July/August 2018“All In” for Mr. Bobby Cindy Thompson
With bobwhite quail populations dipping year after year, an urgent call to action garners resounding support across the state.
Deep in the Lowcountry, along the Savannah River in Hampton County, the moss-laden oaks, cypress lakes, grassy fields and piney forests of the James W. Webb Wildlife Center WMA (the Webb Center) shroud a paradise for all sorts of wildlife. Deer and turkey, bass and bream, rabbits and quail, snakes and lizards, and myriad other creatures flourish here. This has also been a “temporary” home to a few SCDNR staff members for more than seven decades.
The Webb Center was where my father, Lewis Rogers, worked as a wildlife biologist for many years. He was constantly observing and studying all things wild and sharing his outdoor interests with literally everyone who visited. Around the clock and seven days a week, Dad led groups of nature enthusiasts through the woods and waters of Webb. And teaching folks how to hunt and fish was one of his favorite pastimes.
At a young age, my three brothers and I spent many a Saturday in the vegetable garden, cleaning doves or going fishing in our johnboat. My dad was the fastest hook-baiter in the country. As soon as Mom lost a cricket to a bevy of bream, he’d slip another one on. And the same for all four of us, with only our fat cheeks emerging from the tops of our puffy, orange lifejackets.
I also remember Dad training his Brittany spaniels for bird hunts. He would rig a cane pole with feathers dangling at the end of the line to teach the spunky pups to point coveys of quail. We all took turns bobbing the feathered decoy up and down and through the grass just for fun.
Playing outside until dark, we could hear a multitude of cicadas strike up a harmony, followed by a chorus of frogs. And finally, breaking into this glorious evening song, the prince of game birds would call out with a loud and laid-back whistle that echoed for miles through the forest, “bob-whiiiite!”
Just a few weeks ago I was visiting my parents, and I told Dad I was going to be writing about his favorite bird. He was very happy to hear that. He disappeared for a minute and returned with two books: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Herbert Lee Stoddard’s The Bobwhite Quail, Its Habits, Preservation and Increase. These were the books that he’d studied as a wildlife biology student in college. And, if I was going to write a story about quail, then I would certainly have to take these books with me. I was a bit choked up by the moment as these two treasures were quite important to him - reflecting on days when he got his start as a young wildlife biologist managing forests and fields for quail at the Webb Wildlife Center, back then known as Belmont Plantation.
These books represent more than a sentimental token; they are the tools of the trade for anyone planning to recreate a habitat where bobwhites could not only survive but flourish. And for so many like my father, these books also represent a lifetime of dedicated work - restoring native habitat for the northern bobwhite.
Across the diverse landscapes of the country, the coveted bobwhite whistle has become a call to action. Many of us reflect on a time when our parents and grandparents drew in quail-o-plenty to modest farm tracts. Weeds were welcome, and native grasses and pine savannas were all around. Once a year or thereabouts, these areas were burned to keep the natural-fuel buildup under control and nourish the soil. This was all part of life, part of a culture. And the noble bobwhite felt right at home in these rural landscapes. The eastern meadowlark, loggerhead shrike, red-cockaded woodpecker and prairie warbler thrived here too. In fact, these “early successional” corridors welcomed all sorts of wildlife.
But this simple, weedy world - with open corridors just right for quail and chicks - disappeared over time. Large-scale, manicured landscapes, cultivated to perfection, would soon maximize the use of every square inch. And with this trend, quail populations suffered.
From an SCDNR report entitled, Northern Bobwhite Habitat Restoration in South Carolina, Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century: “Grasses and weeds, primary vegetative components of early successional habitats, have a negative connotation and are often seen as a product of neglect rather than management. This negative connotation often manifests itself with the individual landowner in the form of ‘recreational mowing’ or the compulsion to ‘clean up’ grassy, weedy areas around the farm. This misplaced effort often compounds habitat losses that occur because of modern agricultural or silvicultural practices.”
During the 1960s and earlier, hundreds of thousands of small farms dotted the Carolina landscape. Today in South Carolina, farmlands have merged. According to the 2017 USDA agriculture overview, about 24,300 farms are in operation, averaging 206 acres per farm. Advanced technology and much larger machinery have, in large part, eradicated weedy borders and buffer zones for quail and other birdlife.
Since the mid-1960s, quail populations have declined at a rate of 6.1 percent annually in South Carolina according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. And the SCDNR reports that the number of quail harvested dropped from 2,091,571 in 1963 to 75,653 in 2014 - an alarming statistic for hunters and birdwatchers alike.
Building the Bobwhite Think Tank
For decades, the Webb Center has served as the training grounds for students young and old, too many to count. They come to learn and to prepare for the future. Biologists, foresters, landowners, educators and students meet here to share research, build partnerships, explore solutions and draft plans. Many of these plans focus on native bird species that once flourished in great numbers but are now struggling to find essential habitat - birds such as the northern bobwhite and the red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as the meadowlark, field sparrow, Bachman’s sparrow, blue grosbeak, eastern towhee, brown-headed nuthatch and prairie warbler.
