Shell’s Covert: Fall Landowner Management Tips

Property assessment is critical to success in wildlife management. And your best bet is to always contact a wildlife biologist, preferably one who is knowledgeable about the species you want to manage for (don’t be shy – ask!!!), and have them visit your land with you.

I mentioned last month being able to envision your land at the macro-scale. That’s step one. Now, it’s time to delve into what you have at a smaller scale. Late summer into early fall is a good time to look at things up close. By now we are starting to see a bit of a break in the heat and soon we will have more pleasant days for rambling around the farm.

Late summer, early fall quail habitat

By mid-August many quail friendly plants are blooming. Numerous legumes (nitrogen fixing plants) are flowering at this time of year, and most (but not all) legumes are good for quail. When evaluating your fields, you might see partridge pea’s bright yellow flowers and distinctive leaflets. Beggar-weeds (desmodiums) are another quail favorite. They generally have nice purple flowers and, if past the flowering stage already, you may notice the developing “stick tight” bean pods they are notorious for.

Butterfly pea (Heather Henkel, USGS)

Ragweed flowers

Partridge Pea (Craig Harper, UT)

Prostrate lespedeza is a low growing, trailing legume common in good quail country. Butterfly pea is another vining bean that used to be common along fence rows. And if you
don’t find any ragweed on your land, chances are you do not have enough bare ground or bugging area for quail chicks (if you aren’t sneezing you aren’t in quail country).

The bottom-line is if you are not familiar with these plants and many more, you have not done your quail homework. Find yourself some good plant ID booklets and meet the biologist half way. You should also remember to get good aerial photos of your land. These are available in many places, the USDA Service Center for one, and now easily obtainable through a variety of mapping programs such as Google Maps™. When the biologist visits, remember to take a notebook, too. While they may draw up a nice management plan for you, your interest and attentiveness is important. And when YOU write something down, you’re much more likely to remember it.

When evaluating your land, you may find thick stands of fescue that need eradicating. Or, you may find a lot of good plants that are rendered useless for quail by being under grown with fescue. Fall is a great time to start killing fescue so formulate a plan. No offense to our farmer friends, but while fescue is often needed as a cool season cattle forage, it’s bad news for early-succession wildlife like quail.  And, even from a cattle rancher’s perspective, total reliance on fescue, or any cool season forage, is a recipe for disaster during drought years.

There is more than one way to effectively kill fescue and methods can vary so check locally … but this recipe generally works well. The idea behind fall herbicide application is that fescue is growing nice and green during fall, when many other things begin to go dormant. Herbicides applied this time of year are actively taken into the root system and held over winter allowing them more time to be effective. And fall spraying allows a spring spot check and follow-up if needed before further management.

It’s best to burn the field off before spraying, but thorough grazing or haying can also be effective at removing thatch before herbicides are applied. Depending on where you are, this should be done in mid- to late September to mid-October. If you’re renovating a field that already has a good stand of native grasses, warm season grasses may still be green into early November. In this case, a good rule is not to spray over them until right after the first frost date in your area. 

Burn before spraying

A note on burning: fescue may become too green to burn off prior to spraying in fall. When using fire as a precursor to fescue spraying, it may need to be done in late summer when the fescue is dry enough to burn. Bush-hogging can be used as a last resort to prepare for spraying. If this is the method you will use, bush-hog thoroughly, making several passes to cut up the thatch and chop up the clippings and distribute them evenly rather leave it in piles or “wind-rows” that block herbicide contact with re-growing fescue.

Once you have burned, hayed or bush-hogged, allow the fescue to re-grow for 7 to 10 days. It will grow well, as fall is when it perks up. It may even grow well after a mild frost. At this same time the legumes, native grasses and other beneficial quail plants have gone dormant. If you are a small landowner with a relatively small field and no equipment, you can use your lawn tractor to mow thoroughly before spraying.

The spraying itself can be done by a contractor. Many farm supply stores offer the service, and their contractors are excellent. The rates are reasonable and often government cost-share programs can assist (if you need financial assistance, check with the biologist and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservationist — and make sure you are signed up and APPROVED for a project before proceeding).

Or, if you farm and have equipment, by all means do it yourself. If you are a small landowner with nothing more than a lawn tractor, don’t despair. Most lawn tractors have the ability to pull a small trailer, or pull-behind sprayers. My father-in-law purchased a 25-gallon spray tank to place in his small pull-behind yard trailer. He uses this for spot spraying, but these small tanks also come with boom attachments that can be highly effective for spraying small acreages.

These small rigs generally cost between $150 and $400 and they are well worth the cost. They can double as good spray rigs for keeping forest roads clear, or be used for spot spraying around field borders and more.  And it’s much easier to spray once than to have to mow or chain saw numerous times. I worked with a state park manager once who rigged his own boom on a small UTV and we were able to cover as many as 4 or 5 acres effectively. The same can be accomplished with a reasonable lawn tractor. 

Small sprayer for lawn tractor

No matter what you spray with, make sure you have enough tank pressure and your nozzles are set such that you get a true “spray.” You don’t want large droplets, as they roll right off the leaves and a lot of herbicide gets wasted. You don’t want an overly fine mist either, as it is prone to drift. Experiment using water until you get it right. It’s common sense, just like when your bathroom showerhead is set properly, you’ll know it.

Several mixtures can be used, but the most commonly used herbicide for fall fescue eradication is one containing glyphosate (Roundup™, RazorPro™, etc.). Once the fescue has re-grown adequately to insure good herbicide to leaf contact, apply 2 quarts per acre of a glyphosate herbicide along with a good surfactant. Many herbicides come pre-mixed with surfactant now.

