Shell’s Covert: Reducing Cool Season Sod-Forming Grasses Without Herbicides

On nearly every farm in our area, unless it is totally wooded, you will find cool season non-native sod-forming grasses like fescue and orchard grass. Ridding an area of these grasses can be one of the first and most important things a landowner can do to manage habitat for early-successional wildlife (if they are not needed for hay or stock grazing). I am encountering more and more landowners who wish to do this without herbicides. No soap box today. It can be done, but not without some patience and a lot of work. One more note—one never really rids an area of invasive species, one merely reduces them as much as possible and manages them through time.

For those not opposed to herbicides, I suggest you get a copy of Dr. Craig Harper’s booklet entitled “Managing Early-Successional Plant Communities for Wildlife in the Eastern U.S.” It can be found, along with other books by Dr. Harper, at https://fwf.tennessee.edu/craig-harper/. This booklet gets to the point about many scenarios commonly encountered on properties in the east and gives very good information on how to employ herbicides and other techniques with the most effectiveness.

Why now for this topic? Because fall, beyond a doubt, is the best time to start killing cool season grasses, whether with herbicides or not. I encounter many landowners who have recently purchased a farm and no longer plan to run cattle or cut hay, or they may be older landowners getting out of the business. Conditions range from pasture or hay fields in good condition to old fields having not been hayed or grazed for years, but still undergrown with cool season grasses. The goal is to reduce the cool season grasses and increase forbs. I’ll begin with the lightest footprint possible and go from there.

If you have old fields that have many beneficial plants growing in them—like goldenrods, partridge pea, pokeweed, black-eyed Susan, broom sedge, Indian grass, etc.—but still contain a good bit of fescue or orchard grass, one of the simplest things you can do to reduce these cool season grasses over time is to stop mowing or bush-hogging in the fall. Not only does fall mowing remove the beneficial plants at a time when they are most needed by pollinators, leaving no cover until spring, it also exposes the fescue and other cool season grasses to the sun when they are STARTING to grow best. In essence, you have removed their competition for sunlight and given them a shot in the arm… or leaf, in their case. If you delay mowing until early spring, you will begin to favor the more beneficial perennial plants in the stand. You will still accomplish your goal of keeping the trees from taking over.

Note also that prescribed fire can be applied in this manner to reduce cool season grasses to some extent. Understand that this is different than using fall fire to control woodies in conjunction with herbicides. Fall fire used without any follow-up herbicides will function similar to fall mowing in that it exposes the cool season grasses to sunlight and reduces their competition at a beneficial time for them. Fire will not kill cool season grasses unless multiple fires are used over a long period of time during the early summer growing season. Ideally, you would use fall fire followed by spot herbicide treatment to rid an old field of cool season grasses and control woody encroachment.

If you have a field that is vigorously growing cool season grasses better than everything else, more must be done. What follows also depends on site conditions, which includes slope and soil depth. These techniques won’t work well on shallow, rocky soils or on steep slopes. Some common sense has to be applied.

Natural succession on fescue field after heavy fall disking (vegetation the following summer).

It is possible to use a mold board plow, or in some cases a sub-soiler and ripper, to turn cool season sod over in the fall. If you do not have access to these implements, a heavy offset disk can also work to some degree. The idea is to expose the roots of the grasses to the cold weather all winter long, which will reduce them in the stand. To do this you have to get down deep enough in the soil to get those roots up and exposed to the air. Light shallow disking will accomplish very little. Prior to attempting this, the grass should be hayed, mowed, or burned off to reduce the heavy thatch and make pulling these implements through the soil easier. A fairly strong tractor will be required, 50 horsepower or greater in most cases. Timing should be just before frost in the fall, usually mid-to-late October in our state. If the ground is nearly level, it might be fine to leave the soil exposed with no cover crop. If you have concerns about soil erosion and want to plant a cover crop, the plowing can be followed up by disking and then sowing an annual cover crop like wheat, rye or oats (1.5 to 2 bushels per acre). If the land is sloped to some degree but not severely, the plowing and disking should be done perpendicular to the field’s slope, or on contours, to further reduce rain runoff. If the area is very steep, you should find another place to do this work (or consider using herbicides).

