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.

The Importance of Scientific Wildlife Research

I have heard some folks say, “What do you all need to waste money on studying this or that species for? You know everything you need to know to manage for quail (or grouse, or bears, or whatever it may be). All that money could be going into habitat management.” Well…I am glad the people who discovered penicillin did not declare, “We’re done here. We’ve got this whipped.”

Ecosystems are not static. They evolve, conditions change and the need to continue to do sound wildlife research will always be with us. I have also heard a few folks criticize researchers for always ending their presentations by saying “More research is needed.” Exactly! It most certainly is. Questions are answered, but many times new questions arise and this is how our society has advanced through time…upon millions of building blocks, all beginning with hunches, and ending in discoveries. And… one rule (of several key ones) I have in life, I never trust anyone who claims to know everything about anything.

Scientific research is an ongoing need, even for bobwhites.

It’s been said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied birds in the history of wildlife science. I am not sure who counted the studies and compared them to other species, but it is probably high on the list. Regardless, we are still learning and new questions come up routinely. For instance … on our National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program Model Quail Focal Area we hear lots of quail during the summer, but we hear very few during our fall counts and the hunters using the area find very few in winter.

Have they died? Are they using the cover very differently than hunters imagine? Do they move off the focal area in search of something they are not finding within it? Are surviving quail simply much better at avoiding hunters than generations past? Have their habits changed over the last decades (meaning 30 or 40 generations for quail) in order to survive in an evolving ecosystem? And, more importantly, can we learn something by studying the situation that might lead us to management decisions that would be good for quail and quail hunters?

Scientists sometimes use the terms “anecdotal” or “ancillary observation” to describe things they or others have observed in nature that are not part of scientific testing. A simple example might be one in which a person observed quail feeding in a partridge pea patch many times. They assume the quail are feeding on partridge pea seeds. But without further examination, it cannot be said with any certainty that is why they are there. They can say “based on anecdotal evidence, I feel quail like partridge pea.” But, many other things grow in conjunction with partridge pea, and it is also a great attractant for insects, upon which quail would rather feed than anything. But this “hunch” can be tested by scientific study, such as trapping quail in the area, and examining crop content and drawing a conclusion that quail do like partridge pea, but as much because it has good structure and attracts insects as for other reasons.

This also leads us to a term called “replication.” In a nutshell, just because you test an idea in one area, or one situation, does not mean what you find there can be applied everywhere. To be truly good, a study requires replication in a wider variety of circumstances.

Scientific ability also evolves and old findings sometimes need re-testing. I can’t recall the class, but one of my professors “back in the day” made a comment that “Mother Nature was very good at fooling people into believing things that were not true.” A classic example of this is the case of the cotton rat being labeled as a bad predator of quail eggs.

Back in the 1920s, using the best techniques available at that time, the famous quail biologist Herbert Stoddard (of Tall Timbers Research Station and prescribed fire fame) stated that cotton rats were bad predators of quail eggs. Managers since that time have worked under that assumption. But recently, researchers at Tall Timbers Research Station, using modern techniques which included remote video cameras set up on hundreds of quail nests discovered beyond doubt that cotton rats do not prey on quail eggs very often at all, they merely clean up egg shell fragments left by other predators that destroyed the nest and eggs before them.

Further, they discovered that cotton rats serve as “buffer” prey for quail and that the higher the cotton rat density, the lower the quail predation – all other factors being equal (this information can be found in the new Tall Timbers Quail Management Handbook available for purchase on their website www.ttrs.org ). Quail managers on modern quail plantations now try to manage to increase cotton rat abundance. A note – Herbert Stoddard was ahead of his time and right about the vast majority of what he studied….but like most of us he was not right 100% of the time.

On our focal area, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers (RCWs) are the primary species of concern (and rightly so because they are endangered and quail are not). Other questions we have are: How do we tweak habitat management to benefit quail without being detrimental to RCWs? Can we adjust the size of prescribed fire units, making things better for quail without harming RCWS, or reducing the total amount we need to burn each year to sustain the RCW ecosystem? If the quail are staying on the area and not dying or moving away, where are they during winter? And what can be done to increase the critical winter escape cover we find them using?