The spraying should be done when the plants leaves are dry, winds are low to nonexistent, and at least a couple hours before rain is expected …and, critical in the case of fall application, AFTER the beneficial plants have gone dormant. Glyphosate is readily available, cheap and effective, but it is a broad-spectrum herbicide, meaning it controls many species of grasses and forbs, and is not selective. Dormancy of beneficial plants is the key to using glyphosate during fall.

Most native grasses and forbs have set their seeds and gone dormant by mid- to late October. This varies depending on where you live, and again, it’s common sense. Go look. In the case of annuals like partridge pea, once they have set their seed, meaning the seeds have developed all they are going to and the pods have hardened, nothing is lost by spraying them.

Native warm season grasses (broomsedge, big and little bluestem, purple top, etc.) should be dormant, too. The key is to look for the absence of green leaves. If spraying is timed right, you can really hammer the fescue without unduly harming beneficial plants. There are exceptions. Some wildflowers have a basal rosette growth stage (mostly biennials like Black-eyed Susans, Primrose, and Indian Blanket, and a few perennials like Lupines) that can go unnoticed when scouting unless known to exist by their flowering form.

If the field in question contains large numbers of beneficial wildflowers having a basal rosette growth stage, then a grass selective herbicide can be used instead of glyphosate. The active ingredient sethoxydim is a grass selective herbicide that will effectively control fescue. It is found in products like Poast™, Poast Plus™, and Sethoxydim G-Pro™. It can be purchased in small quantities under the brand name Arrest™. Regardless of the herbicide used, follow all label directions for application.

Once the spraying is complete, sit back and enjoy the fall and winter. Next month, we’ll talk about spring follow-up management – which includes more scouting and patience, patience, patience. Remember, “quick fixes lead to long-term problems.”

DIY Quail Management: Thickets

“You have to learn to love the training, make friends with the training.”

I got to know more about quail by learning to trap them than by any other method. If I were to develop a “boot camp” for budding quail managers, the graduation would include 3 or 4 weeks of quail trapping … and no one unsuccessful in catching quail would graduate.

Unlike foxes or raccoons quail don’t find food by smell. To catch them, the traps have to be exactly where quail are by nature. And during winter, if you are not getting scratched by briers, having your clothes torn by shrub thorns, or generally bent over in some contorted fashion when setting those traps – you surely are guaranteed to catch nothing but air.

Thickets Critical for Bobwhites

I can’t overstate the need for thickets, especially during winter, to support quail through time. Why talk about winter and thickets during the 100 degree heat of July? I hear so manyThicket of Winged Sumac landowners tell me, “Marc we had quail calling in here all summer, but when hunting season came in they were nowhere to be found.”  “Ah, ha!,”  I think to myself.  Without even looking at your land, I already have a vision of what’s missing.

But there is much more to quail management, so where do we start in this learning process?

First –as a quail biologist or as a landowner, you have to be able to not just see land, but to envision it. Set aside all else, for if you don’t develop a knack for seeing the land and envisioning its potential, all the techniques in the world will be of little use to you.

When I first found myself in the position of training new biologists, I thought, “I have been at this so long, how can I possibly convey all this information without overwhelming someone?” The first and best rule is this: in the education of a new quail biologist, or landowner, don’t get overly bogged down in detail.

There is a basic suite of management opportunities on a high percentage of properties in any given eco-region. Using the Southern Piedmont of Virginia as an example, we find an average farm consists of some fescue pasture and hay lands, some hardwood timber, some loblolly pine timber, and maybe some row crop (wheat, corn or soybean) fields. Occasionally there’s a tobacco field thrown in the mix, but these are the basics.

Within each category is a subset of conditions and special management considerations. But the first big step is being able to see those basic opportunities for management. Once the “normal” setting becomes familiar, the next step is to break down each category into its sub-set of conditions and begin learning how to manage each of them.

How do we manage loblolly pines for example? Within this category we find 1) newly planted pines in young cut-overs, 2) pines in the pre-commercial stage of mid-rotation, 3) pines in the stage for first thinning, 4) thinned pine stands ready for prescribed fire, and so on.

And what about fescue hay fields? We find some that have been well managed for hay, thick and lush, others we see are spotty and mixed with various native and non-native grasses and forbs, and some may have declined to the point where they are considered “old fields,” i.e. having some good cover, but still under grown with fescue. The main point is by starting with some basic categories, we take the complex and establish a simple framework for learning.

July Habitat Tips: Build Thickets for Bobwhites

Back to thickets… quail need about 15% to 25% of their range to be in thicket cover. Thickets consist of things like blackberry, plum, sumac, greenbrier, etc. averaging about 6 feet tall, and with enough stem density to provide escape cover. A good general size is 30’ x 50’, with 50’ x 50’ probably better.

Field Edge CutOne of the quickest ways to establish thickets is to cut down some low value trees along a field edge. One thicket about every 100 yards around a field’s edge is a good starting point. Things like sweet gum, red maple, and others can be dropped out into a field and left. The songbirds will do the rest. They perch in the trees, generate seed filled droppings and within a year you’ll have instant covey headquarters areas with no more cost than the gas and time it took to run a chainsaw.  

For the bold and serious landowner – this technique can also be applied throughout an entire field by dragging some of the cut trees out into the field in a random pattern. You can spend a ton of time and money buying and planting shrubs, but there is really no need to.

“Sounds good, but how do we manage these things through time?”

