Shell’s Covert: The Spirit of Adventure (…and some kudos to Nebraska’s quail program)

Our quail team’s longest serving private lands wildlife biologist, Andy Rosenberger, recently took an upland bird hunting trip out to “fly over” country – parts of Nebraska. For upland bird hunters, that part of the world is not “fly over” country. It is “drive to” country. Andy has been a part of our “quail team” for nine years and is an avid bird hunter. For hunters like Andy, myself and many others, the spirit of adventure and learning is not dead. And you don’t have to go to Nebraska to find it, but a trip to new country from time-to-time sure goes a long ways towards keeping your inner kid alive. He shares some of his thoughts with us below.

Andy sent us all a few key observations from his venture west. “Our trip was a reminder that “doing” is a better learning tool than talking about something. Despite being in this job for nine years, I still learned a few things and am still digesting what I saw.” Andy goes on to reflect on avian predation…”If you like avian predators, the Plains are the place to be. I saw enough red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and Merlins for a lifetime. I have always liked harriers and get excited when I see them. While in Nebraska I saw hundreds of them. It is like seeing blue jays here. As we have said before, birds of prey will eat quail, but I think seeing the numbers of them in Nebraska in comparison to a good quail population is proof that quail and birds of prey can live just fine together.” (Note: as long as protective cover is in good supply.)

“Nebraska has a nice quail population. We were never specifically looking for quail (pheasants were first choice), but did quite well with them. We

Virginia’s Andy Rosenberger in the Nebraska Plains with his dog, Otter

obviously did not experience “Tall Timbers” densities, but we found at least five coveys a day. If we had been focused more on quail I think we could have found more. Nebraska may be one of the better public quail hunts out there. In one week of hunting we could not cover all the available public lands in just a two-county area. Lots of native grasslands and plum thickets. If we saw plum thickets, we knew we were going to find quail.”

Andy on quail foods: “I know we promote natural foods, but I am beginning to wonder if it might also be a good idea to incorporate some row crops into quail management. Out of all the quail I shot, not one had anything in their crop other than corn or milo from adjacent fields. I know quail can get by without crops, but I wonder if population success has something to do with row crops out there? We killed quail that were almost a mile away from the nearest crop fields and they still had corn in their crops. They had to be moving that far between cover and food daily.” (A note here on what we’d tell Virginians – by all means planting some milo or corn food strips, well woven throughout winter protective cover is a great idea. What we don’t encourage is the old stand-by “food patch” isolated from everything else a covey needs to survive winter.)

And what about native grasses and protective cover? “When it was cold, the quail were just like the pheasants and in the thickest native grass stands you can imagine. The kind that were so thick it was difficult to walk through them. But the quail were also almost always near plum thickets and that’s where they flew when flushed from the grasses.”

Observations on weather and cover: “The weather in Nebraska is just as harsh, or harsher than in the mountains of Virginia. I think the difference in why they have quail and we have very few in our mountains has a lot to do with the vast openness of the country, the surrounding row crops (which we used to have in large supply in our mountains), and the fact that when left fallow, their lands tend to come up with lots of beneficial native grasses and other plants, as opposed to here where now when left alone, fescue dominates for years, then underlies any native cover that develops on its own. So weather can have an impact, but if the habitat is there, they’ll be just fine. One other note, sometimes we found quail out in large fields of native grasses with no thickets nearby.” (An editor’s note on native grasses in Virginia: the main thing is not to plant pure, overly dense stands. Mixed native grass fields can provide winter cover on their own, especially when intermixed with tall growing, stouter plants like golden-rods, native sunflowers, and others that stand up to snow better.)

A few questions from Marc for Andy… “Andy, some may think that a trip like this is costly, but I suspect it’s not as bad as they may think?” Andy: “We drove about 3,000 miles round trip so likely bought about 150 gallons of gas, which at $2.25 / gallon comes to $337.00 on fuel, and you can divide that by the number of hunters pitching in on costs. Licenses were $122 per hunter. In our case, we stayed eight nights in a two-bed cabin at $75 per night equals $600. We bought our own food, but we’d have been doing that at home, so as long as you don’t eat out every meal, it is a nominal factor. Shells – maybe $30 to $50 worth. Of course, the more you have to buy the more birds you’d found. So overall for two hunters it cost us each about $615.00. Of course the biggest “cost” is what we owe our wives for letting us to go”

Marc: “What does a trip like this mean to you on a personal level?”

Andy: “I could write several pages on what a trip like this means to me, but in a nutshell, first I love to bird hunt, but a big factor is the family time. We live widely scattered, so these trips bring us close for an extended period. Because of trips like this I am much closer to my uncle, dad and brother. The enjoyment of bird hunting elevates the trip’s importance for all of us. It’s because of the fun of the hunting, but also the fun of being together. We are also all grown men now. The relationship between fathers and sons changes. It has gone from being one of where a dad makes the decisions for his sons, to a true friendship. I won’t remember my dad as the man who set my curfew or punished me for something stupid I did, I’ll remember my Dad as the friend I went bird hunting with. As my brother told his friends when they gave him a hard time about not going elk hunting with them, but going with us instead, ‘What would you give to hunt with your dad again?’”

Marc: “Any other tips you’d offer for those who’d like to reignite their adventuresome spirit?”

Andy: “Study the maps, and call the local state game agency. They really want to help make sure you have a good trip. Plan in advance, too, these communities are small, and numbers of hotel rooms limited. If you wait to the last minute to plan, you could be sleeping in your truck. Also, don’t wait to the last minute of the day to try to buy groceries, stores close early and are few and far between.”

I’ve said before upland bird hunting is not dead in Virginia. It takes effort, it always did. And it may take some shift in thinking… but by combining hunting for multiple species, and by taking a trip or two to local hunting preserves, and then by going “west” from time-to-time to keep that inner adventurer quenched, there’s nothing but excuses standing between you and being a 21st Century Upland Bird hunter. Don’t be like a worried dog, stop whining and start hunting. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: November 2018 – Annual Report and Happy Thanksgiving

I was on a string there of getting my blog posts out on time or even early. My hat’s off to those folks who blog daily, or some practically hourly. I’ve never been a writer who can simply sit down and start filling a page. My posts (at least the ones worth reading) usually come to me while I am out and about. This month’s post has been a bit slow to come to me. I had started a post on “technology and fair chase” questions… but figured I’d offend half of the readers and upset the other half… so I decided to simply say “Happy Thanksgiving!” to all of you and share this list of highlights from our past year. Keep in mind there is more to our life than quail… we do all we can for quail, but quail is not the only species in need of our support.

Quail Recovery Initiative – VDGIF completed the 9th year of the Quail Recovery Initiative (www.dgif.virginia.gov/quail) as of June 30, 2018. During this time period, the private lands wildlife biologists made a total of 4,285 site visits and wrote 1,980 management plans. Over the last fiscal year, the five private lands wildlife biologists continued to do great work, making 625 landowner site visits and 310 new contacts, writing 270 management plans, and working with landowners who own over 47,700 acres. They helped establish or maintain approximately 4,344 acres of early-succession habitat. Approximately 1,395 acres of this total was via the forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs) in partnership with Virginia Department of Forestry.