We have a study proposed to help us answer these questions. We’ll use two other areas for comparison to give our study more “strength.” Time will tell if the funding comes through. No matter what happens we hope that our constituents, and even some in our own profession, continue to see the value in wildlife research. And further – that it will also be recognized that state wildlife agencies are the best liaison between our research universities and our state wildlife user groups. No one understands or works harder for our constituents than we do.

Shell’s Covert: The Last Bird Hunter

The year is 2047. The old man, now in his early eighties, struggles up over the ridge top, out of breath and wondering if he’d pushed himself this time too far. Maybe he’d die right up here in these laurels where he’d brought down many grouse and woodcock over the decades before it all began falling apart. That would be an end that suited him. He’d felt alone for so long now anyway save for his dog. The dog kept him going. He just wanted to outlive his last dog so he could make sure the old friend lived out his days in the woods. The thought of himself dying before Buster…well, he would tear up picturing the old fellow wandering aimlessly in the mountains for days until starvation overcame him. So he always quit a little before he was on his last breath.

Of course, what would it matter if they both died right here, right now? Who would care, or even know he was the last bird hunter? His way of life peaked in the mid-20th century, well before he was ever born, some would say. And in spite of valiant efforts by many agencies and non-governmental groups to “save” upland bird hunting, it died anyhow.

At first, there was a lack of birds, and scientists scrambled for a few decades piecing together the whys of the decline. There were many. Some could be addressed … like habitat loss…but in the end the innate quest for expansion by human beings led to increasing pressure to produce food and fiber. And this led to less and less land to set aside to be managed for wildlife.

The production of food and fiber in the best days of bird hunting actually was what produced the highest number of birds ever known…just by accident. And no one could have ever imagined it wouldn’t always be so good. For a couple decades, old bird hunters blamed wildlife agencies and private entities for not caring enough, or working harder, or cutting more timber, or using fire more. Toward the end of their lives though, they came to a sad realization…in all but the most remote parts of our land, or some of the wealthiest, you simply could not manage enough to offset the loss of the accidentally created habitat of yesteryear. The intensity with which land now had to be managed to meet basic human needs left little space for wildlife. But it hardly mattered anymore.

The decline in upland bird hunting…well, all hunting, really…was only partly due to lower game populations. Society changed, slowly at first, and then more and more rapidly every year. Reality became increasingly replaced by virtual reality. The human mind expanded, as the human leg muscle declined. Going outside became something folks did just to get to their newest mode of computer-guided transportation. People could place a device over their faces and experience virtual reality giving them sensations beyond anything they felt while walking through the woods following an old raggedy dog around trying to kill something.

The old man had shut down years ago. He’d seen it coming. At some point, any species that goes extinct first takes a wrong evolutionary turn or two. And, of course, the vast majority of them don’t realize it. He’d realized that the further removed we became from the earth that produced us, sustained us, the lower our chances of ever persisting as a species. He knew it was beyond bird hunting. He finally gave up on cell phones when it reached the point that you had to subscribe to a company and get a new phone delivered every week with the latest installments in order to communicate. The few people who knew him thought he was either very brave, or completely nuts, for venturing more than a few hundred yards from his house without phone communication ability. They had never read about Lewis and Clark, or Livingstone, or Teddy Roosevelt on the River of Darkness.

For a few decades, he’d also made his life working for an agency. He had done all he knew how to do to try to right the ship, so to speak. But he was a biologist, not a psychologist, or an outreach specialist. He’d blamed himself and been blamed by others for not doing enough. He’d lain awake at night for years wracking his brain into a fever…what is the magic bullet? Or how many smaller things can we try to maybe add up to more bird hunters again, more quail, more grouse, more woodcock. Should we use pen-raised birds to promote upland bird hunting? Should we try fall pre-season release on some of our WMAs?

He’d written articles about how to become a 21st Century Bird Hunter. He’d often wished a movie mogul would make a movie about bird hunting similar to the great movie built around a family’s struggles and their love of fly-fishing for trout. After “A River Runs Through It” was released, there was a noticeable uptick in the number of fly-fishers.

He never gave up until the day he retired. They did see some successes, though limited geographically. He’d also seen an uptick in habitat management interest over the years. But this was accompanied by an uptick in the need for other critical agency jobs such as human/wildlife conflict resolution. And he’d seen a continued decline in the number of wildlife professionals per capita in most states. He and all of his colleagues lived the adage “more with less.” He did find some hope in the fact that there were a lot of bright young biologists sharper than he ever was coming along.