Though a lot of good cover will grow up in the thickets, you’ll also start to get trees encroaching …and we don’t want our thickets to grow back into tall trees. Perhaps the best way is by spot spraying. If you have a tractor, or 4-wheeler, a good spray rig can be purchased. These usually come with spray boom and wand attachments. It is amazing how much can be done by one person and a good spray wand.

Select herbicides to maximize control of the hardwoods in question – things like sweetgum, red maple and poplar. Generally speaking, a product containing triclopyr will do the job. But a conversation with your biologist can help clarify options. The products most often used can be purchased over the counter and are not restricted use pesticides, meaning you do not have to have a certification to apply them.

A good time to do this spraying is in late summer, before trees start to go dormant. Simply apply herbicide to cover the foliage of undesired plants using care to minimize contact withBackpack Sprayers beneficial plants. Some loss of good plants will occur, but not enough to worry over. By spraying at this time of year, the trees soon begin transporting nutrients and energy into their roots for winter – and along with the nutrients, the herbicides you have applied. This allows the herbicides to work on those root systems all winter long. Caution: don’t spray during a drought because transport of herbicides into the roots will be minimal.

If you don’t have a large budget, a back-pack sprayer can be used with great effect. There are several basic types: 1) piston; 2) diaphragm; and 3) a combination of the two. The piston style is usually cheapest, and for using mild herbicides is completely safe. Most good brands can be purchased at home improvement or farm supply stores for $125.00 – $225.00. Pistons can fail while in use, however, and when they do, you’ll get a dose of whatever is being sprayed down your back. This isn’t a big deal if using mild herbicides, but if your sprayer will double as an insecticide applicator, you will want to invest in a diaphragm, or combination diaphragm / piston sprayer. Both are less likely to leak if they fail in the field.

Of course chain sawing, and/or saw head weed eaters, can work, too. This depends on your back, your time and your gumption. A word to the wise, if you are going to go to the trouble of cutting down encroaching hardwoods, plan to treat the cut stumps with an herbicide right after cutting. This insures the root will be killed and you won’t be back cutting this same tree’s stump sprouts 2 or 3 years from now. Ideally, this is a tandem job, one person cuts and one person treats the cut stumps with the appropriate herbicide. Habitat work can be physically demanding, but you should learn to enjoy it. Something needs doing about every year and during all seasons. As the drill sergeants used to say in infantry boot camp, “you have to learn to love the training, make friends with the training.”

A Place for Everyone on the Quail Team … Even Owners of Small Properties

Friday, June 8 — I heard 14 quail on my quail route this morning, 5 at one stop. I had a landowner call me on my way back to the office to say, “Marc – I heard 18 different quail this morning on my property.” He did 325 acres of long-leaf pine last year… I like days like this.

I want to state unequivocally, I fully support the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s vision, goals and strategies for recovering quail across a landscape. I suspect they are glad to hear that…since I will become chair of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee in August, as current Chair Dan Figert moves on to the past-chair’s position, and we elect a new victim (I mean person) to fill my current vice-chair role.

The NBCI in a nutshell is built around focusing (concentrating) habitat work enough to make a difference on a landscape scale, to document that work, monitor quail population response in those areas, and promote successes at every opportunity. And this is the only way we will recover quail across their range. Success begets success.

You may hear references from time to time that the old “shotgun approach” didn’t work. The shotgun approach meant that there were no habitat targeting efforts at all. States and NGOs simply ran helter-skelter from one end of a state to the other and worked with folks where ever they could get a project on the ground. A lot of effort went into widely scattered projects that had no chance of impacting quail populations. While some individual landowners had success, when measured at a meaningful scale, the efforts made no difference in the quail populations.

New efforts revolve around indentifying counties, and within those, even more concentrated sections within which numerous landowners are encouraged to implement habitat projects. Rather than having 100 small projects scattered like a shotgun pattern across a whole state, envision a 100 well aimed rifle shots of habitat, poured into one section of a county.

Let’s look at an area of 10 square miles, or 6,400 acres. That would be 2 miles wide by 5 miles long within a prime portion of a focus county. Within that area, a team of locally led landowners, using cost-share programs, seed from NGOs and their own time and resources band together to form what Virginia dubs a “quail quilt” – numerous properties “sewn” or “stitched” together to form a habitat quilt for quail … not to mention all the other species that benefit.

Let’s say within that 6,400 acre area, 10% to 20% of it is quail cover. That is between 640 and 1,280 acres of quail habitat well distributed throughout the 6,400 acres. Key point here – not all 6,400 acres has to be quail habitat. These habitats can be in the form of field borders, idle crop fields, young cut-over timber lands, thinned and burned pine stands, and more. And these habitat patches can range in size from several hundred acres, down to patches of even a few acres. Yes – it takes large and small pieces of fabric to make a “patchwork quilt.”

“Wait a minute” you say, “I heard a biologist last week say that if we did not have 2,000 acres of land, we might as well forget about managing for quail.” Well, it may be true in a pure sense that it takes about 2,000 acres of landscape, with a pretty high percentage of quail cover within it, to support a quail population indefinitely. But those 2,000 acres don’t have to be in one ownership. In some cases 5, 10 or even 15 landowners might be involved in a focus area and even a sizeable chunk of public land. Each landowner benefits from what the others do, and not all have to have large landholdings to contribute.

“Yeah, sure, sounds good, but what if I don’t fall in a focus area?”