Heavy buckwheat cover crop.

Once the grasses have overwintered with exposed roots and a cover crop, I suggest repeating this process by disking and sowing a summer cover crop like buckwheat. A heavy cover of buckwheat (20 lbs. drilled, 30 to 35 lbs. broadcast) will help shade out the crabgrasses and continue to suppress the cool season grasses. Buckwheat also provides for honey bees and other pollinators. In fall, repeat by disking and planting a fall cover crop. Leave the field fallow the following summer and see what comes in on its own. At some point, you might want to plant a wildflower mix, but give it some time. The natural seedbank can be quite good. And no seed from a vendor will be as good as what’s in the soil naturally.

There are too many scenarios to cover in a blog post, but suffice it to say, by repeatedly using fall and summer cover crops, you may be able to deplete cool season sod forming grasses without herbicides. There are also some new techniques being investigated, such as propane burner systems that actually cruise slowly over sods to raise the grasses root temperature enough to kill them. This method has been effective on some smaller areas so far, and if it can be perfected, may hold promise as another non-herbicide method in the future. We’ll keep trying to think differently and keep you informed of advancements.

Shell’s Covert: 11 Years in Review with Optimism for the Future

This post provides links for those who wish to explore more fully the past 11 years of what we now call our “Quail and Early-Successional Species Recovery Initiative.” In our 2017 evaluation and revision of our program, we drafted a comprehensive report that not only graded our efforts to date but provided a path forward. Note that the path forward was under ideal conditions and did not include budget cuts, position vacancies, and a global pandemic.

Our quail plan emphasized private lands work in targeted sections of the state, but our team helped any and all landowners in all counties, whether targeted or not. Over my career, which now approaches 25 years, I have found maintaining focus on specific counties or regions to be difficult through time. I have also found that predetermined areas do not always work out to be best, and am beginning to believe that focus areas should be expanded where they develop on their own due to local interest.

Every year, our team has also prepared a report and summary of the past year’s efforts. This special 10-year edition focuses on our private lands work. It is as much a “human” overview as it is facts and figures. All too often, we forget the human element of our work, which, in the end, is most important. Special thanks to Scott Klopfer, director of the Conservation Management Institute (CMI) of Virginia Tech, for his work on this 10-year Bulletin. Without Scott, and CMI, this report would not be in its current format and we would not have this link to it. Scott’s and CMI’s services to so many entities in the wildlife profession often go unheralded. Our quail team and the past 11 years of our work would not have been possible without Scott and CMI. We recognize all our partners in the reports provided, without whom we would fail.

Our original “quail team” in January 2010. Left to right: Drew Larson, Marc Puckett, Carol Heiser, Jay Howell, Tiffany Beachy, Ken Kesson, Katie Martin, Galon Hall, Andy Rosenberger, and Mike Budd.

Multiple states have enacted “quail plans” over the past decades and have met with varying degrees of success. Ours is no different. Some have focused more on public lands and research, others have concentrated on particular Farm Bill programs. Common to all these efforts are the ebbs and flows of funding and interest among agency and partner leadership. Occasionally those things align, and funding, agency leadership, and partner interest drives a wave of quail work. I want to thank the leadership of our own agency, the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), for continuing to support our efforts over 11 years. We have become so much more than simply a “quail plan.”

With regards to private lands, our team’s efforts have benefited butterflies, bees, and songbirds as much or more than bobwhites. We have also worked hard on some of our public lands. Most notably on our NBCI Coordinated Implementation Program Focal Area. Our Big Woods/Piney Grove focal area in southeastern Virginia is a partnership between the DWR, the Nature Conservancy, and the Virginia Department of Forestry. It is a national red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) management unit, having the most northern population of RCWs in their range. It is a work in progress for quail and is improving every year. Just last week, the Big Woods Management Area Supervisor, along with two of us quailophiles, completed spot spraying of encroaching sweetgum on our logging deck renovation project there. And much work has also been done on our northern Virginia focal area Manassas National Battlefield Park. Surrounded by an ever growing suburbia, the team at Manassas is still able to maintain and increase quail numbers on the park.