But after he retired he reached the conclusion that the best thing he, and all the remaining bird hunters, could do to keep bird hunting alive, was to keep going themselves. To keep talking about it, writing about it, and living it. Every time he saw an old bird hunter hunting alone he’d ask them why they did not try to find a protégé. Every time someone complained to him about how bad things were going he’d ask them “What have you done to help today?” Every time someone saw his dog, he’d tell them not only about the breed, but about its history, and then about the dog’s life itself.

Someone asked him once “Why do you care if bird hunting survives? What’s it matter to you? You have birds now, and a dog, so why waste your time on people who don’t want to live your life?” He touched the young man on the arm softly, then grabbed a bit of the cloth of his shirt, just enough to make sure he was listening and he said “Because I see where we’re headed when it’s gone.”

Shell’s Covert: A Christmas Quail Management Package

Another short but sweet post…

It occurred to me that there are a lot of resources available to people interested in learning more about quail and early-successional habitat management. Many are available electronically and are FREE, but they are scattered across multiple locations. This post compiles links for you (in one document) that will take to you valuable quail management resources. This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but these links are some of the best resources in my opinion…and again, for FREE!

Bargain Basement Bobwhites

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bargain-basement-bobwhites-an-affordable-diy-approach-to-managing-land-for-wild-bobwhite-quail/ prepared by Private Lands Wildlife Biologist Justin Folks with assistance from our quail team.

NBCI’s Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Improving and Managing Bobwhite Habitat

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/nbci-the-comprehensive-guide-to-creating-improving-managing-bobwhite-habitat/ Prepared by staff of various wildlife agencies and NGOs coordinated by NBCI/NBTC.

Bobwhite Basics

https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/bobwhite-basics-2016/ Prepared by various agency and NGO personnel with assistance from NBCI / NBTC.

Managing Your Pine Forest for Sunlight, Fire and Quail

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/managing-your-pine-forests-for-sunlight-fire-quail/ Prepared by the forestry coordinator of NBCI, Steve Chapman, along with the Forestry Sub-committee of NBTC.

Ecology and Management of Oak Woodlands and Savannahs (PB-1812)

 https://bringbackbobwhites.org/download/ecology-and-management-of-oak-woodlands-and-savannahs-pb-1812/ Prepared by University of Tennessee Extension.

Old Field Management

https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/Old-Field_QW.pdf Prepared by UT Extension Dr. Craig Harper and John Gruchy.

Wildlife Considerations When Haying or Grazing Native Warm Season Grasses

http://nativegrasses.utk.edu/publications/SP731-H.pdf Prepared by multiple professors from UT Extension.

This selection provides something for nearly everyone in Virginia in settings from oaks, to pines, and from old fields to pastures. Like most things in life, success depends on personal initiative. But sometimes reading is not enough. If you review this literature and you still have questions, that is what our biologists are for. Contact me at marc.puckett@dgif.virginia.gov or 434-392-8328, and I will connect you with a highly skilled biologist who is dedicated to helping you. The more homework you do before their visit, the more you will benefit from the visit.

Happy Holidays!

Shell’s Covert: How Much Will Quail Cost Me in Future Timber Income? (Or … Balancing Timber Production & Wildlife Habitat)

Author’s note: Some of this BLOG is derived from a very recent article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management entitled: “Economic Tradeoffs of Managing for Timber Production or Wildlife Habitat.” The article was written by Phillip Davis, Ian Munn, James Henderson (Department of Forestry, Mississippi State University) and Bronson Strickland (Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, Mississippi State University). Interpretations of the article and opinions included in this BLOG are mine alone.

A pine stand managed for bobwhites & grassland wildlife

Landowner – “So, if I manage as you say, by heavily thinning my loblolly pine timber, really opening it up, letting that sunlight in, and then using prescribed fire to manage for quail, what is it going to cost me down the road in future timber profit?”

Marc – “Dang it!” I think to myself, “I almost had him.”

In reality, I feel it is my obligation to let the landowners know, whether they ask or not, that there will be economic costs associated with pine timber management that heavily favors the quail side of things. It’s a fair question…that I don’t have a great answer for.

