Our quail team’s longest serving private lands wildlife biologist, Andy Rosenberger, recently took an upland bird hunting trip out to “fly over” country – parts of Nebraska. For upland bird hunters, that part of the world is not “fly over” country. It is “drive to” country. Andy has been a part of our “quail team” for nine years and is an avid bird hunter. For hunters like Andy, myself and many others, the spirit of adventure and learning is not dead. And you don’t have to go to Nebraska to find it, but a trip to new country from time-to-time sure goes a long ways towards keeping your inner kid alive. He shares some of his thoughts with us below.
Andy sent us all a few key observations from his venture west. “Our trip was a reminder that “doing” is a better learning tool than talking about something. Despite being in this job for nine years, I still learned a few things and am still digesting what I saw.” Andy goes on to reflect on avian predation…”If you like avian predators, the Plains are the place to be. I saw enough red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and Merlins for a lifetime. I have always liked harriers and get excited when I see them. While in Nebraska I saw hundreds of them. It is like seeing blue jays here. As we have said before, birds of prey will eat quail, but I think seeing the numbers of them in Nebraska in comparison to a good quail population is proof that quail and birds of prey can live just fine together.” (Note: as long as protective cover is in good supply.)
“Nebraska has a nice quail population. We were never specifically looking for quail (pheasants were first choice), but did quite well with them. We
obviously did not experience “Tall Timbers” densities, but we found at least five coveys a day. If we had been focused more on quail I think we could have found more. Nebraska may be one of the better public quail hunts out there. In one week of hunting we could not cover all the available public lands in just a two-county area. Lots of native grasslands and plum thickets. If we saw plum thickets, we knew we were going to find quail.”
Andy on quail foods: “I know we promote natural foods, but I am beginning to wonder if it might also be a good idea to incorporate some row crops into quail management. Out of all the quail I shot, not one had anything in their crop other than corn or milo from adjacent fields. I know quail can get by without crops, but I wonder if population success has something to do with row crops out there? We killed quail that were almost a mile away from the nearest crop fields and they still had corn in their crops. They had to be moving that far between cover and food daily.” (A note here on what we’d tell Virginians – by all means planting some milo or corn food strips, well woven throughout winter protective cover is a great idea. What we don’t encourage is the old stand-by “food patch” isolated from everything else a covey needs to survive winter.)
And what about native grasses and protective cover? “When it was cold, the quail were just like the pheasants and in the thickest native grass stands you can imagine. The kind that were so thick it was difficult to walk through them. But the quail were also almost always near plum thickets and that’s where they flew when flushed from the grasses.”
Observations on weather and cover: “The weather in Nebraska is just as harsh, or harsher than in the mountains of Virginia. I think the difference in why they have quail and we have very few in our mountains has a lot to do with the vast openness of the country, the surrounding row crops (which we used to have in large supply in our mountains), and the fact that when left fallow, their lands tend to come up with lots of beneficial native grasses and other plants, as opposed to here where now when left alone, fescue dominates for years, then underlies any native cover that develops on its own. So weather can have an impact, but if the habitat is there, they’ll be just fine. One other note, sometimes we found quail out in large fields of native grasses with no thickets nearby.” (An editor’s note on native grasses in Virginia: the main thing is not to plant pure, overly dense stands. Mixed native grass fields can provide winter cover on their own, especially when intermixed with tall growing, stouter plants like golden-rods, native sunflowers, and others that stand up to snow better.)
A few questions from Marc for Andy… “Andy, some may think that a trip like this is costly, but I suspect it’s not as bad as they may think?” Andy: “We drove about 3,000 miles round trip so likely bought about 150 gallons of gas, which at $2.25 / gallon comes to $337.00 on fuel, and you can divide that by the number of hunters pitching in on costs. Licenses were $122 per hunter. In our case, we stayed eight nights in a two-bed cabin at $75 per night equals $600. We bought our own food, but we’d have been doing that at home, so as long as you don’t eat out every meal, it is a nominal factor. Shells – maybe $30 to $50 worth. Of course, the more you have to buy the more birds you’d found. So overall for two hunters it cost us each about $615.00. Of course the biggest “cost” is what we owe our wives for letting us to go”
Marc: “What does a trip like this mean to you on a personal level?”
Andy: “I could write several pages on what a trip like this means to me, but in a nutshell, first I love to bird hunt, but a big factor is the family time. We live widely scattered, so these trips bring us close for an extended period. Because of trips like this I am much closer to my uncle, dad and brother. The enjoyment of bird hunting elevates the trip’s importance for all of us. It’s because of the fun of the hunting, but also the fun of being together. We are also all grown men now. The relationship between fathers and sons changes. It has gone from being one of where a dad makes the decisions for his sons, to a true friendship. I won’t remember my dad as the man who set my curfew or punished me for something stupid I did, I’ll remember my Dad as the friend I went bird hunting with. As my brother told his friends when they gave him a hard time about not going elk hunting with them, but going with us instead, ‘What would you give to hunt with your dad again?’”
Marc: “Any other tips you’d offer for those who’d like to reignite their adventuresome spirit?”
Andy: “Study the maps, and call the local state game agency. They really want to help make sure you have a good trip. Plan in advance, too, these communities are small, and numbers of hotel rooms limited. If you wait to the last minute to plan, you could be sleeping in your truck. Also, don’t wait to the last minute of the day to try to buy groceries, stores close early and are few and far between.”
I’ve said before upland bird hunting is not dead in Virginia. It takes effort, it always did. And it may take some shift in thinking… but by combining hunting for multiple species, and by taking a trip or two to local hunting preserves, and then by going “west” from time-to-time to keep that inner adventurer quenched, there’s nothing but excuses standing between you and being a 21st Century Upland Bird hunter. Don’t be like a worried dog, stop whining and start hunting. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.
I was on a string there of getting my blog posts out on time or even early. My hat’s off to those folks who blog daily, or some practically hourly. I’ve never been a writer who can simply sit down and start filling a page. My posts (at least the ones worth reading) usually come to me while I am out and about. This month’s post has been a bit slow to come to me. I had started a post on “technology and fair chase” questions… but figured I’d offend half of the readers and upset the other half… so I decided to simply say “Happy Thanksgiving!” to all of you and share this list of highlights from our past year. Keep in mind there is more to our life than quail… we do all we can for quail, but quail is not the only species in need of our support.
Quail Recovery Initiative – VDGIF completed the 9th year of the Quail Recovery Initiative (www.dgif.virginia.gov/quail) as of June 30, 2018. During this time period, the private lands wildlife biologists made a total of 4,285 site visits and wrote 1,980 management plans. Over the last fiscal year, the five private lands wildlife biologists continued to do great work, making 625 landowner site visits and 310 new contacts, writing 270 management plans, and working with landowners who own over 47,700 acres. They helped establish or maintain approximately 4,344 acres of early-succession habitat. Approximately 1,395 acres of this total was via the forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) in partnership with Virginia Department of Forestry.
In addition, the Quail Management Assistance Program (QMAP) continued to grow with 445 landowners now enrolled owning over 105,609 acres with 14% in some form of quail management. Additionally, six of our team members participated in the 24th annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) meeting in Albany Georgia. Staff from VDGIF continue to serve as officers and members of NBTC.
Virginia is one of 21 states participating in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s (NBCI) Model Quail Focal Area Monitoring Program, marking our sixth year of participation. Approximately 997 acres of habitat management were completed on the CIP Focal Area. In early August, 2017, VDGIF, staff along with NBCI and National Park Service staff, held a workshop at Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) to instigate the formation of Virginia’s second NBCI CIP Focal Area. Manassas NBP is the new focal area. Staff also conducted several successful field days and workshops that attracted over 250 participants. Our staff continues to work on a book entitled “The Northern Bobwhite Quail of the Mid-Atlantic States.” Staff also serve on the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council and the Forest Stewardship Committee, and also maintain their own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/VirginiaBobwhiteBulletin).
Fish Hatchery Pollinator Plantings – The small game team, working in conjunction with Outdoor Education and Fisheries staff, completed two pollinator habitat plantings—one at Vic Thomas and one at Montebello fish hatcheries. These projects provide good habitat educational opportunities and have been well received by the public.
Southeastern Fox Squirrel Research Project – The small game team—working in conjunction with staff from Virginia Tech, The Nature Conservancy, and Ft. Pickett Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center—developed and obtained outside funding for a research project on southeastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger niger). The project will take place on The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Complex and on Ft. Pickett. The project will be the first of its kind to examine the life history of this relatively rare subspecies of fox squirrel in Virginia. The research may eventually contribute to the species population recovery. During October, our staff, partner staff, and technicians from CMI successfully hung 135 boxes (75 at Ft. Pickett and 60 at Piney Grove), and 15 more will be hung after logging at Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The project is underway, being fully funded in year one by Ft. Pickett. Future funding is not secure. Numerous sightings have occurred at Piney Grove. Fox squirrels have also been confirmed (one by road kill) within a few miles of Ft. Pickett.
