WAYNESBORO, Ga. - Wildlife managers from throughout the nation got a glimpse last week of the changing landscape of Di-Lane Plantation - one of Georgia's best-known public quail hunting sites.
The visitors - 136 of them - were attendees of the Eight Annual Southeast Quail Study Group, a consortium dedicated to the hoped-for comeback of the South's signature game bird.
"This is the largest group ever assembled for this cause," said Rocky Evans, executive vice-president of Quail Unlimited, an Edgefield, S.C., based conservation organization.
The study group, which held its four-day meeting in Waynesboro, Ga., was created in 1995 to help solve the complex riddle of the vanishing bobwhite quail that once flourished across most of the South.
The decline of family farms - and the replacement of traditional forests and overgrown fields with planted pines - definitely has hurt quail populations, Georgia wildlife biologist Haven Barnhill said.
Issues discussed during the conference included agricultural policy and conservation, federal Farm Bill legislation and regional management approaches that impact quail.
But one of the highlights was a tour of Di-Lane, an 8,100-acre management area that traces its origins to the late Henry Berol, an avid quail hunter who assembled the plantation decades ago by consolidating scores of small farms.
Under his guidance, the Georgia Field Trials gained national prominence on the site, which Berol named for his daughters, Diane and Elaine.
After Berol's death, the plantation was purchased for public use and turned over to Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, which is using the site as a proving ground for better quail management programs.
"When we started out here, the deer population was out of control," Barnhill told his visitors. "We had serious forestry management issues on this property that severely limited the bobwhite quail population."
Despite intensive efforts to encourage quail reproduction, populations have continued to decline. More than 100 coveys were reported at Di-Lane in both 1995 and 1996. In recent years, fewer than 40 coveys were found.
This fall and winter, however, drastic changes are being initiated to improve quail at Di-Lane. The major change will be thinning or cutting 3,000 acres of timber to create more weedy habitat.
The current problem, he said, is that suitable field edges that provide habitat are merely "islands' surrounded by open pine plantation, where quail are easy prey for hawks, foxes and other predators.
"You can walk in there all the time - and find bird feathers all over the place in those pine stands," he said. About 30 percent of the timber thinning has been completed, but the majority - 70 percent - will occur within 18 months.
The future objective, he said, is one covey per hour. Today's hunters average a dismal two coveys per day, he said.
Southeast Quail Study Group objectives: