Teaching a Landowner to “Fish”

I’ve been making landowner site visits and writing wildlife habitat management plans since I was a graduate student back in early 1990s. I wrote my first “real” management plan for a very large property in southeastern North Carolina in early 1995. If they knew how little I knew then, they might have used that plan to start a fire. But it worked out. I did have sense enough to do my homework and write them a decent plan. Recently, I have been in the role of filling in for several vacant private lands biologists. I had to knock the rust off my skill set, but I am back in the swing. It’s been good for me, and hopefully for the landowners that I have helped over the last year or so. It also led me to reevaluate how we help landowners. The old adage about it being better to “teach a person to fish, rather than just give them a fish” applies here very well.

Sometimes a landowner will tell you right up front, “We just want the cost-share money, tell us what to do to get that.” But overwhelmingly, just the opposite is true, and I hear “We don’t really care about the funding, we just want to know what to do and how to do it.” They may be willing to use the funds to achieve their goals if necessary, but the funds are not their primary motivation. So what is our role as biologists trying to help them? I think our biggest role is to provide them a learning opportunity that ultimately allows them to better be able to help themselves. In my job, there is no better moment for me than when a landowner has that epiphany—the light comes on, and you know from that point on they understand what to do and how to do it.

To get the most out of a site visit, a landowner needs to get to know their land, and they need to try to start understanding the species they are interested in. They also need to start developing their wildlife goals. By telling the biologist in advance the species they are interested in, both parties can do their homework before the visit. The words I “dread” (if that is the right term) are, “We don’t know what we want to do, we just want to do something for wildlife.” A noble and deeply felt sentiment for sure, but not very insightful. To be honest, most biologists are too busy to develop goals for a landowner from scratch. We do need a little bit to go on.

Step one in developing a good wildlife management program involves the landowner studying their land, thinking about what they would like to see more of, and developing some goals. The biologist, upon reviewing the goals and the land, may have to inform the landowner that their goals and land base/situation are not compatible. However, most of the time, they are in sync.

Step two requires that the landowner study the species and their habitat requirements. This maximizes the efficiency of a site visit. The more informed the landowner is, the better they are able to ask the right questions.

Step three requires the landowner to evaluate their property and the surrounding lands. A good place to start is to obtain aerial photos—some close ups that depict the primary property, and others that show a wider view of how their property fits into the landscape.

The “landscape context” is difficult for some to understand. Your property does not exist in a vacuum. It can be in a landscape that is largely mature hardwood forest, mature pine forest, mixed pine and hardwood forest, suburban dominated, mixed stage forest and cropland, mostly cropland, or sometimes mostly pasture and hay land. Unless you own several thousand acres of contiguous land, your management will not be independent of the lands that surround you. Many species need larger acreages to persist through time. This does not mean that a small group of animals can’t survive on your fifty acres, but for a population to survive through time, a landscape that supports multiple groups of those species allowing immigration, emigration, and genetic exchange is required.

It is during this third step that the biologist’s services are most critical. Chances are your studies have led you to as many questions as answers. It is time to call a biologist and ask for a site visit. You might explain to them your basic land type, acres, goals, and observances. On their site visit, the biologist should listen to your goals, make notes, examine aerial photos, and most importantly, go out on your land with you to assess the current situation and begin making recommendations.

If they are good at what they do, it will be done in a way that is educational and not condescending. The biologist’s goal should not only be to show you what to do, but also to help you understand why you are doing it. Then you may be able to see why, where, and when it needs to be done again in the future, as wildlife management is rarely static. The biologist will help you identify what professionals call “limiting factors.” Basically, a species needs certain habitat elements to survive and thrive, and if any are missing or are not found in enough quantity, they “limit” the species’ ability to survive on your property.

The biologist should provide you a written management plan, which may take them several weeks to develop depending on their workload. The management plan may include many things such as:

  • a property description,
  • a list of your management objectives,
  • the current status of the lands and areas to be managed,
  • and, most critically, detailed management recommendations and guidelines that provide the landowner the knowledge to accomplish specific tasks.