Presentation on Quail Program to General Assembly Sportsman’s Caucus – The small game project leader was asked to give a presentation to the General Assembly Sportsman’s Caucus about the progress and status of the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative. The program was attended by about 20 General Assembly members or staff. Governor Northam and Secretary of Natural Resources Strickler also attended.
Virginia Tech Wildlife Graduate Student Field Day – VDGIF and Ft. Pickett staff, in conjunction with Virginia Tech professors, held a field day/habitat training event for Virginia Tech wildlife graduate students at Ft. Pickett Military Base. Topics included timber management, prescribed fire, habitat plantings, and use of herbicides.
Workshops in support of the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife “Cattle and Quail Initiative” – Staff from the private lands team, along with personnel from the NRCS and Virginia Cooperative Extension hosted a series of four workshops designed to educate and promote the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife Cattle and Quail Initiative, also known as the BIG project, or Bobwhites in Grasslands. Workshops were held in Madison, Charlotte, Wythe, and Augusta counties. Each event had a morning session for professionals and an evening tour for private landowners. The workshops featured national experts in combining native grasslands, cattle, and wildlife.
Quail Management Workshop – A quail management workshop was held in Purdy, Virginia, in conjunction with Virginia Dept. of Forestry and Cooperative Extension. More than 65 landowners and professionals attended. The workshop featured the latest information in quail management science from Tall Timbers Research Station and included a field tour of a well-managed private property in the area.
Virginia Quail Council 9th meeting – On October 2, 2018, we conducted the ninth meeting of the Virginia Quail Council at Wakefield 4-H Center. Approximately 35 VDGIF and partner staff attended, along with representatives from the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and other entities. The meeting was headlined by an opening presentation from NBCI Director Don McKenzie. Regional staff gave updates on the ongoing work and partnerships at Big Woods/Piney Grove WMA, and Jay Howell gave a comprehensive review of the NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program. The meeting was followed by a field tour of the Big Woods State Forest, Big Woods WMA, and Piney Grove Preserve.
“Learn and Burn” Workshop – A workshop for aspiring prescribed fire practitioners was held in conjunction with Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Virginia Prescribed Fire Council, Virginia Department of Forestry, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners at Wakefield Airfield 4-H Center. The morning indoor session was followed by a live prescribed burn in the afternoon, allowing participants to gain hands on learning. Approximately 30 attended.
Private Lands Wildlife Biologists Species Diversity Training – A special presentation and field day was held for the Private Lands Wildlife Biologists providing them with training from three of VDGIF’s species specialists. Presentations were made by our herpetologist, aquatics biologist, and small mammal biologist, followed by a field trip to discuss habitats for multiple species.
Provision of Latest Quail Management Information to Staff – Multiple copies of the new Tall Timbers Research Station’s Quail Management Handbook were obtained for VDGIF staff at no cost. The small game project staff also prepared a detailed summary of the findings from this book and provided them to all biological staff.
Pollinator Planting Workshop for King and Queen Fish Hatchery Staff – The small game team, in conjunction with outdoor education staff, conducted a pollinator planting workshop for the staff of King and Queen Fish Hatchery. They will be the next to incorporate pollinator plantings on VDGIF fish hatchery lands.
National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) Past-Chair’s Recognition – The VDGIF Small Game Project Leader was recently presented the
NBTC’s Past-Chair Award. The award was given for exceptional service and leadership during this person’s tenure as Chair and on the NBTC Executive Committee from 2010-2016. The presentation was made during the awards banquet of the recent NBTC annual meeting in Albany, Georgia.
The Soil and Water Conservation Society’s June Sekoll Media Award – Six members of the private lands wildlife habitat team, representing VDGIF and Natural Resources Conservation Service, were presented the June Sekoll Media Award by Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) for “successfully using various media sources in a united effort to promote the new Working Lands for Wildlife Program for Virginia’s Bobwhite Quail in Working Grasslands Initiative.” The award was presented at the annual SWCS meeting in October, 2017.
I recently attended the Longleaf Partnership Council (LPC) meeting held in conjunction with the Longleaf Alliance’s Biannual meeting in Alexandria, Louisiana. The LPC meeting was a day and a half of intensive discussions with all the partners involved. The LPC is responsible for implementing America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI), which is a collaborative effort of multiple public and private sector partners which actively supports range-wide efforts to restore and conserve longleaf pine ecosystems.