My response usually goes something like this: “Well, I can’t tell you down to the dollar what it will cost. First, you have to remember that initially you will get more money from the thinning because you are taking out more trees. Second, timber markets vary from year to year and it’s hard to say what products will be bringing 10 or 15 years down the road when you prepare to clear-cut. Third, there are “value added” aspects to managing timber for wildlife that it is hard to put a finger on the financial benefits of, but…my guess is anywhere from 10% to 25% of the future timber income.”

And it is a crystal ball “sort of” educated guess…just to be honest. In all fairness to me, if I could accurately predict timber markets, product preferences and prices 15 years out, I’d be in the timber business…and probably retired by now. There’s an old saying when it comes to money, “If you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it.” Maybe managing timber for wildlife is no different, but I’d argue it is not a zero sum game, there are a range of options and you may be a landowner who can see benefits beyond dollars…that are, as the commercial says, “Priceless”…and for everything else there is a not-named-here-for-fear-of-being-seen-as-an-endorsement credit card.

In my opinion, no forester or wildlife biologist can tell you with 100% certainty what the future costs are in timber production if you choose to manage intensively for bobwhite quail. There are simply too many variables and too much can change over the life of a timber stand. You may have it figured to the last dollar and two days before you are ready to sell a category 4 hurricane makes it all moot. My advice to you is that if it is critical to know right down to the dollar how much future timber costs are associated with quail management, stick to growing timber. But if not, here are a few things to consider.

In the article I referenced in my opening note the authors wrote: “Maximizing timber production usually yields the highest land expectation value (LEV) return when compared to maximizing wildlife habitat, but improving wildlife habitat can result in higher hunting lease revenue to supplement foregone timber revenue.”

The authors of this paper used five basic models for evaluation: 1) timber maximization, 2) deer-timber compromise, 3) deer oriented, 4) quail-timber compromise and 5) quail maximized (my interpretation in layman’s terms) with “quail maximized” being the heaviest thinning. Many variables were incorporated into their models too numerous and complex to detail here. But all management scenarios were based on common forestry and wildlife management practices.

As expected, the timber maximization model produced the highest land expectation values (LEVs), but…all scenarios, including quail management, produced positive LEVs (profits). This means that even under a quail management scenario, the timber still made money over the cost to produce it (profit over the costs incurred to plant, spray, manage through time, etc.). The authors spelled this out by saying “Thus, a non-industrial private forest owner can generate an acceptable rate of return from timber harvesting while managing their forest for wildlife habitat.”

Their examination of compensatory hunting lease rates became a bit more complex. The term “compensatory” as it is applied in this study means how much more per acre would a landowner have to charge for hunting rights to offset the lost timber income from intensive wildlife management? One interesting finding that makes sense is that on the land that is best for growing trees (land having the highest potential for pine growth that foresters call site indexes), the opportunity cost for quail management was highest, and vice versa…the poorest pine sites, had the lowest opportunity costs for quail management.

What does this mean to a landowner? If you have large acreages with varying site indexes and are willing to compromise, on the best lands for pines…you could choose to grow pines intensively, and on the poorest lands for pines you could choose to manage for quail intensively.

Regarding hunting lease rates – the authors used $44.91 per hectare (about $18.00 per acre) as the maximum reasonable compensatory lease rate. They found existing lease rates for “Sixteenth Section Lands” (public lands leased to the highest bidder for hunting to benefit Mississippi public schools) in Mississippi to range from $1.69 / acre to as high as $37.80 / acre…essentially demonstrating that it would be possible to achieve the added $18.00 per acre to offset lost timber revenues under certain scenarios. Unfortunately, under the quail management scenario, the lowest reasonable compensatory rate was $20.74 / acre – meaning they did not find a way through hunting rights leasing to offset all lost timber income.

Whew…this all makes my head spin so let’s keep it simple.

Take home messages:
1) It is your choice as a landowner whether to manage intensively to maximize timber profit, or to maximize quail habitat, or manage somewhere in between.
2) There are professional foresters and wildlife biologists that can work together to help you achieve your goals.
3) Even intensive quail oriented timber management still generates a profit.
4) Land well managed for wildlife should bring a higher hunting lease rate than land not managed well for wildlife and these increases could help offset lost timber income.
5) If you own lands that have varying site indexes – you can choose to grow pine timber where it grows best and manage for wildlife where timber doesn’t do as well.

