The Sandhills Quail Habitat Project has been funded with $43,000.00 from the North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation.
The cooperative Quail Habitat Project on the J. Robert Gordon Sandhills Field Trial area near Hoffman has been rolling along well in the past six months.
Thanks to funding from the North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation and cooperative efforts from the North Carolina Field Trial Association, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has made substantial quail habitat improvements on the project area.
This cooperative project was agreed upon by the three parties in early 1995, a long-range habitat management plan was prepared and intensive habitat development work will continue through early 1997.
The primary goals of the project are to improve the winter and spring cover for quail. Natural food supplies and supplemental plantings are abundant throughout the Sandhills Game Land.
However, high-quality winter cover and spring brood-rearing cover need to be improved. Many techniques are being used to make these improvements, including burning, drum-chopping; planting, and clearing small “woods fields.”
The greatest obstacle in developing good quail habitat in the Sandhills longleaf pine habitat is the heavy scrub oak midstory that tends to shade out desirable weeds and grasses. Controlled fire is the best tool for reducing this midstory and is most effective during the spring growing season, although several burning cycles are necessary to reduce the unwanted plants to optimum levels.
Wildlife Commission personnel burned more than 3,000 acres on the project area last spring. The Habitat Foundation-funded another 70 acres of mechanical scrub oak reduction with a heavy drum chopper.
This technique, while more expensive, provides more immediate results. Controlled burning will continue throughout the area on a two- to three-year rotation to maintain food and cover plants in productive condition.
This past spring, 88 acres of annual and perennial cover were planted in 215 patches. Two annual sorghums, pearl millet, and sudangrass do well in the poor Sandhills soils and provide a dependable winter cover while perennial plantings are taking three years to fully develop.
Increasing emphasis is being placed on planting perennials such as warm-season grasses, partridge pea, shrub lespedeza, and sericea lespedeza. Once established, these patches can be maintained by periodic mowing and top-dressing which is considerably cheaper than the annual plantings.
The NCWHF provided fertilizer for top-dressing existing perennial plots (70 acres) and for liming another 45 acres which will be next year’s perennial sites.
In addition, the Habitat Foundation will fund the purchase of seed, seedlings, and fertilizer for perennial plantings in the spring. Seedlings such as bicolor lespediza, native plum, autumn olive, and privet will be planted in long narrow strips along field edges in an effort to provide good, low growth escape cover and food in the form of seeds berries, and woody plants.
Initial evaluations of these plantings indicate they are attracting and holding coveys that were released in September by the Field Trial Association. In fact, results from the first field trial, in late October, were dramatic—79 coveys were observed in three days.
It will be more important to determine if these supplemental plantings and the native weeds successfully hold quail through the winter months and into the spring. Also, it is interesting to note that deer can occasionally be found bedded in warm-season grass patches.
This winter the Habitat Foundation will be funding the clearing of 15-20 quarter-acre wildlife openings in the woods on the project area. This past spring the Wildlife Commission cleared 18 such openings and more are planned.
These small fields were planted in warm-season grass and sorghum and appear promising for attracting wildlife because they are being located where disturbance from field trial activities will be minimized.
Sites for new clearings are limited by the numerous colonies of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers on the project area, but with careful selection and small size, a good distribution can be achieved.
Finally, it is recognized that the implementation of this plan on the Gordon Field Trial Area will take some time away from the Wildlife Commission’s management of the rest of the Sandhills Game Land. In order to reduce this impact, and facilitate the project, the Habitat Foundation will fund a three-month laborer position for the Sandhills Wildlife Management Crew during the intensive work period of April-June.
Each phase and development of the project is being cataloged to permit accurate assessment of success and failure. Over the next three to five years, there will be many visible quail habitat changes in the project area.
Biologists are hopeful there will be a corresponding improvement in the quail population. Whatever the results, they will help guide quail management strategies in the Sandhills.