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Shell’s Covert: ‘Old Croaky’

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

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

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

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

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

From the Farmhouse to the White House: A Tectonic Shift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell’s Covert: Taking Our Measure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell’s Covert: April, My Favorite Month

April might seem to be a strange favorite month for an upland bird hunter like me, but it is mine. I think more than anything else it represents the resurgence of life for me…in multiple ways. I have kept somewhat informal records of the dates of the first bobwhite whistles each spring for over 25 years, and uncannily at least for me, those dates fall somewhere between April 10th and 15th. Having survived the dreary, cold, wet, windy predator filled days of winter (not to mention a few bird dogs and shotguns) the hardier-than-one-might-imagine bobwhite puffs up his feathers, and blares out “I am still here and as strong as ever.” April is the epitome of optimism, and one cannot be a quail biologist without being such.

With each passing April day more and more evidence of life shows itself. A myriad of migrating songbirds fill the tree canopies with a chorus of songs at the very first hint of light in the morning sky. At night the spring frogs make up for the absence of song birds. And every pastel color in the pallet is on display, reminding us of what lies just under winter’s gloom. It is no doubt cliché that “life does spring eternal.” Even the air is palpable with new aromas that stir the senses (even though some of them may cause sneezes for many of us).

So, every April I am reminded that for species like bobwhite quail and others in decline, all is not lost. They have made a resurgence in many parts of the country, including parts of Virginia (though a modest one in our state). There has never been a time in history when there have been more quail than there are right now in parts of north Florida and south Georgia. And in parts of their western most range, numbers remain high. But they are also being seen again in good numbers in states like Missouri, where their focal area work clearly documents the effectiveness of large scale habitat restoration. The same can be said for parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, and others.

In Virginia this past season hunters had one of the most successful years in over a decade (though with an admittedly small number of hunters reporting). One hunter found 101 unique coveys of quail, several others found in excess of 80 coveys, and the average number of coveys found per hunt was almost two. For the first time in many years the average amount of time it took to find a covey dropped below two hours. After decades of conservation work, workshops, education, and shouting from the hill tops – “It can be done” by legions of biologists (and foresters, and soil conservationists and multiple partners) — just maybe what was the monumental task of steering an enormous, continent-sized battleship is starting to get back on a right but different course. As in today’s world, quail and their associates cannot be reclaimed by the accidental demise of our environment. As humans continue to increase, only through combined, concerted, responsible, large scale habitat restoration can they continue to prosper. And this restoration must occur within a functioning system that produces adequate food and fiber for human survival. Lo and behold, it is happening … slowly, but surely minds are being changed, recognition is occurring, and more and more of us are doing things voluntarily to benefit more than ourselves.

Maybe there is no better time than on Easter Weekend to reflect on wildlife, the environment and our responsibility to them. It is within each of us to be able to make decisions that allow us to manage wisely the wonders we have all inherited.