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News and events
Oct. 15, 2014

An eco-experience: Wading into wetlands

On Saturday, October 4, VCU Rice Rivers Center hosted its third EcoExperience, entitled “Wading into Wetlands: An Amphibian's Eye View of Some Exceptional Ecosystems”. Participants from the general public were treated to a special day of donning waders and experiencing wetland science from a researcher’s point of view.

Wetland habitats provide numerous ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, and critical habitat for threatened and endangered species and increased regional biodiversity, and are among some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Participants learned about these critically important, yet highly imperiled, wetland ecosystems and engaged in hands-on exploration of some diverse and unique wetland resources located at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Participants investigated forested and herbaceous dominated tidal/non-tidal and ephemeral wetlands along the banks of the James River.

Additionally, some “Experiencers” planted bald cypress seedlings as part of the wetland restoration of Kimages Creek and its surrounding areas, a long-term project of VCU, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Rivers and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The project encompasses the original 70 acres of lake bottom (formerly Lake Charles, created by a now-removed dam) and 1.5 miles of tidal creek to their natural hydrology and ecosystem functioning.

Saturday’s EcoExperience was the final installment of the series for 2014. A series of EcoExperiences for 2015 is being developed as a way to further welcome and engage the general public in the exciting and vital work that is being done at the Rice Rivers Center.

wetlands image
Reed Richardson participates in a tree planting to help restore the wetlands area of Kimages Creek. Reed is a junior at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg. He’s considering field biology as an area of study when he goes to college, and he’s been a fan of VCU for many years.

Oct. 10, 2014

Oyster roast and reception

On September 24, approximately 60 guests enjoyed an oyster roast and reception outside at the Rice Rivers Center, overlooking the James.

Oct. 7, 2014

Navigating a survey to save a species
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

The black rail is the most imperiled bird species along the Atlantic coast and could be extirpated in several portions of its range without emergency management. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

This past summer, researchers for the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) embarked by boat almost every night in a race to help the Atlantic Coast’s most imperiled bird. Over the past 15-20 years, black rail populations have rapidly declined to dangerously low levels that place them at risk of extirpation. Determining exactly where black rails still occur is the critical first step towards their conservation. CCB is leading focused survey efforts in North Carolina and Virginia to gather the information needed to help ensure their long-term survival. However, surveying for this species befalls a particular set of logistical challenges. Black rails require high marsh zones within some of the Atlantic Coast’s most remote locations. Most of these areas can only be accessed by boat during high tide. In addition, black rails vocalize most reliably at night, so the best survey times coincide when navigating waterways can be most treacherous for survey teams.

In North Carolina, Zak Poulton and Katie Rittenhouse piloted the CCB’s 17-ft Maycraft up narrow channels, across the mouths of rivers, and on the big waters of the Pamlico Sound. They were relying only on a depth finder, the on-board GPS, and a keen mariner’s sense to avoid the pitfalls of nocturnal navigation, such as running aground or taking on too big a wave. Zak and Katie’s efforts were being matched by Fletcher Smith and Jake McClain, who were conducting parallel surveys for black rails in the Chesapeake Bay and Barrier Island lagoon system of Virginia. Both survey teams had a common approach: visit as many accessible high marsh locations as possible throughout the season using a game caller to broadcast the not-so-familiar “ki-ki-kerr” and other black rail vocalizations at high volume in an attempt to increase detection from responding birds. Black rails exhibit some of the most enigmatic vocal behaviors among all birds in the United States. Their calling rates are irregular and appear to be moderated by unknown factors. A visit to a black rail marsh can produce calling birds one night and be silent the next. Because of this, the biologists re-visited these locations three times during the season.

Katie Rittenhouse dons anti-mosquito gear to conduct a nocturnal black rail survey in North Carolina. Photo by Zak Poulton.

The North Carolina survey project marked the first time that a broad-scale, systematic survey for black rails has ever taken place in the state. Previous efforts conducted by researchers have only focused on surveying small sets of marshes. Our study is being funded for two years by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in an effort to document distribution and habitat use and to create a first-of-its-kind population benchmark for the state. However, this is the second time we have conducted a systematic, state-wide effort in Virginia. Both the 2014 summer survey and a previous effort conducted in 2007 in Virginia were funded by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and were designed to produce the same level of information as North Carolina.

