Enticing the “prince of game birds” back to a Maryland farm
As a young mechanic just out of the Air Force, Bob Spiering said the whistling call of the bobwhite quail went silent.
It was the early 1980s in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the decades of disappearing quail populations had finally hit Caroline County. The years where he and a buddy could sustainably harvest the iconic game bird appeared to be over.
It was a loss—in many ways. Spiering grew up quail hunting with his dad and grandfather. “My grandfather was the biggest quail hunter in the world,” he said. “I was probably 10 years old when I started walking along with him, watching the setters get the birds.”
Could they help bring the quail back? Spiering’s family gave it a shot.
His dad owned a farm—which has since been bought by Spiering—where he farmed every bit of tillable land and harvested all the crops. What they could leave for wildlife were the ditch banks, the sloped land alongside the ditches that drained the fields and made them usable. He started working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could cover the costs of planting those ditch banks with native grasses. The grasses provide cover for quail to travel the field edges, to nest and to raise young.
But the quail didn’t come.
Time passed, and Spiering picked up the baton when he bought the farm in the headwaters of the Choptank River watershed. As his wife, Judy, said, “Bob was interested in hunting, in establishing it back to the kind of environment that was good for birds, deer and different wildlife.” With the income from his automotive garage downtown, Spiering would be able to leave more of the land for wildlife. Of the 175 acres of forests, meadows and fields, he tills 50 acres and manages the rest for wildlife.
He brought in an expert from USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service to guide him. Turned out that Spiering needed to do more than just grasses, the expert suggesting he restore weedy areas, stubby cover and other habitats needed by the birds. He enrolled the farm in a federal program to manage for wildlife, created hedgerows to add more cover and food, and disked fallow areas so that the disturbance would promote certain types of plants. He grew corn, soybeans, alfalfa and clover, leaving some of it for the animals.
The rabbits started to show up like crazy, Spiering said. But he kept waiting.
One day, he finally heard the call. The quail had returned.
“I turned the farm into a place for rabbits, deer and a few quail. I see one almost every day now,” Spiering said, noting he has two quail coveys—families—on the farm, and room for one more.
The work didn’t end there. Spiering turned to waterfowl.
With over 60 acres of upland and wetland forest enrolled in the USDA-NRCS Wetland Reserve Program, Spiering set out with NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore a 10-acre freshwater wetland (see before/after below).
“The goal of the most recent project was to restore hydrology to a forested wetland and to create an open emergent wetland,” said Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Rich Mason. “The wetlands will provide habitat for ducks, geese, wading birds, shorebirds and songbirds. Turtles, frogs, toads, and salamanders will also live in the restored wetlands.”
“The wetland buffers and grasslands will provide excellent areas for pollinators, too,” he said.
Three intense rain events occurred after the wetland was finished last October. Within days, shorebirds showed up in the shallow water. Shortly after, the couple was excited to see ducks and geese arrive in their wetland sanctuary. During daily walks, their dogs love to romp through the shallow water.
In the spring, a Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer secured the assistance of a Girl Scout troop to build and install wood duck boxes by the wetlands. This year, Spiering saw at least five families of wood ducks.
“The ground was mostly wet anyway, and a pain to farm,” he said. “I’m way happier having ducks in there. If I was relying on the farm for income it’d be different. Now it’s a place to relax.”
His wife likes the comfort of knowing the area around their farmhouse won’t be developed. “My goal is to not have a bunch of houses around me,” she said. “I take hikes and take my grandchildren on walks. They see the ducks and the different animals, a snake or two every once in awhile, turtles.”
Partnering with the government worked out just fine for him, Spiering said. What’s next? A pond, maybe, and retirement from the automotive business. “I’m just the supervisor these days, and I sneak off as much as possible,” he joked.
To enjoy the call of the bobwhite, perhaps.