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News and events
Feb. 27, 2015

Rice Rivers Center lands artist-in-residence

Beginning next September, the VCU Rice Rivers Center will have its very own artist-in-residence: VCU Arts professor, Laura Chessin. During her residence, she will complete a range of writing, photography and film projects. These will include a documentary film to assist in the public outreach and educational mission of the Center, as well as a personal body of work to continue her exploration of the intersection of arts and design to engage audiences in a dialogue about how humans relate to the natural world. Ms. Chessin has been engaged with the Rice Rivers Center for some time now; one successful collaboration has been with Dan McGarvey, Ph.D. on their science and communications course, eESP 2.0, now in its second year. Another dynamic project has been her engaging work in Panama with instructors Cathy Viverette and Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D. “I’m grateful and excited by this opportunity to help expand the possibilities for the Rice Rivers Center to be a research center, as well as a place for creative interactions to gain a deeper understanding of, as Dr. Smock writes, ‘the beauty, fragility, and innate complexity of our natural world’.”

Laura Chessin

Feb. 18, 2015

Rice Rivers Center researcher featured in Yale University publication

Rice Rivers Center researcher Matt Balazik has been featured in Yale University's Environment 360 publication, produced by the university's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The report, titled "Atlantic Sturgeon: An Ancient Fish Struggles Against the Flow" highlights Balazik's groundbreaking work with sturgeon in the James River.

To read the full article, please visit Yale's Environment 360 website.

Feb. 2, 2015

eESP 2.0 produces tangible results

CES Faculty member Daniel McGarvey and CES graduate student Christopher Mason recently published the first “results” from Daniel’s Quest-funded project, Ecological and Environmental Perception version 2.0 (eESP2.0). The manuscript, entitled Re-envisioning the Communication of Our Science, ran as the cover story in the first issue of the newly redesigned ASLO (Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography) Bulletin. This included a custom layout for the cover of the Bulletin in addition to the lead feature story. In the manuscript, Daniel and Chris relate the motivation and initial outcomes of the eESP 2.0 project, including examples of student work from the first graduate class offered under eESP 2.0 (Infographics – the Design of Scientific Information). The overarching goal of the project is to create a new graduate training curriculum that will help students to better illustrate and communicate their work, taking advantage of digital media outlets that have not traditionally been utilized by scientists.

Download the article [PDF] or read below:

Feb. 2, 2015

Thomas Huff, who helped launch VCU Life Sciences, dies at age 62

Thomas F. Huff, Ph.D., who as vice provost for life sciences and research at Virginia Commonwealth University led VCU’s march into the age of genomic research, died Saturday. He was 62.

Huff was named vice provost in 2001, charged with putting VCU at the forefront of U.S. universities preparing students in the new fields of the biological sciences that had opened through research to sequence the human genome. Life Sciences at VCU includes the Rice Rivers Center, the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity and the Center for Environmental Studies.

“Those who knew Tom could not help but be swept up in his energy, intelligence and passion for the life sciences,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “From the labs on our campuses to the living laboratory of the Rice Rivers Center, Tom shepherded a new holistic way of looking at science.”

Interim Provost John Wiencek, Ph.D., said, “The VCU community has lost a talented and devoted leader, scientist, educator and friend. Although his absence will be difficult, his legacy will remain strong in the many world-class programs he took to prominence.”

As the inaugural vice provost for VCU Life Sciences, Huff was critical in the success of the academic programs and research initiatives in the highly interdisciplinary fields. Through his commitment to the study of biological complexity, he led hundreds of faculty members across both campuses and at the three VCU-chartered centers.

“Dr. Tom Huff was a quintessential VCU faculty member and administrator,” said Eugene Trani, Ph.D., former president of VCU. “He will be deeply missed. His legacy, however, will endure. As the founding vice provost for VCU Life Sciences, VCU is a greater institution because of Tom's tremendous efforts.”

Leonard Smock, Ph.D., professor and director of the Rice Rivers Center, said, "Tom was VCU Life Sciences. His enthusiasm, energy, intellect, and, most of all, his far-reaching vision was the cornerstone of interdisciplinary research and education at VCU. Tom loved his extended VCU family, and all of us benefited greatly from his friendship and leadership."

