Wolfe Publishing Group

    Fields of Dreams

    Two in the bush at the RAFC.  (Photos/courtesy of Dan Small)
    Two in the bush at the RAFC. (Photos/courtesy of Dan Small)
    Before you make it across the four-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge from Maryland’s Anne Arundel County to its rural Eastern Shore, the birds are impossible to overlook: kamikaze seagulls weave between the cables, stoic cormorants atop them. Beyond the bridge, as farmland spreads out before you like a lavish feast, the reliable denizens of the fields appear — turkey vultures, egrets and Canada geese (don’t be fooled — some of those are decoys). Turn down the country lanes that divvy up the land and you’ll dodge doves, bluebirds and mockingbirds as they dart across the road. Above, incoming or outgoing flocks remain distant scribbles on a blue canvas of sky. If you were taking an avian roll call, it seems there’d be a checkmark by all the big local names — except for one notable exception: the prince of game birds, the bobwhite quail.

    Quail used to be abundant here, and quail hunting was as beloved a cultural tradition as crabbing. Now, conservationists are hoping to bring the quail back to the Shore through efforts that could have far-reaching benefits down the roster and for the Chesapeake Bay.

    A Familiar Story

    It’s not just the quail. A lot of things have changed on the Shore. After the bridge was completed in 1952, development spread like a bad cold in an elementary school. Mirroring the national trend, agriculture shifted from orchards to dairies to animal feed, from family farms to factory farms. Hedgerows and riparian buffers gave way to fencerow-to-fencerow planting, with crops doused in potent chemicals.

    Even the landscape that remained untouched became unsuitable for ground- and grass-loving species like the bobwhite. Early successional habitat matured into later serial habitat, where large trees colonized in the sunshine, boxing out native forbs and grasses. All of this spelled bad news for the creatures that rely on dense, woody covers but especially for the Goldilocks quail, which had an especially hard time adapting to these changes.

    A decade ago, quail populations were already way down when back-to-back winter storms clobbered the birds; soon after, folks stopped seeing quail altogether. Its emphatic whistle — once the soundtrack of the Shore — became an echo in the heads of old-timers, who could still remember that magical time: before.

    The Natural Lands Project

    Grasshopper sparrows, shown here on the Leighs’ property, have experienced a 72% decline in population since 1966.
    Grasshopper sparrows, shown here on the Leighs’ property, have experienced a 72% decline in population since 1966.
    In one place, however, a concentrated population of bobwhite quail persisted. Washington College’s River and Field Campus (RAFC) is a 4,700-acre “living lab” for the students and faculty at the school’s Center for Environment and Society (CES). The largest conservation easement in Maryland, the RAFC is a haven for native grasses, birds and bugs — and heaven for anyone who visits.

    Dan Small, a field ecologist for the college who lives on the property, says that the RAFC has always hosted a lot of visitors, and recently many were there to see the bobwhite quail. The habitat at the RAFC was so productive that it didn’t take long for quail to bounce back to their prestorm population (approximately 35 coveys), while floundering elsewhere on the Shore. That’s when Small and his colleagues decided to “get off the farm” and work with other landowners to create similar results. In 2015, the CES partnered with Shore Rivers (a local nonprofit fighting for water quality) to form the Natural Land Project (NLP).

    The NLP’s stated goal is to “help make the rural landscape of the Eastern Shore more wildlife-friendly” by partnering with landowners to transform less-than-productive agricultural land into habitat for species like the bobwhite quail. Landowners get a one-time $450-per-acre incentive and agree to care for the land for a decade. So far, the NLP has converted 540 acres from farmland to meadow habitat and 49 acres of wetlands.

    Ugly Habitat, Pretty Results

    Last December at Conquest Preserve in Queen Anne’s County, Small was eager to brag about the restoration project underway there, which will include 125 acres of upland meadow, dedicated pollinator patches and walking trails for the general public. But he was also a little dismayed to see the fields mowed for winter.

    Common eastern bumblebees love wild bergamot.
    Common eastern bumblebees love wild bergamot.