Each year in early March, the Wild Quail Management seminar is held at the Webb Center. The interactive workshop offers the latest research and comprehensive steps to restore quail to the farms and woodlands of the state. SCDNR Small Game Program Leader Michael Hook says about thirty-five landowners and wildlife experts attended the last seminar. “We held field demonstrations and classroom instruction focused on habitat practices such as firebreak establishment, prescribed burning, forest management, brush control, disking for natural foods and supplemental food patch plantings. We also covered wild quail natural history, biology, diseases and parasites, predation and other factors that may be contributing to the population decline.”
During the seminar, the SCDNR aims to equip landowners with the resources they need to bring quail back. They tour a variety of cover types and early successional habitats: croplands, grasslands, fallow fields, open pinelands and open mixed pine-hardwood forests with diverse groundcover vegetation. They see for themselves the results of quail restoration efforts at Webb.
The Model of Success - Indian Creek
A few hours upstate from Webb, in Newberry County, a slow-rolling drive through the Indian Creek Wildlife Habitat Restoration area offers an educational and nostalgic tour through another picture-perfect ecosystem for quail. This is an eye-opening example of what teamwork can accomplish. Well-planned and maintained corridors for quail run through these U.S. Forest Service lands and adjoining private farms, where Indian grass, little bluestem, partridge pea and wildflowers blanket the forest floor. The native grasses found here provide shelter and food for the northern bobwhite, as well as pathways for their young chicks to traverse.
The Indian Creek Wildlife Habitat Restoration Initiative was born in 2004 as a shared vision to bring back the bobwhite. A dedicated team of partners including the U.S. Forest Service, the SCDNR, private landowners and many others, pooled their time and resources to become one of South Carolina’s most successful quail projects in recent decades.
Through workshops and tours, producers visit to see examples of forest management practices they can implement on their own properties to cultivate quail, as well as other species. Foresters and wildlife biologists share the best techniques and resources available to assist with forest management plans, prescribed burning, tree planting and firebreaks.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, SCDNR wildlife biologist Judy Barnes was heavily involved in the small game program. Now retired, Barnes has fond memories of the extraordinary cooperative undertaking to bring back the whistle.
“A Forest Service staff person and a DNR staff person talked about thinning and burning on Forest Service lands and improving habitat for bobwhite quail in the Sumter National Forest, Enoree Ranger District in Newberry County,” says Barnes. “Both said their agencies would be interested, but it never seemed to get off the ground. Billy Dukes, the SCDNR’s Small Game Program supervisor at the time, asked me to pull together a meeting of key people and see if there was truly an interest in such a project. I contacted the two staff people as well as the district ranger and asked about meeting to discuss this possible project. The S.C. Forestry Commission and Quail Unlimited [later replaced by Quail Forever] were then brought on board.”
Barnes says, “The first meeting was held, and it was decided that ‘yes’ the Forest Service was interested in setting aside tracts in the district to thin and burn and improve habitat for bobwhite quail as well as songbirds and other species that would benefit from this type of forest management.”
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, East Piedmont Resource and Development Council, Newberry Soil and Water Conservation District, Quail Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Clemson Extension and many others joined forces with the U.S. Forest Service and the SCDNR. The project was named the Indian Creek Wildlife Habitat Restoration Initiative.
A committee was formed to review management practices, and they planned ways to monitor such benefits. Barnes says, “The people who served on this committee were enthusiastic, dedicated, knowledgeable and provided a project that was a model for other Forest Service Districts nationwide, and won several awards. Key landowners were very helpful in linking their properties into this habitat restoration area, and they encouraged other landowners to participate in the project.”
An Urgent Call to Action - The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative
The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI, now named National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative) was formed in 2002 to provide a unified strategy between states and a range-wide plan for recovering bobwhites. The S.C. Bobwhite Initiative (SCBI) is our state’s local subsidiary.
Focal regions have been mapped out in all NBCI partnering states. The SCBI has designated four state focal areas: Pee Dee, Central, South and Piedmont. Hotspots like Webb WMA and Indian Creek serve as anchors within these regions. They are high priority areas, because they have in place the basic elements for quail survival, such as forest-woodland savanna management, field borders and farm field management. And the Indian Creek project is recognized as the first focal area on Forest Service land in the nation!
