It’s a little past dawn on a foggy spring morning, but already the field on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore is wide awake. From the cover of tall grass and a few shrubs, a multilingual chorus of birds greets the new day with a cacophony of chirps, warbles and whistles, like a symphony tuning up before the concert.A quail takes flight from the grasslands at Washington College’s Chester River Field Research Station on Chino Farms. (Dave Harp)

Then, amid the familiar trills of red-winged blackbirds and other feathered regulars, comes a call rarely heard anymore in these parts — bob-WHITE! Down a lane across the field, the black-and-white striped head of a Northern bobwhite quail pokes out of some short grass.

Once commonly heard, if not seen, in brushy meadows and hedgerows, quail have become scarce in Maryland and elsewhere as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. This 228-acre prairie along the Chester River — part of sprawling Chino Farms in Queen Anne’s County — has become a refuge for quail since it was converted from cropland nearly 20 years ago.

“You really can’t go many places on the Shore and hear this many [of those] birds,” said Daniel Small, an ecologist with Washington College, the private liberal arts college in Chestertown that uses the tract as a research station and outdoor classroom.

Bill Harvey, game bird section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, agrees, calling the number of quail there “unbelievable.”

Bobwhite quail have become scarce in Maryland as farming practices have changed, eliminating much of the ground-dwelling birds’ habitat. (Dave Harp)“It used to be just about everywhere was quail habitat,” Harvey said. But in the interests of cultivating crops more efficiently, modern farming has removed the fencerows that once segmented the land into small fields, along with shrubbery and weeds along the edge of croplands — all of which provided shelter for grassland birds

“As time has gone on,” Harvey added, “the acreage has shrunk to the point where a lot of [the habitat’s that’s left] is not connected in a way that quail can use it.”

But at the college’s Chester River Field Station, switchgrass and waist-high bunches of broomsedge bluestem wave in the gentle breeze, an uncommon sight in a rural landscape dominated by vast open fields of corn and soybeans, the staples of Shore agriculture.

Quail use the cover of the tall grass and occasional shrubs to forage on the ground for seeds, leaves and insects. During mating season in spring, they call to one another with their trademark whistle and a series of other sounds. In the winter, the birds huddle together for shelter in groups called coveys.

Small, who lives in a house on the tract, said it’s not clear just how many quail inhabit the grassland, which occupies just a sliver of the 5,000-acre Chino Farms owned by Dr. Harry Sears, a retired physician who’s on the college’s governing board. But “calling counts” conducted on a portion of the tract have tallied about 35 male birds in that immediate area.

Though the grassland looks wild and even a tad unkempt to the untrained eye, it’s actually managed to stay that way. In a rotation intended to sustain the grasses but vary their height across the tract, blocks of land are periodically mowed, sprayed with herbicide and set ablaze with controlled burns. Otherwise, shrubs and eventually trees would take over. While that would be a natural succession, the aim in this case is to retain a haven for wildlife that thrive only in prairie-type landscapes.A common yellowthroat sings from its perch in a 228-acre tract near Chestertown, MD, that’s managed to maintain grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)

Though quail — a once-popular game bird — may be the most charismatic denizen of the Chester River tract, they’re not the only avian species that have a stake in the success of the grassland restoration. In essence, according to Small, they’re an “umbrella” species for lots of other birds that need similar habitat, such as the grasshopper sparrow and field sparrow.

Like quail, a number of other grassland birds are in decline across Maryland, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. At one time, as many as 80 nesting grasshopper sparrow pairs were spotted on the Chester River tract, Small said, but their numbers have slowly dropped over the years. On that spring morning, he said,
he hadn’t heard a single call.

For the past few years, the college, through its Center for Environment & Society, has been working to persuade other Shore landowners to follow suit and re-establish some of the grassland habitat that’s been lost over the decades, in hopes of reversing those declines.

In 2015, the school teamed up with Shore Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group, to launch the Natural Lands Project, a bid to make some of the region’s farmland more wildlife friendly while also enhancing water quality by establishing grassy runoff buffers and wetlands along streams and rivers.

With the help of a $700,000 grant from the state DNR, the project team has enlisted 27 landowners in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. By the end of the year, it hopes to have converted 375 acres into grasslands, as well as another 36 acres into wetlands. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has kicked in $499,000 to create another 275 acres of upland habitat and 27 acres of wetlands, extending farther south into Talbot County.

Dan Small, field ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society, coordinates the Natural Lands Project, which works with private landowners to re-create Eastern Shore grassland habitat. (Dave Harp)“It’s not going to be for everyone, and we’re not trying to twist landowners’ or farmers’ arms to do this,” Small explained. “They have to want to create that change on the property.” But if someone has marginal cropland they’re willing to convert, he said, they can be compensated for taking the land out of production by signing up for one of the federal farmland conservation programs, with the project’s grant funding to help make up any difference.

Small said the team is most interested in working with landowners willing to convert at least 40–50 acres at a time, otherwise the habitat isn’t large enough to be really helpful.

“You can’t expect to make a change in quail populations by doing five or 10 acres at a time,” he said. The project further attempts to create habitat on adjoining or at least nearby tracts, to create a corridor where quail can spread. The birds do not migrate or fly long distances.

Small said hunters are among the most receptive audience for the project’s habitat restoration pitch. They’d like to see Maryland’s small quail population grow and become more sustainable for hunting. New Jersey has banned quail hunting except on private game reserves, but it’s still legal to shoot wild quail in Maryland — if you can find them.

Harvey, the DNR game bird leader, said that while quail hunting has been restricted on public lands, wildlife managers have been reluctant to do likewise on private property because they believe it would undercut efforts to preserve and restore habitat.Blue toadflax adds a tiny bit of color to the grasslands at Washington College’s River and Field Campus near Chestertown. (Dave Harp)

“Just like Chino Farms and Dr. Sears,” Harvey pointed out, “a lot of the people interested and willing to take land out of production and spend the money it takes to manage for quail, they’re at least somewhat interested in hunting for quail.”

Rob Leigh said that he and his wife Linda are still waiting to hear that distinctive bob-WHITE! call on the 35 acres of farmland in Betterton that they turned into grassland and wildflowers 2.5 years ago.

Leigh, a retired dentist, recalls hearing the birds all the time when he was growing up on the Shore, and it’s what prompted him to place a portion of their 114-acre farm in the Natural Lands Project. He believes it’s only a matter of time until the birds take up residence there, as quail have been sighted just a few miles away.

Leigh said he was a little nervous at first about converting the cropland, which they’d been renting to a neighboring farmer to grow corn and soybeans. But the farmer found other land not far away, and Leigh said their lost rental income has been covered by federal and grant funds.

Even without any quail yet, he added, they’re enjoying the sights and sounds of other wildlife on the converted cropland.

“We see an immense array of different birds, of a variety I’ve never seen before,” he said. “The swallows and bluebirds, they just swoop up and down, they’re so fun to watch.”

The patch of wildflowers planted in the center of the grassland has proven to be an insect magnet — drawing butterflies and so many bees that Leigh said they generate an audible buzz that carries across the field.

“I feel like we planted a prairie almost, it’s very lovely,” he said, with the field “a kaleidoscope of color” in spring, first awash in yellow blooms that give way to hues of purple. “My wife loves it. She thinks it’s the best thing going.”