Shell’s Covert: Public Lands Paradise

A Happy Dog and Bird Hunter on Public Lands in Virginia

These last few days have put just enough crisp in the air to make me begin to feel the tingle in my stomach when I think about getting my 2-year old Llewellin setter out in the brambles again. The swish of bird pants on briers, the smell of wet leaves and creek bottoms, and the unfettered joy of seeing a young bird dog running free is almost close enough to touch.

“If only I had some place to go,” you say. Huh? In my best Jersey accent, “Yuse Godda be kiddin’ me!”

Chances are there is a good public lands upland bird hunting opportunity within no more than 45 minutes of where you live. That is if you enjoy the scouting and adventure as much as I do. If not, go buy yourself one of these new electronic “wall popper” games, get another bag of chips and some dip, and keep lengthening your belt size on your couch.

I upland bird hunt almost exclusively on public lands. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to go, don’t have to call ahead, and don’t have to worry about owing anyone anything in return for my access. They are our lands, yours and mine. A recent issue of the Quail Forever magazine was dedicated to public lands. “Hunt America: The Public Lands Issue” arrived at my home a few weeks back, not long after the Upland Bird Hunting Super Edition. Both were excellent. Kudos to Quail Forever on their magazine work.

The latest issue gave me the idea for this blog and I’ll try not to plagiarize their content, but I do want to make some of the same points … and maybe a few new ones. The issue focuses on a few germane topics: public lands hunting should matter to all hunters, especially upland bird hunters, we should all advocate for public lands, they should be kept public, and opportunity is ample on public lands across America. Even in the heavily populated East.

Most public hunting lands in Virginia also tend to be large enough that if you show up and someone is in your favorite spot, there is another place just down the road that will be almost as good. There’s room to roam! I hunted the Jefferson National Forest extensively in my youth (the better spent part of it anyway). The sheer joy of having hundreds of thousands of acres at my disposal and the energy to explore it was exhilarating. Find a map, get an old 4-wheel drive vehicle and set out. We’d leave before the sun made any heat and come home well after the moon was making shine, and never leave “the Jeff” all day.

We found a lot of special places along the way – some I still go back to and some I may never see again except in my dreams, but we never ran out of new sections to explore. And all of that without GPS, Google Earth and cell phones…I wonder what we could do now if we were still in our 20s? Maybe you are? What are you waiting for? Check out the USFS Young Forest Finder at this link: https://dgif-virginia.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=189fab6e47cc4de089a6eec6750ea187&utm_source=dgif_hunting_page .

Here in Central Virginia we have multiple DGIF-owned Wildlife Management Areas. Most are in the 2,000 to 4,000-acre range, not so large that they can’t become well known to you in a few seasons. Our agency manages 44 WMAs comprising over 225,000 acres well distributed throughout the state. The area managers work hard for you every day and they want you to use their areas. They take pride in them. Information about them can be found at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wma/ .

In addition to those areas, the Department of Forestry also has some large publicly huntable areas – their State Forests. The Appomattox-Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward-Gallion States forests are about as central in our state as you can get. These three state forests alone represent over 40,000 acres of public lands. More information about all the state forests as well as regulations pertaining to them can be found at: http://www.dof.virginia.gov/stateforest/list/index.htm .

Most of Virginia’s military bases also offer ample public hunting opportunities with certain restrictions. And don’t forget about the over 40,000 acres of hunting lands surrounding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Kerr Reservoir (26 wildlife management areas – many offer some form of upland bird hunting). Or all the opportunities on State Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and others. Not all these lands offer upland bird hunting, but many do. Information about all these lands can be found through our agency’s website at this link: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations/publiclands/ .

I had a hunter friend text me last winter. He had spent the day hunting one of our wildlife management areas in Central Virginia. He found six coveys of quail that day, along with some woodcock. Another life-long “old time” bird hunter I know found 56 coveys hunting public lands over the course of the season – in Virginia. These are men I know and trust. These stories are not made up.

The common denominator among the successful bird hunters I know in the modern era is hard work and passion. They wear out their boots before the seats of their pants. I encourage you to make use of all the modern scouting tools at your pleasure, but don’t forget in the end it will take a substantial investment of your boot leather to have success.

Shell’s Covert: Seeing Through the Smoke…Responsible Fire Application

A well contained prescribed burn With residual smoke. Photo: Marc Puckett

I remember the first prescribed fire I participated in as a new Game and Inland Fisheries employee almost 24 years ago. It was September. I’d had no formal fire training, did not know what a “pack test” was, and the only personal protective equipment (PPE) I had on were leather gloves. There was no written burn plan, no pre-fire safety briefing (other than a statement “Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t do anything stupid”), and very little else in the way of planning. We did have hand held radios. One other thing we had going for us was there were some “old hands” in charge. These guys had a lot of experience, a knack for understanding fire and the confidence to develop a burn plan on site the day of the burn. They looked out for us “newbies.” The burn was also in a remote area with good man-made and natural fire lines in place.

That particular burn went well. But anyone who has practiced prescribed fire knows they do not always go well. An old saying that I think applies is “Failing to plan, means you are planning to fail.” I’m not knocking those old timers. I learned a good bit from them, but as we sit here 20% of the way through the 21st century, more training, planning and care is required to insure we can continue to apply fire into the foreseeable future – particularly in the increasingly populated east. You will now find our staff much better trained and equipped. And we strive to improve. Continued professional development is the mark of a true professional, whether in the public or private sector. It is up to all of us to responsibly apply fire.

