Quail surviving and thriving in South Jersey

Researcher Kaili Stevens with a juvenile male after leg banding and radio collaring at the Pine Island site.
Researcher Kaili Stevens with a juvenile male after leg banding and radio collaring at the Pine Island site. (JOHN P. PARKE)
Posted: January 22, 2016

Bob Williams was startled during a recent walk through a Pinelands forest he manages in Chatsworth, Burlington County. Off to his side, a few feet away, came an explosion of wild fluttering wings.

He'd flushed a covey of northern bobwhite quail. In an instant, the chickenlike birds scattered in every direction.

"It was a wonderful experience. I hadn't done that in 30 years," said Williams, president of Pine Creek Forestry in Laurel Springs, who oversees a 14,000-acre property for Bill Haines of Pine Island Cranberry Co.

The experience was rare because quail have been close to extinction in New Jersey. The birds' population dropped 82 percent between 1966 and 2010, one of the most dramatic declines in the nation, according to New Jersey Audubon.

Only 600 wild quail were estimated to remain in the southern half of the state, according to the most recent state survey, in 2010, and those numbers have not likely changed, officials said.

But a three-year quail project that promises to be a model for other states has slowly begun reversing the decline - with the April 2015 reintroduction of 80 quail on Haines' property, where Williams helped restore the birds' ideal habitat - a combination of woodlands and open, grassy areas and bushes for foraging, nesting, and escaping predators.

"As a forester, you take care of the forest, but you're really taking care of everything," including wildlife, said Williams, who prepared the property by selective tree-thinning and controlled burning. "To see something that was gone and then returned to the land . . . there's nothing better than that.

"For over a half-hour" after flushing the quail, "I could hear them whistling to one another because they wanted to get back together," he said.

More than 40 quail have survived and thrived - a high number considering the relocation from their native Georgia and adjustment to new and colder surroundings, said New Jersey Audubon.

About 15 nests and 127 eggs were discovered during an August survey, said Audubon officials. Sixty-six eggs hatched in the wild, and by late October, researchers captured and placed a radio transmitter collar on their first born-and-raised New Jersey quail from the group - a 180-gram male who was larger than most of the adults. The birds, on average, weigh less than a half-pound.

Eighty more quail will be released this April and another 80 in 2017 - helping increase the likelihood of a quail comeback in the state even as more habitat is restored by Williams on nearby property.

The releases are part of a three-year collaborative conservation initiative involving Haines, who provided land for the project; Williams, who has actively managed Haines' forests for 15 years; New Jersey Audubon, which has overseen the quail project; the Tall Timbers Research and Land Conservancy in Florida, which collected the birds; the University of Delaware; New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Division officials; and wildlife biologists. The project costs "hundreds of thousands of dollars," officials said.

"The big goal was to figure out if translocation can even work," said John P. Parke, stewardship project director for the North Region of New Jersey Audubon. "We didn't know whether they would make it."

New Jersey is one of a few states - North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama are among the others - where officials are trying to find ways of restoring or increasing quail populations by releasing birds onto land suited for their needs. Maryland, on the other hand, has a program on the Eastern Shore where quail eggs are brought in so adult birds can raise the young in pens before they are released, said Audubon officials. Pennsylvania does not have a program.

Quail are not doing well anywhere except Georgia and Florida, with some populations in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

The chorus of bobwhite calls began disappearing in New Jersey and other states along with the bird's habitat. Choked forests, paved roads, housing developments, herbicides, and pesticides destroyed the quail's food sources and nesting grounds.

Even on the restored Haines location, at least a dozen birds were killed by hawks and weasels, or died from stress within two weeks of their arrival in April. "They were getting whacked pretty hard," Parke said. "Then, things settled in and they got the lay of the land.

"By September, we had forty-something birds," he said. "They had successfully nested."

The project in New Jersey "will set a tone on how repopulation can work in the Northeast," Parke said. The Pine Island Cranberry habitat was "the missing piece of the puzzle for this study," he said.

New Jersey's success is "on par with translocation projects [in the other states] that had existing populations and had been working on habitat for many years," Parke said. "This whole thing boils down to habitat, and the work at [the Haines property] provided the springboard."

Parke said that by helping to reestablish bobwhite quail back to the South Jersey landscape, more people will "recognize the need for more active stewardship and conservation of our lands in order to preserve a diversity of many native species and sustain the ecological services that these habitats also provide us."

Last week, controlled burns were being conducted by Williams on the Lee Bros. cranberry farm, next to the Haines property, as a way of managing the land and creating more quail habitat.

"The efficacy of translocation toward population recovery is contingent on successful reproduction," said Theron Terhune, game bird program director for Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Finding nests on the Haines property "is exciting, as this confirms that those individuals released are indeed reproducing, giving us great hope going forward. . . ."

Although the jury is still out, "the successes that are being lauded are warranted," Terhune said. "The bobwhites have survived and reproduced. I would just feel better knowing in March and April how the birds fared."

This winter will be the big test. "We've never done translocations north of North Carolina and weren't sure if the young birds would survive harsh winters in the Northeast," Terhune said. "But I've been surprised how strong and resilient quail are."

The distinctive bobwhite calls that Haines so fondly remembers while growing up on the land are back after decades. "I'm very pleased with how things have been going and am looking forward to further results next spring and beyond," he said. "It's not just about restoration or protection; it's about doing the stewardship work for the long term."

Edward Colimore is a former Inquirer staff writer.

ecolimore@comcast.net

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