“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” – John Muir 1877
Solemn In An Incomplete Woods
With his eyes focused on the thicket of undergrowth ahead and his most trusty bird dog on point, the old man approaches with caution. By his third step an adrenaline rush is induced as a small but lively covey of bobwhite quail erupts from the brush feverishly in all directions. Two shots from his weathered double barrel Remington, handed down from his father, results only in two spent shells hitting the ground. Although his experienced and tenured bird dog has a look that expresses disgust towards the poor shooting of his owner, the old man stands firmly in admiration. For in his revering point of view, the flight of wild bobwhite quail is only rivaled in beauty by the sound of a drumming ruffed grouse in the courting spring woods. In fact, it was only months ago while exploring through this same patch of woods that the man managed to sneak up on a male ruffed grouse perched prominently on his drumming log. Beating his wings with vigor to produce a sound only a drum could imitate, the grouse was caught blindly while trying to attract a mate. That was until the old man signaled his presence through a misstep on a twig that broke awfully loud under his foot.
My mind is quickly removed from the fictional old man as I walk slowly and carefully through the old overgrown oak-pine woods, yet the jealousy I feel towards my imaginary old friend from the past still remains. He was lucky enough to be born in a time that wasn’t so long ago, yet bygone enough that he observed a different forest in the same spot I stand today. As I stand in a patch of 70-plus year old oak trees, he stood among them in their infancy. As I stand in a forest abandoned by the most beautiful of upland birds, he stood among a land rich with quail and grouse. I continue walking, almost to the point of disgust, knowing that there is an eerie absence about these woods. Evicted tenants by the inordinately negligent human landlords, quail and grouse have been robbed from my native South Jersey woods.
Burning For A Revival
If you ask a random person on the streets about their familiarity with forestry management you will usually prompt a glazed over expression portraying confusion and insufficient knowledge. Breaking the question down for the sake of comprehension, you ask the person about their opinion of forest fires. You are now likely to receive a wide eyed look, a light bulb turned finally illuminated in your interviewees head as they begin to regurgitate the message from the world’s most famous forest steward: Smokey The Bear. Created in 1944, Smokey is most notable for his famous line “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” He is seen plastered on signs in front of firehouses and state parks alike reminding motorists of the daily forest fire threat. His words are recited by young children who in their innocent youth love nothing more than an anthropomorphic bear providing applicable knowledge. Smokey The Bear has set a revolution, an unrelenting strive to prevent forest fires while spreading awareness throughout the nation. Yet, the charismatic bear may not be so innocent and ever giving, at least not in the eyes of our absent quail and grouse.
Although seemingly paradoxical, South Jersey’s vacancy of upland birds can most accurately be attributed to a loss of forest fires. It’s not just South Jersey however; Maryland, Ohio, and Delaware are just a few of the many states facing the same issue. Over development and habitat fragmentation have resulted in an overall repression of forest fires, and without forest fires there is a lack of early growth successional forests. These young successional forests are in fact the basis of livelihood for quail and grouse alike. Young forests, unlike the mature large stands of oak and pine one might find in South Jersey today, provide valuable thick underbrush cover for nesting and predation escape. In the not so distant past, young forests were frequent on the east coast. In previous centuries, abandoned farms, clear cut forests from loggers, and disrupted forests from wild fires resulted in ideal upland bird habitat as the age classes of large forest stands began to diversify. However, with the maturation of forests and restriction of large scale forest disturbances, the quail and grouse have been left without a home.
Wildlife managers, state and federal wildlife agencies, and conservation groups across the nation now face a harrowing task: restore quail and grouse to their native ranges through acute forest management and reintroductions. Most pertinently, forest managers must try to mimic the effects of naturally occurring wild fires.
Controlled burns are performed on state and federal wildlife management areas to help mitigate the adverse effects of maturing forests. The intentionally set burns mimic the ability of wild fires to open a mature forest canopy, allowing light to reach the ground and inspire successional plant growth.
Along with controlled fires, another misconceived and superficially incongruent tactic wildlife managers use is selective forest cutting. In spite of the fact that cutting the forest seems to be more damaging than healthy to the average laymen, this method imitates both controlled and wild fires in its ability to induce successional plant growth by thinning the forest.
These tactics are essential to healthy forest management but are often mistaken as detrimental to ecosystem health. Yet, some understand the true value in efficient forest management and have taken matters in their own hands.
South Jersey native Bill Haines owns a 14,000 acre plot of land as a part of Pine Island Cranberry Company in Chatsworth, Burlington County. Along with forester Bob Williams, Bill Haines has carefully managed the forest on his extensive plot of land for decades. In conjunction with University of Delaware, he now owns the site of a quail restocking program. In 2015, 80 quail were successfully released on Bill’s farm, and they seem to be thriving, according to University of Delaware biologists.
Countless others have continued to fight on the behalf of young forests and upland birds by joining organizations such as the Ruffed Grouse Society and Quail Unlimited, or by volunteering for New Jersey Fish and Wildlife. South Jersey Quail Unlimited and South Jersey Ruffed Grouse Society chapters have recently joined to form an Early Succession Habitat Coalition as a part of New Jersey’s bobwhite quail action plan. Meanwhile, New Jersey Fish and Wildlife readily encourages citizens to engage in volunteer opportunities which include, but are not limited to, forest management, bird banding, and bird releasing.
Hopeful Light In A Singed Forest
I continue to walk through the desolate woods unable to shake the nonexistent hope that maybe a lonesome quail or solitary grouse will flush at any given moment. I am reminded that my father says that he hasn’t seen a quail in these woods in 10 years, and definitely not a grouse, which have seemingly been absent for over 20 years. The words of the great conservationist and forester Aldo Leopold replay in my head: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”
Discouraged by the outlook of South Jersey’s ecological future, I continue step by step in almost humiliating pessimism. Replaying the conjured story of the old man in my head as I walk, I am abruptly stopped by the peculiarity of the woods that lies ahead of me. The dense stand of forest is opening up; light is penetrating the canopy in an unusual way for these forests. Curiosity magnetizes me to the anomalous site as I enter with confusion. I am met with shining charred bark glimmering in the sun’s rays at the basal portions of tree trunks. Another step in and I am startled by a flock of wild turkey, which I have spooked out of the area. They must have found this freshly burnt ground opportunistic for foraging. I continue to vigorously inspect the blackened oaks; it is undoubtedly the result of a controlled burn.
I leave the woods now with new prospect. Aldo Leopold’s words, my father’s recollections, and my conjured story of the old man from the past had left me hopeless — yet finding the controlled burn among the dense stand of forest arouses a sense of optimism within me. Many people seem to be realizing the ecological negligence of the past and are working for a brighter future in New Jersey’s forest ecosystems. Realizing the practical and symbolic importance of the burn site I stumbled upon, a new imagination is created in my head, this time taking place in the not so distant future.
I walk these same woods with a newly acquired bird dog in the midst of fall, meticulously selecting my every step for the sake of being quiet. I know this area is rich with upland birds; in fact I managed to stalk a courting ruffed grouse in the previous spring. My bird dog stops on point, signaling the presence of quail in the thick successional underbrush ahead. I approach the brush with intent. Startled, a covey of 6 or more bobwhites erupts from the thicket and frantically fly every which direction. However, my Remington double barrel does not meet my shoulder, and is not even raised. I merely view the site with pure admiration. I reminisce on the days when there was a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing a site like this, and am forever thankful for the cooperative effort of wildlife managers and concerned citizens who invited quail and grouse back into their evicted homes.