In addition, the Quail Management Assistance Program (QMAP) continued to grow with 445 landowners now enrolled owning over 105,609 acres with 14% in some form of quail management. Additionally, six of our team members participated in the 24th annual National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) meeting in Albany Georgia. Staff from VDGIF continue to serve as officers and members of NBTC.

Habitat assessment training at Manassas National Battlefield

Virginia is one of 21 states participating in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s (NBCI) Model Quail Focal Area Monitoring Program, marking our sixth year of participation. Approximately 997 acres of habitat management were completed on the CIP Focal Area. In early August, 2017, VDGIF, staff along with NBCI and National Park Service staff, held a workshop at Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) to instigate the formation of Virginia’s second NBCI CIP Focal Area. Manassas NBP is the new focal area. Staff also conducted several successful field days and workshops that attracted over 250 participants. Our staff continues to work on a book entitled “The Northern Bobwhite Quail of the Mid-Atlantic States.” Staff also serve on the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council and the Forest Stewardship Committee, and also maintain their own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/VirginiaBobwhiteBulletin).

Fish Hatchery Pollinator Plantings – The small game team, working in conjunction with Outdoor Education and Fisheries staff, completed two pollinator habitat plantings—one at Vic Thomas and one at Montebello fish hatcheries. These projects provide good habitat educational opportunities and have been well received by the public.

Southeastern Fox Squirrel Research Project – The small game team—working in conjunction with staff from Virginia Tech, The Nature Conservancy, and Ft. Pickett Army National Guard Maneuver Training Center—developed and obtained outside funding for a research project on southeastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger niger). The project will take place on The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Complex and on Ft. Pickett. The project will be the first of its kind to examine the life history of this relatively rare subspecies of fox squirrel in Virginia. The research may eventually contribute to the species population recovery. During October, our staff, partner staff, and technicians from CMI successfully hung 135 boxes (75 at Ft. Pickett and 60 at Piney Grove), and 15 more will be hung after logging at Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The project is underway, being fully funded in year one by Ft. Pickett. Future funding is not secure. Numerous sightings have occurred at Piney Grove. Fox squirrels have also been confirmed (one by road kill) within a few miles of Ft. Pickett.

Presentation on Quail Program to General Assembly Sportsman’s Caucus – The small game project leader was asked to give a presentation to the General Assembly Sportsman’s Caucus about the progress and status of the Virginia Quail Recovery Initiative. The program was attended by about 20 General Assembly members or staff. Governor Northam and Secretary of Natural Resources Strickler also attended.

Virginia Tech Wildlife Graduate Student Field Day – VDGIF and Ft. Pickett staff, in conjunction with Virginia Tech professors, held a field day/habitat training event for Virginia Tech wildlife graduate students at Ft. Pickett Military Base. Topics included timber management, prescribed fire, habitat plantings, and use of herbicides.

Workshops in support of the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife “Cattle and Quail Initiative” – Staff from the private lands team, along with personnel from the NRCS and Virginia Cooperative Extension hosted a series of four workshops designed to educate and promote the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife Cattle and Quail Initiative, also known as the BIG project, or Bobwhites in Grasslands. Workshops were held in Madison, Charlotte, Wythe, and Augusta counties. Each event had a morning session for professionals and an evening tour for private landowners. The workshops featured national experts in combining native grasslands, cattle, and wildlife.

Quail Management Workshop – A quail management workshop was held in Purdy, Virginia, in conjunction with Virginia Dept. of Forestry and Cooperative Extension. More than 65 landowners and professionals attended. The workshop featured the latest information in quail management science from Tall Timbers Research Station and included a field tour of a well-managed private property in the area.

Virginia Quail Council 9th meeting – On October 2, 2018, we conducted the ninth meeting of the Virginia Quail Council at Wakefield 4-H Center. Approximately 35 VDGIF and partner staff attended, along with representatives from the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and other entities. The meeting was headlined by an opening presentation from NBCI Director Don McKenzie. Regional staff gave updates on the ongoing work and partnerships at Big Woods/Piney Grove WMA, and Jay Howell gave a comprehensive review of the NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program. The meeting was followed by a field tour of the Big Woods State Forest, Big Woods WMA, and Piney Grove Preserve.

“Learn and Burn” Workshop – A workshop for aspiring prescribed fire practitioners was held in conjunction with Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Virginia Prescribed Fire Council, Virginia Department of Forestry, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners at Wakefield Airfield 4-H Center. The morning indoor session was followed by a live prescribed burn in the afternoon, allowing participants to gain hands on learning. Approximately 30 attended.

Private Lands Wildlife Biologists Species Diversity Training – A special presentation and field day was held for the Private Lands Wildlife Biologists providing them with training from three of VDGIF’s species specialists. Presentations were made by our herpetologist, aquatics biologist, and small mammal biologist, followed by a field trip to discuss habitats for multiple species.

Provision of Latest Quail Management Information to Staff – Multiple copies of the new Tall Timbers Research Station’s Quail Management Handbook were obtained for VDGIF staff at no cost. The small game project staff also prepared a detailed summary of the findings from this book and provided them to all biological staff.

Pollinator Planting Workshop for King and Queen Fish Hatchery Staff – The small game team, in conjunction with outdoor education staff, conducted a pollinator planting workshop for the staff of King and Queen Fish Hatchery. They will be the next to incorporate pollinator plantings on VDGIF fish hatchery lands.

National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) Past-Chair’s Recognition – The VDGIF Small Game Project Leader was recently presented the

Marc Puckett, right, receives award “in recognition of outstanding service and leadership as executive committee member and chairman of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee 2010-2016.” At left is Robert Perez of Texas, the new NBTC chair.

NBTC’s Past-Chair Award. The award was given for exceptional service and leadership during this person’s tenure as Chair and on the NBTC Executive Committee from 2010-2016. The presentation was made during the awards banquet of the recent NBTC annual meeting in Albany, Georgia.

The Soil and Water Conservation Society’s June Sekoll Media Award – Six members of the private lands wildlife habitat team, representing VDGIF and Natural Resources Conservation Service, were presented the June Sekoll Media Award by Virginia’s Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) for “successfully using various media sources in a united effort to promote the new Working Lands for Wildlife Program for Virginia’s Bobwhite Quail in Working Grasslands Initiative.” The award was presented at the annual SWCS meeting in October, 2017.

Shell’s Covert: The Things We Take for Granted

It’s human nature when life is going well to take things for granted. Electricity, running water, plenty of food on the table, a warm place to sleep…the list goes on of things we come to believe will always be there for us. That said, you never have far to journey to find folks who don’t have those things. And there are many more subtle things we take for granted that we really need to think about, too.

