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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habitat assessment training at Manassas National Battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell’s Covert: The Things We Take for Granted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell’s Covert: The Moon Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albany is in pine savanna country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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