That’s a valid question. You can do one of several things:

a) do nothing and continue to complain about there being no quail,

b) say to yourself “To heck with the government, we know they don’t have enough money to make the whole state a focus area, but we have a brain, skills and resources of our own. We’ll sew our own quail quilt”, or

c) manage that habitat, however small it may be, because it has value to many critters even if quail don’t end up making it their home. And every now and then your habitat patch just might be the life preserver that gets a bobwhite through one more day, while on his way to the next focus area. Whether you own 10 acres or 10,000 acres, there’s a place for you on our quail team.

In future posts I will include specifics about how landowners can manage for quail on a variety of properties.

Take Heart … and Go Manage for the Prospector

I meant to roll out of bed early last Saturday and go once more afield in search of the long beard. But after an arduous week, my gumption fell short and I slept in until 7. My nephew, who is 12 and just learning to hunt, couldn’t go with me this day (baseball and hunting sometimes conflict), thus I felt no guilt sleeping in. Having risen afresh and finished perking up a fine cup of Columbian, I ambled to my back porch to listen – on the odd chance I might hear a gobbler on our lands. (Hey! It’s happened before … and I bet most turkey hunters who have been at it awhile can tell you about an old gob they’ve killed using tactics less than textbook.)

I heard no gobbling, but I did hear a male bobwhite whistling. At first I wasn’t sure, but the second call was plainly a bobwhite. This thrilled me more than any gobbler could have. As someone who has dedicated many years to quail recovery – hearing one on our families’ land made my week. We don’t have a ton of land and I don’t have much equipment with which to manage it. But I have been able to keep a couple acres in an early-successional stage using primarily hand tools.

<

p dir=”ltr”>My arsenal consists of a chainsaw, back-pack sprayer, Weedeater and riding lawn tractor (notice I don’t say mower – can’t stand the word MOW). With these meager tools I fight an incessant battle against sweetgum, red maple, ailanthus and fescue. It is a battle I am losing, nevertheless I manage to keep some “quail cover” on my land … and from time to time we have quail.

This male was a “prospector.” I could tell he was moving through and calling in search of a mate. His calls at first were far away – by the cut-over up on Paw Paw’s land. As morning turned into afternoon, I heard him again much closer, following the creek bottom through my brother-in-law’s piece, and by late afternoon he was within 50 yards of my house on the tract we purchased nine years ago to help put the “farm” back together.

While grilling that evening I no longer heard him, and alas on Sunday I heard him no more. I hoped he would have found a mate and nested on our patch. Three years ago a pair did just that, and we had the joy of occasionally seeing the brood bugging along our trails.

I thought about the Prospector all day. I imagined how an animal does not worry about the future of their species. They simply get up and “do.” It doesn’t occur to them that they can fail. Each day they venture forth against great odds and sometimes prevail. I have come to believe that we should never underestimate the power of life itself to persist. And I have come to know that the bobwhite as a species is much more resilient than many think, else they’d long since be gone.

This also set me to thinking about habitat and how even small pieces of it can make a difference. As a biologist, I often hear my peers say it takes several thousand acres of contiguous land well managed for quail to maintain a population through time. This may be true to a certain extent, but if it were entirely true, quail would now be an endangered species.

The Prospector is “hard-wired” to move every spring (as is the Prospectress). Each year thousands of coveys “disintegrate,” scattering to the “four winds” as some say. And, while some remain on their winter grounds to nest, many leave good cover in search of a mate and a new beginning.

In days of old (back in the 1950s and 60s), wanderers ended up in good cover simply because there was a lot more of it scattered by accident across our landscape (if don’t believe that – take a look at aerial photos of your area in 1950 and again in 2012). Nowadays, many don’t end up in good cover before they end up dead.

But what about those landowners who do not have 2000, or even 200 acres?

And what about those biologists who tell them – “go buy some chickens, your chances for quail here are slim to none.”

I argue that even small patches of cover one acre to a few acres in size, can contribute to the survival of the bobwhites across the landscape. In my case I have about two acres total that I am able to keep as Guthrey’s “useable space” for quail (Dr. Fred Guthrey. 2000. On Bobwhites. University of Texas A&M Press. Dr. Guthrey defines “bobwhite habitat” in terms of useable space through time).

While I do believe it is true that we have to have those larger properties (and the more of them the merrier) to serve as long-term population sources for quail, I also believe even small pieces can help maintain the species, not to mention the role these small patches can play in supporting pollinating insects and migratory birds (including woodcock).

So, take heart and go manage!! In my June blog I will describe how basic tools can be used to maintain early-succession habitats (well, basic tools, yes, and the will to use them – “talent without willpower = failure”).

 

“Sow Seeds with Faith”

 The following message I borrowed from scripture. I have condensed it. I don’t want you thinking this is original … or that I am plagiarizing. I’m omitting many details so as not to blur the lines between Church and State.

 Basically, there is a parable that compares humans to different types of soil, or ground. Upon that ground, seeds are cast at random. Some fall on poor ground and never sprout. Some fall on shallow soils and start off with great enthusiasm, but eventually fail. Others are overtaken by weeds (though we know weeds are good for quail). And some fall on fertile soil, and grow and produce 60-fold the seed sown.

We need to sow seeds with enthusiasm and faith, whether that faith be spiritual in nature, or simply the faith that good things happen and hard work pays off. The basic message is: “Success is less about outcomes, than about the enthusiasm with which we work” (The Upper Room, December, 2010).

                 I think back over the hundreds, if not thousands, of landowners I have worked with in the last 20 years and I can see all types of “ground” in them. Some I wasted my breath on, but I could not known beforehand. So in good faith I continued my work. And, had I known beforehand, I would have continued anyway, so as not to judge … but also in hopes that something I said might sink in and strike a chord.

I have become discouraged many times in this profession. I have often asked myself, is anyone listening? Does anyone care? But every now and then the phone rings, and a landowner I may have visited five, maybe 10 years ago, and one I have not heard from since, is calling to say, “I know it has been a long time since we talked, but I wanted you to know I followed your recommendations and it took awhile, but I have 4 coveys of quail now.” 

Here is a quote that I received in an e-mail today from someone who had attended a quail class taught years ago:

“I had been fascinated with the idea of the quail since I attended a wildlife course as part of the hunter’s education instructor classes at Holiday Lake. It has been many years ago and I cannot remember the gentleman’s name who talked about the quail in VA. Nevertheless, he was a very enthusiastic and jolly person – very passionate about the quail. His enthusiasm for them was contagious.”

 I don’t know if I taught this class or not. I did teach courses there and have been here for 16 years now. Regardless, whoever it was teaching that class – they had an impact whether they knew it or not.

When you give a talk to a group of 100 landowners you never really know which ones are what type of “soil.” But you can have faith that at least some of them do listen and take your message to heart. Furthermore, at least some of them will also share the message and “grow” it.

But thinking back I also wonder, “How did I portray my own enthusiasm for this work, for these species and for these plants they need?” Did I jump out of my vehicle and start rambling on about “early-succession habitats?” Kind of hard to love something titled as such, eh? Or did I immediately start looking for places where a cost-share program might apply and go into “salesman” mode? Did I convey how much I love the bobwhite quail as an individual organism? Did I take the time to identify numerous “weeds” to the landowner as living species and components of an ecosystem? Or did I simply say things like, “quail have to have weeds and brush?”

 I think maybe the most important thing we do as ambassadors for quail is reflect our love for them in our attitude and approach to working with landowners. It has taken me many years to learn this. In my early days I would schedule 5 or 6 site visits a day – because I and I alone was going to bring quail back. I am sure that all some landowners felt from me were my rushed nature and my need to get to the next property.

In your work don’t ruin the day with ambition. Share your love. As a landowner, become a disciple for the animals and habitats you value. Try to be the fertile soil that you are. Don’t let the message or enthusiasm end with you. Help grow it. As a quail hunter – don’t be selfish. What good are your coverts if you die and no young person is there to continue the tradition?

Defining Success: Many Yardsticks, but a ‘Best Measure?’

As a young boy in Pulaski County, Virginia, I recall deer still being pretty rare in many places. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “old timers” talk about driving for miles just to see a deer track. One joked in the barbershop with my Dad, “Heck, I drove 25 miles just to talk to someone who had seen a deer track.” It wasn’t really that bad, but success was easy to define. It meant more deer, which meant more deer hunters, which ultimately led to the white-tailed deer as being the primary driver of modern hunting. Much like the largemouth bass drives a large chunk of the fishing economy, deer put the “bucks” in hunting, literally and figuratively.

 And there have been much talked about successes with turkey, black bear, Canada geese, several duck species, and others. And I have heard so many times “they brought back deer and turkey, why can’t y’all bring back quail?”

It is an honest, albeit painful, question to hear repeatedly. I won’t go into all the reasons here, but when driving down the road in modern America, there is no shortage of deer habitat, or turkey woods … and wetlands for waterfowl have been helped by over 25 years of programs designed to prevent draining and filling valuable habitats (since the Swampbuster provisions in the 1985 Farm Bill). Not to mention the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s system of refuges being largely being based around helping recover waterfowl populations. The USFWS has been working on conservation and restoration of waterfowl populations for over 75 years.

Driving down those same American roads where you have to be careful driving at night to avoid hitting a deer, quail habitat is hard to spot. Since bobwhite quail are a non-migratory species they fall under the purview of each state within which they range. The National Bobwhite Technical Committee and their range-wide plan for recovering wild bobwhites, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, are helping to “gel” these states into concerted action. For the first time in history, thanks to NBCI, we have actual figures on the number of quail hunters nationally, and we are getting information on how much habitat is being created for quail within their range. It is a big task and will take time, but NBCI represents a giant step forward in recovering a non-migratory bird species. But can we use the same yardstick to measure success that we used for deer? For turkeys? For waterfowl? And if so, what level of population recovery and what level of quail hunting would qualify?

An Unnamed County-Wide Quail ‘Success’ in Virginia

The old adage “success breeds success,” is rooted in truth.

Success builds confidence and credibility, no doubt. Much debate has raged among the scientific and managerial quail community about just what it takes to be declared a quail success … and then what to do with it once it happens.

There is a great deal of pressure being generated to better document and publicize quail management successes. Well – not pressure like when you don’t have enough money to pay the light bills – but perceived “job” pressure. (If your stomach is not growling so bad you can’t sleep, or if perhaps bullets are not whizzing over your head, you really don’t know what pressure is.)

And while no one has defined the exact criteria yet, the best verbalization of what it means is large scale quail population recovery that you could “stand in front of a group of quail hunters with a straight face and report.” I buy that. Agreed.

In Virginia, as in many states, we can report numerous quail successes on a landowner, or individual property scale. And while I am not a betting man, I’d bet a month’s wages that if you come to us with 500 acres of land and you manage it the way we tell you to manage it anywhere east of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, you will develop a wild quail population.

Will it be huntable? Yes – but on a limited basis. No wild quail population on a limited, isolated acreage can sustain heavy hunting pressure. Nevertheless, you could go from no quail, to 8 to 10 coveys of quail in 3 to 5 years. Problem is this takes a bunch of work to make it happen on purpose.