On a recent weekend I helped conduct a Hunter Skills workshop sponsored by our Hunter Education team. My role was serving as a mentor for an aspiring hunter who had never hunted anything before. It was also someone I had never met before. The “class” I helped with was squirrel hunting 101. For safety reasons and for insuring each new hunter got the help they needed, the ratio of mentors to hunters was one-to-one. We met after dinner the evening before the hunt, chatted some, got to know the hunters, and then watched a presentation on squirrels and squirrel hunting. We formulated a plan for the hunt the next day, agreed on a time to meet (0600), and then parted ways for the evening. Each new hunter had already passed the hunter safety course, and qualified by target shooting.

In the weeks leading up to this hunt I admit to being a little apprehensive. I have mentored some relatives and friends, but never a stranger. And many of the people I have helped have had some experience with either hunting or fishing. I was also worried about what I could really teach this person about squirrel hunting. It all seems so straightforward after having hunted for 50 years (yes I began tagging along with a BB gun at age 5).

“How hard can it be to get into squirrel hunting?” I thought to myself. Then I received a couple of fall hunting and outdoor gear catalogs in the mail. Thumbing through them I was trying to think like a person who had never had a parent or friend who hunted. For such a novice the sheer volume of gear depicted would be overwhelming. (The fishing industry got this right a long time ago by offering numerous pre-packaged fishing combos – perhaps the hunting industry should look into it at some level –“everything you need to squirrel hunt besides the gun and shells”). Where would I start? What would I really need to successfully hunt squirrels? What gun? What kind of shells? How much camouflage do I really need (very little really – we hunted in a good bit of blaze orange because it was youth deer season weekend and required by law during an open gun deer season)? How wary are squirrels? What do I look for in a good squirrel hunting place?

These questions just scratch the surface. I started to realize that I took a lot of the skills I had acquired over those 50 years for granted. I started to believe there really were useful things I could teach this new hunter.

Scouting for hunting locations is half the battle, and is becoming a lost art. There is no substitute for getting a map of an area and getting in your vehicle and driving to it and actually putting some boot tracks in the dirt. Wanting this new hunter to have a great experience, that’s exactly what I did. I have not squirrel hunted in 25 years, but I used to cherish it.

As I scouted it only took a faint breeze to lift the dust off those old skills. I recalled what signs to look for – fresh hickory cuttings, white oak acorn fragments, “squirrel chews” on tree trunks, leaf nests and dens, to name a few. I also recalled all the little sounds squirrels make as they go about the day, like their first alarm chatter, or the distant drawn out caterwauling they make when truly annoyed, along with how their claws sound on scaly pine or hickory bark as they scurry up a tree. And there is no mistaking the sound when they start cutting a new hickory nut, acorn or walnut – take two quarters, hold them perpendicular and scrub one rough edge over the other quickly…a pretty close approximation is emitted.

The morning arrived and our mentors and hunters met as planned. It was as good a morning for squirrel hunting as one could ask for. Still, cool, and slightly overcast. The hunter I mentored was a former Marine. He had great safety and gun handling skills…he’d just never had anyone show him a few things about “woodscraft.”

We were into squirrels quickly, and he easily picked up on the sounds they make. But I was also able to point out similar sounds made by blue jays, cat birds, woodpeckers and other animals. I was able to show him white oak, versus hickory, versus beech. I pointed out fresh cuttings versus old ones. I was able to let him know not to shoot too close or too far, and he quickly developed the ability to know when to shoot. Lots of things I took for granted were useful knowledge to him. He learned that while squirrels can be easy to see, they are wary, and don’t hold still very long. He learned not to shoot until they stopped moving to insure a good clean kill.

Ultimately he harvested four nice gray squirrels before 10 that morning. We all reconvened and found that everyone had some success. From there the hunters learned about knives, game shears (makes cleaning much easier and safer), and how to dress squirrels two different ways. And that evening, compliments of the Hunter Ed chef – they got to eat some of squirrels from their hunt.

Hunters are declining across the board…and it’s not due to lack of game (not even in bird hunting). It’s due to changes in society…and also due to older hunters taking it all for granted. If every active hunter now took it as a life challenge to recruit and mentor – that is the key, mentoring — one new hunter, we could double our numbers and insure a new generation of skilled outdoors people existed. That’s going to be my new saying “One for One” – whether it’s gray squirrels with a pellet rifle, or grouse with a .28 gauge –make it One for One…you and someone new.

“One for one” will create a new generation of hunters.

Shell’s Covert: The Moon Shot

Dozens of biologists, including the Virginia quail team, toured bobwhite habitat around Albany, GA during the annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee recently.

Our Virginia quail team spent the first week of August in Albany, Georgia, attending the National Bobwhite Technical Committee meeting (Thanks to the Georgia DNR and a local plantation as well as all sponsors for hosting a great meeting and field tour). It was hot in Virginia but hotter still down there. The quail management we saw was also hot…as in some of the most intensive (or “extensive” as they say – will explain later) quail management in the world – described by one of the world’s leading quail biologists as “The N.A.S.A. of the quail world.” And that is how they manage on the best of the quail plantations – shooting for the moon. They have the highest quail densities found on earth. Some would say artificially high…and I would agree. But it is heartening to know that almost 1/5th the way through the 21st century bobwhites can still be produced in these numbers (densities as high as 3 or more quail per acre).

These privately owned plantations are large – ranging from a couple thousand acres to over 20,000, and over 300,000 acres of them are within an hour of Albany. There’s another 300,000 north of Tallahassee, Florida, and still more in Alabama. The old adage “more begets more” is proven here. For those folks who believe there may be some unknown combination of environmental factors that are causing the quail decline (pesticides, disease, climate change, etc.) this area is not immune to those things. To the north, south, east and west of the plantation country is some of the most intensive center pivot agriculture in the world, rivaling anything found in the mid-west. And if climate change were the driving factor in quail decline…being further south they’d know it before us. There may indeed be environmental factors affecting many wildlife species, including quail…but the basic ingredients for baking a quail cake have not changed. While some of what the plantations do may be the moonshot, most of what they do is not rocket science.

The building blocks of their success are: large contiguous acres, intensive use of prescribed fire, systematic incorporation of disking, good distribution of all cover types, wise use of herbicides, well managed quail harvest, and sound scientific research as a feedback loop. And let me say that you can have plenty of quail by doing all these things and stopping right there. I think these plantations could easily reach 10 – 15 covey hunting days (most Virginians would be happy with 2 to 6 covey days) by using the aforementioned techniques alone. But to get to 20, 30, even 35 or 40 covey days…that is where shooting for the moon begins.

Their research program is an example…they have had radio-collared quail as part of the Albany Area Quail Project every year since 1992. They have had over 30,000 quail radio-collared (including those from Tall Timbers Research Station) during that 26-year period! While some people still scoff at the need to land people on the moon, the technological developments that the moon landing precipitated has benefitted every single one of us in our lifetime (paraphrased from their presentation at the meeting).

Now…let’s talk about “extensive” quail management. I had a tough time at first understanding this…but then realized it just boils down to thinking outside the box, not being afraid to challenge some norms, and being willing to go above and beyond in management. There is some controversy in the quail ranks over some of what the plantations do to achieve their success. And it is in this extensive management where that develops. I consider three major things being applied there to be extensive in nature: 1) supplemental feeding, 2) scientific, year-around, legal mammalian predator control and 3) extra incorporation of brood fields (ragweed galore) to include occasional deep plowing, liming and fertilizing where needed.