    Part of Small’s job is convincing residents and officials that “everything doesn’t need to be clean and tidy,” despite Americans’ collective desire for straight lines and shorn grass.

    “Critical habitat can be ugly,” he said.

    It can be ugly, but it also needs to be connected. Nesting and brooding habitat needs to be near feeding habitat. All of these habitats need to be close enough to one another so that the quail feel safe spreading out into new territory. That’s why, when Small strikes a deal with one landowner, he works to win over their neighbors, too, so that eventually the Shore will have something of a “quail corridor.”

    As any hunter knows, quail prefer tangled and overgrown habitat, the kind of thickets that are increasingly hard to find in our paved-over world. And the quail isn’t the only bird looking for that scene; Small said that kestrels, Eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and indigo buntings have been showing up to land being rehabbed for the quail. In fact, he is pretty upfront about using the quail as the face of a project that will benefit tons of other species. Cashing in on the nostalgic value of the bird on the Shore is part of the plan.

    Truth in Advertising

    For more than a decade, Eastern Shore residents Rob and Linda Leigh had been renting their 114-acre property to a tenant farmer who grew corn and soybeans. In the past, they had worked with a bevy of federal, state and regional conservation groups to restore wetlands and buffers and put the whole thing into easement. When the NLP came their way, though, the Leighs knew it was time to make a change.

    “It’s about respect for the land,” says Rob, who grew up spending his summers on land that his property now encompasses. “Things were okay, but there were better uses for it.”

    The tenant farmer found a new spot, and the Leighs handed over 32 acres to the NLP. After three years, the grasses and wildflowers are flourishing. “It’s so satisfying to see it so beautiful.”

    The Leighs aren’t the only ones who are satisfied with the restored meadow. “The insects are unbelievable,” Rob reports. “We walked out into the waist-high field to listen to (them). You couldn’t hear the person next to you.”

    More excitingly, one of the maintenance workers recently flushed a bobwhite quail.

    The Leighs have been doing their best to convince other landowners to convert acres to habitat, with some success. Rob thinks the beauty of the grasslands speak for themselves, though: “The fields are the best advertisement.”

    Good for the Bobwhite, Good for the Bay

    Little bluestem grows in clumps, allowing quail to travel undetected.
    Little bluestem grows in clumps, allowing quail to travel undetected.

    One other species benefits from all this restoration work — humans. Restored meadows and wetlands offer enhanced buffering and filtering capacity for the storm water and agricultural runoff we need to keep out of our streams and rivers. In fact, the NLP estimates that when Conquest Preserve is completed, the restored habitat will keep 12,042 pounds of nitrogen, 619 pounds of phosphorous and 228,696 pounds of sediment from entering tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Despite regional and federal efforts, the country’s largest estuary is still grappling with pollution, degraded habitat and worryingly low populations of some fish and shellfish species. In short, it needs all the help it can get.

    “When we talk to landowners, we talk about quail,” said Small. “When we talk to granting agencies, we talk about water quality.”

    This dual-purpose has allowed the NLP to secure money from a wider variety of funders, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Partners for Fish and Wildlife and the Maryland Department of Resources Natural Filters Program.

    But what the NLP needs most is buy-in from people who love the land or love the quail. For Small, that means he’s “constantly looking for acres.” Whether he secures those acres from people looking to help the Bay or restore the game bird, Small insisted, “We have to make dedicated decisions if we want quail on the landscape.”

    His efforts are beginning to pay off. There was the flushed bird on the Leighs’ property, and recently, Small himself heard the distinct “bob-WHITE” call at the Conquest Preserve. Small’s neighbors at the RAFC have also begun to hear it.

    As we scooted around the county admiring the bits and pieces of habitat that have been given back to the quail, it became obvious that for the bird to thrive here again, we’ll need to treat the land differently and see it differently, too. As we turn a corner onto another country road, Small noticed a gnarled thicket of woody cover.

    “That’s a great hedgerow right there,” he said, as if he’s admiring a vintage car.

    “I love it.”

    Wolfe Publishing Group