What does that mean? First, I think it means recognizing that your actions as a fire leader don’t just affect you and your immediate team. Mistakes made in today’s society could affect everyone trying to apply fire in an entire state or region. Burn managers need to assess every burn for its value in relation the potential costs if something goes wrong.

In my opinion, an agency or organization should not undertake more acres of burning than can be well managed on a fire rotation through time. Rather than trying to maximize acres burned, the goal should be to maximize acres burned well with a very specific purpose. In my opinion it should mean exactly the same thing to private landowners.

One of the most impressive uses of fire through time I have seen is a pine stand managed by Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Division in Sussex County, Virginia. The approximate 150-acre tract has been burned 9 times in 18 years. It is a true demonstration of how fire needs to be applied properly over time to establish a wonderful fire adapted native plant and animal community. In my opinion, this is how all agencies should approach their fire programs. Focusing on areas where it makes the most sense and that are most conducive to fire over the long term. And those areas should provide critical habitats for species in need. And they should serve as examples for all to see, becoming prime educational venues.

Another huge component of responsibly burning means worrying as much about smoke management as about the fire itself. We have weather forecasts available to us that are very detailed down to the hour of the day for several days. These forecasts allow us to be able to understand how smoke will disperse, where it will go and when and where it will come back down. Ideally the weather will allow us a long enough window to complete the burn, and provide for smoke dispersion well after the fire itself has died down. Real thought has to be given to smoke, not just during the fire, but the night after it, and in the following days if fuels are expected to smolder. The old attitude of “Well, a little smoke won’t hurt them”, or “They’ll get used to it” needs to disappear.

Prescribed burning is a fantastic teambuilding activity, but it should never be applied just for that purpose. Part of the teambuilding should include a discussion of why the fire is being planned. Future burn practitioners should begin to learn the lesson very early that we are not out burning just because it is fun. With massive declines in pollinating insects, songbirds and many other organisms being very recent in our news, it should not be too hard to explain that we are burning to recover ecosystems that are critical to our planet.

We all know Smokey the Bear and how effective he has been in wildfire prevention. We need a similar mascot in the prescribed fire community that actively promotes the wise use of prescribed fire. In order for all of us to be able to continue to apply one of the most cost-effective wildlife management tools in our toolbox, we need to be doing as much public relations work as we do prescribed burning. And we all need to be aware of the image we project when we talk about fire when among our constituents. Wildland fire fighting has its own language and approach. I admire all wildland firefighters, and firefighters in general. But I think more care needs to be used in making sure the public knows the difference between the world of wildfire and prescribed fire.

 

Shell’s Covert: Managing Expectations (…or a Pollinator Planting is NOT a Pollinator Garden)

When I graduated high school, my dad offered me some choices of graduation presents. We were not wealthy by any monetary measure, not by a long shot. So his offer to take me to Canada on a fishing trip meant expenses our family would feel. But off we set on a 26-hour road trip one way, four of us in an International Scout packed to near bursting like a tick on a hound dog in summer.

Our expectations were high after years of seeing the pictures in all the popular outdoor magazines, all of which we subscribed to. The brochure of our camp of choice had shown freshly painted, immaculate cabins, shiny new boats, guides and stringers full of fish. But upon arrival we found dilapidated, mouse-infested, leaking cabins, a run-down camp store, beat up boats … and no guides. We also caught very few fish. It was still a fun adventure, but our expectations had not been met. Maybe they had been unrealistic?

Lately, I have found myself talking more and more to landowners who have been disappointed in their wildlife plantings. Many times these plantings have been “pollinator projects.” It has reached a point where some conservation professionals have become hesitant to promote pollinator plantings. I have planted quite a few myself – meaning me with partners out in the field preparing seed beds, mixing seed, and conducting multiple site visits for follow-up on multiple projects. I have enjoyed varying degrees of success, but would generally rate 90% or better as projects with good results. And in most cases, where results were not good, we had cut corners on proper establishment techniques. There are some keys to getting good results that I will mention later, but right now I want to address managing expectations.

Pollinator plantings are not pollinator gardens. Accept the fact that a few “weeds” will come up on their own. Many are great for wildlife.

I fear some wildlife professionals might be guilty of over-selling, or improperly selling, pollinator planting projects. First off, just about every picture a landowner sees of pollinator plantings is one showing a beautiful field of wildflowers in perfect bloom, many times with bumblebees or butterflies on some of the spectacular flowers. This is not helped by magazines that foster the utopian view of such plantings. This sometimes does happen, but guess what – in most cases when you plant wildflowers, the native seedbank – meaning those seeds naturally in that soil for perhaps decades, will also join the party. Believe it or not – not all of them have beautiful flowers. Ragweed, for example, often shows up. There is not a better plant in the world for quail, but it ain’t pretty and does nothing for pollinators. Horseweed is another common culprit of “plainness.” A few landowners go aghast that flowers other than yellow, red and blue somehow show up in the plantings. This year, common fleabane with tiny white flowers was ubiquitous in many pollinator plantings I saw. While it is not real showy, it is used heavily by a lot of small native bees.

I think one thing that can be done to manage expectations is to use a variety of photos to promote these plantings, not just the perfect ones. Landowners need to know that pollinator plantings are not “pollinator gardens.” Professionals also need to highlight the value of some of the non-planted “weeds” that show up for free. Basically, we just need to be honest about expected results, possible issues, and the need for long-term management, which may include addressing non-native invasive plants, too.

So here are a few of my suggestions for those interested in developing successful pollinator plantings (or other wildlife plantings in many cases).

  • As the landowner – avoid the utopian vision of how the project will turn out. Pollinator plantings require a lot more than “just adding water.”
  • Scout the site properly and look for potential invasive species that could derail a project. If the proposed site is infested with Johnson grass, sericea lespedeza, Bermuda grass, or other such hard-to-manage invasives, consider another site if available. If not, be realistic. Will the expense and time required to address such sites “pay off” in the end? One way to deal with the invasives would be to plant the area to an herbicide compatible crop for several years to gain control over the invasives well before starting the pollinator planting.
  • Have patience. Properly preparing for and implementing a pollinator planting can take a couple years if it is done correctly. The project may require several herbicide treatments, and/or cover crop plantings to get the area “right” for pollinator mixture seeding.
  • Prepare a very good, firm seedbed. This usually requires culti-packing before and after seeding if planting on disked ground.
  • Make sure you have the time and equipment to properly implement the planting, or have the means to hire a wildlife planting contractor that is knowledgeable and capable of seeing the project through.
  • Learn to identify “good” weeds and wildflowers that you do not plant, and accept them as welcome and free additions to your plantings.

If a pollinator garden is truly what you want, pick a small site that can be weeded by hand, because over time that will be required. Most pollinator gardens are also implemented using potted plants, not seeds. Work with a good biologist to develop a list of plants you’d like to have and develop a plan for how they should be arranged. The plan should include sources and best planting times.

My last piece of advice involves being honest with yourself. If you want to be in the quail business, or even in the pollinator business, and you cannot tolerate a few native weeds and some unkemptness to your property, you may want to reconsider and spend your time and money elsewhere.

Shell’s Covert: ‘Old Croaky’

Upon my front porch last week early on a Saturday, by 0600, I was out enjoying the fact I was off, and at home. I live in the country for a reason. City folks might pay to spend a week at my house and consider it an outback adventure. This day and age what passes for hardship would be our poor cell phone coverage and slow internet. After a week at our place, I can see an urbanite hustling into their car and scurrying back to the city decrying the abhorrent conditions and seeking a refund. “Not enough biscotti, shadegrown freshly ground coffee, or peach flavored beer” perhaps being stated as reasons for restitution.

Thankfully, I never plan to do any time sharing, and my house is for me and my family to enjoy. My front porch is a wildlife mecca at times. I particularly enjoy spring, as I mark the first calls of migrating birds. I think none have a more beautiful song than the orchard oriole. I see deer, squirrels and rabbits daily. And have occasionally seen bears, coyotes, foxes and bobcats. Yellow-billed cuckoos seem especially numerous this summer. And I get to watch blue-grey gnatcatchers sometimes. Now these are birds that never sit still. They flit from limb-to-limb combing branch after branch for insects. I suppose they stop at nightfall. At dusk and dawn I hear many Chuck-Wills Widows, and have been fortunate to see a few. They are larger than whippoorwills and impressive in flight. I am not sure why it seems they have increased in number and their close relative, the whippoorwills, have declined? Off this same porch I watched a hummingbird once sit in the top of my redbud tree. About every five or six seconds he would dart rapidly upwards, snatch something out of the air and then return to his branch. On closer observation I noticed a cloud of gnats about 10 feet above him. I realized he was getting his fill of them. I was surprised to find upon investigating that hummingbirds eat a lot of insects. Yes, they love nectar, and they’ve become addicted to sugar water in feeders, but they can make a living on insects in a pinch. It is amazing what we could all make do on once the veneer of luxury is eroded away.

But this post is about the bobwhite I call “Ole Croaky.” I have heard him for two years now off my front porch, and say “him” singularly because he has his own call (that said, there is no certainty it is the same male bobwhite). You have to be close to hear him, within a hundred yards I’d say, if not closer. Reason being, he sounds as if he has the proverbial “frog in his throat.” There are the three clear syllables common to all bobwhite calls (yes three, but only two can be heard if you are not close “bob-Bob-Whiiiiittte!”) but each note is a muffled, scratchy poor substitute for a bobwhite whistle. His effective search radius for a female bobwhite must be very small, and whether they’d actually even recognize his call or not, I don’t know … and if so, they may have no interest as his call may be some ecological measure of fitness. Who knows how quail think? I think I know what they need, what kind of cover they are typically found in and how to produce it…but I don’t know how they think.

Ole Croaky got me to thinking, though. It made me wonder about all the hurdles quail, or any other organism out there, has to face on a daily basis to survive and reproduce. As biologists we tend to focus on things that kill quail outright, but we don’t give as much thought to things that, while they may not kill a quail, or even a quail chick,  may inhibit some vital activity, like finding a mate, or getting enough food, etc. It made me wonder why Croaky’s call had gone awry. Did he ingest a grasshopper and have it get stuck in his crop, and after a few weeks went back to calling normally? Did he have some kind of parasite or infection? Was it a genetic defect? I don’t know. I assume it is not common, because I have not heard this call very often (one other time years ago in Cumberland County), but then if I was not close enough to hear them, how many did I pass by?