Black rails were detected at 15 of 153 locations visited by Zak and Katie in North Carolina. However, 9 of these locations were directly adjacent to one another along the stretch of Highway 12 that bisects Cedar Island (Carteret County). The remaining sites were scattered throughout coastal marshes in the southern half of the state and only accessible by boat. Next year we will survey the Albemarle Sound region and the Outer Banks.

Transition zone between high marsh (foreground) dominated by saltmeadow hay (Spartina patens) and low marsh (background) dominated by low-saltmarsh cordgrass (S. alterniflora). Black Rails are dependent on the high marsh for breeding but may also use the ecotone pictured here for foraging purposes. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The Virginia survey results tell a tale even grimmer than what we discovered in 2007. Seven years ago we determined that black rails were at very low population levels and only occurred at 12 of 328 surveyed locations. Black rails had disappeared or were reduced in numbers at some of the most widely known locations in the state. This past summer, black rails were only detected at 1 of the 12 locations previously recorded in 2007 and were not found at any of the 123 other sites. The lone holdout marsh at Saxis, which was known throughout the 1980s and 1990s to harbor as many as 25 black rails, appears to be gasping its last breath for this rail with the detection of only 2 birds.

The Center for Conservation Biology is committed to creating the information resources needed to formulate the best management approaches to save this species. Black rails are on a crash course for extirpation. Without management intervention, it is likely that the black rail will disappear from many of last remaining places it occurs in our lifetime. Black rail existence on the Atlantic coast is threatened by sea-level rise, nest predators, and incompatible management of marshes, such as mosquito control, deepwater impoundments, or the ill-timed use of prescribed fire.

Transition zone between the high marsh and upland. Black rails often breed within 100m of the tree line in marshes dominated by salt meadow hay that is often interspersed with shrubs, stunted pine trees, and red cedars. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Oct. 7, 2014

Spawning reefs offer recovery strategy for sturgeon in the James

The Atlantic Sturgeon once supported a major Chesapeake Bay fishery and was among the oldest, largest, and most iconic species along the Atlantic coast. In response to habitat loss, pollution, and over-fishing, Atlantic Sturgeon abundance declined dramatically and, as recently as the early 1990s, some biologists believed that the species was extirpated from Chesapeake Bay. However, small numbers of sturgeon did persist in a few coastal rivers, including the James River of Virginia; most U.S. populations were listed by NOAA as federally endangered in 2012. As part of ongoing research and recovery efforts for James River Atlantic Sturgeon, three spawning reefs were constructed in the James during the period 2010-2013 by the James River Association (JRA) and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center (VCURRC), with support from USFWS, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Luck Stone, and Vulcan Materials.

Construction of a spawning reef for Atlantic Sturgeon in the tidal James River, Virginia near Jones Neck. (photo credit: G. Garman)

Each reef is about one-half hectare in size and was constructed with aggregate from local sources. Site selection was based on a number of criteria, including river depth, salinity, and proximity to known migration corridors. Habitat mapping by VCURRC, USGS, and NOAA suggested that the availability of clean, hard substrate — necessary for successful sturgeon spawning — may limit recovery in the James, which experiences high rates of sedimentation from watershed sources. Post-construction monitoring of reefs by VCURRC and JRA employed a wide array of gears, including egg mats, nets, and acoustic telemetry, and utilization has been documented for several migratory and semi-migratory fishes, including white perch and Alosa spp.

Unfortunately, no eggs of Atlantic Sturgeon have yet been recovered from the reefs but limited monitoring will continue, as resources permit. For more information on this program, contact Greg Garman at

For a lighthearted look at sturgeon activity in the James, see the James River Sturgeon Facebook page.

Oct. 7, 2014

The team sport of peregrine hacking
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Peregrine falcon brood from Benjamin Harrison Bridge near Hopewell, Virginia. Birds were placed on the floor of the lift tower room before transport. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

Courtney Turrin and I arrive on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge over the James River near Hopewell, Va. just after 7:15 a.m. A call to the tenders closes the bridge just long enough for us to unload gear in the control tower. The historic drawbridge has massive twin lift towers that rise more than 300 feet above the water. We carry gear to the north tower landing and attempt to call the cable elevator with no success. Rain the night before had shorted the elevator, so we prepare additional gear for the long climb up the outer ladders to reach the upper catwalk and the falcon nest box that The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) installed in the late 1990s. Halfway up the ladder, the adult peregrines begin to wail and stoop.