And, I’d like to say on a personal and professional level – forests are good things. Even a loblolly pine stand that is managed to maximize timber income still provides wildlife habitat on some levels. And thinning loblolly pine stands makes sense from every angle. If you follow standard forestry recommendations and then throw some prescribed fire in after thinning – it may not be perfect for quail, but it will be an improvement for wildlife…the glass will be half full, not half empty.
So this article was not meant to criticize those who choose to maximize timber production. It was intended to show that managing timber intensively for wildlife can still generate a profit and that there may be ways to offset some of the lost timber income.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

 

Shell’s Covert: Much More Than a Quail Team

This month’s BLOG is not only late – it is short and to the point.

Click on the cover to read the document.

I am proud of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologist team. We have become known as the “Quail team” but this group of biologists is so much more than that. Their capabilities have grown to include a wide array of habitat management skills across a wide range of ecosystems. And they continue to improve and broaden their capabilities. It is hard to believe they have been working with us for almost 8 years now. Many of them are playing key roles in the quail world.

Most recent examples include leading a major marketing strategy for the Communications Subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee, and playing key roles in the design of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program’s new Cattle and Quail Initiative for Virginia – providing a template for many other states involved. They called themselves the B.I.G. Team – for Bobwhites in Grasslands. The link provided with this BLOG will take you to their latest edition of the Bobwhite Bulletin. It speaks for itself. We hope you enjoy it.

Happy fall!!

Shell’s Covert: Quail Science Synthesized

This year our team was lucky enough to be able to attend the Quail 8 Symposium in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was Quail Eight Logoheld in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee and heavily supported by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,  the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (a nice job to all involved!). The Quail Symposium Series is held only once every 5 years. It is said that the bobwhite quail is one of the most studied animals in the annals of wildlife science. I don’t know how to verify that, but in this year’s symposium series there are 94 manuscripts from 72 authors. Most of the general public and most quail hunters do not know about all this work. But it is the job of project leaders like me all across the bobwhite’s range to read, participate and understand the latest in quail science and get it to you.

Translocating Wild Quail

I am often asked why we do not actively translocate bobwhite quail like we have done with turkeys, deer, bears and other species to speed up re-population efforts. The truth is we have tried it here in Virginia back in the late 1990s. And it has been tried in multiple states with varying degrees of success (or failure in many cases). Over a 50- year period about 900 wild turkeys were relocated in Virginia. This took a lot of work and it was successful in many cases.

One of the first differences between quail and turkeys is that there were millions of acres of turkey habitat into which to transport turkeys. Another big difference shown by modern research is that it takes far more quail to engender a response than it does turkeys, or deer, or bears. The synthesis of the best information available today states that in order to successfully repopulate an area with quail: 1) the area must be at least 1,500 acres of very good quail habitat; 2) target bobwhite population at the end of the translocation period should be about 800 quail. This is accomplished by translocation of 100 wild quail per year for 3 years and then hoping for good reproduction from those translocated individuals, 3) some wild quail should be present on the site before any translocation occurs, 4) and source populations should be disease free and obtained from as close a source as possible (Martin et.al – 2017).

There is more, but I hope this illustrates that translocating wild quail effectively will be an intense process that will only work well in select settings. We are exploring the possibilities in Virginia, and it is in our future, but we will do it right or not at all.

Population Assessment

Many landowners struggle with assessing their quail populations. Traditionally, some form of June whistling male counts are used to track trends. In the last decade the practice of using fall morning covey counts became the gold standard. This method allowed a very solid assessment just prior to hunting season, and could be used to adjust harvest levels on individual properties.

The fall method tends to be more time and labor intensive than June whistle counts. A study was conducted to assess whether June whistling male counts could be correlated to fall density (Sisson and Terhune. 2017). The study showed that: “Peak number of males heard in spring and number of coveys heard in autumn were strongly correlated for all points combined; indicating that spring whistle counts are a reliable tool for assessing bobwhite relative abundance on sites where autumn covey counts are precluded or the information is needed before autumn.”

Landowners who are interested in learning how to do June call counts on their properties should contact us. It is fairly simple and we can talk you through it.