I know you are wondering “Where the heck is he going with this?” So if you are still reading, it is this … like a good friend of mine from Georgia likes to say “It’s hard to know what you don’t know.” I fear we live in a world where fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what’s going on outside. And as biologists we get into the mental equivalent of wagon wheel ruts in an old country road. Back in the old days, wagons would rut a road, and then they’d take a horse drawn grader and pull them down by dragging them, and so on and so on until you couldn’t see the wagon above ground anymore. I still find remnants of those old wagon roads from time to time while hunting in remote areas. I wonder sometimes if our entire profession (wildlife biology and research) is in such ruts in some ways. I guess my main reason for saying all that is to say this – I hope we can all challenge ourselves as individuals to get out of those ruts. Let’s not become unbending patrons of the current dogma. Let’s not assume we know it all. And let’s turn the iPads off from time to time, and get out of the truck and walk … and slow down long enough to think. After all, most of learning is about figuring out the right questions to ask…and that comes from simple observation most of the time.

Shell’s Covert: Taking Our Measure

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day being tomorrow (June 6th), the marking of important events is on my mind. June 6, 1944, certainly ranks as one of the most important dates in history. The events of that day and those that followed to bring World War II to an end opened the doors to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature” to prevail. They haven’t always, but the balance is still in their favor after 75 years.

In the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks), as he lay dying after a grueling battle, touched Private John Francis Ryan from Iowa (played by Matt Damon) on the shoulder lightly and said, “Earn this.” What might have seemed like nothing more than a touching moment in a movie to many meant so much more. That line was a statement to all of us to go earn the sacrifices made by so many so that we might have a free future.

So much of what we do may seem trivial and unimportant compared to the fighting of a World War, but it is the collective of all the positive things done since then that honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. All anyone owed them was to wake up every day and go do an honest day’s work and appreciate the opportunity.

Wildlife conservation is a luxury in the sense that it can only occur where societies successfully rise above subsistence and oppression. The conservation of wildlife species will never be as dramatic or noted as events such as World Wars. But our own existence may depend as much on the conservation of those species and their environments as it does on more immediate events. After all, their environment and ours is one and the same.

This year, Illinois will host the 25th meeting of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (including its former days as the Southeast Quail Study Group). I don’t know what a soldier under fire in France in 1944 would have thought of our group (of course, at that time they were thinking of nothing but surviving and not letting their fellow soldiers down). I do know that no generation of people has embraced the outdoors more than those that survived World War II. Those men and women and their children (the Baby Boomers) took to our fields, streams, mountains, campgrounds, parks, and trails like none since. I think it is telling that the generation that perhaps sacrificed more than any other, found their solace, comfort, and joy in our natural environment. For as many as five decades, they provided the lion‘s share of the funding for state wildlife agencies via their gusto for purchasing hunting and fishing licenses, registering boats, and paying taxes on goods related to those activities. Taking that as evidence, I think they would feel that we earned the sacrifices they made. I don’t think they would consider our collective work as trivial.

As for the quail world, we have plenty to show for the last 25 years. Keep in mind, our work has to be measured in ways that account for the difficulty of the task compared to some other species. Encouraging the creation and maintenance of millions of acres of ephemeral habitat is a monumental undertaking. In many parts of their range, the tide of decline has been stemmed, or at least slowed dramatically. Populations are showing resurgence in many places like Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky. Significant state recovery initiatives exist in multiple states within their range. Right here in Virginia, we see population surges in places where significant habitat work has occurred in a landscape still dominated by agriculture and forestry.

To define what I call the “quail world,” it consists of all the state agencies, federal partners, non-governmental organizations (both game species and non-game species related), research institutions, and others that collectively work on behalf of bobwhites and many species that rely on similar habitats. It might better be called the “early-successional species cooperative” – but that is a lot to say. A short list of major accomplishments of this collective would include: taking the Southeast Quail Study Group to the next level of a range-wide organization that includes 25 states under the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC); developing and staffing the “full-time infrastructure” of the NBTC in the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI); the establishment of the state agency director-led NBCI Management Board; the completion of a comprehensive analysis of the population and habitat status of the bobwhite’s range; conducting multiple successful Quail Symposiums; volumes of successful and illuminating quail research; the development of special USDA financial incentives programs, such as the FSA’s center-pivot irrigation corners CP-33 and NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife programs specific to bobwhites; the increase in the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s mandated wildlife funding from 5% to 10% of the budget; and the development of the NBCI-led Coordinated Implementation Program, which is the largest, most comprehensive (almost all 25 states now involved), most well-designed quail habitat and population response study ever undertaken. A national marketing firm-designed promotion campaign has also been planned to accompany these efforts.

I don’t want to be accused of painting an overly rosy picture, but it is important to understand a lot has been accomplished. Even so, this is not the time to ease up. Funding for the NBCI continues to remain problematic and insecure. Quail populations continue to decline in many areas. World-wide declines in insects, birds, and amphibians point to underlying problems that need attention at levels much higher than those of a single species, agency, or entity.

Much as those who had just fought their way through North Africa gathered themselves, took a deep breath and waded ashore in Normandy, it is time for those of us in the quail world to gather ourselves to take our battle to the next level.

 

Shell’s Covert: The Eastern Tree Elk and Other Wonderful Projects

I like to refer to the southeastern fox squirrel as the “eastern tree elk.” For people who have never seen one, their first experience with the east’s largest squirrel subspecies can be exhilarating. There’s just something about them that can’t be defined.