Back before I was born (pre-1962), most quail habitat was not isolated and much of it occurred by accident. When the quail coveys broke up in spring and started scurrying about looking for mates and nesting areas, they were likely to wind up somewhere pretty good no matter which direction they went.

Not anymore.

I could show you a bunch of pictures, some taken in 1951, some in 2009, that would make this apparent to even the most hardheaded “… man, nothin’s changed on my farm in my lifetime” knucklehead in the country.

Sadly, comparing today’s landscape to that of the 1950s is even worse than comparing apples to oranges. More like apples to anvils – maybe. The modern bobwhite (picture a fashionably clad bobwhite tweeting on their G4 IPhone) needs even more contiguous acres and heavier cover than ever before to survive. This is why you hear or read about state agency, NGO and national efforts to restore quail referring to  ”focus areas,” “ priority counties,” “ target areas,” etc.

Landscape scale quail recovery does not happen one property at a time – it will take multiple properties and much concerted effort before it can occur.  And it needs something else – a little luck, or a little help from Above – depending on how you choose to view it.

In Virginia we have a county-wide “success story”.  In fact, our recent surveys show we have between a quail per 3 and 5 acres across this county’s landscape. Using an average 12 birds per covey (yeah, yeah – I know sometimes there are bigger coveys but through a year’s time, 12 is right) at a bird per 3 acres yields a covey per 36 acres – a very huntable density. And this county is being hunted for quail. Last year, one “old time bird hunter” found 141 coveys and killed 247 wild quail there. Our surveys show that populations are trending upward – though detection probabilities of small changes are low.

So why have we not written articles, gone on the Today Show and generally tooted out horns? The answers lie in why this county has quail and why we’d like to protect them.

This county, which will remain unnamed to protect the innocent and the guilty, exhibits every quality you would expect from one chosen as a high priority for quail recovery.

  • First – it is still rural with a row crop agriculture and pine forestry- based economy.
  • Second – the county has a long history of farmer and landowner participation in habitat cost-share programs like CP-33, CREP, and WHIP.  A large portion of Virginia’s allocated CP-33 acres are in this county.
  • Third, there are several large private landowners who manage for wildlife using prescribed fire. One is perhaps the largest contiguous acreage of purposefully applied prescribed fire in Virginia.
  • Fourth – there has been resurgence of interest in planting and managing long-leaf pine.
  • Fifth – a well known NGO is managing a large property in this county for red-cockaded woodpeckers – again with fire.
  • Sixth – this area has been hit by several severe hurricanes in the last decade – leveling large acreages of pine timber and increasing acres of clear-cut.
  •  And lucky seventh – due to factors I don’t fully understand, most site-preparation herbicide treatment for pines in this area uses Arsenal™ alone (imazapyr based – legume friendly), rather than more comprehensive (broad spectrum) mixtures used in other parts of the state.

All this adds up to a quail per 3 to 5 acres – as much accidentally as on purpose. So is it right to declare a success?

I’m not comfortable with it for several reasons. While it is true we have promoted wildlife conservation programs in the area for years, they are not the primary reason for the “success.”  And, though we have had some influence on the landowners involved, they were largely conservation minded before we came along. In addition – this county did not start at ground zero.

Declaring success here is kind of akin to switching your favorite team to the Super Bowl Champion right AFTER the Super Bowl is over. But most difficult for me is the idea of attracting too much attention to a recovering quail population. The idea that the only reason we want to have success is so we can kill more of them is somehow troubling to me. If that is all these millions and millions of dollars we are spending is adding up to, God forgive me. Whether it is ever declared a true success or not, it is still encouraging to know that even in Virginia places like this can still exist.

What if ‘Angry Birds’ Had Been ‘Angry Quail’?

Happy New year everybody!!! And what a fine year I hope it is for all of you. I hope you all enjoyed a great Christmas with your families, too. The New Year always brings with it a chance for a fresh start, for innovation and for anything but the dreaded status quo. For many years now we have relied on cost-share programs to stimulate wildlife conservation. They are a great tool to have, but the paradigm needs some reconfiguration in my most humble opinion (“who said so, I said so…” to steal from Robert D. Raeford).

You ever here of the proverbial alphabet soup of government program acronyms? That’s right, WHIP, CREP, CRP, CP-33, EQIP, FLEP, CSP, BMPs, RFT, …DING, BAT, DUMBO…well the last 3 were for laughs, unfortunately those prior are real programs (we are glad we have these programs, it’s just that the acronyms get to be confusing). It is a fact of life in our world that a lot of programs exist and each has its own red tape. Like it or not, the spending of government tax dollars must be well accounted for and applied fairly – thus the red tape.

In a 2008 survey we conducted prior to initiating our second quail recovery initiative, landowners told us loud and clear what the impediments were to enrolling in programs. Very simply – programs were too complicated and contracts too long (sounds like a wedding and a marriage – just kidding, Hon). And what did landowners want? Well on their list to Santa – they wanted free seed, money and then to be left alone. “Har, har, hardy, har, har –man, who doesn’t? Sign me up brother…today!!!”  All kidding aside, I am here to say that maybe there is a happy medium out there, and perhaps non-governmental organizations and foundations could be the ones to fill that role.

Before we get to how these organizations can help, let’s address what can be done to better work with existing government programs. One of the best ways is to hire biologists and have them on staff working in USDA Service Centers. Their primary purpose in life is to become the experts on all these programs so “the landowners don’t have to” to quote NRCS Virginia State Biologist Galon Hall. Many states have done this successfully … Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri to name a few (don’t write and complain that I missed your state –I have a simple mind that can’t keep track of them all). In Virginia we have 5, which are a huge plus, but we could use 25. In Missouri I believe they have nearly 40, and this is a big part of why Missouri has had perhaps more success with quail recovery than all others.

