BASS RIVER TOWNSHIP — John Cecil led a countdown worthy of an Apollo rocket launch

“Three, two, one,” said Cecil, vice president for stewardship at the N.J. Audubon Society.

Anticipation was in the air. Many a camera lens was pointed at a plain wooden box on a grassy field at the Pine Island Cranberry Co. as Cecil finished his countdown.

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Click, click, click went the cameras. They had to be quick. Blast-off was 10 northern bobwhite quail from the wilds of Georgia bolting out of the box and into the New Jersey Pine Barrens for the first time in a half-century.

The birds had been tucked into the box since leaving the South, stuck in a D.C. beltway traffic jam Tuesday that put off the scheduled release by a day.

The project to reintroduce quail to the Pinelands waited even longer. They used to be plentiful here but haven’t been seen or heard from since the 1960s. It may be years into the future before the success or failure of the effort will be known.

“That was awesome,” said Judie Luszcz, a photographer from Red Bank who got her shots of the birds taking off.

John Parke, the Audubon Society biologist heading the project, was ecstatic.

“This has gone off perfectly. Zero mortality, and the birds are flying great,” Parke said.

But will they survive, thrive and breed? That’s unknown at this point, but two University of Delaware students will track them with radio transmitters for the next three years.

The release Wednesday morning of eight boxes, 80 quail in all, will be followed by 160 more birds over the next two years.

The goal is to bring the distinctive “bobwhite” call back to the Pine Barrens, where they existed for eons before they simply disappeared. A few wild quail are thought to exist in the state, but they could just be pen-raised specimens released by hunting clubs. Pen-raised quail, unlike the wild ones, generally don’t last long.

“Quail are basically gone from New Jersey. There is a little debate about that, but we know they are gone from the Pinelands,” Parke said.

The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife is monitoring the project closely, said Patrick Carr, a biologist with the division’s Upland Game Project. More will be known when nesting season arrives in June. The adults raise the offspring and then groups form, called coveys, that try to survive the winter together.

“They have two or three clutches a year, 12 to 16 eggs, but a lot of them die. The mortality rate is about 80 percent,” Carr said.

Graduate students Will Macaluso and Kaili Stevens will be driving around the cranberry bogs owned by the Haines family for the next three years in a all-terrain vehicle. The birds are fitted with radio transmitters, and the students have handheld receivers.

“We will monitor reproductive success: if they nest, where they nest and how many chicks hatch out,” Macaluso said.

The key to success could be the key to why the bird was extirpated in the first place. The Haines family has used mowing and fire to recreate a more natural forest succession the Pine Barrens was once known for. Putting out fires quickly, and allowing forests to fully mature, has led to the quail’s demise, as it relies on barren spots, grassy savannah, shrubs and young trees.

“The majority of New Jersey’s forests are middle-aged and trending older,” Cecil said.

This is hurting a number of species ranging from rare wildflowers to snakes to birds such as woodcocks and red-headed woodpeckers. The society has been pushing state legislation for more timber cutting and prescribed burning but latched on when the Haines family decided to make their farm a model for such techniques.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy in Florida has used these techniques since 2001 to produce more than 4,000 wild quail for states trying to reintroduce them. New Jersey on Wednesday became the seventh such state.

“The heyday for quail in Florida and Georgia is right now with higher densities than ever,” said Theron Terhune of Tall Timbers.

“Where management is done and done right, we can bring them back. We use fire. Fire is absolutely critical. Quail need disturbance, and fire, which has been removed from the ecosystem, is as natural as wind and water.”

The nation has seen an 82 percent quail decline in the past 40 years due mostly to maturing forests, herbicides and various habitat changes. Terhune, who has a PhD in quail genetics and demographics, thinks it can be reversed.

Cecil noted burning and timber cutting is a contentious issue, particularly on public lands, and most of the state’s forests, he notes, are now owned by the public. He argues forest thinning makes the public safer by reducing the chance of major forest fires.

“We need to demonstrate its benefits,” said Cecil. “The Pinelands is a fire bomb. We’re putting people’s lives in jeopardy by leaving the forests overstocked. We want this bird to be a symbol of how the habitat should be managed.”

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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About the bobwhite

Needs grasslands for food, nesting and roosting.

Needs shrubby woods for predator and weather protection.

Nests in soil lined with grass and pine needles.

Twelve eggs or more per clutch, hatch in 23 days.

Only 25 percent of nests are successful.

Newly hatched young the size of a bumblebee.

Young fly at 3 weeks old.

Adults care for young, who need insects for protein.

Form coveys, called “fall shuffle” before winter.

Adults eat mostly seeds but also insects and green vegetation.

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35 years with The Press of Atlantic City, the Asbury Park Press and other newspapers.

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