North lift tower of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge. Nest box is visible on the catwalk. Photo by Bryan Watts.

As we reach the top of the lift tower, Libby Mojica, 50 miles to the north, meets up with a crew from the Virginia Department of Transportation near the base of the Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock River. Included in the group is environmental specialist Theresa Tabulenas, an entire snooper truck crew, a traffic control crew, administrators and local reporters. Before the convoy begins to move onto the bridge, Bart Paxton launches a boat and takes a position under the bridge in case a young falcon attempts its first flight. The pair of falcons on the Norris Bridge nest on a beam directly under the roadbed and more than 100 feet above the water. A specialized snooper truck with a boom capable of extending out and curling up under the bridge is the only possible access to the nest. Once in place, Libby, Theresa, and a truck operator climb inside the small bucket and begin the carnival ride out over the river. Just as they are retrieving the brood, Courtney and I have arrived back in Williamsburg. Marie Pitts and Courtney band the two young peregrines and place a strip of colored tape on one of the bands on each bird to make it easier for hack attendants to identify the birds on the wing.

As Libby concludes the banding event in a parking lot near the Norris Bridge, Jake McClain, a student intern at CCB, begins to prepare a vehicle to transport the peregrines west. Jake and Ashley Lohr, a biology student attending Virginia Tech and summer intern for Shenandoah National Park, will meet halfway between Williamsburg and Shenandoah to transfer the birds, and Ashley will drive the birds to the park. Libby arrives in Williamsburg in the early afternoon, handing off the birds to Jake. Ashley will have the birds in their hack box by early evening.

Libby Mojica and Theresa Tabulenas in snooper truck maneuvering under the Norris Bridge to reach peregrine brood. Photo by Bart Paxton.

Rolf Gubler, a biologist with Shenandoah National Park and an expert at managing peregrine releases, has been preparing for the hack. Weeks before the transfer of birds, Rolf and Sergio Harding from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries secured a seasons supply of captive-reared quail to feed the peregrines. A week before, Rolf had taken the two custom-made hack boxes from storage and put them in place on Hogback Mountain in the park. Rolf and Ashley place the birds in the boxes upon arrival and the birds are fed daily until ready for release at fledging age. After release from the box, the birds continue to be fed until they learn to hunt on their own and disperse from the site. Three different cohorts of birds are brought to the site for release over the course of the breeding season.

Mitchell Byrd perched on a rock at Hogback Mountain hack site watching the spectacle of peregrines on the wing. Photo by Bryan Watts.

During the several-weeks-long transition to independence, Rolf and Ashley monitor the birds daily, keeping a log of each individual’s presence and activity. The colored tape placed on the bands facilitates the identification of each bird. Mitchell Byrd and I visited the hack site with Rolf and Ashley during the last release of the season. Mitchell is the great grandfather of peregrine reintroduction in Virginia, having started the release of captive-reared birds back in 1978. On this day, we were both treated to the sight of 8 young falcons on the wing coming and going to feed and whirling out over the valley below. Standing out among the birds was yellow, the bird that Courtney and I had taken from the Benjamin Harrison Bridge earlier in the season.

Since the 2000 breeding season, we have translocated 235 young falcons produced by coastal pairs to the mountains for release. Translocation has been part of an integrated restoration program. Moving the young from the mountains increases the survival of young hatched on bridges and buildings where mortality is notoriously high, reduces the impact on migratory shorebirds, and provides the opportunity to strengthen the mountain population.

The translocation program has many moving parts and would not be possible without a team effort. We thank all of the agencies and individuals who are committed to peregrine conservation and who make the effort possible.

Learn more about CCB’s peregrine falcon breeding population monitoring and management in Virginia.

Courtney Turrin (right) and Marie Pitts (left) band yellow outside the CCB office in Williamsburg. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Oct. 7, 2014

Franklin Military Academy studies water quality

Franklin students

On October 3, students from Franklin Military Academy’s Earth and Environmental Science class visited the Rice Rivers Center to learn about water quality monitoring. The class, accompanied by their teacher, Kathy Paschall, began their visit on the research pier. VCU’s Dr.Paul Bukaveckas taught the students about the monitoring equipment, as well as water quality and sampling. Afterward, the class was shown some of the real-time monitoring data and was instructed on how to interpret them. The class collected water samples from both the James as well as Kimages Creek in order to compare and better understand differences in nutrient concentrations. The instrumentation used to monitor the water quality is part of VCU’s Mountains to the Sea collaboration that includes the VCU Rice Rivers Center, VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, Washington and Lee University and Randolph-Macon College, as well as the United States Geological Survey.

Oct. 1, 2014

National Eagle Roost Registry launched
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Eagles loafing in dead trees near a communal roost in North Carolina. Gathering or loafing sites are frequently used by eagles for social interaction. They are often used in the morning and afternoon and may indicate the presence of a communal roost nearby. Photo by Reese Lukei.

By Bryan Watts

Non-breeding bald eagles are extremely social and frequently roost together near rich food resources. Communal roosts may be ephemeral congregations of birds that form to exploit short-lived food resources or may be used for decades. Roosts may be used by hundreds of birds or just two or three depending on the circumstances and the surrounding landscape structure. Because communal roosts play an important role in the life cycle of bald eagles they are protected under the “disturb and sheltering” provisions of the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act) of 1940 and their management is considered within the National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines. However, since the establishment of formal management policies during the late 1960s, communal roosts have been the red-headed stepchild of management activities.

An adult eagle with one of CCB’s satellite transmitters hunts in the upper Chesapeake Bay. These birds have allowed biologists to delineate hundreds of communal roosts that were previously unknown to the management community. Photo by Robert Lin.

Despite similar protections afforded under the Eagle Act for roosts and nests, most management programs have focused primarily on nesting sites. One of the primary impediments to protecting communal roosts is the lack of information on their location. Eagle roosts are often positioned within remote areas and are notoriously difficult to locate from the ground. Delineating a single roost may take multiple biologists several early morning and late evening sessions to triangulate flight lines of birds moving in or out of active roosts. Because of the high investment required to find roosts, we have very little systematic information on their distribution. However, with the increased use of satellite transmitters programmed to record night locations, information relevant to roost networks is growing rapidly.

With funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Eagle Foundation, The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has been delineating and compiling roost locations throughout North America. The first phase of this project has been to use CCB’s extensive bald eagle tracking database to delineate roosts throughout eastern North America. A second phase focuses on data from other tracking projects that have information relevant to communal roosts. To date, more than 1,000 roosts have been mapped across 17 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces.

Whitewash and feathers are the telltale signs on the ground of a communal roost. The amount of material on the ground also gives some indication of the extent of use. Photo by Libby Mojica.

In early September, CCB launched an online Eagle Roost Registry that will begin the process of removing the information barrier to roost protection. The registry is an ongoing program. We are requesting information from eagle tracking projects and individuals who wish to contribute to eagle conservation by improving the state of knowledge about eagle roosts.

To learn more about communal roosts, download the paper by Watts and Mojica “Management implications of bald eagle roost proliferation within the Chesapeake Bay”, published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

Distribution of communal roosts currently within the National Eagle Roost Registry. Visit the interactive online map to view the full dataset.

Sept. 8, 2014

Red knot decline spreads to Virginia
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Red knot staging in Virginia. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

The rufa subspecies of the red knot has experienced a dramatic decline over the past three decades. Evidence of the decline has come from long-term population assessments and surveys of both a major spring staging area, Delaware Bay, and the largest known overwintering site, Tierra del Fuego. The decline has led to its listing as an endangered population in Canada, its declaration of endangerment by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, and a recent proposed rule change to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to include the population on the list of threatened and endangered wildlife.

Graph of mean “knot days” across three decades. Data from Bryan Watts and Barry Truitt. Click to enlarge.

