Discovering the “Bobwhite Birds”

Birding at Amelia Wildlife Management Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential?

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

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

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

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

A Pandemic in Spring

I’m quite sure I am not qualified to write about pandemics, so I won’t try to in any scientific sense. But I will say, it has struck me that going through all this in spring as opposed to say November or December is a small blessing of its own. Those of us lucky enough to live out in the country, or in small towns, have been blessed with one of the most glorious springs I can recall. And I suspect even in the cities, spring has brightened an otherwise bleak situation.

Everything is early, and rarely have I seen red buds, azaleas, and dogwood all in bloom at once. Oaks are also early to flower this year, just based on my casual observation and my allergies to oak pollen—which has confused my efforts to figure out whether I need to be concerned about every sniffle or sneeze that comes along, due to COVID-19 potentially at work (check that temperature). This has been and will continue to be a very serious health crisis for many, not to mention the economic woes that will likely touch every one of us in some way. And while the outdoors is not a cure for any of it, having the sights and sounds of spring around us can sure help ease the stress.

My heart goes out to all those families being touched deeply by the loss of loved ones. To those who risk their own health, and possibly even their lives daily insuring the rest of us are OK—words can’t express the gratitude. And to all the unsung heroes, those we often take for granted, maybe we won’t take them for granted anymore.

I don’t have much to offer except the hope of spring. “Hope springs eternal”, “where there is hope there is life,” the sayings go on. I hope this crisis may lead to more of us stopping to truly absorb the moments, as cliché as that sounds. I wonder if we each looked at a red bud flowering like it was the first time we’d ever seen it, and what if we each had one day…we were brought out of the darkness for one day…and given the chance to see a scarlet cardinal, or a mottled blue jay for the first time, and maybe the last, and a salmon-colored sunset against scaled clouds approaching from the west, and if we heard the piccolo whistle of a wren then, and smelled the pollen scented air, and felt the warm breeze all at that moment, would we enjoy the richness and complexity of it all? Would we be better able to soak it in? Would we slow down, ease off, breathe deeply, and forgive and give thanks? If this pandemic leads anywhere, I hope it is there.

Stay safe, optimistic, and brave—spring blessing to all of you.

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.