Included in this meeting were presentations from the Southern Region of the U.S. Forest Service and the national forests within the Southern Region that are working to help meet the ALRI goals. In 2017, Ken Arney, acting regional forester, announced the Southern Region’s “Million-Acre Challenge. It prompts the USFS Southern Region to increase the pace and scale of restoration within the longleaf pine’s historic range. Eight national forests within the region will take part in the challenge.
In the ALRI 2017 Accomplishments Report, Ken Arney said “When it comes to biodiversity, few ecosystems in the continental U.S. can contend with longleaf pine, but after years of overharvesting and land-use changes, longleaf pine forests have almost totally disappeared from the landscape.” The ALRI partners’ vision is to have functional, viable longleaf pine ecosystems with the full spectrum of ecological, economic and social values inspired through the voluntary involvement of motivated organizations and individuals. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative has a permanent seat at the LPC table.
The 12th Biennial Longleaf Conference, hosted by the Longleaf Alliance, followed the LPC meeting. Over 300 longleaf enthusiasts attended. Participants included landowners from across the longleaf region, which stretches from southern Virginia to east Texas, foresters, biologists, professionals from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the US Forest Service and several NGO groups that are involved in the longleaf restoration effort. The meeting included great speakers to open the meeting, an excellent plenary session, many great breakout sessions that had too many topics that I wanted to hear about with too many of them concurrent.
To me, the highlight of the conference was the field trip. Traveling south from Alexandria, we headed first for Beauregard Parish and Daigle Farms, the 2017 Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture Private Landowner Conservation Champion and a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Natural Heritage Site. Once a clear-cut site, this property now represents a functioning longleaf pine savanna, supporting abundant wildlife habitat, wood products and native understory forage for quality Braford and Brahman cattle. This property also maintains foraging and nesting habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker along with maintaining habitat for bobwhites, wild turkey and other nesting grassland birds. The landowner also understands the importance of water quality and maintains many ephemeral wet weather areas on the property. Prescribed fire is also used in conjunction with the cattle and timber harvesting to maintain the habitat on Daigle Farms. Owner David Daigle also received the Gjerstead/Johnson Landowner of the Year Award presented by the Longleaf Alliance. This award recognizes a private landowner for ensuring the future of the longleaf ecosystem on private land.
Following our visit at Daigle Farms and lunch at one of the recreation areas on the Kisatchie, we headed to the Vernon Unit of the Calcasieu Ranger District for presentations by Kisatchie National Forest staff, along with other partners, about management activities within the Vernon Unit and surrounding areas. The Vernon Unit has earned the unique nickname of the “Burnin’ Vernon” because of the frequent use of prescribed fire that has shaped the longleaf forest here. Because of the frequent fire there is a diverse and rich understory of native warm season grasses which are dominated by bluestem varieties, forbs and fall flowering species. The red-cockaded woodpecker, bobwhites, and the Louisiana pine snake all find a home on the Vernon Unit. Active and compatible timber management is being practiced and coexists with this abundant diversity of species.
We were able to learn about work in areas of prescribed burning, endangered species, wildlife habitat management and timber management and the partnerships that exist to make all of this happen. We heard Cody Cedotal, of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, describe the ongoing work on the Kisatchie, where the LDWF and USFS — along with other partners — are working to create a bobwhite focal area that will be included in the NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). A personal highlight occurred during the endangered species portion of this tour. After ending his presentation on RCWs, the speaker played electronic calls and was able to call up four birds to the cavity tree that was directly behind the tent. I have seen RCWs looking through a scope from the ground into the nest, but never have had the opportunity to see one flying around and on the outside of a cavity tree.
The longleaf pine ecosystem is said to be the most diverse ecosystem outside of the tropical rainforest. Before European settlement, it is estimated that longleaf pine covered 90 million acres across the southern landscape. Through modern logging practices, urban and suburban development, intensive forestry, agriculture practices and fire suppression, longleaf pine has been reduced in acreage by over 80 million acres. These are some of the same reasons are some why we have seen the demise of the Northern Bobwhite. In 2010, when the ALRI plan was written, there was approximately 3.4 million acres of longleaf pine. It is currently estimated that there are 4.1 million acres across the landscape. The 15-year goal of the plan is to have eight million acres of longleaf pine in 2025. The goal includes establishing approximately 190,000 acres per year, identifying and converting mixed stands that have a longleaf component to longleaf-dominated stands, and improving and maintaining the existing acreage, with an emphasis on increasing the acreage of prescribed fire accomplished annually.