Prior to this year, one of the conundrums in the broader decline of rufa knots has been the stronghold of the Virginia Barrier Islands. Despite being less than 100 kilometers south of Delaware Bay, declines in staging red knots had not been documented in Virginia. Long-term aerial surveys of the islands conducted by Bryan Watts of CCB and Barry Truitt of The Nature Conservancy had not detected a statistically significant trend in use. However, following the compilation of the 2014 surveys, this pattern has changed. With the addition of the 2014 surveys, an examination of “knot days”, an index of seasonal use of the islands, has revealed a significant decline across decades.

Most of the early explanations forwarded to explain the decline in the rufa population focused on spring foraging conditions within Delaware Bay, where estimates of staging birds have declined by 60 to 80 percent. Red knots using Delaware Bay depend almost exclusively on eggs from spawning horseshoe crabs to replenish fat reserves before making their final flight to arctic breeding grounds. Commercial overharvest of horseshoe crabs has been suggested as a driver of observed declines. Unlike Delaware Bay to the north, the Virginia Barrier Islands do not support significant horseshoe crab spawning events. In Virginia, staging red knots depend on clams and mussels to build fat reserves. If early explanations for the decline are correct and the prey conditions within mid-Atlantic staging sites are the root cause of declines, then declines in Virginia may raise concerns for the local clam and mussel populations. If the primary cause of declines resides elsewhere, such as arctic breeding grounds, then trends within staging areas may only reflect conditions in these other locations. The most likely scenario is that the population is experiencing multiple stressors throughout its annual cycle.

Spat of the blue mussel on intertidal peat along Cedar Island in Virginia. The developing spat has a characteristic blue tone from the air. In many years this is the primary prey of red knots staging on the Virginia barrier islands. Photo by Bryan Watts.

August 27, 2014

Banding woodpeckers
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Woodpecker banding often draws a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers. Mike Wilson bands a brood of woodpecker on Piney Grove Preserve with the help of others. Video footage by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

For endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, banding day is the culmination of more than a month of careful preparation. The season begins in early April with 4AM wakeup calls, ferry rides, and walks through quiet woods to take up positions around roost trees before birds begin to emerge. The breeding male sounds reveille each morning, calling the clan out of their cavities to muster within a common rallying area. The birds interact here before moving off to forage. This short social event is the best time of the day to get a headcount and to identify each individual within the breeding group. CCB biologists led by Mike Wilson spend two weeks each spring systematically moving through all of the breeding clusters within Piney Grove Preserve to see who has survived the winter. This spring check is one of two population assessments during the year but is also an opportunity to get an early read on the upcoming breeding season.

Bryan Watts returns young to cavity after banding using a rope lanyard and Swedish climbing ladders. Ladders are removed after the young are safely returned to the nest. Video footage by Bryan Watts.

The egg vigil begins during the third week of April. Nest cavities are checked every four days for the appearance of the first eggs. A peeper scope is inserted into the cavity from below to view its contents on a small video screen on the ground. Knowing when the eggs are laid and, by association, when the chicks will hatch is critical to successfully banding the brood later in the season. Young are banded within a narrow window between the age of five and ten days. Before five days old the tarsus is too short to hold the full band combination. After ten days old their eyes open and they are considerably larger, making it more difficult to extract them safely from the cavity. Once the hatching date is known, biologists schedule return visits on dates that allow broods to be banded when they reach the optimal age.

Banding day is always a special event for both biologists and woodpeckers. Nest cavities range in height from 30 to 60 feet, and Swedish climbing ladders are used to reach the cavities. The ladders are light weight and come in ten-foot sections that are secured and stacked as the climber ascends. For most cavity trees, they are ideal equipment because they are relatively easy to install and do no damage to the tree. Once the nest cavity is reached, young are carefully extracted through the entrance with a noose and lowered to the ground for processing.

Mike Wilson uses the peeper scope to inspect the contents of a nest cavity on the Piney Grove Preserve. This scope is a valuable tool used in monitoring nesting activity. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The young are inspected for condition and age and then banded and weighed. They grow and change in appearance so rapidly that they are easily aged to the day. Each bird receives a numbered aluminum band and a unique combination of color bands that will allow biologists to identify the bird throughout its life. Having the entire population banded in this way allows us to see who remains in the population and to track their genealogy over time. Once banded and weighed, the brood is returned to the cavity.

