropland and manage it by disking a third every year during the dormant season. Expand and improve your logging decks by heavy disking, then sowing with a cheap cover crop like millet. Manage them by disking a third of the decks during the dormant season every year. If ragweed does not appear on its own, plant it – the seed is readily available. Mix it with some legumes like partridge pea, beggar-weeds or native lespedezas like slender or round head, and plant during February. These decks can also be incorporated into a burning regime if within pine stands that are being burned. If planting food plots, consider leaving half of each fallow and weedy each year. This saves you time and money, and provides excellent brood-rearing cover for quail chicks and turkey poults.

Pasture and hay lands can be converted into brood-rearing habitat, but it takes a little more doing, a bit more planning and more time. We’ll take that up next month.

Discovering the “Bobwhite Birds”

Birding at Amelia Wildlife Management Area

May and June are prime months for birding…and if you are wondering just what that means, it is the practice of actively going out to see and hear birds of all kinds…sometimes for population monitoring, sometimes for adding to a “life list” (the list of bird species you have confirmed seeing in your lifetime), but mostly just for the joy of it. I’d hate to hazard a guess as to how many people “bird” across the globe. If you count casual observers who also feed birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 47 million in the United States alone, who contribute $107 billion in “total industry output” and as much as $13 billion in tax revenue annually (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Report: Birding in the U.S: A Demographic and Economic Analysis – 2013). Here’s a link to Wikipedia if you’re interested in learning more about birding https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birdwatching .

And while I am not trying to make a birder out of you through this blog post, I do hope many of you will find it interesting to learn a little more about some birds that share thickets, weeds and grasses with bobwhites. For those wishing to pursue their bird-ucation, try the Cornell Ornithology Lab site at this link: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/ .

Many years ago, when I was working towards my Master’s degree studying bobwhite quail in North Carolina’s coastal plain, a big part of that effort was trapping wild bobwhites. And for birds like quail that have little long range sense of smell, they can’t be attracted to traps with scent baits. In short, if you don’t figure out their loafing, hiding and feeding cover quickly, you won’t earn a degree. Sink or swim young student…here are 50 quail traps, now have at it. Well… we did use bird dogs to locate coveys, so I didn’t start from scratch, but it was in the trapping and the subsequent radio tracking of quail we’d placed transmitters on that I began to really learn their habits…and those of many of their cohorts.

For starters, I caught so many rufous sided towhees (now known as eastern towhees here), brown thrashers and cardinals that I lost count (all released unharmed quickly by simply flipping the cage traps over). If there was ever a thicket-loving trio, this is it. The towhee is known for the male’s “drink…your, teeeaaaaa” clearly whistled song. And while bobwhites nest on the ground and their young leave the nest and feed themselves within hours of hatching (precocial), towhees nest up in the shrubs and their young stay in the nest for as many as 10 to 12 days after hatching being fed by both parents (altricial). The brown thrasher is known to some as a mimic, and while it does mimic other bird calls, it has hundreds of its own variations of song, reported to have the largest repertoire of songs of any bird in North America at over 1,100.

If you can visualize a ping-pong ball as it first drops from a height onto a surface and then with each passing bounce the time between clicks decreases, you’ll have the cadence for the song of the field sparrow – which starts off with several well-spaced notes, only to end in a rapid whistled trill. Perhaps no other song bird is so closely associated with shrubby old field habitats as the field sparrow. It is not at all uncommon when listening for bobwhites in June to hear the field sparrow’s unmistakable song in close proximity. It also enjoys young clear-cuts like the bobwhite. Many of you may have already known the birds described so far, but the list of bobwhite “sympatrics” goes on.

One that many of you may not know is the white-eyed vireo. Unlike the four described so far, the white-eyed vireo is a migrant. One day each spring I’ll be sitting on my front porch and, subliminally at first, then for sure, realize the white-eyed vireos have returned from their neotropical winter range (usually in late April). Described as “often remaining in black-berry thickets, thick brushy tangles, thick forest undergrowth and forest edge,” its white iris is distinctive. And on a humorous note, its song is often described verbally as a quick and sharply stated “please-bring–the-beer-check!” Yes – birders do have to have an imagination – but once you hear it and see it, it will make perfect sense.

