- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Old-timers in these parts easily recall cool October and November days when the distinct whistling of the bobwhite quail could be heard all around the area. Hunters in the nearby Virginia and Maryland suburbs walked chopped cornfields, waited along hedgerows and forest margins, shotguns at the ready, a hunting dog standing rigidly at point, front leg raised, muzzle down and head extended. The hunters would do the rest whenever a covey of bobwhite quail suddenly burst into the morning air.

That was then. Nowadays, the sight of a large covey of quail is a rare occurrence. What happened?

The national Quail Forever organization says while summer droughts certainly can hurt bobwhite production, it’s the loss of suitable habitat that has put quail numbers into a terrific tailspin. It says 60 to 90 percent of the U.S. bobwhite populations from just 25 years ago have disappeared. Because of that, Quail Forever was formed a year ago to help address habitat losses with a unique model of locally driven conservation.

That already has resulted in 65 chapters being formed in 23 states. Chapters are made up of hunters, natural resource professionals, dog lovers and quail enthusiasts — all clearly committed to bringing back suitable quail habitat.

Five factors have led to the loss of terrain preferred by quail: intensified farming, changing forestry practices, a succession of grassland ecosystems to forests, an overwhelming presence of exotic grasses such as fescue that choke out wildlife, and urban sprawl.

For example, Maryland and Virginia are typical examples of the fist-sized bird’s steady decline. Urban sprawl has magnified “clean” farming’s impact on wildlife. (Read that to mean that farms have no places for the birds to breed, hide and prosper because wide-open acreage is preferred by the big agri-businesses). As recently as 1980, Maryland hunters bagged 134,000 quail. Today the average year’s success rate is under 10,000. The state’s lower Eastern Shore is best.

Virginia’s quail population seems to have stabilized a bit, but the number of quail hunters has tumbled. These days, average seasonal quail hunting results in 60,000 bobwhites.

A key to the habitat puzzle is the 2007 Federal Farm Bill that will be the subject of much debate in Congress. Part of the bill includes the 39.2 million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the CP33 bobwhite buffers initiative and a variety of other conservation initiatives targeted at improving land as wildlife habitat.

Quail Forever is correct when it urges us to learn how political candidates stand on conservation issues, then make a choice. The quail’s future depends on it.

For more on Quail Forever, go to www.QuailForever.org or e-mail [email protected]

What a croaker! — Russell Knapp of Severn, Md., broke the state record for Atlantic croaker by catching a 6.52-pound specimen in 35 feet of water at the “Triangle,” off Point Lookout in the Chesapeake Bay, on Sept.4. Knapp’s croaker eclipses the previous record set by Rome Tull, who caught a 6-pound, 3-ounce fish more than 26 years ago in the “Puppy Hole” in Tangier Sound.

Pending approval, the record-breaking croaker should set an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) all-tackle world record. The previous IGFA record croaker was a 5-pound, 8-ounce fish caught at Dauphin Island, Ala., in 2000.

Think boating is busy here? — You might think Maryland and Virginia waters are crowded with boats, but Florida is tops in boat owners. That state has overtaken long-time leader Michigan as the state with the nation’s most registered boats.

Boating’s growth is attributed to Florida’s growing population. Recreational boat registration statistics from the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association (NMMA) show that Floridians registered 946,072 boats in 2004 compared to Michigan’s 944,800 and California’s 894,884. Other states in the top 10 were, in top-down order, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Illinois.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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