All of the young produced in the population are checked again in the first three weeks after fledging. Still dependent on the adults, the young are located and identified with spotting scopes to see who has survived to fledging age and to determine gender. In the first few weeks after fledging, males retain the red patch of feathers on the crown for which the species was named. The red cockade is lost by early fall, making gender determination much more difficult.

For red-cockaded woodpeckers and many other species, banding is a tool that allows us to collect demographic and other data that facilitate management decisions. CCB is fortunate to work with great partners, including The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All of these organizations are devoted to the recovery of the woodpecker population in Virginia.

A brood of two red-cockaded woodpecker chicks stand on a towel just after they were banded. Both of these birds are females and are on the older end of the banding window. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Swedish climbing ladders erected on cavity tree in Piney Grove Preserve. These ladders are standard field equipment used in woodpecker banding. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Woodpecker nestling within a day of fledging peers out cavity entrance. The red cockade signifies a male and is only present for a short period after fledging. Photo by Bryan Watts.

August 19, 2014

The blueberry birds of Acadia
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Scarecrow erected in field of blueberries on the Acadian Peninsula. Many types of scarecrow devices were used in the area including raptor kites, hanging balloons and swinging pie plates. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

Over the songs of Swainson’s thrush and white-throated sparrows come the soothing calls of approaching whimbrels. Soon 24 birds in formation appear over the tree line and begin a wide circle over the blueberry field. As they approach the northeast corner of the field, two shots of screamer shells explode from a black truck, leaving white trails of smoke arcing toward the flock. The flock whirls east, rising higher and picking up speed. With each circle two trucks reposition themselves along a perimeter road to cut off any descent. The flock circles the field 18 times over 12 minutes before breaking off in defeat and flying out of view to the north. This cat and mouse scene is repeated throughout the day as flock after flock look for a chink in the armor that would give them a respite to feed on the lush blueberries. The blueberry wardens, charged with protecting a valuable crop just two weeks from harvest, would emerge with a perfect record after turning away all comers.

Blueberry yield on the Acadian Peninsula is tremendous varying from 2,000 to 8,000 pounds per acre. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The whimbrels have come here to the Acadian Peninsula of New Brunswick from their distant breeding grounds around the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories by way of the Beaufort Sea. After the breeding season, they fly north to islands in the Beaufort Sea to feed and prepare for the 4,500-kilometer flight across the continent to Atlantic Canada. Here they arrive depleted and must prepare for the longest nonstop flight of their annual cycle, a 6,000-kilometer journey over the open Atlantic to winter grounds on the coast of Brazil. It will take all the fat they are able to carry to get them there. They have only three weeks to prepare.

I have come to the peninsula with Fletcher Smith from CCB to work with Julie Paquet from the Canadian Wildlife Service to quantify whimbrel use of the peninsula and to observe the interaction between whimbrels and the blueberry farmers. The population of whimbrels using the Atlantic Flyway has been declining by 4 percent per year since the mid-1990s. High on the list of conservation priorities is to understand how the species is faring within strategic staging areas like the Acadian Peninsula. We flew aerial surveys to determine use of blueberry fields, natural heathlands, peat mines, and barrier islands. We conducted ground surveys to quantify bird density within blueberry farms. We spent the evenings locating night roosts with Lewnanny Richardson from Nature New Brunswick ( and Kirsten Snoek, a summer student working with the Canadian Wildlife Service. And finally, we made observations of whimbrels interacting with the blueberry wardens.

A flock of whimbrels arrives over the tree line to a blueberry field just after dawn. Photo by Bryan Watts.

During the past decade, the demand for wild lowbush blueberries has skyrocketed, producing a rush of corporations and family farmers intent on riding the blue wave. Recognized widely for their heart-healthy qualities, blueberries from the Canadian Maritimes and Maine have become a global brand. Revenues in New Brunswick alone have tripled since the early 2000s, increasing by $2.5 million per year. By 2012, the province supported 220 growers tending 33,000 acres that produced 45 million pounds of berries and revenue of $31 million. In 2013, the province produced a five-year strategic plan that called for the development of at least another 20,000 acres of blueberries and a target production of 3,000 pounds per acre. In a recent announcement, a major grower revealed a plan to invest $200 million dollars in increased blueberry production and processing capacity on the Acadian Peninsula. Currently, the two major corporate players in the region are clearing tens of thousands of acres of boreal forest to ramp up production.