In addition to his work at VCU, Huff was involved in numerous organizations in the Richmond community including serving on the board of directors at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. He was also an avid fisherman and enjoyed photography.

“For nearly 30 years at VCU, Tom was a great collaborator, colleague and friend,” Rao said. “Our condolences go to his entire family. We hope they find comfort in a VCU community who mourns with them and offers our support.”

Huff is survived by his wife, May Ligon Huff; his daughter, Elizabeth, and his son, Thomas. Funeral arrangements are pending.

By Anne Dreyfuss, VCU University Public Affairs

Jan. 16, 2015

ILS alumni panel 2014

On November 20, 36 current ILS students were invited by ILS Program Director, Dr. Bill Eggleston to the annual ILS alumni panel, which is intended to aid graduates in being successful upon completion of the program. Dr. Sarah Golding, Instructor and Director of Undergraduate Research in the Department of Biology, spoke about the Preparing Future Faculty Program.

ILS alumni spoke about several different career paths after completing the ILS program, including paths in both higher education and the public sector. They included: Dr. Colleen Higgins, Instructor, Department of Biology; Dr. Christopher Waggener, Lead Scientist with the VA Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services; Dr. Julie Zinnert, Research Scientist, Department of Biology; and Dr. Billy Budd, Group Leader at AIBiotech in Richmond.

The alumni answered a battery of questions from the students relating to their fields, as well as the educational paths they took while at VCU.

Drs. Budd, Zinnert, Waggener and Golding field questions from students.

Jan. 12, 2015

Virginia red-cockaded woodpeckers continue to surpass expectations

By Mike Wilson

This past year of 2014 was one of the most memorable and successful conservation leaps for the Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpecker population in recent history. The Center for Conservation Biology has just completed the year-round monitoring of the state’s only population of the woodpecker at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve. Surveys resulted in new milestones for number of breeding pairs and overall bird numbers.

Mitchell Byrd examines woodpecker brood within the Piney Grove Preserve. Mitchell conducted the first comprehensive work with the Virginia population in 1977. Photo by Bryan Watts.

It was just two years ago that we shared the report that the population had reached a modern-day high of 10 breeding pairs. This was the original conservation goal when the Piney Grove Preserve was established in 2001. However, in 2014 that number was smashed with the addition of 4 new breeding pairs on the Preserve. The new pairs were mostly established by dispersal of woodpeckers into new breeding areas, including the first documented incidence of a male pioneering a new territory by excavating a cavity within a lone tree away from other existing groups of birds. The formation of new territories in past years has always been facilitated by the installation of artificial cavities. Another first-time event occurred when a breeding pair was established by rare intra-cluster budding, which is the term used when two pairs of adults breed within the same group without establishing a new territory.

Female Red-cockaded Woodpecker works on cavity entrance at the Piney Grove Preserve. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Center biologists just completed the winter population survey and detected 67 birds within 14 groups. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are cooperative breeders, with each group consisting of the breeding male and female and often additional nest helpers that remain together throughout the year and often forage and work together during the day. The 2014 count exceeded the previous high of 57 birds set in 2013 and more than doubles the low count of 21 birds from 2001.

Results of winter population counts of red-cockaded woodpeckers at the Piney Grove Preserve since 2001.

The success of Red-cockaded Woodpecker management within the Piney Grove Preserve is one of the greatest conservation achievements in Virginia and a highpoint for restoration of the species throughout its broader range. This endangered bird reached an all-time low of 2 breeding pairs when the Nature Conservancy purchased the land and initiated restoration efforts. The Preserve has undergone a remarkable transformation in physical character over the years through timber management and prescribed burning guided by the Nature Conservancy. These efforts have been critical to the continued recovery of the population.

Adult red-cockaded woodpecker feeds nestling within the Piney Grove Preserve. This young was within 2 days of fledging. Video by Bryan Watts.

Jan. 12, 2015

Unwelcome neighbors
VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

On March 22, 1936, Bryant Tyrrell traveled to the farm of Hiram Brown near Chestertown, Maryland, to investigate a report of a bald eagle nest. Upon entering the colonial-era manor house built in 1708, he was shown into the sitting room and led to the large wooden mantle over the fireplace. There he was proudly shown four sets of marks that had been etched into the wood. The marks spanned 7 feet 1 ¼ inches, 6 feet 11 ¾ inches, 6 feet 10 ¼ inches, and 6 feet 9 ¾ inches. Mr. Brown explained that these marks recorded the wingspans of four eagles that had been shot on the property, trophies of past family adventures.