As an agency bound by our mission to serve multiple constituencies, it is difficult to dedicate any entire wildlife management area (WMA) to one cause or species. And we have been unable to dedicate any of our WMAs solely to quail management. That said, our WMA staff have done an outstanding job of incorporating early-successional habitat management on their WMAs. With 44 WMAs totaling nearly 220,000 acres, they have a big job with a lean number of staff. There has been an increasing interest in properly applying prescribed fire on our lands. And no single management technique can treat as many acres as quickly and at as low a cost as can prescribed fire.  There is a new level of interest in the professional development required to allow our staff to up our ability to manage with fire through time.

Our most recent and last “complete team” in 2018. Left to right: Lorien Deaton, Jay Howell, David Bryan, Andy Rosenberger, Jeff Jones, Bob Glennon, (kneeling) Justin Folks, and Marc Puckett.

Like many agencies, ours is seeing an increase in the retirements of long-term staff. They take with them a lifetime of knowledge that is hard to replace. But from my perspective, I am excited by the enthusiasm and level of knowledge I see in their young replacements. Time goes on, and older generations make way for newer ones. I am enormously proud of the wildlife work done by my generation and the ones before it. But I am equally optimistic that this younger generation, while perhaps not doing things exactly as we would have, will do things extremely well… and most likely, better than we did.

My first hand experiences hunting our public lands in central Virginia have convinced me that upland bird hunting is alive and well in Virginia. I am also optimistic that we are seeing a modest resurgence in our quail population in some areas. The work to do will never end, though. Quail recovery will span my career and the careers of several more generations to come. Our team will continue to do all we know how to do, and all we have the means to do, as long as we can do it to promote the development of the habitats used by bobwhites, rusty-patched bumble bees, Monarch butterflies, brown headed nuthatches, wild turkeys, golden-winged warblers, rabbits, red-cockaded woodpeckers, deer, and grouse.  Regardless under which species name the work is done, the results are for the good of all.

Shell’s Covert: Apple Pie, Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, Baseball…Cattle and Quail.

For multiple decades eastern wildlife biologists were fond of saying cattle and quail did not mix. This must have come as a great surprise to all those western ranchers who had more quail on their typical pastures than most of the best remaining quail lands in the east.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and blanket statements like those above are ripe for having holes shot in them like pop cans in front of a kid with a BB gun. It is obvious to all but the densest fence post that when we talk about cattle and quail we need to specify within which ecosystem we are referring. Henceforward I am referring to the humid, subtropical at times, eastern U.S.

Cattle grazing native forage grasses in Virginia. (Marc Puckett)

Thus cattle and quail don’t go together, right? Well…they don’t go together under the typical eastern system which is one of an over reliance on cool season hay (that we often see rotting along fence lines), and overgrazed cool season pastures. But the native quail in our lands several hundred years ago would have been right at home with the large grazing animals that not only shared their landscape, but actually helped form it.

It was a fairly simple equation. Lightening or native American-ignited fire, held down woody growth, created new green grazing forage and then large grazing animals such as bison, elk and deer did the “light disking” with their hooves. There was no fencing, thus animals were able to move to the best new grazing growth…which was the year of a spring fire. Their light soil disturbance created the bare ground quail enjoyed, and stimulated the growth of wildflowers and legumes, and the cycle continued for hundreds if not thousands of years. Of course, a quail back then would have had to endure the quite common surprise of looking up from its 6 inch perspective only to see itself reflected in the eye of an animal like a bison. Perhaps a bison might have also made a quick refuge from a circling Cooper’s hawk.

Well, that’s all fine and good and heartwarming – makes you want to hug, eh? And it is also a thing of the distant past unless the planet’s recovery from the apocalypse does not include humans. So what’s a rancher in the east to do? He loves his cattle and his / her way of life, and also loves quail and rabbits and butterflies and so it is a shame they can’t go together. Blog over…bye.