Whimbrels have apparently come to the peninsula for thousands of years to prepare for their transoceanic flight. Accounts of shorebird hunting on Miscou Island (the northernmost point on the peninsula) from the late 1800s placed them alongside Eskimo curlew and other species feeding on blueberries and crowberries within the natural habitats. A story in The Sportsman from the 1870s describes a collection of hunting camps and blinds dotted across the heathlands.

Blueberry field on the Acadian Peninsula. The lines of trees are planted for snow breaks to protect plants and to help with bee pollination. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The blueberry crop is protected by a loose network of local wardens assigned to individual farms. Many wardens move campers onto the farms beginning a month before harvest. They are there to protect the berries from local rustlers and from natural consumers like whimbrel. Some of the wardens refer to the whimbrels as “Le Mangeur de Bleuets” or blueberry eater and believe that they are capable of consuming enormous quantities of berries in a single sitting. This view has made the whimbrel persona non grata on the peninsula and the target of a well-intentioned campaign to reduce crop damage. The wardens use several techniques to dissuade the birds from landing, including scarecrows of many forms, air cannons that go off on an irregular schedule, broadcast raptor calls and guns with loads designed to scare the birds or, on occasion, to kill them.

The Le Mangeur de Bleuetsmay not live up to its legend. Based on metabolic requirements and blueberry nutritional values, a whimbrel would be capable of consuming a maximum of just over 1.5 pints of berries per day. Considering an average wholesale price, this consumption equates to 52 cents of product.

Warden patrols a blueberry field on the Acadian Peninsula on a four-wheeler. These vehicles are used extensively to access fields. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The question of whimbrels or blueberries is but one example of the grand conservation question that is echoed over and over across the planet. It is embedded within the DNA of the conservation dilemma. In general terms, how much stuff is the collective “we” willing to give up in order to insure the future of other species that share the planet? In a farm-gate crop of more than 65 million pints, are we willing to concede 0.038 percent to hear the calls of whimbrels approaching overhead? This August sound is just as big a part of this ancient landscape as the blueberries themselves. We continue to struggle for an answer to this basic question that calls for a tradeoff between economic return and core human values. Of course we are not just deciding for ourselves. These same birds are also welcomed in Brazil, the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Platte River in Nebraska, and the farm fields of Saskatchewan.

The irony of the present strategy is that by constantly churning up the whimbrels, the wardens are actually increasing the energy requirements of the birds and unwittingly increasing the overall blueberry consumption. In effect, by paying to disturb them, they are compounding the loss.

Warden with gun used for cracker and screamer shells to scare whimbrel away. Such guns are the primary approach to move birds and to train them not to return to fields. Photo by Bryan Watts.

A flock of whimbrels being escorted from a berry field on the Acadian Peninsula. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Osprey kite tethered over blueberry field. Raptor kites, flying balloons and other devices were used in the majority of blueberry fields. Photo by Bryan Watts.

July 31, 2014

Short film features tiny travelers

In her recent work, "From Bay to Bay", Laura Chessin of Graphic Design/VCUArts captures the fascinating story of how and why Prothonotary Warblers are being studied so long and so hard by a dedicated group of researchers and students.

July 29, 2014

Rice Rivers Center announces Mountains to the Sea collaboration

VCU Rice Rivers Center is pleased to announce the formation of a new partnership among Randolph-Macon College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Washington and Lee University and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) that will provide students with the opportunity to test the water quality of the James River.


This new partnership is a first-of-its kind, real-time water quality assessment network in a large coastal watershed and its estuary. It also represents a unique and innovative collaboration with higher education, government and corporate supporters. The four-year project, “From the Mountains to the Sea,” includes research and education components and is funded by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, MeadWestvaco Foundation and Dominion Virginia Power. In addition, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) has donated laboratory analysis for the project.

“The health of the James River and the vibrancy of the Virginia academic community are important not only to MWV’s business, but also to the communities where we live and work,” said John A. Luke, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer, MWV. “The MeadWestvaco Foundation is proud to support the sustainability of both through this unique partnership with Randolph Macon, VCU, Washington & Lee and the USGS.”

