Ready, Aim, Fire!
Along the Florida-Georgia border are 80 quail hunting plantations that make up 300,000 acres of accidental nature reserve. Each year scientists and land managers burn tens of thousands of acres and use various other means to mimic natural conditions, preserving a wealth of biodiversity, including the embattled bobwhite quail.
To some, quail hunters might seem an unlikely ally for conservationists. Nationwide, bobwhite numbers have fallen 82 percent in four decades, putting the bird at the top of Audubon's list of Common Birds in Decline. Yet the habitat maintained by the quail plantations closely resembles much of the native South, where sweeping pinewoods underlain with grasslands once covered 150,000 square miles from Virginia to Texas.
"We're not apologetic about being gung-ho for quail," says Bill Palmer, director of Tall Timbers' game bird program. "In this area we have huge pieces of open country protected forever, and rare wildlife species that are not just persisting but thriving. The greater conservation community is beginning to understand the broader benefits of what happens when hunters spend hard-earned dollars--and a lot of them--to raise a wild bird in its natural environment."
What can be done in the Red Hills is land management on a scale difficult to achieve in many places. On a typical plantation, woods are burned as frequently as every year or two. "Our primary concern is knocking back the hardwoods that encroach on open grasslands," Robbie Green tells me one morning. The wildlife habitat manager for Mistletoe Plantation, a 3,000-acre tract on south Georgia's serpentine Ochlockonee River, Green steers his truck between six-foot-wide firebreaks harrowed into the ground. "The tool for that is fire, and a lot of it." In addition to prescribed burns and selective logging, plantations rely heavily on supplemental feeding of quail and detailed monitoring of populations to boost bird production.
While the gunpowder approach to Red Hills conservation has been an overall success, there are concerns about ignoring the needs of non-game species, removing too much timber in order to boost quail numbers, and focusing on ridding the landscape of any element that isn't quail-friendly. "Quail have a checkered past in the region," says Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida. "There can be a narrow-minded emphasis on predator control, which neglects the fact that bobwhite are part of an ecological system."
Trapping and removing predators is one conflict with a long history in the Red Hills. In a one-year period in the early 1930s, bounties were paid at Foshalee Plantation for 255 rattlesnakes, 506 opossums, 160 "pole cats" or skunks, 277 hawks, and a pair of weasels. Many plantations still trap raccoons, foxes, bobcats, and other quail eaters, while hardwood trees such as live oaks that might harbor rat snakes and opossums, or provide perching sites for hawks, are routinely felled.
Unfortunately, newer landowners are trending toward even more intensive single-species management than in the past. "I'm afraid it's becoming more of a numbers game," says Lane Green. "Many newer owners are more interested in quail than anything else." Each time a plantation changes hands, he says, the education process of what the Red Hills is, and can be, starts anew. The good news is that the raw material for conservation success--open land--is still available. "There's been a constant tug-of-war between more quail and a more holistic approach to management," Wraithmell says. "The northern bobwhite could be the saving grace of our fire-dependent landscape. But it will be up to individual landowners to strike the right balance."
Two tiny sparrow feet kick up sandy soil on the far side of a fire-blackened pine trunk. I sprint toward the tree's rootball 20 feet away. Despite three flushers wading through the savanna and the beckoning sounds of Bachman's sparrows twittering from a boombox, this bird has twice eluded capture. If I can beat it to the far end of the log, I'll have a chance to flush it back toward our nets--and into a database scientists are using to study this declining species.
I race the sparrow, leaping over broken branches, and reach the rootball a split second before the bird, waving my arms and whooping like a cowboy. The little brownish-gray bird vaults aloft, turns 180 degrees to flee the yodeling Pecos Bill figure, and wings swiftly into the mist net.
"Got it!" Jim Cox hollers. "That's some fine sparrow herding, gentlemen!" While Cox, the vertebrate ecologist for the Tall Timbers Research Station, delicately unravels the bird from the net, I catch my breath and look around. Old-growth longleaf pines soar overhead, massive columnar trunks capped with gnarly crowns pruned into gothic silhouettes by hurricanes. Gallberry shrubs stud a carpet of wiregrass that unfurls out of sight, tawny gold in the day's early light. In 1979 Jep and Paddy Wade donated a 206-acre easement for what is known as the Wade Tract, one of the country's few remaining fragments of old-growth longleaf. Here, Tall Timbers scientists conduct a dizzying array of studies--from longleaf regeneration to Bachman's sparrow population dynamics to gopher tortoise demographics.
Cox is particularly interested in the Bachman's sparrow, a bird with very specific life requirements. The sparrows, ground nesters like quail, key in on open grasslands, where the first flush of new growth after a fire provides easy movement at the ground level but an umbrella of vegetation overhead to protect them from predators. If grasslands don't burn again within 18 months or so, Bachman's sparrows nearly abandon them.