The Longleaf Restoration Plan has some lofty goals, but with all of the partners involved the initiative is well on its way to its 2025 goal. To reach these goals, on-the-ground implementation requires coordination at state and local levels across all agencies and across all lands. Currently, there are implementation coordination teams at 17 locations across 9 states, as shown on the accompanying map.
By participating in the Longleaf Partnership Council, NBCI can help shape efforts to not only restore an important ecosystem but also provide guidance in restoring an iconic bird such as the Northern Bobwhite across that ecosystem.
Thomas V. Dailey, Ph.D.
NBCI Science Coordinator
A Google search on “best places to hunt wild bobwhite quail” returns 397,000 results (Gun Dog magazine, Quail Forever, state agencies, etc.), but you will not find NBCI’s www.quailcount.org. Some of the hottest bobwhite populations in the country are contained in NBCI’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) spatial database, and they are classified as TOP SECRET. Secrecy is a primary responsibility of NBCI to CIP participants–private and public landowners, and many biologists who toil to create the habitat to produce the quail and count them. State agency coordinators of NBCI CIP projects control how much information is publicized via an NBCI data sharing agreement, which goes into effect in 2019.
How many quail? For the best CIP listening stations, where quail can be heard calling about 547 yards away (or 194 acres), 8 or more calling coveys have been heard 43 times during fall covey counts in the past few years. An essential part of CIP is that any one listening station is a small part of a large 1,500- to 20,000-acre focal area of habitat.
If the quail locations are secret and not used for hunting, what is the purpose of CIP?
CIP is providing best management practices, primarily for habitat, so that anyone can experience an abundance of coveys. The CIP proof-of-concept project is in its 5th year, and soon NBCI and CIP state agency projects will be publicizing their results as part of a 10-year monitoring plan. Preliminary results for one CIP focal area suggest a record high quail density across 30-years of the state’s intensive quail monitoring programs.
Headlines with record numbers of anything lead to questions about accuracy, reliability, exaggeration, etc. The CIP is standardized across the country and is backed by decades of research, rigorous protocol, training, independent analysis, peer review by committees and boards within the NBCI and National Bobwhite Technical Committee (www.bringbackbobwhites.org), and ultimately by publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals, such as the National Quail Symposium (https://trace.tennessee.edu/nqsp/). Independent analysis is provided by contract with Dr. James Martin, University of Georgia.
To improve the reliability of CIP data, NBCI just published an online covey count manual (https://www.quailcount.org/monitoring/fallcovey.html). As described in the manual, measuring quail abundance after the summer hatch is the bedrock of quail management, and this is illustrated by the fact that much of the covey count research cited in the manual was conducted by university students or staff biologists who are now biologists collecting fall covey count data. These biologists include Dr. Steve DeMaso, Dr. Josh Rusk, and Beth Emmerich, collecting CIP data, and Rick Hamrick and Shane Wellendorf, collecting non-CIP data. During fall 2017, 127 different observers collected CIP data, so the sound research foundation developed by these biologists is very important.
The new covey count manual is aimed at biologists, but it also has professional videos of actual pre-dawn covey counts and in-field training. It includes details about bobwhite behavior, including the “koi lee” call. Most of the CIP protocol provides a systematic measurement approach useful to anyone. Highlights of CIP are published annually in the NBCI Bobwhite Almanac (available online at https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download-category/state-of-the-bobwhite-reports/).
Not all is secret about NBCI CIP covey count locations. Some listening stations could be published, for example, CIP focal areas that are not open to hunting, such as Pea Ridge National Military Park (National Park Service/Arkansas Game and Fish Department) and Delaware Division of Wildlife’s Cedar Swamp NBCI Focal Area. Cedar Swamp’s remarkably high covey count is featured in the 2018 NBCI Bobwhite Almanac.
Where is that state-record-high quail population? We can tell you it’s a state west of the Mississippi River that has armadillos, that the focal area has quail hunting, and that during the next 5-year CIP analysis segment, you will learn how you, too, can produce record-high quail populations.
It’s human nature when life is going well to take things for granted. Electricity, running water, plenty of food on the table, a warm place to sleep…the list goes on of things we come to believe will always be there for us. That said, you never have far to journey to find folks who don’t have those things. And there are many more subtle things we take for granted that we really need to think about, too.