“This research and educational partnership will improve the student and faculty experience at VCU as we emerge as one of our nation’s premier urban public research universities, and it will also lead to a more thorough understanding and effective management of the waterways upon which we depend each day,” says Michael Rao, Ph.D., VCU’s president. “VCU looks forward to strengthening its connection with these partners and with America’s founding river.”

Unique opportunities

“This project will give our university partners access to cutting-edge technologies for measuring, interpreting, and using water quality information in ways that will support the effective management of large coastal rivers and the living resources that depend on these ecosystems,” says Greg Garman, Ph.D., research director at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

The sophisticated sensors—one in Cartersville, Virginia and one along the lower James River near the VCU Rice Rivers Center—will be installed to measure pollution. An additional type of sensor will be used to measure the amount of tidal water moving up and down the river on a continual basis. The sensors will be installed by USGS with the assistance of students during their internships—one each from R-MC, VCU and W&L—who will be trained by USGS experts. Ultimately, the data collected may indicate the amount of pollution (much of it caused by fertilizer) that ends up in the Chesapeake Bay. The data collected will be available to the public in real-time on a web site maintained by the USGS.

Student interns

USGS will provide extensive training this summer for the three student interns. Once trained, the interns will share their knowledge with other students. At R-MC and W&L, the interns will return to campus in September and then lead other students in conducting USGS-style monthly sampling on a stream near each home institution. VCU will also expand opportunities for student engagement in water quality assessment in and around the Rice Rivers Center.

The USGS is committed to helping to shape the next generation of scientists to collect precise, consistent, and accurate data for the nation to facilitate understanding and management of the environment.

Partners in education

“This collaboration builds on the strengths of the various partners by providing students from VCU, RMC and W&L an opportunity to learn techniques for environmental monitoring from our colleagues at USGS and to use these skills in research projects conducted with faculty at their home institutions,” says VCU Professor Paul Bukaveckas. “For the faculty and scientists involved, it provides an opportunity to work on a shared dataset and improve our understanding of water quality in the James.”

July 23, 2014

Three-year grant funded for oyster restoration study

Oyster reef restoration benefits, in terms of enhanced production for economically and ecologically important fishery resources, is receiving increased attention due to widespread loss of the habitat and increasing demand for sustainable seafood from intact reef ecosystems. In response to this, “Pathways to Production: An assessment of fishery responses to oyster reef restoration and the trophic pathways that link the resource to the reef” is being funded through NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Science Program. Dr. Steve McIninch of VCU's Center for Environmental Studies is the Principal Investigator on the study.

The Piankatank River, a sub-estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, is a focal point for large-scale oyster reef restoration. Many agencies are involved, most notably NOAA, The Nature Conservancy, VMRC, and the Army Corp of Engineers. VCU Rice Rivers Center is leveraging this construction, and partnering with TNC, to examine how the fish community responds to the restoration and maturation of these constructed reefs. The three-year study will allow for community research both before and after new reef construction, as well as comparisons with existing established reef communities. Standard collection methods will be used (traps and nets), as well as a hydroacoustic array to quantify movements of fish on and off the reef.

The new reefs are being constructed with concrete and so will take some time to become colonized by oysters and other marine organisms. This will also afford the opportunity to assess the differences between simple structure (concrete) and a mature reef. One of the more difficult aspects will be to examine the contribution that reefs have to non-resident fishes that may be of commercial importance. So, how does an adult bluefish or red drum that does not stay on the reef benefit from the reef aside from occasional habitat? This question will be examined by using diet analysis and stable isotope examination of both predator and prey, allowing the charting of a trophic pathway to and from the reefs.

As a valued cooperator to this project, The Nature Conservancy is actively engaged in oyster restoration in Virginia and will be constructing up to 74 acres of oyster reef in the Piankatank River over the next two years. Using a $500,000 grant along with other private donations and state (VMRC) matching funds, 31 acres of reefs will be constructed to provide seed oysters and an additional 43 acres of sanctuary reefs (no commercial harvest permitted).

July 23, 2014

Green roof a star

VCU Rice Rivers Center’s green roof was featured on Charles Fishburne’s “Science Matters” on WCVE in June. For more information, visit or watch the video below.