Finding Quail in the Field

One often hears quail hunters lamenting how tough it is to find quail, even in areas where they know there are quail. A study using radio-collared quail coveys, led by Tall Timbers Research Station, showed that, on average, good pointing dogs only cover enough area within a given property to have a chance of detecting about 52% of available coveys (Terhune et al. 2017). The overall probability of a dog finding a covey is about 38%. I interpret this to mean hunters should more thoroughly cover the grounds they hunt, particularly when they believe “quail should be there.”

I understand to train and keep a dog in birds now-a-days often means hunting pen-raised quail. But a study conducted in Kentucky suggests that when hunters have become accustomed to hunting pen-raised quail, their expectations when hunting wild quail may be unrealistic (Orange et al. 2017). Using radioed wild coveys and pen-raised coveys on public lands, it was demonstrated that hunters found only 29% percent of wild coveys. And they were 8.6 times more likely to find pen-raised coveys. This suggests that hunters pursuing wild quail must be educated about the differences in detection rates and expectations should be realistic to maintain support for wild quail restoration on public hunting lands.

Eye Worms

That’s me, far right, in back

And what about eye worms? No, they do not look like eyes, but they are often found in a quail’s eyes, especially in Texas. Over the last few years there has been a great deal of publicity surrounding eye worms being detected at high levels in Texas quail. Our quail hunters often asked me about eye worms in Virginia’s quail, so we reached out to Dr. Dale Rollins and his team in Texas to help us examine some Virginia quail. Their study, surprisingly, did find some eye worms in Virginia’s quail (Kubečka et al. 2017). Eye worms were detected at rates of 59.1% in Texas, 52.1% in Oklahoma, 14.8% in Virginia (4 out of 27 submitted – low sample size) and 1.6% in Alabama. They were non-existent in other states tested. There were also many more eye worms per quail in Texas. Of the 4 that had eye worms in Virginia, only 1 or 2 worms were detected, where as many 109 were detected in one Texas quail. While at Quail 8, Dr. Rollins team (THANKS!) gave us a hands-on class in how to examine quail for eye worms and we will be examining about 250 more heads collected by hunters here last year But currently we do not believe eye worms are an issue in Virginia. Texas is still working on the situation there.

… just some of what we learned at Quail 8 while working 12 to 14 hour days on behalf of bobwhites.

A session at Quail 8

Sources all came from this year’s Quail 8 Proceedings.

  1. Martin, R. Applegate, T. Dailey, M. Downey, B. Emmerich, F. Hernández, M. McConnell, K. Reyna, R. Ruzicka, and T. Terhune, II. 2017. Translocation as a population restoration technique for northern bobwhites: a review and synthesis.
  2. Clay Sisson and Theron Terhune, II. 2017. Use of spring whistle counts to predict northern bobwhite relative abundance.
  3. Terhune, II, D. McGrath, S. Wood, and J. Martin. 2017. Hunter-Covey interactions using pointing bird dogs.
  4. Orange, J. Yeiser, D. Baxley, J. Morgan, and B. Robinson. 2017. Evaluating hunting success of pen-reared and wild northern bobwhite in a reclaimed Kentucky mineland.
  5. Kubečka, A. Bruno, and D. Rollins. 2017. Geographic survey of Oxyspirura petrowi among wild northern bobwhite in the United States.

Shell’s Covert: From the Civil War to the Coordinated Implementation Program

Hot cannon metal under my hands, I peered down the barrel and across the open lands to where the Union troops under General John Pope poured from the wood line and into the hail of artillery from 36 Confederate cannons on Battery Heights not far from the Brawner House. It was on the afternoon of the 3rd day of the battle, on August 30th, 1862, that these cannon played the decisive role in the Second Battle of Manassas, (Bull Run). On this day, August 1, nearly 155 years later, I stood on the ground where over 3,000 men died in combat all those years before.

View from ridgeline where cannons fired in support of Stonewall Jackson’s troops on the third day of the 2nd Battle of Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

I had slipped away from our group of biologists, having seen a rail fence on the ridgeline, my one moment of digression during this quail habitat monitoring workshop. Once there and seeing the cannon I had to take a closer look. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in souls. Closing my eyes for a brief moment a chill went down my spine and my eyes misted. I believe wherever we travel a small part of us stays behind forever. For an instant I felt the same fear and exhilaration those men on that fateful day felt. What goes through a man’s mind when he charges headlong into such carnage? The rest as they say is history and what is arguably one of the most important events in the story of humankind ended 100 miles to the south in Appomattox less than 3 years afterwards (though we are still trying to heal some of those old wounds).