Another cool migratory bird often associated with quail habitat in the “piney woods” of the coastal plain is the prairie warbler. That’s right…the prairie warbler. While it does occur in prairie states, it prefers brushy old fields to prairies, and in our coastal plain, particularly on our Big Woods / Piney Grove quail focal area, we hear it often in the open, burned pines that red-cockaded woodpeckers favor. For those who have a hard time hearing high pitched sounds, you’ll have difficulty with the prairie warbler’s song which is a shrill ascending series of zzee-zzee-zzee-zzee-zzee that starts high and fast and goes higher and faster until its end. The prairie warbler is a beautifully colored bird that is a treat to see if you can get them to hold still long enough to find them in the binoculars.

One many of you have undoubtedly heard and seen but may not have known what it was is the yellow-breasted chat. The word “chat” in its name is an understatement. And if any bird could be described as obnoxious at times…it would be the chat. Its return from its Central American and Florida winter range is quickly noted by its loud song described as, “A clashing mixture of prattles, whistles, catlike sounds, clucking, screeching and caw notes both musical and harsh.” Chats love regenerating clear-cuts where some sapling growth has developed. It is one of the largest and least “warbler like” of the warblers, but it is in the warbler family, and is a beautiful bird well worth “watching.”

There are many more wonderful songsters that will benefit from quail habitat management. Hopefully these were enough to pique your interest. If you are out listening for quail this June, take your binoculars and spend a few extra minutes learning about and admiring these denizens of thickets, weeds and old fields. And if you have been managing your habitat for quail, take pride in the fact that you are helping dozens of wildlife species.

Essential?

There’s been a lot of talk during this COVID pandemic about who and what is essential. If you are amidst a heart attack, the people who come to your aid are essential. If your house is on fire, those brave souls who come to fight it are essential. If someone is breaking into your house, the deputy who responds to your 911 call is essential. So some essential occupations are obvious, but before this pandemic, I’m not sure we’d have viewed grocery store clerks, UPS drivers, gas station operators, and many others as such. It has become starkly apparent that it takes a lot of people in diverse roles to keep this world turning as we know it. Some occupations require a certain amount of bravery, or at the very least, dogged determination, to continue to operate in these times. And some occupations require bravery every day. But bravery does not determine whether something or someone is essential or not.

I’ve been struck by how essential the outdoors has become for so many during these last six weeks. I consider myself extremely blessed for many reasons, not the least of which is that I live in the country and have room to roam. I have space. I have a place to walk, to run, to work, and to breathe clean air. There are many who are not so lucky. And like many of my coworkers, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life working to preserve or improve these open spaces. I, along with so many have given more presentations than can be counted to groups of young people in an effort to increase their appreciation and understanding of the natural world. And our profession has worked on millions of acres of land to either improve it for wildlife or keep it in a state that others can enjoy. Each of us plays a small role, we monitor populations, study species, help landowners improve or establish habitats, investigate wildlife diseases, keep trails mowed, plant pollinator plots, improve streambanks, conserve soil, respond to wildlife conflicts, manage forests, replenish fish populations, and enforce wildlife conservation laws. Nothing we do ever makes the front page of the newspaper, or ends up on the national news. With the exception of Earth Day, there is no celebration of what we do. And sometimes we are even criticized for being conservationists. And while there may be nothing heroic about what we do day-to-day, many heroes rely on the places and the wildlife we manage to find their solace.

Individually, very few of us have a major impact, but collectively, we provide America the lifeblood of her natural self. At the core of every human are roots that go back to when we all depended directly on the land. But what many have forgotten is that we all still do.

Next month, I promise to get back to wildlife management in a practical sense.