Albany is in pine savanna country

Before I elaborate, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the owners and managers of the plantations. It is easy to sit outside that circle and accuse them of being wealthy elitists having nothing better to do with their money. But they could do anything with their money they wanted to do…and they choose to put untold millions into quail recovery and large scale land conservation. They should be applauded for that. As for the managers…having tried myself just to manage my 40 acres…and having seen how hard our staff works to try to stay ahead of the game on their Wildlife Management Areas…I do not think a plantation manager or their staff know what a 40-hour work week is. I suspect it takes 50 or 60 hours a week, almost year around to keep these plantations in shape. And just try to imagine the pressure to produce results.

Back to the extensive techniques – supplemental feeding. On one plantation we visited there were 115 miles of feed lines evenly distributed through the grounds. Yes…miles. They have perfected the feeding system. In winter they use corn and milo, in summer milo alone. The feed is spread by tractor and feed wagon every two weeks, and they have it figured down to the number of seeds per square foot necessary to last for that time period. Their research has clearly shown within their ecosystem, supplemental feeding increases quail productivity. Research also demonstrated that contrary to intuition, supplemental feeding did not make finding quail easier, in fact, sometimes it made it harder. The way it is done it is not baiting. I am not a fan of it personally…but for them it is legal, affordable, and it produces more quail.

Predator control also continues to raise some hackles, but for the plantations it is legal, scientifically done, and shown to be effective within their ecosystem. They focus on mid-sized mammalian predators (raccoons, opossums, skunks, etc.). Their approach is beyond the means of most, but in Virginia trapping is a legal, honorable and protected form of outdoor recreation. If landowners here wish to employ trapping as a legal form of predator control, I feel it is their prerogative.

The last one is the extensive incorporation of brood fields. As much as 30% of their total land area (heavily thinned pine ecosystem) is made up of well distributed 2 – 5 acre fields. The fields are managed specifically for ragweed. They soil test, add amendments accordingly, and lime where needed. They use fall disking, disking each field every year. And about 1/3 of each field is deep plowed with a bottom plow annually. They have shown that this deep plowing is sometimes necessary to break up the hardpan that develops after years of disking. It is not so much that these methods are new. What makes them “extensive” is the systematic way they are incorporated into the plantations. All these techniques are discussed in detail in the Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook which can be purchased via their website.

So where does that leave the average owner of 100 or 200 acres in Virginia? I would say first make sure you have maximized the habitat basics before thinking about adding anything more. Within a pine timber system, if it is practical for you, I’d suggest seriously considering adding in more openings next time you thin your timber. It will take time before they can be disked, and will take a long time before they can be plowed, but quail management is a long term endeavor.

Have your habitat evaluated by a quail ecologist. If all agree that the habitat is excellent and should be supporting more quail than are being found, you might consider legal trapping, especially late in the season to see if predators could be suppressing your quail population. And I think supplemental feeding will rarely be of value for most Virginians with one exception, during periods of prolonged heavy snow cover. A landowner might consider providing spread feed (not concentrated feeders) in areas where coveys are known to exist in good cover (when legal – check the feeding laws in our DGIF Regulations Digest or on our website www.dgif.virginia.gov ).

I have been to the “promised land” for quail now several times – Texas, Georgia, Florida, Kansas…duly blessed to have seen it with my own eyes. Life’s fortunes may never take me back there again, but a bucket list item has been crossed off for me. And I am happy to still be a bird hunter here in Virginia after having seen all that. I still enjoy finding 4 or 5 woodcock a day, or seeing a quail covey from time to time. I heard this said somewhere before, something to this effect “It must be sad if, after having caught a lot big fish, you can never be happy catching little fish again.”

Shell’s Covert: A Burning Controversy…Fire During the Nesting Season

A May 3, 2017 prescribed burn on a WMA in Virginia. Goal was to reduce rapidly encroaching sweet gum and red maple understory, a task which cannot be accomplished with winter burning alone.

“I understand the need for fire, but when you are burning in May, you are burning up quail, turkey and grouse nests and that can’t be good. Why don’t you burn in winter, or early spring before nesting begins in earnest?”

I am sure many of us who practice prescribed fire have started to hear this more often. And it is partially our fault…as we have not done enough outreach and education about why we sometimes burn in late spring. I have also had it expressed to me that some believe this “growing season” burning occurs primarily due to fear of lost money. Meaning that if an agency has set a budget for burning, and winter weather delays it, if they don’t burn in late spring, they’ll lose the funds.

I’d like to first say that I have seen prescribed fire professionalism increase year-after-year-after-year for over two decades. With increasing public scrutiny, and more and more human encroachment surrounding public lands, the need to be completely professional in the use of prescribed fire has increased. Everyone I know in the profession of wildlife management and forestry use prescribed fire for all the right reasons. With regards to the funds…it is true that in many cases they can’t be carried over from one fiscal year to another, but, in most cases they can be redirected to other appropriate uses during that same fiscal year. The money does not evaporate if not used.

From an economic standpoint, nothing in our wildlife management tool box can treat more acres faster and at a lower cost than prescribed fire. I once helped bush-hog some heavily overgrown fields on one of our Wildlife Management Areas. It took two of us working all day for three days running two 75 horsepower tractors to complete 40 acres of mowing. That same acreage could have been safely burned in 3 to 4 hours. But we had fallen behind on burning…and the vegetation had reached a stage where fire would no longer set it back to the desired condition. And this is one key reason growing season fire is sometimes applied. It can be the only time during which fire will have enough impact to set back plant succession to the desired condition to favor, quail, grouse, woodcock, turkey and many songbirds and pollinating insects.

Let me explain a couple things. First – it is good to mix up the timing of burning. A good practitioner would never want to burn a particular tract only in the winter, or only in the late spring, etc. Fire practitioners often use winter fire to reduce heavy fuel loads after a thinning operation. Winter fire can also top kill some young pine and hard wood competition, help scarify native plant seeds to increase germination rates, and remove duff making foraging easier for some wildlife species. But if managing for quail, grouse or turkey is your goal, some growing season fire is going to have to be applied. And sometimes that may be later in the season…into May. This may seem counterintuitive, but let’s stop and think a minute.

Suppose we can’t burn a timbered tract (either thinned pines or hardwoods) in late winter because it stays wet and cold. It stays wet into spring, and then we finally get some good burning weather in May. We have choices. We can delay and perhaps try again in fall. Or we can delay a full year, hoping for good conditions in early spring, or we can burn it now…in May and risk losing a few nests – though studies show percentages of lost nests are low (Kilburg et al. 2104). Given that most entities using fire have limited budgets, staffs and time, and given that we cannot predict the weather in two weeks, much less months…many good managers would choose to burn in May. If we don’t burn in May, and then we can’t burn the following year…for all practical purposes that block of habitat is going to be “lost.” Meaning we have no real way of managing it now until it is clear-cut, replanted and reaches thinning age again in 20 to 25 years. What we have done is traded a few nests this year for potentially far more nests in subsequent years if we had been able to stay ahead on the management of the unit.