There are four subspecies of fox squirrel that inhabit Virginia. Over in the very farthest tip of southwest Virginia, there are a few of what are referred to as the mid-western subspecies of fox squirrel (Sciurus niger rufiventer), and they are very common in the mid-west. Moving a bit further east into the Ridge and Valley region of Virginia is our most common subspecies, known as the mountain fox squirrel (Sciurus niger vulpinus) to many. While well known in the mountains, this subspecies is moving further east. It is now quite common along the east slope of the Blue Ridge and is becoming more common in the western piedmont, with occurrences in central Virginia also increasing.

Matt Kline, Big Woods Area Manager, hanging one of 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes

Traveling up to the eastern shore, you can find the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus). While still very rare and on the state list of threatened species, due to successful reintroduction efforts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently removed the Delmarva fox squirrel from the endangered species list. And back to my primary topic the southeastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger), the last of the four subspecies occurs in the southeastern region of Virginia, and becomes more numerous in North Carolina’s coastal plan and further south through South Carolina, Georgia and into Florida. While locally abundant in some states, this subspecies is considered to be in decline, largely due to habitat loss. They only occur in Virginia in pockets where suitable habitat exists in enough quantity to support long-term populations, mostly in the counties east of I-95 and south of I-64 – our southeastern coastal plain.

Fox squirrels are perhaps the most variably colored mammals in North America. They occur in colors from oranges, to reds, to whites, blacks and all mixes of the above. They are about twice the size of the average gray squirrel. It is believed that the southeastern fox squirrel used to occur up into south central Virginia in counties like Nottoway, Amelia, Lunenburg, Dinwiddie, Brunswick and Mecklenburg. The southeastern subspecies tends to have more black coloration than other subspecies, often having a black belly and a lot of black on its face, but with white ears and nose markings. Very little is known about this squirrel in Virginia, however substantial studies have been conducted in North Carolina and further south. We are currently working in cooperation with multiple partners on a southeastern fox squirrel study in Virginia. There are two study sites, one consists of The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve combined with DGIF’s Big Woods Wildlife Management Area over in Sussex County. A long-term population of southeastern fox squirrels occurs on these areas, though we do not know how numerous they are. In an effort to better understand them, we erected 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes (15 at 5 sites) on these areas. Our hope is that we will be able to capture and place radio-telemetry collars on at least a few to gain a better understanding of how they use the habitat. The southeastern fox squirrel is known further south as a denizen of the open long-leaf “piney woods” (especially where prescribed fire is used routinely), but here in Virginia they have adapted to a mixture of mature, open loblolly pines, adjacent to hardwood drainages.

Our second study site is on Ft. Pickett Army Maneuver Training Center in south central Virginia. Ft. Pickett Environmental Program Funds are our primary funding source for the entire project. The research is being conducted in partnership with Virginia Tech and the Conservation Management Institute. At Ft. Pickett we also erected 75 fox squirrel nesting boxes. We do not know if any fox squirrels exist on Ft. Pickett, but we hope if they do we can document them via the nesting boxes and trail camera usage. Phase 2 of this project might also include some trapping and translocation of southeastern fox squirrels from North Carolina to Ft. Pickett. We continue to develop the project and work out the details.

What is interesting about southeastern fox squirrels is that their habitats are highly compatible with bobwhite quail, and also the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which is an important consideration of management at Piney Grove and Big Woods in Sussex County. All these species are adapted to open canopy pine forests where fire is frequently applied.

The Piney Grove – Big Woods complex (which includes Big Woods State Forest) also serves as Virginia‘s primary National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Quail Focal Area. This makes it part of the nation’s largest ever coordinated bobwhite quail study. I’ll also mention that deer, turkey and many other species benefit greatly from the management being done to help an endangered species. Add to this our recent partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation on Big Woods WMA and State Forest, and I hope you can see the value of partnerships in ecosystem management. Our team at Big Woods was awarded a Superfund Project Grant from NWTF this spring that is allowing us to revamp multiple logging decks, turning them into brood fields for turkey poults and quail chicks, and also creating good pollinator habitat. Over time some of the native plant species we will use to re-seed the logging decks will spread into the surrounding areas increasing the native plant diversity.

And at Ft. Pickett, even though military training takes precedence over habitat management, wildlife and habitat are a top priority. The quality of the deer, turkey, squirrel and quail hunting found there is hard to beat. Their long-term use of prescribed fire as a management tool, combined with fires that result from military live fire training within impact zones, creates some of the most unique habitats in Virginia.

Both of these areas, the Piney Grove – Big Woods Complex and Ft. Pickett have several things in common. They are relatively large, contiguous blocks of habitat (10,000 acres and over 40, 000 acres, respectively), they actively manage timber with an emphasis on creating wildlife habitat, they routinely use prescribed fire, they welcome partnerships, and they are practicing ecosystem management, not single species management. These are just two examples of where synergy and partnership converge in Virginia and throughout the nation to benefit multiple public user groups. Whether you hunt, fish, hike, camp or watch wildlife, or “all the above,” wildlife benefits most when we work together to actively manage the contiguous blocks of public lands over which we have been given stewardship.

Shell’s Covert: April, My Favorite Month

April might seem to be a strange favorite month for an upland bird hunter like me, but it is mine. I think more than anything else it represents the resurgence of life for me…in multiple ways. I have kept somewhat informal records of the dates of the first bobwhite whistles each spring for over 25 years, and uncannily at least for me, those dates fall somewhere between April 10th and 15th. Having survived the dreary, cold, wet, windy predator filled days of winter (not to mention a few bird dogs and shotguns) the hardier-than-one-might-imagine bobwhite puffs up his feathers, and blares out “I am still here and as strong as ever.” April is the epitome of optimism, and one cannot be a quail biologist without being such.