But even with these biologists in place, many hundreds, if not thousands, of landowners simply do not want to participate in government programs. We can offer them technical assistance, but little else. And even more may not be adverse to programs; they simply are not interested in quail management. This begs a turn on the old “chicken or the egg” question – “which came first, money or interest in quail management.” I think sometimes we nerdy biologist types have a misperception that millions of people out there deeply yearn to have quail, if only the money were available for them to perpetually manage for them. But over time, I have found that there is less interest than there is money available.

Dr. Lenny Brennan recently wrote that bringing back bobwhites must rely on those who manage “purposefully” for quail. I don’t disagree completely, but would argue that it will take both purposeful and accidental quail management to engender a range-wide recovery. I am a field hack and I don’t pretend to be in the same league as Dr. Brennan with regards to quail knowledge. Very few people are. But, I do have a good feel what happens within the typical farming landscape and within rural communities. And I also know that it is human nature to strive to get the things they really want. I believe if more people truly wanted quail, there would be more quail. And here in lies one of the first and most important things non-governmental organizations and foundations could do to build a groundswell of people who want to “manage purposefully for quail.”

These groups have to get into the school classrooms, the Boy and Girl Scout camps, the youth church organizations and more, and reveal to the masses of young people what a cool bird a bobwhite is, why they’d be neat to have, and how they can be brought back to their property, or their parents’ or grandparents’ farm. In my opinion, intense interest in quail is more important than having money available to manage for quail. Trout Unlimited™ has a program called “Trout in the Classroom™.” They actually help school classes raise trout from eggs to trout ready for release into native habitats. This exact paradigm won’t work with quail, but there is room for work in developing appreciation for bobwhites. If I were a quail NGO, I would not sit back and say “that’s the state agencies’ role – let them do it.” Quail NGOs – how about some innovation? How about something new and bold along these lines?

In terms of money – another drawback to all government programs is that they work on a reimbursement basis. The landowners must front the bills, and are repaid on some percentage basis, or on a per acre basis, when work is completed and certified. This may not seem too bad, but sometimes those bills can be many thousands of dollars, and they must be “held” for weeks or months before reimbursement occurs. But NGOs and private foundations would not be limited by these restrictions.

What if a foundation could raise millions of dollars for habitat that could be paid to landowners up front, in the form of a simple grant – a one page application, with some fairly bold and restrictive guidelines for qualifying? Things like having a pretty high minimum acreage, maybe 250 or 500 acres (this is something government programs cannot do), perhaps also being in a conservation easement where benefits of habitats installed might be long term, or willingness to do large acreages, 50 or 100, or 150 enrolled (these properties could serve as sources for surrounding areas), and more.

All I am doing here is “thinking out loud”…trying to stimulate some thought. It is a New Year, and it is time for some changes in our thinking. I call again on the quail community at large to develop a mascot – the “Smokey Bear” of the quail world, something loveable, and instantly recognizable, especially to kids, and how about a new DS game – or a phone game application – what if “Angry Birds”, had been “Angry Quail?”

Simple New Year’s Resolution for Landowners Saves $ & Quail

I hope it does not come as a shock to any of you, but we are living in some tough economic times. “No way!” you say. “I have money not only running out of my ears, but my dogs, too.” Well, we are all happy for you, but the rest of us are tightening our shell belts and maybe not buying that $40/bag dog food right now (though we still try to avoid buying a bag that lists “ground yellow corn” as the first ingredient – if you are feeding that you may not want to let your dog ride in the truck cab with you).

So when we think about asking landowners to conduct quail habitat management, on their own, or even through cost-share programs, we need to understand that even basic management practices cost money. And things like planting variable mixes of native grasses and herbaceous plants can cost about one cheap shotgun per acre ($300).

But you say, “There is financial assistance available to offset those costs, so why don’t more landowners sign-up?”

Well, even through federal or state cost-share programs like CRP, WHIP and EQIP, the landowner must foot the bills up front. And, while agency personnel truly try to make payments to the landowner promptly, it may still mean the landowner has to “hold” a bill for several months. This can cause cash flow problems at a minimum, and could keep some Christmas presents from making it under their kid’s tree. Add to that our current situation with the pending Farm Bill – it is not looking good for conservation programs.

What’s does all this add up to? It means that as wildlife professionals and NGO conservation supporters, we need to come up with management techniques that, while may be imperfect, save landowners money due to the sheer potential volume of acres involved and can do great things for quail and dozens of other species.

And what does every landowner do – mow, or bush-hog. I’m not talking about legitimate hay cutting. I am referring to what landowners consider “maintenance mowing.” And I want to begin with one caveat. In situations where landowners are willing and able to use other management practices such as rotational disking or prescribed burning, those practices are far superior to mowing.

I enjoyed the recent Kentucky blog post that hit this issue hard. This blog post is to add to that some ideas on how small changes in mowing practices can add up to huge benefits for quail. Why do most landowners mow? 1) aesthetics, 2) to prevent “bad” weeds from setting seeds, 3) to keep open land “open” – basically free of trees, 4) recreation and perhaps a few more. And unfortunately, most of the mowing occurs in fall. Next to mowing during the nesting season (April 15 to August 15) – a big no-no — fall mowing is thenext worst.