Not so fast. Enter the modern way of eastern cattle ranching that includes appropriate fencing and watering system installation, fencing cattle out of streams, use of temporary and moveable fencing in many cases, incorporation of native warm season and wildflower pastures, sometimes including native cool season forages, some prescribed fire, and systematic rotational grazing.

This new method of ranching can be used to create a microcosm of the ecosystems similar to those created by bison and fire hundreds of years ago. It might sound complicated, but I’d argue it is no more complicated than the usual system of making two hay cuts a year, keeping haying equipment in good condition, moving and storing huge volumes of hay, feeding heavily all winter and generally trying to force a cool season grass system to work 365 days a year.

If you are a rancher and you are tired of the status quo and want to get off the cool season reliance treadmill, there’s no time like the present to do so. Right now multiple USDA Incentives programs exist to encourage better cattle and grazing management. These programs all offer added benefits for wildlife, especially quail. The Working Lands for Wildlife Program specifically has a practice for cattle and quail, often called B.I.G. for Bobwhites in Grasslands. This program, offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), helps offset the costs of fencing, seed, and other infrastructure needed to get into establishing warm season grasses and starting to rotationally graze.

So the proof is in the pudding and I have seen this work. Right here in Virginia in our southern piedmont there is a rancher who went out on his own almost three decades ago. He incorporated 200 acres of native switch grass into his low grounds foraging base. He began using fire to manage those pastures, and he also started rotationally grazing.

He allowed us to conduct a workshop and field tour on his place a couple years ago. And he hosted a video team to record how well his cattle liked the system. (You can see the result at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PriFZweOBTg&feature=emb_logo) Healthier cattle you have never seen. I’m not good with numbers but I recall over 200 head within a cow calf operation. He relies on temporary electric fencing which is easily moved.

The cattle have come to so love the new lush warm season grass growth that they essentially move themselves. As we approached his field that day, the bulk of his cattle were already lined up near the fence waiting to be let in to the new growth area. As his family moved the fence the cattle rushed into the new area, spread out and began to feed like a well-oiled mowing machine, clipping only the top 10 to 12 inches of the most palatable new growth off the top and leaving 18 to 20 inches of new leaf regenerating plant engine underneath.

As they fed, insects sprang out ahead of them, swallows flocked over the insect rich fields to feed, and quail called from multiple locations in the distance. As I walked in the field behind the cattle I observed a lot more plant diversity than was visible from afar. Numerous legumes and wildflowers had come in on their own. The cattle’s hooves had formed bare ground paths under the grass canopy. It seemed like it all went together like apple pie and ice cream, or hot dogs and baseball…or in this case, like steak and ale. And even in the 21st century, cattle and quail can go together in the humid subtropical east.

Contact your local NRCS district conservationist, or one of our private lands wildlife biologists to inquire further.

NOTE: This program is available in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia

Brooding over Brood Habitat

Ragweed and partridge pea on cut-over to be planted to long-leaf pine.

First, just a quick note to say our Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which has had the word “game” in its name since 1916, as of July 1st became the Department of Wildlife Resources. Over the past several decades our mission has become more diverse, as has our constituency, and the time was right for a change – after all, we are now one fifth of the way through the 21st century. I look forward to serving Virginians just as diligently for the Department of Wildlife Resources in the future as I did for Game and Inland Fisheries over the past 24 years.

On to this month’s subject – quail brood-rearing habitat. It’s early July – the time of quail magic, when chestnut oak acorn-sized eggs, in small nests on the ground, having survived multiple days of egg laying (especially if you happened to be the first egg laid…as one egg a day is the general rule with clutches of 12 to 15 eggs common) and 23 days of incubation – by some miracle, as a bumble bee-sized quail chick packed inside that tiny capsule you managed to use your “egg tooth” and cut an almost perfectly circular hole out of the big end of your calcified coating, and leave it behind, now entering the domain of two-legged mobility. I suspect you were quite relieved to be out of that cramped encasement until you realized how miniscule you were amongst this land of giants. Luckily the Lord blessed you with an innate ability to move about and feed yourself only a matter of hours after your recent squiggling emergence.