Just nine days later on March 31, Tyrrell was taken to a nest constructed in a dead American chestnut on Eagle Point along the Bush River. The nest was on Edgewood Arsenal, a government facility established to produce mustard gas following the entry of the United States into World War I. Although a single adult eagle was seen in the territory, the nest had not been used since an adult was shot there two years previous. On this same day, Tyrrell was led to a second nest on the arsenal. The nest was built in a large oak on Robbins Point and was also abandoned. He was to discover later in December that three young birds were killed there by hunters who believed the birds were feeding on ducks. Examination of their stomachs revealed only fish.

Current eagle resident of High Point incubates eggs along the Potomac River. The birds now share this landmark with a colony of great blue herons. Photo by Bryan Watts.

On April 14, John Shelton led Tyrrell down a long foot path to High Point. High Point is a bluff overlooking Belmont Bay where Occoquan Creek enters the Potomac River east of Washington, D.C. The commanding view over a large expanse of water and abundant prey attracted eagles like a magnet. On this day, Shelton would take Tyrrell to a tremendous American chestnut tree that had recently died from chestnut blight. The tree towered over the surroundings and was the primary eagle perch on the bluff where birds came and went throughout the day. Shelton indicated that he knew of more than 50 eagles that had been shot from the tree, and during their visit the two men found a fresh carcass on the ground. Thirty years later, this site would become Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

On May 7, George Frederick took Tyrrell to a nest on Upper Chippokes Creek near Claremont on the James River. Mr. Frederick, who ran a line of several hundred muskrat traps along the upper James, had previously killed one young in the nest but the second remained. He explained that the attitude toward eagles in this part of the Bay was very poor. Eagles regularly discovered muskrats in his traps and would make a meal of them, damaging the pelts. He estimated that he lost 10 muskrats weekly to eagles, amounting in a total loss of more than 10 dollars per week. When partially-eaten muskrats were found, the local practice was to set several additional traps around the kill so that when the eagles returned they would be caught and later shot.

Drawer upon drawer of eagle specimens are maintained by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Each has its own story to tell. Photo by Bryan Watts.

On June 9, Howard Green took Tyrrell to a nest on Ordinary Point Farm along the Sassafras River. Mr. Green was surprised to see two large young in the nest and said he would return the next day with a rifle to kill them. On this same day, Tyrrell met Roy Mitchell who owned a farm on Freeman Creek along the Sassafras. Mr. Mitchell indicated that earlier in the season he had seen an adult eagle catching his chickens and so had killed the young in the suspected nest on his property.

During the spring of 1936, W. Bryant Tyrrell by foot and car conducted the first survey of bald eagles throughout the Chesapeake Bay. His field log records the best assessment we have of the general number of eagle pairs and their productivity prior to the DDT era. His interactions with landowners also record the sentiment of people toward eagles during this time period around the Great Depression. Watermen, duck hunters, fur trappers, farmers and lumbermen all seemed to have their own concerns and attitudes about the presence of eagles in the Bay. Although the time was nearly twenty years after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and killing eagles was a violation of federal law, the practice was accepted by the culture of the day. More than accepted, within this resource-based economy during a time of great hardship, there was an unmistakable kinship that eclipsed the value of the eagle population.

Catherine Markham (CCB graduate student 2001-2004) catalogs eagle specimens taken within the Chesapeake Bay during the “killing time” and now housed within the Smithsonian collections. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Although we continue to have the occasional boy attempting to “test his sense of manhood” by shooting an eagle, the days of widespread killing have drifted beyond our cultural memory into the gray past. Today, the bald eagle breeding population is booming within the Chesapeake Bay and is approaching numbers likely not seen since colonial times. Many people living in the Chesapeake watershed now live in upscale residential developments named “Eagles Landing”, “Eagle Shores” or “Eagle Bluff”, a clear indication that attitudes toward our national symbol have shifted over the past 80 years. Both the eagles and people of the Chesapeake Bay survived the Great Depression. The continuing hope is that our two populations, now completely intertwined, will have a lasting future together.

