Tag Archives: Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program

Enticing the “prince of game birds” back to a Maryland farm

Northern bobwhite were once common in the eastern U.S., but experienced a sharp decline in population in the second half of the 20th century. Photo from Chesapeake Bay Program/Will Parson (Creative Commons).

Northern bobwhite were once common in the eastern U.S., but experienced a sharp decline in population in the second half of the 20th century.
Photo of bobwhite quail in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, from Chesapeake Bay Program/Will Parson (Creative Commons).

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.”

Bob Spiering on his farm in Greensboro, Maryland. That IS indeed a raptor on his arm. Photo courtesy of Bob.

Bob Spiering on his farm in Greensboro, Maryland. That IS indeed a raptor on his arm.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

Could they help bring the quail back? Spiering’s family gave it a shot.

Bob Spiering's dog races through a field of soybean. Photo courtesy of Bob.

Bob Spiering’s dog races through a field of soybean.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

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.

Bob and Judy Spiering on their farm in Greensboro, Maryland. Bob got into falconry after a falconer came by his farm with a red-tailed hawk. Photo courtesy of Bob.

Bob and Judy Spiering on their farm in Greensboro, Maryland. Bob got into falconry after a falconer came by his farm with a red-tailed hawk.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

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.

Work at the Spiering farm. Photo courtesy of Bob.

Work at the Spiering farm.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

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.

CBFO Partners biologist Rich Mason with landowner Bob Spiering Credit USFWS

Chesapeake Bay biologist Rich Mason and landowner Bob Spiering stand by the new 10-acre wetland.
Credit: USFWS

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.

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Landowner Bob Spiering checks his wood duck box.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

Bob Spiering opened Spiering's Auto Service Center as a young mechanic in Greensboro, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Bob.

Bob Spiering opened Spiering’s Auto Service Center as a young mechanic in Greensboro, Maryland. He and his wife run the shop.
Photo courtesy of Bob.

“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.

The Slow Race to Save Three Turtle Species

You may have heard the timeless saying, “slow but steady wins the race,” the moral of the fable The Tortoise and the Hare. In many ways, that’s true for the biologists, researchers, conservationists, and landowners who hope to reverse the decline of three rare turtle species. A major mile marker looms ahead in 2023—when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to determine if spotted, Blanding’s, or wood turtles need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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Blanding’s turtle (left) and a wood turtle (right) at the Robert Moses Nature Center in Massena, NY (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“While wood turtles, spotted turtles, and Blanding’s turtles are considered species at risk of needing Endangered Species Act protection, we have the opportunity to change that,” says Julie Slacum, a biologist at the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office. She explains that if the threats to these at-risk species can be addressed now, they may not need to be listed in the future.

Meet the problem:

Some researchers have estimated that these turtles’ populations are on average about half of what they once were. While definitive population figures aren’t available, it’s clear these rare turtles are becoming even rarer. Why? It’s complicated.

First, they are slow to mature. They wait until they’re upwards of 20 years old (as is the case for Blanding’s turtles) to have young. Dr. Glenn Johnson, a professor of biology at SUNY Potsdam, explains how an 83 year old Blanding’s turtle was recently documented by the “dean of Blanding’s turtle research.” This impressive discovery is rare, especially because many turtles are hit by vehicles before they reach maturity.

“The older they are, the better they are at producing more babies,” Dr. Johnson says. “It’s the old females that are most important, but they’re the ones that are crossing roads many more times in their lifetime.”

Since these parents don’t have pedestrian-crossings, Dr. Johnson posts seasonal turtle crossing signs on town and county roadways in northern New York to get motorists to slow down along roads with heavy turtle traffic.

These turtles use large tracts of land, crossing roads and agricultural operations to reach their favorite spots year after year. “They develop a mental map of their landscape and they want to do the same thing more or less every year,” says Lori Erb, a herpetologist at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation.

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Lori Erb documents and ages a spotted turtle found during a survey (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

While roads turn their home ranges in to a dangerous maze, landscape changes for agriculture and housing further degrade and divide wetlands and natural areas.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation biologist Mike Morgan explains what the trouble is: “It’s the dry upland where turtles nest that is also highly desirable for farmers, builders and everyone else that wants to develop land.” Over time, large farms and forests in the Northeast have become divided and re-divided into parcels, breaking up the once-connected landscape.

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Dr. Glenn Johnson (left) and Mike Morgan (right) at an old crop field that’s been restored as Blanding’s turtle nesting habitat (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

“Just hitting a single turtle as it crosses the road or taking one home as a pet has ripple effects on their slow-growing population,” says Julie Slacum, the Service’s endangered species biologist.

Roads—as well as trails and boat launches—make spotted and wood turtles even more vulnerable for illegal collection. The species are highly desired for the illegal pet trade.

Dr. Johnson agrees that each impact adds up to one big problem. “It’s like anything—you take one brick out and another brick over here—eventually the whole system collapses,” he says. “We can’t let that happen.”

Meet the partners:

The response is under way, with partnerships and funding developing to set the stage for the future of these rare turtles.

In 2004, Mike Marchand, a New Hampshire Fish & Game biologist, attended a meeting to discuss Blanding’s turtle conservation, recognizing “immediately that this is a species that moves wide distances and requires inter-state communication and coordination.”

And so began the Northeast Blanding’s Turtle Working Group. Today, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, the Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and several universities work together to restore habitat. So far, they’ve received a Science Support Partnership Program award (a USGS and Service partnership) and two Service-awarded competitive state wildlife grants – an accomplishment that speaks to the importance of collaboration.