With each passing April day more and more evidence of life shows itself. A myriad of migrating songbirds fill the tree canopies with a chorus of songs at the very first hint of light in the morning sky. At night the spring frogs make up for the absence of song birds. And every pastel color in the pallet is on display, reminding us of what lies just under winter’s gloom. It is no doubt cliché that “life does spring eternal.” Even the air is palpable with new aromas that stir the senses (even though some of them may cause sneezes for many of us).

So, every April I am reminded that for species like bobwhite quail and others in decline, all is not lost. They have made a resurgence in many parts of the country, including parts of Virginia (though a modest one in our state). There has never been a time in history when there have been more quail than there are right now in parts of north Florida and south Georgia. And in parts of their western most range, numbers remain high. But they are also being seen again in good numbers in states like Missouri, where their focal area work clearly documents the effectiveness of large scale habitat restoration. The same can be said for parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, and others.

In Virginia this past season hunters had one of the most successful years in over a decade (though with an admittedly small number of hunters reporting). One hunter found 101 unique coveys of quail, several others found in excess of 80 coveys, and the average number of coveys found per hunt was almost two. For the first time in many years the average amount of time it took to find a covey dropped below two hours. After decades of conservation work, workshops, education, and shouting from the hill tops – “It can be done” by legions of biologists (and foresters, and soil conservationists and multiple partners) — just maybe what was the monumental task of steering an enormous, continent-sized battleship is starting to get back on a right but different course. As in today’s world, quail and their associates cannot be reclaimed by the accidental demise of our environment. As humans continue to increase, only through combined, concerted, responsible, large scale habitat restoration can they continue to prosper. And this restoration must occur within a functioning system that produces adequate food and fiber for human survival. Lo and behold, it is happening … slowly, but surely minds are being changed, recognition is occurring, and more and more of us are doing things voluntarily to benefit more than ourselves.

Maybe there is no better time than on Easter Weekend to reflect on wildlife, the environment and our responsibility to them. It is within each of us to be able to make decisions that allow us to manage wisely the wonders we have all inherited.

Shell’s Covert: Halcyon Days … But Not in Every Way

Ah, yes, I wish I could have lived back in those halcyon days of quail hunting when every day after school without end we found 12 coveys of quail before dinner, and Old Bell pointed four coveys within sight of the house. Of course, the stream banks were falling in, the rivers ran muddy most of the year because there were no trees left within a mile of them, swamps were drained out, dried up, sawed off and burned up for farming, our topsoil was mostly on its way down the major rivers where dredgers worked day and night to keep the channels open for boat commerce, and deer, bear, turkey and duck numbers were at all-time lows…I think you get my drift.

There were a lot of quail back in the early 1900s when many other species were in steep decline due to poor overall land management. Quail love weeds and bare dirt and they do not care what the land looks like with regards to long-term conservation. Like most wildlife species, quail can’t see beyond their survival of this particular day.

You do not have to go far even now to find evidence of poor soil conservation. I walk the pine timbered ridges of our own farm and see deep cuts, washes, and old erosion scars now covered with pines. Old relatives mist up talking of how many quail they found there back in the day. And doubtlessly they did. The old washes grew rank with pokeweed and briers, the openly tilled soil left fallow grew ragweed in abundance. And bare ground of the kind quail love – meaning that which is over-topped by weeds that produce seeds and insects but do little to hold soil in place — was abundant all over old farm fields. I suspect, perhaps, there were never as many quail in the east as there were in the first few decades that followed the Civil War. Old photos from that era show a land that had been abused for over a century.

During those same times large wildfires burned in areas of the upper mid-west through jack pine forests that had been mismanaged. The bobwhite quail, which for centuries had likely been most populous in places where lands tended to remain in good condition for quail without a lot of human interference, semi-arid lands like those found in west Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma – began to find new areas “opened up” to them by forest clearing and burning, and rudimentary rotational cropping systems. Quail in the east had likely existed for centuries at stable, but relatively low numbers compared to areas in the west. The eastern bobwhite was maintained by lightning struck fire, Native American use of fire, cropping and large grazing animals like woods bison and elk. Relatively suddenly, a quail population boom in the east followed the land abuse of European settlers. You may feel the word abuse is too strong. My ancestors were among them, and their actions were not out of bad intent, but more out of a lack of knowledge.

By the 1920s and 30s, and particularly in the 1940s following the “Dust Bowl Era,” our society began to realize the error of our ways. We began to view soil as a vital component of our future. Wetlands protections also began in earnest. Oddly enough, in the late 1940s, declines in species like bobwhite quail were notable enough that eastern state agencies like the Virginia Game Commission began concerted efforts at ”farm game restoration.” Virginia’s first program began in 1948 and a report was written in 1962 on the results. This was the beginning of the era when eastern quail no longer occurred by accident due to bad land management. It now took specific effort to produce quail.

However, compared to today, agriculture was still developing. Small farms still ruled our landscape, most of which grew grain crops like corn, wheat and milo, and the age of industrial farming was still a few decades away. Pine timber management was also still in its infancy compared to 2019. Old bird hunters talk about days when clear-cuts were large, often several hundred acres, and soil disturbance on timbered sites was high. Mechanical site preparation combined with prescribed burning had not been replaced by cleaner harvesting techniques and advanced herbicides. In those days most cut-overs had numerous windrows that had been created by dozing to clear the ground for pine planting. Those windrows quickly grew up with pokeweed, briers, ragweed and many other forbs. They offered cover and food. The dozed ground grew ragweed like the old abandoned crop fields of the Civil War Era. Low and behold, a second “quail boom” was seen in the east. But with it came new concerns about soil erosion and water quality.