Aerial view of Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in spring that now provides an extensive buffer around High Point on the southeast corner (upper left) where Occoquan Creek enters the Potomac. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Dec. 17, 2014

Changing of the guard at Rice Rivers Center

The VCU Rice Rivers Center would like to thank retiring Board of Trustees Chairman Daniel Fort for all his years of service to the Center and the University, including a number of years as Chairman. We are delighted that Dr. Fort will continue to serve on the Rice Rivers Center Board and extend many, many thanks for his passionate devotion and support for the research, scholarship, outreach and stewardship practiced at and through Rice.

The gavel has been passed to new chairman, Mr. Brooks Smith. As secretary/treasurer of VIRGINIAforever and a partner at Troutman Sanders, he brings a depth of experience and enthusiasm that will enable him to lead the organization through the next exciting phase that will include construction of a state-of-the-art research building.

The VCU Rice Rivers Center extends hearty thanks to both of these gentlemen for their faithful service.

Dec. 17, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center receives award

On December 9, Rice Rivers Center’s VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program, led by Todd Janeski, was presented with a 2014 Virginia Green Travel Star Award for Most Innovative Project at the Annual Virginia Green Travel Conference in Richmond, VA. We owe this award to the hard work of our volunteers, partner businesses and organizations, and we thank them for their support.

Dec. 17, 2014

Tracking a shorebird to the ends of the earth
VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Fletcher Smith

The journey begins in darkness in Virginia with an early morning flight departing from the Norfolk International Airport in late May. The air is humid, and the days have been hot along the mid-Atlantic Coast. The first leg of the trip is to Toronto, Canada. Subsequent flights take me through the Prairie Provinces (with an overnight stay), and finally on to Yellowknife, Canada. Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, is where much of the logistical planning for the field season ahead takes place. The main focus of this collaboration between the Canadian Wildlife Service and The Center for Conservation Biology is the satellite tracking of whimbrels throughout their life cycle. The important task of rigging the satellite transmitters for deployment in the field takes place here in Yellowknife. The transmitters are placed in the carry-on luggage as they are irreplaceable if lost. The trip to Yellowknife has taken two days and nearly 3,000 miles are behind me at this point.

After a few days of last minute preparations, the team of biologists, technicians, and student interns leaves via airplane for the small town of Inuvik, located along a main branch of the Mackenzie River. This leg of the journey adds another 650 miles to the total, which is now at 3,650 miles and 4 days of travel time. Inuvik is where the final logistical steps take place; securing helicopter and Twin Otter flights into the bush, purchasing most of the food we will eat for the next 6 weeks, loading up gear at the airplane hangar, filling up gasoline and propane containers, and packing other crucial supplies that will be used in the coming field season. The total weight of the gear approaches 2 tons, and some of it is redundant, but there will be no option to stop at the local convenience store to pick up necessary supplies after we are dropped in camp.

The next leg of the journey begins on the first good weather day (which can be few and far between this time of year), and the team splits into two groups, one going with the helicopter and one with the plane. The helicopter flight from Inuvik to the outer Mackenzie Delta is an eye opener. During this flight, the team will cross hundreds of miles of frozen rivers, lakes, and snow-covered ground. With daily average low temperatures at around minus 20 Fahrenheit between mid-November and early April, ice breakup in the delta can take a while. This intensely long, cold, dark winter is one reason that few people inhabit the northern Arctic region. The spring and summer are best characterized by light. The sun never sets during the field season, and the ice and snow quickly thaw in the midnight sun. The average temperatures during the field season are between 40 and 60 Fahrenheit, relatively balmy compared to the deep cold of winter.