Heading up the Bobwhite Initiative in South Carolina, SCDNR wildlife biologists and small game experts Breck Carmichael and Michael Hook are laser focused on building support for the SCBI and the priority regions for quail management. They work daily at the grassroots level to connect lands and tie into the national strategic plan for quail restoration. In December 2014, the South Carolina Quail Council was formed to provide advocacy and support for the SCBI. The Quail Council is composed of the leaders of twenty-seven state and federal agencies and non-governmental conservation organizations, plus a group of private landowners with a keen interest in bobwhite quail. The S.C. Quail Council is strongly supported by SCDNR Director Alvin Taylor, who serves as Chair of the Steering Committee.
A new SCBI website debuted in 2016 to facilitate and help connect landowners. With so many moving parts to the puzzle, the website will help generate awareness and track progress. Hook underscores the importance of all South Carolina residents who would like to participate in this project, whether they own land or not.
“Bringing the quail back to 1980s level is the goal,” Hook says. “Our success will depend on local involvement. I’m very excited that local groups have been able to help roll this effort out. The bobwhite quail is still an important game species in our state, despite recent population declines, and I’m very hopeful that with these efforts we will be able to ‘bring back the whistle’.”
“We have had several landowner workshops across the state, and more are planned,” Hook adds. “And our new Farm Bill biologists have been working hand-in-hand with NRCS district conservationists across the state, getting the word out about the Initiative.” Additionally, the conservation organization Quail Forever is starting to gain prominence in the state, with three active chapters and several more in planning stages.
Carmichael has dedicated more than three decades to quail restoration, working at the state and national level on projects related to northern bobwhite and related initiatives. In 2002, he was charged with leading the NBCI - creating a national bobwhite restoration plan that would involve wildlife biology colleagues and experts from across the country.
“It was important that we got a plan on paper,” Carmichael says. “Dr. Ralph Dimmick of the University of Tennessee took the lead in writing the first version of the plan.”
In 2011 the NBCI plan was updated and called NBCI 2.0. The downloadable planning tools and maps - located on their website https://bringbackbobwhites.org - pinpoint and prioritize lands where bobwhite and grasslands conservation have a relatively high potential of success. NBCI 2.0 includes a massive national database, complete with satellite imagery and professional biological input.
“The NBCI hired the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy to go into every state and coordinate a workshop to develop the web-based maps,” says Carmichael. “Every one of the twenty-five states involved in NBCI has a local group like the South Carolina Bobwhite Initiative, and every state uses that map to identify focal regions. The map is essential to aid planning and implementation efforts. It identifies high, medium and low-priority areas for bobwhite restoration. This helps agencies and organizations target and pool resources and people for successful results. That was a significant step toward linking states together for quail restoration success.”
Getting Back to Basics
The March 2002 Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative plan summarizes the sobering challenges that lie ahead: “The recovery of the northern bobwhite will be made increasingly difficult by the continuing loss of the land base needed for implementing the habitat changes necessary for this recovery. Each 100,000 increase in the human population in the U.S. is accompanied by a conversion of 150,000 acres of rural land to urban uses, rendering it largely unfit for bobwhite management. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the U.S. population will grow by about 43 million by 2020. This will result in the conversion of nearly 65 million acres to urban uses nationwide. A significant portion of this will occur throughout the bobwhite’s range. Clearly, circumstances call for immediate and dramatic action.”
During the early 1900s, the research of Herbert L. Stoddard was recorded in his book The Bobwhite Quail, Its Habits, Preservation and Increase. His findings would profoundly influence natural resources philosophy, methodology and education, then and now. Stoddard was one of the founding researchers for the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, which houses some of the most significant ecological research and teachings of our lifetime. Today, Tall Timbers adamantly supports the NBCI through research, training and personnel.
The following excerpts illustrate the timeless nature of successful quail management and offer direction as new generations of people strive to get back to the basics.
“As long as the land is fertile and under crude agriculture,” Stoddard writes, “small weedy fields with plum and other thicket cover between, and woodlands in small tracts, furnish an ideal environment for quail and the birds are there in abundance.”
And despite the cloud of misunderstanding that surrounds prescribed burning, the habitat it creates and the species that thrive in early successional areas are ultimately inseparable.
According to Stoddard, “...fire can frequently be utilized to advantage in controlling vegetation on portions of preserves that have a tendency to grow up to heavy wiregrass, broomsedge, or deciduous jungle. Quail can not thrive in such areas, and sportsmen can not hunt them in jungle resulting from unrestrained growth and fire-intolerant deciduous trees or shrubs.”
Back at the Webb Center, quail management remains high on the priority list. The staff who have worked here pass along, from one generation to the next, the science and passion that is needed to bring back the whistle. It is a mission that is very personal to a lot of people for many reasons. For me, it is a way to honor their work, and to one day hear “bob-whiiiite” echo across the Southland again.
A long list of supporters stands behind the work of the Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, both nationally and at the statewide level. For more information, please contact the SCDNR Small Game Program at 803-734-3940, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.facebook.com/scbobwhites or www.scbobwhites.com.