I doubt those men could have had even the slightest inkling of how much change would occur over those next 150 years. The constant sounds of commercial airliners approaching Dulles International Airport, or Reagan National Airport served as the backdrop for most of our day in the field. Traffic on the nearby highways was never ending. Yet Manassas National Battlefield Park (NBP) serves as a unique oasis for wildlife in the middle of a metropolis. With over 5,000 acres of habitat, wildlife thrives. And yes, even the bobwhite quail remains – largely due to the extraordinary efforts of the Manassas NBP staff.

Think about that for a second. In one of the most human dominated landscapes in America, with enough land and the right habitat management, bobwhite quail can find a way to win. If this does not give you hope for bobwhites, or convince you that habitat does work, there is not much more I can say to you, or is there?

Monarch butterfly on a milkweed at Manassas (Photo: Marc Puckett)

And this was one of the primary reasons our group of about 25 biologists gathered at Manassas NBP earlier this week. We were there to practice conducting habitat monitoring as part of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP). Developed by the science subcommittee of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee among others (our own Jay Howell played a key role), the CIP will prove to be the largest coordinated monitoring effort ever undertaken for bobwhites (and several songbirds, too.) Virginia was proudly one of the first seven pilot states. The number of states now involved has soared to 21 and at some point we hope all 25 NBTC states will come on board.

But why do all this?

No matter how hard biologists stress that while other factors may play a role in bobwhite decline habitat loss is still the driving factor, many people simply did not believe us. Further, though many states did have evidence of habitat’s effectiveness, each state did their own thing and trying to compare survey results was like comparing anvils and kitchen knives. Beyond being made of metal, they do not have much in common.

All states participating in the CIP will be using the same methods to monitor habitat and bird response. Further, they will use the CIP to layout and design their focal areas. The monitoring protocol is designed to work across the vast array of ecoregions where quail occur. Take a deep breath and then think about the power of this program. Potentially 25 or more focal areas across 25 states all replicating the same methods and analyzing their results to form a massive data set that will answer this question once and for all. But the CIP is more than a monitoring program; it is a catalyst for quail habitat work and partnerships.

One group of trainees at Manassas habitat assessment training (Photo: John Doty)

Witness how the National Park Service (NPS) has embraced this program (along with others like the U.S. Forest Service). The first official NPS CIP Focal area was Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas and they are smack in the middle of implementing their focal area. Their staff came to Virginia this week to help their peers at Manassas NBP. In addition to the Pea Ridge staff, our group this week included key national staff from NBCI, national level NPS staff, Manassas NBP key staff and field biologists, staff from Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma, a West Virginia DNR quail program biologist, a Quail Forever coordinator from South Carolina who is leading their focal area, a biologist from Virginia Working Landscapes, a teacher (our instructor this week) from Northwest Arkansas Community College, and our own VDGIF staff.

Ours was the second of such training workshops, the first being in Kentucky last year and more are already scheduled. I won’t ramble on anymore today about the CIP, but I hope that for those of you who feel not enough is being done for quail, we are doing more for them now than at any time in history. You will be hearing more about the CIP and I believe it will lead to you hearing more quail in the future.

Having been an infantry soldier, I know what those Civil War soldiers were thinking about when they were baking with sweat streaked faces in the hot summer dust, or freezing to death in the dank winter mud, the only intangible thing holding them to that particular spot on earth being their own honor. They thought about simple things … a home-cooked meal shared slowly around a table with good conversation, a clean, dry and safe place to sleep, the rhythmic sounds of summer katydids on a moonlit night or the sound of a bird coming from the fence lines at least as peaceful as the call of the mourning dove. Softly at first, “bob-BOB-WHITE,” …“bob-BOB-WHITE,”…”it’s ALL RIGHT,”…it’s ALL RIGHT” – I’m still breathing in and out.