Frozen tundra in early June 2012 on the Mackenzie Delta. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

A view of our base camp in early June 2013. Our igloo like structure is visible just above the flooding waters in the center of the picture. The antennae in the foreground is a decommissioned communication tower that has been home to nesting Rough-legged Hawks, Ravens, and Gyrfalcons in different years. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

One team helps to unload the plane at a remote landing strip appropriately named Camp Farewell. The other team flies via helicopter to the gravel pad that will be home for the next 6 weeks. The process takes a full day, with the helicopter bringing in loads of gear hanging from a sling from Farewell to the field campsite. After the gear is dropped, the team puts together the equipment that will be used throughout the field season to collect data on nesting shorebirds. All supplies are distributed, including GPS units, pens, pencils, field notebooks, cameras, and banding equipment. The main kitchen area is set up in an igloo-like structure that allows respite from the biting insects. The storage tent is erected and all the food (calculated to be 5 pounds of food for each person each day!) is placed inside. The sleeping tents are placed on the far end of the pad, and a bear fence is erected around them. The possibility of having a bear come into camp to investigate the food tent or gasoline cans is very real, so those items are kept as far away from our sleeping tents as possible. We have put another 120 miles behind us, and can go no further north without swimming in the Beaufort Sea. The journey has taken about a week so far, and nearly 4,000 total miles are behind me.

The whimbrel’s migration to breeding grounds started just before my departure from Norfolk on that late May morning. The birds originated from wintering grounds in Brazil, where they spent 7 months in the Gulf of Maranhão region. There they fattened up for the journey north. Whimbrels complete the almost 4,000 mile journey to North American staging grounds in about 5 days. They arrive exhausted, and must build up fat immediately. The two stopover sites for the Mackenzie Delta breeding population are quite different. Along the Atlantic Coast, the vast coastal marshes of Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia host the greater part of the Atlantic migrant population, where they feast on the seemingly endless supply of fiddler crabs. The Gulf Coast migrants stage between Mexico and Louisiana, using habitat ranging from crawfish farms and rice impoundments to natural coastal marshes for foraging and roosting. The Gulf Coast birds have a more varied palate, with fiddler crabs, crawfish, and marine invertebrates making up the majority of the diet at this stopover site. The birds will stay at these sites for close to a month, building up fat reserves and preparing for the next leg of their journey.

Migration begins when the pangs of Zugenruhe become too much to suppress. The birds leave the Atlantic Coast staging areas during a relatively short window; more than 90% of the birds leave within a 5 day period in the latter part of May. Many thousands are observed annually during this time in coastal Virginia. During the 2014 season, a new record of 8,192 individual whimbrels was counted, and nearly 6,000 of that total were observed between the 24th through 26th of May alone. The birds fly from the Atlantic Coast to the breeding grounds, covering the 4,000 miles to the Mackenzie Delta in a 5 day non-stop flight, quicker than it takes a biologist to cover the same distance (although biologists stop along the way to eat, sleep, and drink). The Gulf Coast whimbrels utilize a different migration strategy. They depart the Gulf Coast habitats in early May, stopping for short periods along the Platte River in Nebraska and in the irrigated farmlands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The final 1,500 mile flights to the breeding grounds take place in the third week of May.

Map detailed routes taken to the Mackenzie Delta. Shown are tracks from two migrating whimbrels (a Gulf Coast and an Atlantic Coast migrant) and the track the biologist took getting there. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Satellite tagged whimbrel. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Once the whimbrels (and other shorebirds) and biologists converge on the same marsh-dominated breeding grounds of the outer Mackenzie River Delta, the real work begins. As part of the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network (ASDN) and the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) programs, the Mackenzie Delta camp monitors the breeding success, population densities, annual survival, and other important parameters that are necessary in answering questions regarding population declines of shorebirds breeding in the Arctic regions.

After locating a nest, a walk-in trap is placed over the nest and the whimbrel is trapped within minutes upon returning to incubate. The bird is held by one of the researchers while the harness for the satellite transmitter is custom fitted. After she is released and continues to incubate her eggs, the nest is monitored until the eggs hatch or fail; nest failure is usually caused by predation by arctic fox, raven, or jaeger. In both 2012 and 2013, nest success rate was near zero for whimbrels, but in 2014 it was a boom year. Over 50 percent of the nests hatched and many chicks were observed in the marshes. One possible explanation for the uptick is that there may have been a good number of lemmings in the nesting area in 2014. Although lemmings are tough to see in the marshy habitat, two were observed being captured in the Delta by a single parasitic jaeger, each within minutes of one another, suggesting that an abundance of prey allowed the whimbrels relief from the attention of the predators that had been feeding on shorebird eggs the previous two seasons.