By the early 1980s, modern forestry and agriculture were in full swing. Human population growth necessitated that we find ways to feed and house more people while using less land. This meant intensification in food and fiber production. These changes have largely been to the good of society (time will tell as we see world-wide insect and bird populations in decline now). But they have not helped the bobwhite quail or species like it. Timber clear-cuts still produce quail. I’d say if not for them, we’d have far fewer quail than we still have. And farms still provide some food and cover for quail. Today, neither farming nor forestry produce quail by accident to the extent they did 75 years ago. To engender a recovery in quail numbers takes active management for them. And to restore them on a large scale will require active management on a large scale. We do not live in an age when a “boom” recovery of bobwhites is likely to occur by accident (unless it would be one that may drastically reduce our own populations).

Is it all lost for bobwhites in the east? Hardly. We see recoveries in areas where the right combination of farming, timbering and conservation practices come together. It seems to me more and more landowners and farmers are choosing to do the right thing when it comes to not only water and soil quality, but also for wildlife. Field borders and conservation buffers help. Thinning and prescribed burning pine timbered tracts has enormous potential. It may not be a quail boom, but every acre that is managed specifically for quail and other wildlife is the future. Every acre is worth doing…I’d argue more worth doing now than at any time in history…as each acre contributes to a recovery that will no longer be by accident.

Conservation practices are being more widely adopted and are having a positive effect (Photo: Marc Puckett)

 

‘Making’ a Season: Shell’s Covert

First things first. I am proud to be a Virginian. Always have been and I always will be. I believe individuals, peoples, entities, states and nations can and do change for the better through time. I know I have. And like Forrest Gump said, “That’s about all I got to say about that.”

Those of you who hunt, fish or play sports of some kind know what I mean by “making a season.” In sports like football, basketball or baseball it may have been the number of good plays made, memorable hits, baskets or runs scored. When I was a teenager it was simple and I kept a ledger of animals harvested in a spiral bound notebook. It began with doves and was followed by squirrels, rabbits, deer and turkey (every now and then a grouse, and at that time I could never hit the quail I saw). Later when I trapped it was about pelts of this or that hanging from my Mom’s basement ceiling and what prices we got for them, ending with our total season’s take and money earned (we never bothered to deduct our costs for gas, lure, new traps, etc.).

Time passes and boys become men (those that survived their teens and twenties – not all my friends did). What makes a season begins to change. At some point it becomes adventure. Taking trips to new hunting grounds, new streams, or trying for new species can make a season.

I have reached a stage now where I fish more than I hunt, and I stopped counting what was in my harvest a long time ago. These changes occur slowly and differently for everyone. Time demands also increase, having old parents, young kids, and busy jobs means sometimes just enjoying an uneventful day out in the woods is a priceless blessing. I also tend to look for good weather now more than I used to. I don’t care that I can catch more trout on a rainy day, or find more woodcock when it’s cold and dreary, I enjoy being out in the sun. A memorable day can now be one where the sun felt particularly good on my shoulders; and the smell of the fresh spring earth coming to life after winter is enough to lift a day to memory.

Tilley

This year was particularly tough in some ways. In my area the early December snow really put a hurt on the woodcock season. I am sure those further south or east benefitted from our loss, and I am happy for those who did. For various reasons, time hunting was limited, too. Sometimes the stars just don’t align. But looking back on this season, I still see enough moments, some very special, to have felt it was “made.” A worthy season in the pages of my mind.

To begin with my new dog proved she had game. You never know with a dog. But no doubts remain, she loves nothing more than getting into birds, and we did that often enough to keep it fun. For those of you who may believe all of us who hunt just go for a heavy game bag, I killed a grand total of one woodcock this season, and no quail. But Tilley’s first woodcock came over her point after a tough morning of many miles walked, and many birds flushed that I could not get a gun on. And we had at least 15 or 20 “productive” points throughout the year, meaning she pointed and there was indeed a bird there, though scarcely another shot was fired.

I was blessed this year with a handful of woodcock that settled in around my yard after the snow left. And Tilley has had a field day within 100’ of my front porch. Further, hunting down east with a couple good friends on invite from them, we found four coveys of quail in one day, and Tilley had her first quail taken over her point. Out of those four coveys found, we only shot one quail…but we were in birds all afternoon and it was a great day. What a sight to see, four setters fanned out hunting and happy all day, and to share that with good company.

Thinking back to warmer weather, I also had a great dove hunt. The first in many years. I was asked to share in a “drawn” lottery hunt by one of my best friends. It was hot – just like a September dove hunt should be, but we got there early and had a place where the sun gave us shade all afternoon. My friend had a nice spread of dove decoys out and he brought a young black lab to work with. The doves came in trickles at first but then started showing pretty steady. Rather than shoot to kill a limit, my friend and I would shoot one at a time and then he would work his lab on the retrieve. It was as much fun watching the dog work as it was shooting. And we sat close enough to talk all afternoon and share some stories and laughter.

Come to think of it…it was a fine season well made. I hope yours was, too. Now on to the fly-fishing season.

