WOODLAND TOWNSHIP — In a forest clearing on a large cranberry farm, field technicians with New Jersey Audubon used electronic equipment to search for bobwhite quail.

The wild birds from Georgia were banded with electronic collars and released in the past two years, and a bobwhite nest was found earlier at the site, tucked inside tall grasses on a mound of topsoil.

It isn’t the prettiest or most natural part of Pine Island Cranberry Co.’s 14,000 noncultivated acres in and around the Burlington County hamlet of Chatsworth. There are compost piles at the site, and a small airfield for agricultural planes.

But it’s the kind of disturbed habitat the bobwhite and other species, like prairie warblers, kestrels and pine snakes, love.

“They like early successional habitat — the young forest” with open areas as well as lots of grass and shrubs, said John P. Parke, NJ Audubon stewardship project director for the North Region. “In New Jersey, we’re losing young forest.”

Bobwhite quail, long a favorite game bird known for their distinctive calls that sound like their name, are functionally extinct in New Jersey because of habitat loss, said Parke.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and other organizations, along with NJ Audubon, are trying to change that. They are working with landowners to encourage them to use prescribed burns and thinning parts of forest areas to create grasslands and young forest ecosystems.

That would benefit not just the bobwhite but a host of species that are otherwise facing extinction, said Parke.

Nationally, the bobwhite has suffered an 82 percent population decline in the past half-century, researchers have found.

Some people think there are a few left in Cumberland County, but Parke thinks it’s more likely people have seen pen-raised game birds released for sport, not truly wild birds. Pen-raised birds can’t survive in the wild, he said, and can spread disease.

NJ Audubon’s efforts to reintroduce wild quail seem to be succeeding, with released birds building nests and raising young here two years running.

The released birds were trapped in pine forests in Georgia, tested for disease, leg-banded and fitted with electronic collars, and quickly driven north, Parke said.

The first 80 birds were released in April 2015, followed by an additional 80 this past April, said Parke. Next year will be the third and final release of 80 birds, evenly split between males and females.

The project is being done in partnership with the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy in Tallahassee, Florida — experts in translocating wild quail.

“Mortality spikes right off the bat,” Parke said. “They go wandering and get picked off by hawks, owls and fox.”

But once they settle in to a small area that meets their needs, their survival chances increase, he said.

When there isn’t enough good habitat, the quail can’t settle in and instead move all the time, making them more liable to be taken by predators, according to the DEP’s New Jersey Northern Bobwhite Action Plan, last revised in 2011.

In other parts of the state, feral cats are major predators, Parke said.

The DEP has banned hunting of wild quail in the state, but pen-raised quail can still be hunted in designated areas where they are stocked.

At the end of summer 2015, there were 43 still alive. Fifteen nests were found, with seven mated pairs and 66 young. That’s far better than the 90 percent death rate of quail released into non-managed areas, according to the DEP action plan.

This year, 36 of the 80 released in April are known to be alive. Field techs are still collecting data on the number of nests and eggs.

“This is the peak of the nesting season,” Parke said last week. “We just found two more nests today.”

Field technician Evan Drake, 22, of Egg Harbor Township, is a recent graduate of Stockton University with a biology degree. He is spending his summer searching for the birds, nests and eggs with the help of electronic equipment.

He doesn’t get too long a look at the shy birds. They fly away if he gets too close, he said.

So far, nine nests of the 2016 group have been located. It’s been more difficult to find the 2015 birds, as most of their radio collars have lost their power.

In the fall, NJ Audubon will trap the young and adults, measure and weigh them, and replace collars that are no longer functioning, Parke said.

Audubon is also partnering with the University of Delaware on the project, which is providing two graduate students as field technicians.

But perhaps the most important partner is Pine Island, owned by the Haines family, said Parke.

The company provided a managed forest that met all of the requirements of Tall Timbers, which required at least 1,500 acres of quality quail habitat, with a long-term management plan to provide early successional habitat.

“These are the things that have been successful down in Florida,” said Parke.

Pine Island already had a management plan it was following, designed by Bob Williams of Pine Creek Forestry. It included thinning and controlled burns to keep leaf litter down and minimize the danger of forest fire, and to keep pests like the pine beetle in check.

“It’s like pruning a bush,” said Stefanie Haines, a fifth-generation cranberry farmer.

Cranberries require a 10:1 ratio of forest to cultivated land, she said. Keeping 10 acres forested for every acre in cultivation protects the water source, and lots of clean, fresh water is essential for cranberry growing and harvesting.

The farm has 1,400 acres in cultivation and about 14,000 in managed forest, said Haines.

Williams has also designed plans for other landowners in the area, “so the bobwhite has a huge area, maybe 200,000 acres, managed for it and a whole suite of other species,” said Parke. “Private landowners are going to be the ones who save the day on this.”

Controlled burns are especially important for bobwhite quail, he said.

“Quail are fire birds. They thrive in areas that get burned periodically,” said Parke.

The burns are also important to the health and diversity of the Pinelands, he said. So the two are a good match.

University of Delaware graduate student Kaili Stevens is doing her thesis on winter survival and habitat selection in winter. She is in her second field season with the NJ Audubon project.

“Last winter they stayed away from the grassland. I found them in young pine stands,” said Stevens.

The quail took shelter under young trees that were drooping from the weight of snow and formed tentlike protection, she said.

“I found dead mourning doves, pine warblers and nuthatches,” said Stevens. “I kept waiting to find the quail. But that wasn’t the case. They were alive in the woods. They made it through.”

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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