On a recent weekend I helped conduct a Hunter Skills workshop sponsored by our Hunter Education team. My role was serving as a mentor for an aspiring hunter who had never hunted anything before. It was also someone I had never met before. The “class” I helped with was squirrel hunting 101. For safety reasons and for insuring each new hunter got the help they needed, the ratio of mentors to hunters was one-to-one. We met after dinner the evening before the hunt, chatted some, got to know the hunters, and then watched a presentation on squirrels and squirrel hunting. We formulated a plan for the hunt the next day, agreed on a time to meet (0600), and then parted ways for the evening. Each new hunter had already passed the hunter safety course, and qualified by target shooting.
In the weeks leading up to this hunt I admit to being a little apprehensive. I have mentored some relatives and friends, but never a stranger. And many of the people I have helped have had some experience with either hunting or fishing. I was also worried about what I could really teach this person about squirrel hunting. It all seems so straightforward after having hunted for 50 years (yes I began tagging along with a BB gun at age 5).
“How hard can it be to get into squirrel hunting?” I thought to myself. Then I received a couple of fall hunting and outdoor gear catalogs in the mail. Thumbing through them I was trying to think like a person who had never had a parent or friend who hunted. For such a novice the sheer volume of gear depicted would be overwhelming. (The fishing industry got this right a long time ago by offering numerous pre-packaged fishing combos – perhaps the hunting industry should look into it at some level –“everything you need to squirrel hunt besides the gun and shells”). Where would I start? What would I really need to successfully hunt squirrels? What gun? What kind of shells? How much camouflage do I really need (very little really – we hunted in a good bit of blaze orange because it was youth deer season weekend and required by law during an open gun deer season)? How wary are squirrels? What do I look for in a good squirrel hunting place?
These questions just scratch the surface. I started to realize that I took a lot of the skills I had acquired over those 50 years for granted. I started to believe there really were useful things I could teach this new hunter.
Scouting for hunting locations is half the battle, and is becoming a lost art. There is no substitute for getting a map of an area and getting in your vehicle and driving to it and actually putting some boot tracks in the dirt. Wanting this new hunter to have a great experience, that’s exactly what I did. I have not squirrel hunted in 25 years, but I used to cherish it.
As I scouted it only took a faint breeze to lift the dust off those old skills. I recalled what signs to look for – fresh hickory cuttings, white oak acorn fragments, “squirrel chews” on tree trunks, leaf nests and dens, to name a few. I also recalled all the little sounds squirrels make as they go about the day, like their first alarm chatter, or the distant drawn out caterwauling they make when truly annoyed, along with how their claws sound on scaly pine or hickory bark as they scurry up a tree. And there is no mistaking the sound when they start cutting a new hickory nut, acorn or walnut – take two quarters, hold them perpendicular and scrub one rough edge over the other quickly…a pretty close approximation is emitted.
The morning arrived and our mentors and hunters met as planned. It was as good a morning for squirrel hunting as one could ask for. Still, cool, and slightly overcast. The hunter I mentored was a former Marine. He had great safety and gun handling skills…he’d just never had anyone show him a few things about “woodscraft.”
We were into squirrels quickly, and he easily picked up on the sounds they make. But I was also able to point out similar sounds made by blue jays, cat birds, woodpeckers and other animals. I was able to show him white oak, versus hickory, versus beech. I pointed out fresh cuttings versus old ones. I was able to let him know not to shoot too close or too far, and he quickly developed the ability to know when to shoot. Lots of things I took for granted were useful knowledge to him. He learned that while squirrels can be easy to see, they are wary, and don’t hold still very long. He learned not to shoot until they stopped moving to insure a good clean kill.
Ultimately he harvested four nice gray squirrels before 10 that morning. We all reconvened and found that everyone had some success. From there the hunters learned about knives, game shears (makes cleaning much easier and safer), and how to dress squirrels two different ways. And that evening, compliments of the Hunter Ed chef – they got to eat some of squirrels from their hunt.
Hunters are declining across the board…and it’s not due to lack of game (not even in bird hunting). It’s due to changes in society…and also due to older hunters taking it all for granted. If every active hunter now took it as a life challenge to recruit and mentor – that is the key, mentoring — one new hunter, we could double our numbers and insure a new generation of skilled outdoors people existed. That’s going to be my new saying “One for One” – whether it’s gray squirrels with a pellet rifle, or grouse with a .28 gauge –make it One for One…you and someone new.