It was a chilly January afternoon, and I was trekking thru several inches of snow on my way back to the truck. Along the way, I encountered the proverbial fork in the road. Should I continue to follow the farm lane back to the truck, or would it be better to huff it straight through the woods? Sticking to the lane would be the easier option, as bisecting the woods meant crossing several ravines.
Normally, I would have opted for the less demanding route, but this particular block of woods was part of a transformation, and I hadn’t seen the interior since the thinning was completed nearly four years prior. Besides, the opportunity to hunt for signs of wildlife in the snow was too much to pass up.
Growing, Burning and Cutting for Quail
This was the farm of Dr. William and Gail Wright. Not your typical landowners, the Wrights raise and train setters, and the primary objective for their 680 acres is to support bundles of quail. They started assembling their farm in the mid-1980s and then went to work converting the fescue fields to native grass.
Throughout the 1990s the Wrights diligently implemented their prescribed fire regimen on the fields. Then, in 2001, one of my predecessors suggested to William that he also consider burning the woods. Needless to say, the prospect of expanding his acreage of usable quail habitat was too much to resist. From that point on, much of his 400 wooded acres was burned every 1–2 years.
I began working with the Wrights in 2006. William told me that his objective for the woods was to create a savanna-like habitat that would support quail. At that point, much of his timber had seen fire four to five times during the previous six years, and the woody understory layer was largely eliminated. In its place was a decent stand of herbaceous forbs and native cool-season grasses. However, it was still fairly shaded on the ground, so I suggested to William that his woods were ready for phase two of the transformation saga. The previous burning had laid the groundwork, but it was now time to sharpen the saws! In typical William Wright fashion, he jumped on the idea, and within a few months, 50 acres of once closed-canopy woodland was thinned by nearly half.
Now back to that January afternoon: I had inspected this woodland stand several times over the past few years. However, these evaluations were always from the field edge, and usually from the seat of my truck or William’s utility terrain vehicle. Today I had the opportunity to see what was going on deep in the center of the woods.
The extra sunlight and continued burning after the thinning had achieved the desired effect, as the diverse ground layer of grasses and forbs was definitely more developed. In fact, it looked perfect for bobwhites, and I thought to myself, “What if all of William’s native warm season grass fields looked like this? He might have to implement some kind of quail population control effort!” There were scattered patches of blackberry and sumac, but the woody sprouts weren’t much of an issue. Overall I was very pleased with the progression of this woodland.
The first thing I noticed with respect to wildlife was the glaring presence of each black oak in the woods. They were the primary nut producers that fall, and it appeared as if someone had run a rototiller around the dripline of each one. I had wondered how heavily the deer would use an open woodland habitat, but each of these track-covered circular feed lots quickly put that question to rest!
After a few minutes of walking, I found myself well into the interior of the woodland. Pausing upon a blackberry thicket, I found several piles of rabbit scat deposited on the snow. Upon further examination, I noticed several entrance paths leading into the thicket. Earlier, I’d seen a number of similar tracks in the snow, but assumed they were from squirrels. It was now obvious that the cottontails had colonized this stand.
With a sense of gratification, I resumed my walk. However, not three steps later there was an explosion of feathers from the blackberries, as at least 10 bobwhites made their escape. I thought to myself, “Wow, I must be 200 yards from the nearest field and we’ve got cottontails and bobwhites making themselves right at home.” William had told me that they were beginning to find birds in the woodland, but it was still exciting seeing it firsthand. It was one of those occasions that reminded me of why I do this work.
Several minutes later, I found myself back at the truck, but not before encountering more signs of life—including a second covey! While exhausted from trudging through the snow, I was inspired by what I’d seen. Through their diligent efforts and persistence, the Wrights had transformed their woodland and achieved their objective. It made me wonder why more people weren’t doing this on their property. William and Gail are unique in that they seem to do things in a big way, but surely other landowners could achieve similar results with modest efforts.
Each piece of land and landowner has potential, and the lessons learned here will certainly be useful in helping others achieve their own goals. As a private land conservationist, I never know what the next opportunity might be, or when the next “William Wright” is going to call—but, I look forward to the challenge.