Some conservation planning is farther along than others. Wood turtles are just a few years behind Blanding’s turtles in terms of what’s been accomplished, “and the spotted turtle is farther behind,” Marchand says. But that soon will be changing.

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A spotted turtle found during survey work (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

In 2009, the Wood Turtle Working Group was formed under the Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (NEPARC), which has received a Service-awarded regional conservation needs grant and competitive state wildlife grant. “NEPARC is great in that it provides a forum for region-wide collaboration between various partners and the public regarding a number of species, not just turtles,” says Noelle Rayman-Metcalf from the Service’s New York Field Office who is also on the NEPARC steering committee.

Benefiting both turtles and people

When it comes down to it, the same goal is shared across their range: to avoid the need to list these three species under the Endangered Species Act. The turtles’ ranges expand into the Midwest and southern Canada, with the spotted turtle found as far south as Florida. With around 75% of remaining wetlands being privately owned, private landowners have a lot of influence over the larger effort.

There are two federal programs in particular that offer technical and monetary assistance to private landowners. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program works with landowners to protect and restore wetlands, as well as streams and grasslands, for the greater benefit of the people and wildlife that live on them. Many of these restoration projects provide benefits to Blanding’s, spotted, and wood turtles, where they occur. In New York State alone, the Partners program has protected, restored and enhanced over 15,000 acres of wetlands and partnered with over 675 landowners and 60 partners.

Another way that landowners and wildlife are benefiting from proactive conservation measures is through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) ongoing Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) initiative. Just this year, spotted, Blanding’s, and wood turtles were added to the list of target species for the WLFW.

So how exactly does WLFW work? People who have rare turtles in their yards, pastures, or crop fields receive assistance to improve or expand habitat for turtles. This might include cover crop planting to better deal with high rain events and nutrient containment, or replanting riparian buffers and wetlands to improve water quality.

For a private landowner in Dutchess County, prescribed grazing with livestock such as goats and cows is a more eco-friendly way to maintain encroaching shrubs and weeds while providing ideal habitat for nesting turtles. The landowner, who has participated with NRCS since 2005 to restore 9 acres of habitat, was equally as happy with the work as the turtles.

“I would encourage people [private landowers] to get involved as I did,” the landowner said. An added benefit for him was that “the project was able to clear a substantial amount of invasive [plant] species from the area,” which are a threat to both agriculture and turtles. This has also turned into a valuable educational experience for him and his daughter, as biologists provided updates on the turtles and progress being made.

Spotted turtles in particular seem to be benefiting. Jason Tesauro, the consulting biologist for this project, says they’ve documented spotted turtle nests in areas that were completely forested prior to the restoration work.

But it’s more than just turtles that benefit, says herpetologist Lori Erb. “You can think of a lot of these turtle species as umbrella species – when you’re protecting their habitat, you’re protecting all of the other species that use the area,” Erb says. From frogs and salamanders to other charismatic species like New England cottontail, wood duck, American woodcock, brook trout, bobcat, even moose, and (depending on the area) the list goes on.

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A Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York (Photo: Justin Dalaba/USFWS).

At a restored Blanding’s turtle nesting site in St. Lawrence County, New York, it’s the grasshopper sparrow that’s benefiting. DEC biologist Mike Morgan pauses the conversation as he excitedly listens to the sparrow, later explaining that we’re witnessing “a species of real concern here in New York State right now.” For sites like this, “there are a lot of initiatives that all come together and overlap in the same spot, so it’s a great opportunity to work with the Service and other partners,” he says.

It’s a slow race to 2023, but the collaborative work between agencies and private landowners to secure and restore habitat for these turtle species is what’s needed to determine the future of these rare turtle species.

Kids Dig in the Dirt to Save Pollinators

Pollinators are in peril, but with the help of Union Elementary they will have a safe home in Upshur County, West Virginia. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partner’s for Fish & Wildlife Program in West Virginia teamed up with Union Elementary to install the program’s first schoolyard habitat pollinator garden in the state.

West Virginia Field Office AmeriCorps members, Aeriel Wauhob and Tom Fletcher, designed, organized, and installed a new Partner’s for Fish & Wildlife Schoolyard Habitat project using funding from the USFWS Monarch Initiative. Nearly 300 kindergarten through 5th grade students, at Union Elementary School in Upshur County helped to transform the front lawn of their school into pollinator garden using native seeds and perennials.

Union Elementary students and staff in newly finished pollinator garden.

Students started each day with a short presentation on who pollinators are, how they help grow our food, and the threats they face every day. The installation was a two day process. Kindergartners through 2nd graders leading the way by lending a hand and foot to prep the area for planting of flowers and stomping native seeds into the ground. The second day of the install consisted of 3rd through 5th graders learning how to transplant flowers and work as a team to spread mulch.

Every child at Union Elementary had the chance to get their hands dirty learning about native plants and gardening techniques to encourage pollinators to visit. All grades helped, from planting wildflower seeds, weeding and digging, to mulching and watering!

To add more of a personal touch, each class designed a stepping stone that would be placed around a sitting area with a bench. The 4th graders enjoyed breaking dishes to make mosaic tiles for the class designs. The stones featured pollinators such as birds and butterflies, along with the plants they seek like flowers and trees.

This inspiring project will be a gateway for similar accomplishments connecting children with nature throughout the state. The pollinator garden was an effort made possible by Nick Millett – Partner’s for Fish & Wildlife, Aeriel Wauhob & Tom Fletcher – AFHA AmeriCorps, Russ McClain – Center for Sustainability Studies of Davis & Elkins College, and Dr. Stankus – Union Elementary Garden Committee.

Left to Right: Nick Millett, Russ McClain, Tom Fletcher, & Aeriel Wauhob