These may include attachments with more detail. For example, you may be advised to control encroaching invasive species along a field edge. There are very good extension publications that provide the necessary steps and detail to accomplish the task. The plan may also include a section on how to evaluate your progress, but this should also involve follow-up site visits from the biologist when you have questions in subsequent years. Some plans may include a detailed timeline for when tasks need to be accomplished. This is particularly true when financial incentives programs are being applied. But never forget, actions need to be based on habitat conditions, which vary. This means you have to go out and look, evaluate, and modify actions as dictated. Be careful to not always follow a cookie-cutter approach. The relationship between a landowner and their biologist should be interactive and as long-term as is necessary. Many landowners do eventually “fledge” and develop their own understanding and ability to a high level. As biologists, our goal should be to “fledge” as many as we can in our careers.

Shell’s Covert: She’s Just an Old Bird Dog

One day I looked at my old bird dog as I left to go on a business trip. She was there at the fence wagging her tail and looking at me to see if she could read what might come next. Her eyes seeking mine, her expression one of anticipation. They decipher our features better than any facial recognition technology available. When I got in my truck to leave her ears dropped, and her tail wagging slowed but she was still looking after me as I drove over the hill and out of sight. This wasn’t too long after 9/11 and I had to fly, making several layovers and connections. It was a tense time as those who lived through it know. As I drove along I had a thought that I’ve had several times over the years. “What will become of my dogs if I don’t come back?” But even deeper than that came the recognition that they’d never know why I did not come back. And for some reason that is the saddest thought I have ever conjured up with regards to my own demise. The older I get the easier it is for me to understand my own “departure.” It will happen…hopefully later than sooner, but as certain as water flows downhill. And though I have a daughter, and a wife and am still lucky enough to have a Mom and Dad, a sister, many friends, and on and on…nothing troubles me more about my own passing than the thought of my dogs at the fence waiting for me to come home and me never making it back.

That sounds stupid I’m sure, but if you think about it, all my human family and friends would know, or be able to have it explained to them, why I never made it home. But you could never explain that to the dogs. One day you were there, another day you were not, but they’d seen this before. You’d been gone before and you eventually came back. Maybe after two days, or two weeks, or in the case of some of our military service members maybe after a year…but you came back. (But, of course, not everyone came back). And it occurred to me, too, every time a vehicle’s tires crunched the gravels on my driveway from then on…they’d always believe it was me coming down the farm road. I will say this thought has helped me make some good decisions over the years, not always, but more often than not. And so it seems to me that is the truest definition of faith and hope that I can imagine. Their belief that we will come home, if not today, then next week, or next year…but we will come home. For those who say dogs don’t feel the things we feel, I disagree. And they’ll be there in my version of Heaven, along with all the faithful.

This happens in reverse sometimes, too. For any of you who have ever had a dog disappear…and after searching every back road, placing lost dog adds in every paper, on every telephone pole and in every country store for miles to no avail, that haunting, heaviness in your stomach of not knowing what happened never fully leaves. It wanes with time, but maybe on the prettiest day of the year, dropping out of the cobalt blue sky from somewhere beyond…a vision of them appears, time stops and for a second there is an understanding. None of us ever know for sure when we leave a friend, a family member or a pet whether it is the last time we’ll see them. Most likely it is not, but sometimes it is. And so the older I get the more I try to follow the best advice I have ever gotten about upland bird dog training in my life, “always end the session on a high note.” That little anecdote can be applied to pets, family members, friends, foes and the land itself. It’s not always an easy thing to do in these polarized times, but it’s worth trying. Life is short, be kind…and have faith…in whatever way that it means something to you.