 

“The Challenges of Maintaining Upland Bird Hunting in the Mid-Atlantic States

Many times over the last few years I have encouraged upland bird hunters not to give up. I bought a new bird dog in summer of 2017. It’s discouraging at times, this year has been particularly so. But I cannot imagine never seeing a good bird dog work a gamey covert again. Seeing that transformation from a dog just looking and searching, to one that is starting to get “birdy,” to one that suddenly freezes like someone is pulling tight an invisible rope that runs through their tail, along their spine and down into their right front foot, their eyes focused to pinpoints, their noses “snuffling,” chests heaving, hind legs shaking. You’d have to have walked those miles through briers, sweating, scratched arms stinging from the salt, eyes blurred from it, yourself with a stomach full of grasshoppers to know what it’s all about. It’s never routine.

We have had multiple quail management successes in Virginia at the individual landowner level, and in some cases in portions of counties. But across much of the state they continue to decline, or hold steady at low densities. In next month’s post I’ll go into detail about how challenging it is to conduct wide-scale quail management in our modern world, while trying to maintain soil, water and air quality (Hint – just about everything that was once bad for wood ducks and bad for the environment, was good for quail).

My quandary as small game project leader for DGIF is in trying to encourage more people to upland bird hunt when many upland bird populations continue to decline. Across America, state wildlife agencies are facing steep declines in hunter numbers. And they are not just driven by lower game populations. Squirrel hunters continue to decline in an era when we have more squirrels than at any time since the Great Depression. Deer populations are at very good levels, yet even deer hunters are declining. And when it comes to upland bird hunters in the Mid-Atlantic region they make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the total. At some point they’ll become what statisticians call “Statistically insignificant.” Clearly, some of this decline is due to changes in society. State agencies are trying to learn more about why people are leaving the sport, and why new hunters are not being attracted to it. The official name for this is R3 – R for Recruit new hunters, R for Retain existing hunters, and R for Reactivate lapsed hunters. Simultaneously, agencies are working hard to support diverse constituencies like bird watchers, hikers, campers, canoeists, kayakers, etc. – diversifying our investment portfolio.

But I’ll stick to upland bird hunter recruitment for the sake of this BLOG. I had a friend and co-worker say to me a few weeks ago “If we don’t do something soon to help bring back bird hunters, they’ll be extinct in 15 years.” That statement troubled me, first because I HAVE been working hard to try to bring back upland birds and their hunters for over 25 years. And second, because I think he’s right. It sent me back to rubbing my forehead and trying to come up with something…a supreme example of the proverbial “grasping at straws?” Maybe. Even though we know hunting is not causing the decline in upland gamebirds – how do we promote the idea of attracting more hunters to pursue declining species? I can explain to most people why we still have upland hunting. I can point out that non-hunted species are declining as much (or more in some cases) than hunted species. I can ask that without hunters who will champion these magnificent upland game birds? But it is harder to explain why we want even more people to hunt them.

Some have suggested extending the quail hunting season in Virginia through February. They argue that one reason folks quit hunting quail was that they felt like they had very little time to do it outside the gun deer season. First, I have lived in the heart of deer country in Southside Virginia for 23 years now. I admit I have had to learn how to hunt with deer hunters, but deer season has never kept me from going upland bird hunting. Even more importantly, studies have shown that late season mortality in quail can be detrimental to the population. Simply stated a hen quail still alive in February is much more likely to make it to nest in April than one starting back in November.

Others have suggested going back to state agency run captive raised upland gamebird release programs. The few states that still run such programs will tell you they are expensive, not cost-efficient and not very effective at recruiting new hunters. Some private landowners are using fall pre-season release programs on their own private preserves to solve this problem for themselves. Kudos to them. But it is expensive and not for everyone. We have a private hunting preserve industry that is available and should be vying for hunters. I believe they could do more collectively to promote their offerings. Industry offers many examples of how competing businesses band together to promote their overall business model.

Some have suggested closing quail season, forgetting about upland bird hunters, focusing on other species that are plentiful and letting things take their natural course. Years ago when I first came to DGIF, a supervisor told me “You need to forget about quail, get these bird hunters to take up squirrel dogs. There’s squirrels everywhere. They still get to hunt with a dog.” I am all for more squirrel hunters and in fact am seeing a slight uptick in folks hunting with squirrel dogs. I will continue to promote that (we are in the middle of a fox squirrel research project – another topic come spring), but not as an alternative to upland bird hunting.

Though I have worried myself sick over this, I don’t have any answers. I can tell you what we plan to try. This year we will be proposing some new training areas for upland bird dogs. One complaint we get quite a bit is that people can’t find a place to train their bird dogs. This is especially true for urban and suburban hunters. Any proposals will go through our normal regulations development process and be out for public comment. We might also consider some type of youth and apprentice hunter quail season. By offering a week or two of extra season only for hunters accompanied by a youth or apprentice hunter, we might get a few new folks into the sport. We might also start promoting the idea of fall pre-season release of captive raised quail on private lands, not so much to recover wild quail, but to supplement quail hunting and encourage habitat development (you can’t have an effective release program without good habitat). These are all just ideas that may or may not pass muster. But we are trying. If you have reasonable ideas, please send them to me.

As for me, I still believe the best way to encourage people to do something is to lead by example. I plan to keep hunting, keep buying bird dogs, dog food, training collars and dog boxes until I am in a pine box of my own. And I plan to keep writing and talking about it and encouraging others to take it up. And our quail team will keep working hard to add to the over 4,500 landowner site visits we have made over the last nine years. There will never be a substitute for great habitat, and in today’s world it takes effort.