It is also funny as humans we tend to use rationalization when it benefits us. How often do we make decisions based on short-term gain that could lead to long-term loss…debt comes to mind…go ahead and buy that boat and worry about paying for it later. Right? You only live once. But rarely do we use the counter-equation – “Short-term loss for a long-term gain.” Such as “I don’t really need a 64” flat screen TV to watch the Superbowl…let’s save that money for a trip this summer.” In the case of growing season fire, we make a very well thought out decision based on short-term loss traded for long-term gain. I think if you asked most of the tax-paying public…they’d appreciate our use of that view. I am not sure why when it comes to prescribed fire they don’t seem to.

I stated all the above as a seasoned professional, and I know these things to be true after 26 years in this profession reading about fire, practicing fire and observing the results of fires on a variety of landscapes. My colleagues and I will continue to make decisions about the use of fire based on science, knowledge and practical experience with wildlife’s and the public’s best long-term interests at heart.

Citations and further reading:

Lightning Season Burning: Friend or Foe of Breeding Birds? Cox, J. and B. Widner. Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Miscellaneous Publication 17/ http://www.talltimbers.org/images/pubs/FireBreedingBirdsBooklet-small.pdf

Kilburg, E., C. Moorman, C. Deperno, D. Cobb and C. Harper. 2014. Wild turkey nest site survival and nest site selection in the presence of growing season prescribed fire. Journal of Wildlife Management 78(6): 1033 – 1039.

Restoration in the Southern Appalachians: A Dialogue Among Scientists, Planners and Land Managers. Eds. W.T. Rankin and Nancy Herbert. U.S. Forest Service: Research and Development Southern Research Station. General Technical Report SRS-189.

Shell’s Covert: Bridging the Gap with Cut-Over Management BMPs

I have been known to say the following: “If it were not for cut-overs, there may not be a quail left in Virginia.”

Some may want to tar and feather me for making such a statement. It is not entirely true, because there are a lot of landowners, non-governmental organizations, corporations and other entities who are doing “purposeful” early-succession species management. But timber harvesting is one of the few activities on our current landscape that creates between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of early-successional habitat annually in Virginia. That acreage dwarfs those purposely created specifically for wildlife. It is one of the few examples of things that occur on our landscape from which quail can still be considered a by-product.

I also believe that modern cut-overs, or clear-cuts as some call them, do not produce wildlife habitat like they did 40 or 50 years ago. Many attribute this to the intense herbicide treatments required for production forestry in many cases. I agree that this is part of, but not the only reason. I also want to state what I am saying is not criticism of the forest products industry or forestry in general. Modern timber management relies on more efficient harvesting methods and equipment, and more on herbicides and less on mechanical disturbance and fire for site preparation. This has pros and cons from a wildlife standpoint. There is no argument that modern forestry makes much more efficient use of the wood harvested. Which means that there is less debris left over on cut-over sites, and mechanical windrowing and site preparation burning is a thing of the past. Those old unsightly windrows made some excellent hedgerows for quail and that mechanical soil disturbance scarified seeds and produced ragweed, partridge pea and poke weed in abundance. But it also contributed to soil erosion and reduced water quality. So gains made on those fronts offset the losses in other areas. Regardless of whether we all agree that cut-overs are better or worse for wildlife these days, that is not what I’ve set out to address. I’d rather focus on the things that landowners can choose to do to give their modern cut-overs a boost from a wildlife standpoint.

Clear-cut, or cutovers, can be managed effectively for quail and other wildlife. (Photo: Marc Puckett)

First – assume it is a given that herbicides are going to be used in the reforestation of a clear-cut…at least east of the Blue Ridge. Clearcuts in the mountains may still be allowed to regenerate naturally. What can be done prior to any herbicide work, or after it, is the widening of logging roads and the expansion of logging decks to create wildlife corridors and clearings. You might even be able to work with your logger to gain some help. They often have a dozer on site and may be willing to do some of this work for you as a side job.

Identify logging roads you may wish to continue to use to get around your property. Widen each edge out 30’ feet or more if you can afford the lost future timber income (it’s easy to do the math to figure out how many acres of future timber you are giving up – length times width in feet divided by 43,560 = acres). By doing this you allow sunlight in to keep your roads dry during bad weather. You also create long corridors that can be managed by periodic disking or mowing to keep them open. They can also be planted with wildlife friendly mixes depending on what species you want to help most.

Logging decks can be expanded in much the same way as road edges. It’s OK to leave a few slash piles around a deck, but debris piles should not surround the deck. It’s best to spread the slash back through the timbered area evenly, leaving only a few piles to form thickets on the deck edges. Even quail do not like to be completely surrounded by slash piles. Once the deck has been cleaned off, a sub-soiler, or ripper, which is usually pulled by a dozer or very strong tractor, can be used to break up the compacted “hardpan” soil before it is disked. If this isn’t practical for you from a financial standpoint, you can also top sow a cheap cover crop like browntop millet or buck wheat. Success can be achieved even without disking. The dozer work to clean off the deck leaves nice track prints crisscrossing the ground. These track marks capture seed and, more importantly, hold water when it rains. This allows good plant germination. These plantings immediately start to help rebuild the soil. Use a cheap cover crop when planting because herbicides have not been applied yet. After herbicides have been applied, more options open up.

The key to planting after herbicides is to make sure you know what was applied. Some herbicides used in forestry have quite a lengthy soil residual period. This means that they continue to control plants for 90 to 120 days or more after being applied. Make sure you work with your forester and understand what was applied and when it will be safe to plant.

You might also choose to create some additional openings. Tall Timbers Research Station’s work has shown that, depending on soil quality, as much as 30% of the timbered area should be in well distributed fields 2 to 5 acres in size. The lower the soil quality, the more important the fields become. This will, of course, cost you in future timber income, but should be based on your goals and financial situation. These fields are called “brood fields” by the TTRS folks and their goal is get a high amount of ragweed on them. Many times this can be accomplished by fall disking and sowing of winter wheat, then simply leaving fallow. As with logging decks and road edges, don’t plant these fields until after all herbicides have been applied and the safe “plant back date” has been achieved.

Lastly, you might also consider marking some mast-producing leave trees within the cut-over. In the mountains this can be especially important for grouse. Grouse in their southern range eat a lot of acorns. They love the cover produced by regenerating clear-cuts, and more of that cover will also provide food if some good mast-producing trees are left. The edges of the cut-overs and all streamside management zones should have plenty of oak, cherry, dogwood, etc. available. But, on larger clear-cuts there will be a dearth of food-producing trees out in the cut itself. In the mountains where follow-up herbiciding is not as common, the leave trees won’t interfere with herbicide applications. But in the east, they might. Work with your forester to plan ahead and identify areas within a clear-cut where some leave trees will not adversely affect competition control.

