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Heading For High Ground

Jun 26, 2009

Give me a break. It seems like the rain clouds have stalled out over Missouri... again. Last week we had two pounding storms that brought several inches of rain to central Missouri. Most lakes and rivers have been bank full or even worse... out of the banks. It's been the same story the past two years.

Below is a picture of Nate Mechlin, private land conservationist in northwest Missouri. Nate is probably talking about quail habitat at a landowner workshop in the 2Cs Quail Focus Area. The private land focus area is in Carroll and Caldwell counties. I always get nervous when I see upland biologists wearing rubber boots all the time.

Parts of Andrew County have received 8 inches since the first of June. Same story in Cass County. If you remember, Cass County is only the second county in the nation to achieve habitat goals identified in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

Hopefully it will turn dry in July and August. Just in time for the second quail hatch. Many of the birds I shot last year were late August or September broods. Turkeys will attempt to renest in May and early June, but not August or September like quail will often do.

The peak of the turkey hatch is around June 7. The peak of the quail hatch usually occurs around June 15. On June 15 parts of Missouri received 2 to 4 inches of rain. That goes on top of the rain we received the week before and week before that. Not the best weather conditions for raising young quail or turkeys. The picture above is of a pen-raised quail in my hand. Pretty small. I don't know how a baby quail could survive in the wild with the weather we have experienced the past few weeks.

North Missouri has been hit hard the past two years and the turkey, quail and pheasant numbers reflect this in some places. I don't know what the weatherman has against north Missouri, but they really need a break from the rain and floods. West-central Missouri has been hit hard too. Just a couple years ago Cass County received 20 inches in a 24-hour period! Nick Prough with Quail Unlimited reported that most of Cass County got about 4 inches the other day. Elsa Gallagher with Quail Forever simply said it's wet and she's tired of it!

Below is a picture from an upland site on Whetstone Creek CA. Whetstone Creek Conservation Area is one of 19 designated Quail Emphasis Areas. These conservation areas are being intensively managed for bobwhites. Just last year, more than 18,000 acres of habitat work was completed on the 19 Quail Emphasis Areas--from prescribed burning, strip-disking, invasive plant control to food plots. That total doesn't include edge feathering or permittee crop fields that also provide good quail habitat. I'm still working on the total for all public land. In the meantime, check out last year's report to see how much work is being done for bobwhite on private and public land.

I teased the manager and asked him if the picture was from Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, which is a major waterfowl/wetland area in the Central Region. He was a little frustrated since this portion of the area was burned last fall, sprayed to eradicate fescue and then clipped to improve woody cover. Now portions are underwater. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Bobwhite didn't like all that brooding cover. Wishful thinking.

If heavy rains and flooding the past three years wasn't enough, there's always the ice and snow storms to talk about. I bet you can't name one county in Missouri that hasn't been hit by a severe ice storm or covered in blanket of snow for several weeks.

Last year it was south Missouri. Scott County was one big ice cube. Scott County was the first county in the nation to achieve its NBCI habitat goal. In 2007-2008 it was the I-44 corridor and central Missouri. The weatherman must have a bone to pick with north Missouri. North Missouri has been coated in ice, snow and rain all three years. Below is a picture from the Seat Conservation Area in northwest Missouri (a Quail Emphasis Area).

Amazingly, the birds can make it if they have good habitat. If you remember, we didn't lose any radio collared birds in the Davisdale and Locust Creek study after the big ice and snow storms.

Despite the weather, I'm receiving some excellent quail reports from landowners and biologists. The other day I received one from a biologist who's been working with a Bates County landowner to improve quail habitat. He reported that he's never heard so many bobwhites whistling on his farm. He's been fortunate. Most of the rain has somehow missed his farm. Another landowner from north-central Missouri reported hearing 34 whistling bobwhites on his farm that he's intensively manages for bobwhites. That's the most he's heard since 2001. I also received a good report from the Sweet Springs Quail Focus Area in southwest Saline County. There's a lot of good habitat in this intensively farmed landscape but several landowners there are doing something for quail. Maybe good habitat and lots of good habitat close by has something to do with it????

Luckily there's some good habitat out there, and if we have a relatively dry July and August we should pull off a decent hatch. With all the recent rain, landowners and biologists will need to adapt their management and disturb more acres next year. Remember, plants grow more when it rains and it has rained a lot. More plant growth means less bare ground for quail. Grass fields you disturbed last winter will be too dense and rank for quail by this fall. Over the next year consider strip disking or prescribed burning a few more acres to keep up with the extreme weather. For example, we normally burn a third of our farm each year. However, last year we burned over half of the farm because of the excessive plant growth. It looks like we'll do the same this coming winter and spring.

The excess rain has been great for trees and shrubs. On the plus side, new shrub plantings have had ideal growing conditions. On the down side, trees have literally shot out of the ground. Take a look at your edge feathering, covey headquarters or low-growing woody cover. Cut down any trees that have grown taller than 12 feet. I bet the small saplings you had three years ago are already small trees (over 12 feet tall). Cut them down if you want the area to remain good for quail.

Below is a before and after picture of a covey headquarter on my farm. I edge feathered this site five years ago. You can hardly tell because most of the trees are 15 to 20 feet tall. Not any more.

The picture below is the same covey headquarter after 10 minutes of saw work and one week of poison ivy. Oh well. Notice how much of the oak tree you can now see in the background.

So despite the weather, quail always seem to find a way. Help make it easier for them by maintaining good quality quail habitat and adapting your habitat management to these extreme weather patterns.

Aaron P. Jeffries

Habitat is the Key!

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