Shell’s Covert: 20/20 Vision

Our “quail team” has now marked 10 years in service to the Commonwealth’s private landowners, who are the key to achieving long term conservation goals. Our entire team thanks all of Virginia’s wildlife habitat-minded landowners who have assisted in the quest to make Virginia a better place for quail, monarchs, native bees, and songbirds. I’d also like to share my deeply felt thanks and goodwill to all 11 of the private lands wildlife biologists who have given a substantial part of their lives to wildlife conservation in the last decade—most especially Andy Rosenberger, who is our sole remaining original private lands wildlife biologist, and whose mentorship to the entire team over the years has contributed immeasurably to our success. Thanks also to the dozens of agency, NGO, and other partners we have worked with. We joined forces with them to conserve and increase Virginia’s early-successional wildlife. We’ll elaborate a great deal more on this in our 10-Year Milestone Edition of the Bobwhite Bulletin which will be printed and available this spring for all our partners.

Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Summary of Accomplishments (in conjunction with our partners)
Fiscal YearSite VisitsNew
Contacts
Management
Plans
Managed
Habitat
Total Farm
Acres Owned
20102512351041,16821,080
20115404062705.35481,972
20124293972955,14532,955
20134541643005,64941,160
20143751962297,84451,843
20155032833951,75165,650
20164292023086,97965,804
20175682812982,01263,099
20186253102704,34447,700
20195082362142,26839,156
Totals4,6822,7102,68342,514510,419

The numbers above only tell the technical story. Our team, or family as we sometimes feel, has undergone all of the trials of life common to human existence as we labored diligently on the good days and the bad to bring the best habitat technical assistance to Virginia’s landowners as we knew how. The “stats” never tell the whole story. Our team has represented the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech to the very highest level.

I also want to mention that our team has not limited our work to private lands. We have helped DGIF and many partners with public lands habitat management planning, implementation, and education, including assisting on prescribed fire crews whenever we can. I do almost all my hunting and fishing on public lands and have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for those who work on our publically accessible lands. In the case of DGIF, our wildlife area managers continue to do a phenomenal job on our 44 Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) with a relatively small staff.

The synergy between public and private lands conservation is critical to the 21st century’s wildlife.

In the case of our private lands team, our goal was to ensure that we developed a program where our biologists could truly focus on the private landowner. First and foremost, our goal has been to become increasingly adept at providing the best technical assistance and habitat management advice possible. And not just for quail, but for any of the goals a landowner may have in mind for multiple wildlife species.

We have also tried to continue to simplify the financial incentives program sign-up process for them. All this involves continual training and professional development. With over 80% of Virginia in private ownership, this investment just makes sense. And while we were working on our own improvement, the things we learned have also helped our public lands biologists. Cross training is imperative. We all learned, and continue to learn, from each other. New information on how to establish pollinator plantings, how to control non-native invasive plants, how to combine quail management techniques, and how to monitor species through time benefit everyone on all lands regardless of where they were developed. And as always, we keep up with the latest trends in quail management from the entities that are the tip of the spear with regards to quail research.

Private Lands Biologist Andy Rosenberger leading a landowner workshop.

Private Lands Biologist Andy Rosenberger leading a landowner workshop.

Our public lands are also developing. The value of our WMAs as public educational tools is an aspect I think we have yet to fully tap into. Our staff, whether private or public lands oriented, continue to improve and seek professional development. That is the mark of a true professional, the desire to continue to improve and take ownership in making it happen. Our agency’s ability to conduct prescribed fire, and the skill with which we apply it, has improved markedly over the last decade and continues to improve. The technical resources we provide staff and landowners has also improved (witness the latest in “Beyond the Bonfire,” https://www.vafirecouncil.com/).

Our team’s hope is that over the next decade, our public and private lands managers will cross pollinate more and more, and our WMAs will become increasingly utilized for public and partner habitat management education. Our public lands should be flagships for conservation practices, whether they be new practices and management methods, or practical applications of tried techniques used to correct some of our past mistakes, which we have made over the years. Most important in my mind is the fact that the more understanding and acceptance we have among Virginia’s private landowners about the management techniques we use, the more acceptance and understanding we’ll also have from them concerning the management of our agency lands. This will become increasingly important as our agency lands come closer and closer to the suburban/wildland interface.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.