These were just a few ideas you might choose to implement after timber harvest on your land. As always your best route is to work with your local forester and wildlife biologist together to come up with a plan best for your land.

Shell’s Covert: Coyotes & Quail – Good, Bad or Neutral?

Much debate centers on whether coyotes are good or bad for populations of deer and turkey (This also may depend on who you ask … hunters, farmers, ranchers, or the general public.) I’ll leave those questions to folks who are experts on those species. But I also hear a lot of discussion about whether coyotes are good, bad or neutral for bobwhites. Admittedly, I have not had time to do a comprehensive literature review on this subject. I did some research and made a few phone calls, so this is not totally opinion based.

In food habits studies done on coyote scats, quail remains are never found in high percentages. You might be asking yourself, “Well…is that because the studies were done in areas that had no quail to begin with, or were the studies done in areas where quail were abundant?”

That is an astute question because if one were to study coyote food habits in central Pennsylvania, you would not find quail in their scats because there are not any quail there.

Luckily, there have been studies done on coyote food habits where quail are abundant. Perhaps none more so than in the Rolling Plains of Texas back in the early 1970s. The study by Meinzer et al. (1975) looked at both scat and stomach content. They did find a few quail remnants, but less than 1% by volume in scat and stomach analysis. What they found, like many other subsequent studies, was a very large volume of fruits. Nine species of plants made up 46% of the coyotes’ diet. Like most other studies I have read they also found a lot of rodents and rabbits. And there were only trace amounts of other predators found (opossum and skunk). Coyotes in Virginia eat a lot of fruit, too, especially blackberries and persimmons. Grasshoppers are also high on their summertime list of preferred foods.

The most recent predator scat analysis work done in western Virginia by Morin et al. (2016) shed some light on validity of scat analysis alone in determining coyote, bobcat and bear diet. These researchers used mitochondrial DNA analysis to positively identify all scats found and compare the results to how researchers classified the scats based on visual evidence. They found that the accuracy of visual identification of scats was low for bobcats (57.1%) and coyotes (54.0%) with each quite often being mistakenly identified as the other.

What’s this have to do with quail?

First it says that older studies based solely on visually identified scat analysis for coyotes may be inaccurate (go back to my first paragraph and note the study I cited used both scat analysis and positively identified stomach content – making it more accurate). They found very few bird remains in either coyote or bobcat scats, but more bird remains in bobcats than coyotes. And, in both cases some mesopredator remains were found in their scats, with bobcats’ apparently consuming mesopredators slightly more than coyotes (don’t mess with no bobcats, Man!).

Though not identified by species in the paper I read, it does point to their occasionally eating other predators. In each case their primary mammalian foods were deer (some killed, some carrion), squirrels, rabbits and voles. Based on all the work I have read over the years, on personal conversations with noted biologists and trappers, and on my own personal observations, I feel comfortable saying coyotes are not directly harmful to quail populations. But could they be beneficial?

Like many such questions, the answers are not always easy, and many out there get mad at biologists for saying things like “it depends.” But it does depend on many factors, such as what is the local prey base? What is the local suite of mesopredators – animals like armadillos, opossums, raccoons, red and grey foxes, and bobcats? Add other predator pressures such as raptors and reptiles and you quickly have a system that is complex.

Are coyotes in some way limiting the populations of, or the behavior of, animals that are detrimental to quail? Henke and Bryant (1999) studied the removal of coyotes from an ecosystem in western Texas. They demonstrated what they termed “mesopredator release” – an increase in the abundance of smaller sized predators like raccoons, skunks, badgers, gray foxes and bobcats with the removal of the dominant coyote. This phenomenon occurred after just one year of coyote removal.

Sovada et al. (1995) showed that coyote removal led to an influx of red foxes, which resulted in a greater loss of waterfowl production in the Prairie Pothole Region. Data in the east on this subject is hard to come by, but in a paper by McVey et al. (2013) where researchers studied the diets of coyotes and red wolves in northeastern North Carolina (where they co-occur), they used DNA analysis to positively identify 228 scats (179 red wolf and 64 coyote). Rabbits, white-tailed deer and rodents were the most common prey for both species. And raccoon remains were only found in 4 out of the 179 red wolf scats, none in the coyote scats. No other mesopredators were found in any of the 228 scats. Great, perfect…what a mess. What does this mean?

It could mean that there was such an abundance of preferred prey that coyotes and red wolves had no reason to kill other predators. It could mean that after several decades of coyote and red wolf predation pressure, populations of these mesopredators were very low in the study area.

I spent a year of my life over a two-year period studying bobwhite quail in northeastern North Carolina on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where in spite of all the dirt roads I walked, and countless hours I spent out in the field, I never saw a raccoon (not even a track), fox, and rarely an opossum. What I saw a lot of were bears, red wolves and bobcats. There were also a lot of quail…though our quail nest survival rates were no better than the average reported in most quail literature (about 33%).

So, I conclude that…

1) predator control should only be considered if you have maximized your habitat efforts and you still do not see the number of quail you’d reasonably expect to see on the number of acres you have. If there is a covey of quail for every 25 acres of quail habitat you have in Virginia, you will be hard pressed to do much better than that even with predator control. But if you have several hundred acres of excellent quail cover and you only have two or three coveys of quail, chances are control of mesopredators will be beneficial,

2) In Virginia where quail are not that abundant, and where many nest predators are abundant, and where we don’t see people hunting or trapping like they used to, my opinion is that coyotes are beneficial for quail. They are helping to do what hundreds of farmland trappers used to do in a bygone era. I do not have the direct data to support that. But if I were trapping to try to help quail, I would not focus on coyotes.

Literature cited:
Henke S.E. and F.C. Bryant. 1999. Effect of coyote removal on the faunal community in western Texas. Journal of Wildlife Management 63. 1066-1081.
McVey J., D. Cobb, R. Powell, M. Stoskopf, J. Bohling, L. Waits, and C. Moorman. 2013. Diets of sympatric red wolves and coyotes in northeastern North Carolina. Journal of Mammalogy 94(5): 1141-1148.
Meinzer, W., D. Ueckert and J. Flinders. 1975. Foodniche of coyotes in the Rolling Plains of Texas. Journal of Range Management 28(1): 22-26.
Morin D., S. Higdon, J. Holub, D. Montague, M. Fies, L. Waits, and M. Kelly. 2016. Bias in carnivore diet analysis resulting from misclassification of predator scats based on field identification. Wildlife Society Bulletin 40(4):669-677.
Sovada, M., A. Sargeant, and J. Grier. 1995. Differential effects of coyotes and red foxes on duck nest success. Journal of Wildlife Management 59:1-9.

Shell’s Covert: Responsible Predator Management for Bobwhite Quail

Early in my career I was guilty of arrogance in my statements that habitat alone was all that was needed to produce great populations of bobwhite quail.