How can landowners change their mowing habits to benefit wildlife? First – they need to recognize that fall mowing (generally September and October in the Southeast) insures that no cover at all will remain on those fields over winter – a time when animals need the escape cover the most (not to mention the weed seeds for food).

Fall mowing also encourages sod-forming cool season grasses like fescue. By removing the overhead competition, fall mowing gives fescue access to the sun and helps insure it gets thicker every year it is mowed – further reducing the field’s value for wildlife. Now you deer hunters don’t start writing me nasty letters – I know that some fall mowing can be necessary to help clover and cool season food plots flourish. Landowners will also use the argument about how fall mowing prevents some bad weeds from setting seed, thus preventing or minimizing their spread. In fact, let’s address this before moving on.

With modern, Roundup™ (glyphosate) Ready™ (herbicide tolerant) crops – concerns over weeds in crop fields has greatly diminished. In fact, these products have been so effective, farmers are being required to leave “weed refuges” on their farms to reduce the rate with which weeds develop tolerance to glyphosate.  By allowing weeds to grow in adjacent, non-crop fields, where glyphosate is not sprayed annually, or at all, a landowner can minimize the chances of weeds developing glyphosate tolerance. This means that they can use glyphosate tolerant crops for longer periods and perhaps at a lower cost. The argument that fall mowing provides good weed control no longer has any merit (and really never did).

Mow in late winter to early-spring (generally mid March through early April in the Southeast) instead of the fall. This insures good winter escape cover remains available when needed most. And, mowed areas will quickly sprout new growth providing cover for spring and summer nesting and feeding. There is a “sacrifice” for those folks who love that “golf course” look. The land will not remain “clean cut” for long. I beg of you, isn’t this a small price to pay for quail? For rabbits? For songbirds?

Mowing during this period will also control tree encroachment just as well as fall mowing, maybe better. To control encroaching hardwood trees over the long haul (things like sweet gum, red maple, and poplar in Virginia) some spot treatment with herbicides will eventually be needed.

“O.K., fine,” you say, “but where is the savings you mentioned?”

Well, here is the next mowing Best Management Practice – don’t mow the whole field every year. Regardless of whether you buy my arguments for changing the timing of your mowing, you do not need to mow all of every field each year to keep them open. In humid climates with good soils, mowing half each year will suffice. Mow half this year, the other half next year, and so on.  In drier, cooler climates, mowing 1/3 every year will accomplish your goals. In some areas, even longer rotations will work – perhaps mowing half of each field every 2 to 3 years will prevent the fields being taken over by trees. And that is where your savings is – less mowing, less fuel, less equipment maintenance, fewer tire replacements – all these can add up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in savings through time. And last time I checked, the weather in March is just as nice as the weather in October – so your recreational mowing “fix” can be obtained.

Mowing BMPs in a nutshell:

  1. At a bare minimum, stop mowing all of every field each year, mow half, or 1/3 in rotation.
  2. Regardless of when you mow, set your mower up a bit higher to leave at least a little bit of cover even on mowed areas.
  3. Instead of mowing in fall, mow in late winter to early spring (mid March to early April).
  4. Learn to identify “good brush” and leave it even within mowed sections of fields. While you need to control sweet gum, red maple and other tall growing hardwoods and pines, things like plum, sumac, hawthorn, blackberry, and others can be allowed to grow for many years. Quail need 15% to 25% of their range in thicket cover to thrive.

 

Pretty simple, huh? Make it your New Year’s resolution. Buzz Bobwhite says, “If you care, leave us some cover there.”

Share the Passion

I went bird hunting last week – our grouse and woodcock seasons are open. This is my first season without old Shell. I did not realize how good she was until now. Not that she was stylish, she was not, but we had our own system worked out well. We understood each other and we both hunted with hope, optimism and intensity regardless of the number of birds.

My current dog “Smudge” is 7 years old and I got her about 3 months after my daughter was born. Simply put – I rightfully concentrated on raising my daughter and not on training my dog. Enough said. Somehow a bad trend of gun shyness worked it ways into Smudge. I can’t recall exactly where it started; no single incident comes to mind. Last week after 2 shots at woodcock she was done. I tried hunting on my own based on instinct and knowledge of the covers I was in – but after 30 minutes I asked myself – “what am I doing?” “This is no fun.” Without that counterpart, without a dog to share the intensity with – it just wasn’t bird hunting.

I have always loved hunting and fishing with people (and dogs) that were passionate about it. I can have a great time fishing for carp with the right person if they are really into it. I think perhaps the biggest thing we can all do to perpetuate the sport of quail hunting (or hunting in general) is share our passion for what we love. The same is true for habitat creation – mentor, mentor, mentor and mentor some more.

What can you do? As a landowner, offer to host workshops or to speak at local community clubs about how all the “weeds and brush” came to be on your farm, and how you have benefitted from managing the habitat. It means more to a landowner coming FROM a landowner. Write an article in your local newspaper about your love for habitat management. Invite other landowners to come to your place 2 or 3 at a time to see how you manage.

As a hunter – perhaps the biggest thing you can do is reach out to young people who might not have a parent who hunts. Consider developing a local hunting mentor program. Volunteer as a hunter education instructor and emphasize your passion for upland bird hunting during those courses. And maybe most importantly – be less selfish. It does take energy and commitment to mentor new hunters or habitat managers, but it is a chance to leave a legacy.

Lastly – Friday is Veteran’s Day. Please take the time to thank and recognize our military veteran’s without whom we’d not have many of the freedoms to pursue our passions so fully. Not to mention many of them may be seeking a place to hunt, or to do some outdoor work – reach out to them if you can.