You and your relatives occupy an amazingly broad geographic range – from Mexico to Wisconsin and south back through Florida. But there is little genetic difference between a bobwhite quail from just north of Abilene, Texas, to one just south of Farmville, Virginia. Which may be hard to believe given the arid habitat near Abilene consists of cat-claw acacia, mesquite, broom snakeweed, and western ragweed, to that near Farmville consisting of sumac, blackberry, partridge pea and eastern ragweed.

One area gets 15 inches of rain in a good year, the other 50. Did you say “ragweed” two times? Yes I did. Was that an accident? No it wasn’t. You see bobwhite quail throughout their entire range need a few basic things. They need a canopy of vegetation a few feet over their heads that provides shade and concealment from predators. They need those plants to be spaced apart at ground level – with stems being a few inches apart ideally to allow ease of movement, and they need some bare ground under there – 30% to 60% dirt under their feet and the poster plant for these conditions is ragweed. And they need access to some type of thickets for escape and loafing cover…and that’s about it.

Ragweed and sunflower in field border around crop field – Sussex County Virginia.

Some biologists that are fussier than I am, add another component they refer to as a “bit grassier” nesting cover. Usually by the timing of management (disking, burning, cattle grazing) weedy brood-rearing cover, grassier nesting cover and escape thickets can be made to persist at about a 1/3 ratio on the landscape. Sounds simple enough. Quail managers refer to this as the “Thirds Rule” – 1/3 nesting cover, 1/3 brood-rearing cover and 1/3 thickets – plus or minus a few percentage points in any category.

If you manage in a rotational fashion in Virginia and you focus on brood-rearing cover and thickets, nesting cover will take care of itself. Brood-rearing cover here is created by soil disturbance of some kind, usually by the use of prescribed fire, or rotational disking, or both through time (cattle grazing if done correctly can also be effective). If you are not seeing much ragweed, you may not have the necessary brood-rearing cover. It’s not solely dependent on ragweed, but seeing ragweed, which is an annual that is dependent on it seeds falling on bare ground to persist, usually means the soil has been disturbed.  Along with ragweed comes partridge pea, beggar-weed, tickseed sunflower, bee balm and more which produce the insects that quail chicks have to have to grow flight feathers and get strong quickly during their first critical weeks post-eggshell.  In the arid west brood-rearing cover depends on rainfall, and when it is too dry, the weeds don’t come up, the insects are not produced and they have a quail population crash. In the east it’s too much rain that is our problem.  If we do not disturb the ground every 2 to 3 years, the vegetation gets too thick and lush to support quail chick foraging.

So the ragweed (and its many weedy friends) that produces grasshoppers, beetles and larvae in abundance now, provides thousands of seeds that are more nutritious than corn on an ounce-for-ounce basis during December. If you have great brood-rearing cover, you will have great winter feeding cover. Now is the time to go out and evaluate your land for brood-rearing cover. It can consist of recently logged areas that have not yet been sprayed with herbicides, or have recovered from herbicides, multiple logging decks that are managed by disking during winter, open pine stands that have recently undergone burning, fallowed crop or food plot fields full of annual weeds, or rotationally grazed pastures that are allowed to go a little “wild” with weeds in places.

To create brood-rearing cover on your land, fallow some cropland and manage it by disking a third every year during the dormant season. Expand and improve your logging decks by heavy disking, then sowing with a cheap cover crop like millet. Manage them by disking a third of the decks during the dormant season every year. If ragweed does not appear on its own, plant it – the seed is readily available. Mix it with some legumes like partridge pea, beggar-weeds or native lespedezas like slender or round head, and plant during February. These decks can also be incorporated into a burning regime if within pine stands that are being burned. If planting food plots, consider leaving half of each fallow and weedy each year. This saves you time and money, and provides excellent brood-rearing cover for quail chicks and turkey poults.

Pasture and hay lands can be converted into brood-rearing habitat, but it takes a little more doing, a bit more planning and more time. We’ll take that up next month.

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.