I recall being on a field tour in eastern Virginia, the primary purpose of which was to highlight quail habitat management. Halfway through the tour, as I had been espousing the benefits of great habitat management all morning, we came to a stop where an old gentlemen stood next to a cage trap which had a live red fox. The man was wiry, and though old, still in excellent health. He proceeded to tell the audience in his rural Virginia twang how he had worked for NASA for decades before he retired and got into the quail management business. He was a good speaker and I recall one statement vividly…because coming from a former NASA scientist, it shot my credibility down a notch or two.

He said “The biologists will tell you nature reaches a balance on its own, and that you need not go messing around with it by doing predator control. Well…that may have been true back when there were lots of big predators and small predators, and back when the landscape was more natural…but right now, after all we have done to this landscape as humans…there is no such thing as balance. Things are out of whack, and if you want a lot of quail you need to do predator control.”

I felt “bushwhacked” because no one told me this fellow would be a part of the tour. But once I swallowed my pride, I got to know this gentleman over the years. I came to realize that he was right in some ways.

Further, research from several entities, most notably Tall Timbers Research Station, began to clearly demonstrate that control of what are termed mid-sized mammalian predators could have a positive effect on quail populations. Our own studies in Virginia also showed that there was no shortage of “nest predators” either. Animals such as raccoons, opossums, red and gray foxes, and skunks could take a severe toll on quail nests, even if they did not kill that many adult quail.

So here is what I believe now.

First, I know beyond doubt that having great habitat is the foundation for all wildlife management. So whether as a landowner you’re managing large or small acreage for quail, the first thing you have to do is learn what good habitat consists of…and then be honest with yourself whether you have enough of it to support quail or not. You can spend lots of money and/or time doing things in an effort to enhance a quail population that will never respond because of poor habitat. The old saying about building a house on sand versus stone applies fittingly to habitat and bobwhites. If your “quail house” is built on stone, then you can pursue tactics than can increase quail survival throughout the year.

Something I noted in Tall Timbers Bobwhite Quail Management Handbook struck me like a baseball bat. They demonstrated that the difference between an increasing versus a decreasing quail population is just a few percentage points in annual survival. In fact, if a quail population does not have a survival rate higher than 20% annually, it is unlikely to increase…but if it runs just a few points higher than that …like the average 23% survival quail enjoy at Tall Timbers, the population can increase substantially. But if the annual survival falls below 15%…steady decline will ensue. So, a manager must do everything to maximize quail annual survival if they want to see their populations increase.

I also want you to think about that 23% number. On what are arguably the very best managed quail lands in the country, where quail experience optimal survival rates…annual survival only averages 23%. Quail evolved as prey…so a lot of death is in their ecology…but if you can boost their chances just a little, they can thrive. Going from 14% annual survival to 21% annual survival…a difference of just 7 points, can make all the difference.

So let’s just run out there and start killing everything we think might kill a quail or destroy a nest, right? Not unless you want to waste a lot of time, kill a lot of things that probably are not causing any harm and run the risk of upsetting the apple cart to the point where you may never get the wheels back on it.

Let’s first consider raptors…like hawks and owls. You need to abandon your ideas about raptor control. They are protected for good reason. There are large numbers of people in our society who value raptors as much as some of us value quail. I am one of them. Studies have shown that through proper habitat management, you can minimize raptor predation on quail. Having ample protective cover is critical.

Studies out of Texas that observed quail behavior when pursued by raptors clearly demonstrated that a quail’s best friend was thorny escape cover (Cat claw acacia was one of the best in Texas – think wild plum, greenbrier and blackberry in the east). This led to a rule Dr. Dale Rollins developed called the “Softball Rule” – standing out in your quail habitat, quail thickets should never be more than a good softball throw away.

And what about another often maligned quail nest predator – snakes? What quite often preys on snakes? Yes, raptors…and other snakes.

So what predators should we try to control?

One statistic that sticks out in my mind from the Tall Timbers Quail Handbook is this: Quail produced on average 44% more chicks on areas where mid-range mammalian predators had been controlled versus areas where no control had been done. Predator trapping increased production and reduced variations in annual survival rates on trapped versus non-trapped areas. Raccoons, foxes, bobcats, opossums, and skunks are key culprits.

Tall Timbers recommends doing a predator survey or index on

Place 1 fatty acid tablet (FAS) in the center of each station. Researchers have shown that FAS tablets elicit a good response from coyotes, gray foxes and raccoons. We have good visitation rates from armadillos, bobcats and other mammals as well. Be careful handling the FAS tablets (please read the label!). -Courtesy of Tall Timbers Research Station

your lands. You can find more about how to do this on their website (http://talltimbers.org/measuring-the-predator-context-on-your-land-to-manage-predation-of-bobwhites/), but in a nutshell, they use a mineral oil and sand mix and place sand rings along roads, trails throughout their properties. They alternate sides of woods roads and trails about 500 yards apart. When the index reaches 20% or greater (meaning 1 out of 5 sand rings has fresh predator tracks in them) they recommend intense predator trapping.

Trapping is a good, honest form of outdoor recreation that requires a great deal of skill. The animals being trapped are not vermin. They are part of our environment and have an established place in the ecosystems in which we live. I support predator trapping when it is conducted ethically as a form of legal animal harvest.

In Virginia, we have a legal trapping season that runs from mid-November until the end of February, depending on species. For some species, such as striped skunk and coyote, the season is year-round. My recommendation to landowners intensively managing for quail would be to have an experienced trapper thoroughly trap their lands as late into the legal trapping season as feasible. This can create a window of time during which new predators may not re-occupy the area before ample nesting has occurred.

Once a relationship is established with a good trapper, allow them to trap every year. This helps keep the tradition of trapping alive (I have many fond memories of my teenage trapline) and has the potential to help some declining species like quail do better.

Here are some other predator management BMPs to consider:
1) Increase the quantity and quality of protective cover (thorny thickets – as much as 1/3 of the quail’s range and well distributed)
2) Make sure all cover types a quail needs are well interspersed (good feeding and bugging areas near good escape cover)
3) Minimize large dirt-laden piles of debris, dilapidated outbuildings, and other such attractors of burrowing predators
4) When a choice exists, conduct habitat management on uplands as far from swamplands as possible, as swamps tend to harbor more mammalian predators

I will end by saying I think you can have some quail without doing predator control…but to develop a highly populated quail plantation, you will need to do predator control.

Shell’s Covert: Seven Years and Counting…

My first blog post here was in February, 2011. That’s over seven years ago. During that timeframe I have probably broken every rule of blogging. Blogs are supposed to be short and frequent. Mine have been long and infrequent. I guess that’s because I am 55, I love to read and write, and I have refused to submit to the “blurb” society where it seems folks have hours to send multiple small blurbs, but no time to write a meaningful message to anyone. It is also because I don’t think my agency is paying me to be a full time blogger. So I have limited it to once a month. I have tried to mix things up in the 85 or so posts I have done.

Some have focused on habitat management, others on quail biology. Still more have focused on upland bird hunting. But my topics have been as diverse as writing about pollinators, 17-year locusts, squirrels and the Civil War…all of which I have attempted to relate back to quail in some way or another. A few have been personal…about loss. And one or two have been philosophical…guilty as charged. But they have all come from the heart and from the caring I have about quail, wildlife, and all of you.