Shell’s Covert: I Still Love the Bobwhite Quail

I have been off on a much needed break for a bit now. After 21 years with DGIF and over 25 working with quail, burnout can ensue. While home the other day I was doing some “cleaning out” when I found a 1998 issue of Virginia Wildlife. In it was an article I had written titled “A Quail for the Heart.” It reminded me of the many reasons I continue to enjoy this job. It reminded me I had a lot to be thankful for, too.

For wildlife professionals my age (54), the last decade has been a little confusing. We have lived and worked during a time of rapid change in our society and profession. What professional statisticians like to call “demographics” – meaning the makeup and interests of our human population –has changed. The short story is folks are less connected to the land now, less likely to spend time outdoors and much less likely to hunt and fish than they were 50 years ago. This has translated into declines in revenues for many state wildlife agencies and the last decade has seen great effort expended to seek remedies. Some have been found, but no perfect fix exists.

One thing many of us realized quite some time ago is that our constituency is very diverse now, and we need them all to succeed. And we believe they need us, too, in order to truly have the kind of future they desire. At some point in the lives of many people they find something is missing. For many, what is missing is a connection to nature and their ancient roots.

Our “Quail Team” has embraced the idea of partnerships quite well. We call ourselves the “Quail Team” quite frankly because it is much easier to say than “early-succession habitat / species team.” And we simply have not struck upon a better name (if you can think of one, please let us know). In the back of our new quail and early-succession species recovery plan (available at this link:  https://bringbackbobwhites.org/about-us/nbci-statescoordinators/virginia-nbci/  then click on the tab for the plan – thanks to NBCI for working with states to create these pages) is listed 35 partners from a very diverse array of entities that we work with and rely on routinely. And we have a team of private lands wildlife biologists with impressive backgrounds that include remarkable knowledge about songbirds, deer, pollinating insects and plants. I am proud of the small role I have played in helping them in their careers, but they have helped each other a great deal more than any of their managers have, like a true team. Our goal as cooperative managers via DGIF, NRCS and CMI has been to allow them to work to their strengths, and encourage and facilitate them when we can.

With all this partnership though, and much talk about the huge declines in upland gamebird hunters, I fear our upland gamebird hunting constituents might worry they are being forgotten. My main reason for writing this post is to assure them they are not being marginalized. In our new “quail plan” – in quotes because it is much more than that – we identified several key areas where significant improvement is needed, and one of those is our efforts to continue to recruit and support upland gamebird hunters. Maybe this phrase has been overused, but “it is not a zero sum game.” This means that we do not have to either be “game species” managers or “non-game species” managers. The more I work in this job the more I realize how important what some call the 80:20 rule is. Written about in the most recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, this rule states that when bringing diverse partners together, focus on the 80% of things you agree on and forget about the 20% you might disagree on. Whether your favorite species is the monarch butterfly, the rusty-patched bumble bee, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the southeastern fox squirrel or the bobwhite quail – there is a good chance their habitat needs are similar. And it will only be through the “strength in numbers” that evolves when we come together with a common message that allows us to “move the conservation needle” in the right direction. Ouch – enough quotes!

As for myself, I have a new bird dog puppy on the way. I look forward to picking her up in late August. I have been too long without a puppy to love and train. I am looking forward to that bonding process again that unless you have experienced it you may not understand. It is hard to put into words the feeling you get when you see something as tiny, dependent and innocent as a Llewellin Setter puppy develop into an independent, hardworking companion that lives for you and to hunt upland gamebirds. There is some luck and magic involved in this process. Special touch is required to understand how to keep a bird dog enthusiastic and pointed in the right direction. You have to guide them, but you have to keep it fun. You have to allow them to train themselves as much as you train them and you have to be forgiving of mistakes. In short, it is not altogether different to how we might raise a child, or how we ourselves might like to be “trained” to do things we have the heart and instinct to do but not the experience.

As long as I am in this job role, and alive on this earth with the health to do it, I’ll be a proud “bird hunter.” You might say I was born into it.  When I entered this world back in “those good old days” on a cold November Sunday, my Dad brought my Mom a meal of pan fried wild quail as she recovered in the hospital. A peer once said to me “Marc, the quail is never going to be everyman’s bird.” I have thought about that for many years now. I am not sure any bird will ever be everyone’s bird. But I can assure you of this – the bobwhite quail is this man’s bird, and will continue to be a primary reason I come to work every day.