I do not honestly know how many folks read my blog. I hear from a few good friends from time to time that they enjoyed a particular piece. I hope it does some good for someone, somewhere. I have thought about organizing them into a book for lack of a better term, but I never seem to have time. So for what it is worth, in case any of you may wish to go back and look at some of the BLOGs, I am listing the more technical, educational ones below by month. They are all archived on the NBCI website www.bringbackbobwhites.org under BLOGs and under Shell’s Covert. These are not listed in chronological or any other order. I am just going through my list and stating a topic of interest and month and year. For what they are worth…

– Winter’s Effect – March 2014
– Quail on the Cheap (guest BLOG – Justin Folks) – January 2014
– Reforestation Education – October 2017
– Great October Quail Count (how to estimate your quail population) – October 2015
– Pen-raised Quail – November 2013
– Synthesis of Quail 8 Research papers – September 2017
– Value of Protective Cover (It’s a Shell Game) – April 2014
– Value of Weeds – June 2011
– Quail Food Habits (Lespedeza Alone) – August 2016
– Simple Changes in Mowing – November 2012
– Quail Harvest: Education versus Regulation – December 2016
– Golf Cart Quail (how small land changes affect quail populations) – April 2015
– Christmas Quail Management Package (links to multiple DIY sites) – December 2017
– Ring of Fire (history of fire and wildlife) – February 2015
– Housing Development Quail (Arrangement of cover for quail) – June 2017
– Where are They Going to Come From (notes on quail dispersal / movements) June 2016
– Seeing the Light (how to determine if your timber is open enough) – March 2017
– The Prospector (how even small patches of cover can help) – May 2012
– Natives versus Non-Native Plants: Not a Simple Issue – May 2016
– Putting the Sting back in Quail Management (pollinator / quail overlap) May 2017
– Quail Population Management for the Landowner – November 2012
– Quail Disease / Parasite Issues – November 2015
– Cost of Managing Timber for Quail – November 2017
– Quail Translocation Issues – September 2015
– Low Brow Bird Hunting (quail hunting does not have to break your bank) – February 2017
– Bird Dog Training – March 2018
– The Last Bird Hunter (future worst case scenario??) – January 2018

Those were some of the more useful posts. If you have been reading for 7 years – Thank You for sticking with us. If you are a new reader, maybe there is something here you can use. And if you have ideas for future posts send them to marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov . Happy Spring to all of you.

Shell’s Covert: Tilley Bell

I thought long and hard before I bought my latest bird dog puppy … as much about  whether to buy her, as from whom. I have watched the decline in quail numbers and the even faster decline in quail hunters for 25 years now. And my number of avid quail hunters has declined on a more personal level. Some have passed on to the great bird coverts in Heaven. If you ever wonder what that might be like you need to read the great story by long ago outdoor writer Corey Ford. Its title is “The Road to Tinkamtown.” I suggest you read it somewhere alone and keep a kerchief handy, because grown men do cry from time-to- time.

Tilbert at Seven Months

Ultimately, I decided that much like when I bought my first bird dog, not knowing much about them, but with a good friend who did, to take the plunge back into puppy-dom. I do not have a knack for training dogs, though this time I do have more patience.

One of the biggest things I learned in training dogs before Tilley Bell was no matter what, always end a training session on a high note. I have also learned a few things about what you want to see in a good bird dog. Some hard-headedness is good because hard-headed dogs don’t tend to be quitters or slackers. Intelligence is very important – and  if you look close enough when picking a pup you ought to be able to see “someone is home” up there between those ears. And they need some drive. This is again hard to tell at first, but it will become quickly apparent.

Tilley Bell (Til for short, but now Tilbert for some reason) will retrieve a quail dummy as many times as I stand there and throw it for her…she seems to have a limitless supply of energy and optimism. She is also a happy dog, not a worrier. So with a dog like Tilly Bell, it becomes a matter of molding that talent into a hunting companion that you can rely on. Time will tell whether I can turn her into such a dog or not, but I can assure you I won’t do it by breaking her spirit. That’s not what a bird dog trainer means by “breaking a dog.” You have a lot of raw talent that any coach would recognize, now you remove bad habits, build good ones and use encouragement, reward and sometimes toughness to allow that talent to reach its potential.

I named my new dog, now almost eight months old, Tilley Bell, after my Mom. She is now 83 and that was her nickname as a kid. Tilley Bell. And she was a marble-shooting, athletic Tom Boy who has faced down many health struggles now for decades with a smile, kindness, perseverance, faith and love. It’s how we ought to treat each other, and how we ought to train our dogs. A good Mom would never criticize a child without first having built that child’s confidence up with praise. A good coach would never berate a player unnecessarily in a mean- spirited way. And a good bird dog trainer won’t either.

My dogs have always been what some refer to as “meat dogs.” Which suits me, as if I were defined in dogs terms, that’s about what I’d be. What it means is no frills, businesslike, hard-working, not fancy, but always enjoying the hunt and driven to find birds. And I’d also say more steady than flashy, able to hunt all day and not burn out in two hours.

I have great respect for those who run their dogs in field trials. Their skill with dogs and often horses is amazing. Think about how hard it is to train one of these animals or the other – then combine the two. But field trials are not my mug of Joe. I’m not a social person in the sense that on weekends I seek solitude or a few close friends, not crowds and competition.

If you are thinking of getting into bird hunting don’t be scared off by believing your dog needs to be steady to wing and shot, with a high tail on every point followed by a perfect retrieve every time. The only judges you really have to face are yourself, and maybe an understanding friend from time to time (because why have any friends who are not understanding)?

By the way – “setters” were trained to crouch or “set” when they pointed birds centuries ago – because the hunters then used hoop nets, not shotguns, and the nets were thrown over the dogs, just past them, in an attempt to encircle the gamebirds…therefore a high standing dog would have then been a hindrance. I still love seeing some of that trait in a setter today (Tilbert is a Llewellin Setter).

As far as bird hunting in the 21st Century…in Virginia…it is being done successfully by many. Is it back to being the “good ole days?” No. And it may never be. But is it fun? Yes. Is it good? Yes, at times. Does it take extraordinary ability? No. Does it take work? Yes. Does it take perhaps a change in your view of success? Yes. Is it worth getting into now? Absolutely. I would not have bought Tilley if it were not.

Several of my friends and I have noticed what appears to be an uptick in participation. There’s some excitement brewing on upland bird hunting chats. There are pockets in Virginia where quail are quite abundant. Woodcock seem to be fairing OK, though still declining nationally…largely due to habitat loss. And much like for quail and grouse, complicated by other factors like predation and disease. But there IS hope. Once hope is lost, all is lost. If all we focus on is gloom and doom there won’t be any new hunters wanting to find out what it’s like to ease up on a point and feel those bugs churning in your gut, and bracing for that flurry of activity called a flush…and no matter how many times it happens, every time is like the first time all over again. So go forth young men and women, and get that first bird dog puppy.