Whimbrel nest. Most nests have 4 eggs and are lined with horsetail and grasses. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

A satellite tagged whimbrel shortly after capture. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Adult whimbrel brooding a young chick. Video taken on Taglu Island, part of the Kendall Island Bird Sanctuary located in the outer Mackenzie River Delta. Video by Fletcher Smith.

A dark morph Parasitic Jaeger hunting the marsh. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Recently fledged Gyrfalcon chicks at the decommissioned communications tower site. Gyrfalcons are one of the few sources of adult whimbrel mortality on the breeding grounds. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

After the nest monitoring and trapping of shorebirds is finished, we begin process of breaking camp, while excess food or gas is given to local people passing by on their way to hunting camps along the outer coast. Data is squared away and equipment carefully packed. With luck, the departure date will have good weather to avoid any delays home. The distant thumping of the rotors of a helicopter signal that our long journey back home has begun, and our hearts are glad with the anticipation of taking a hot shower and soon seeing loved ones.

Shortly after we leave field camp, the whimbrels will depart the Mackenzie Delta en route to their winter destination in Brazil to complete the loop on their astounding 14,000 mile annual migration. The tracking project has brought to light whimbrel behavior that challenges previously held beliefs about the migration routes of these birds. The overlap between the Mackenzie Delta population and the Hudson Bay population on the wintering grounds and Atlantic Coast staging areas was completely unknown prior to this study. Several critically important staging areas have been discovered because of this tracking project. The Center for Conservation Biology continues to lead whimbrel conservation research and plans are underway to work with these magnificent fliers in 2015.

Male Red-necked Phalarope incubating eggs on Niglintgak Island in the outer Mackenzie River Delta during the 2014 shorebird field season. Video by Fletcher Smith.

The Arctic is characterized by plants with showy flowers, mosquitoes, and the routine threat of bad weather. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

The Low-centered Polygon habitat as we depart the delta. Notice the ridges are still apparent, but that the centers of the polygons have mostly dried. The delta quickly turns from frozen or flooded to vast expanses of green marsh. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Dec. 10, 2014

Red knots receive listing under the Endangered Species Act – Virginia to play critical role in recovery
VCU Rice Rivers Center Publication

By Bryan Watts

In a press conference held on December 9, 2014, Service Director Dan Ashe announced the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the rufa subspecies of the red knot as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A “threatened” designation recognizes a significant risk of becoming endangered throughout all or a portion of a species’ range. The announcement concludes a multi-year, comprehensive assessment of available information on both the population and potential threats, including coastal development, climate change and declines in horseshoe crab eggs – a key prey resource within Delaware Bay.

Rufa red knots have one of the longest migrations known to science. From breeding grounds in the high arctic, a portion of the population migrates to winter grounds on the tip of South America, a round-trip distance of over 20,000 miles. Like many shorebirds, these extreme migrants require concentrated food resources to prepare themselves for long flights. Deterioration of prey resources and foraging conditions within refueling sites is believed to have played an important role in their decline. Since the early 1980s the population has declined by more than 75 percent.

Red knot captured along the Virginia Barrier Islands during spring migration. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Data collected in Virginia played a significant role in the listing process. Since 1994, Bryan Watts (Director of The Center for Conservation of Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University) and Barry Truitt (Chief Conservation Scientist for the Virginia Coast Reserve of The Nature Conservancy) have conducted weekly aerial surveys of shorebirds along the outer coast of Virginia during the spring migration season. The results of these surveys were provided to the Service and have been used both in listing deliberations and in the ongoing designation of critical habitat for the species.

Virginia will play a critical role in the stabilization and recovery of the rufa population. Each spring, the Virginia Barrier Islands provide a refueling site to 30-50 percent of the entire population. Birds stage here before embarking on their final flight to arctic breeding grounds. Unlike the highly developed coastlines of New Jersey to the north and North Carolina to the south, more than 95 percent of the Virginia Barrier Islands are in protective ownership by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commonwealth of Virginia. This pristine coastline provides a much-needed oasis for the birds during their northward migration.

In a forthcoming paper to be published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Watts and Truitt outline the importance of Virginia to staging knots and sound an urgent alarm. Unlike the well-known staging area in Delaware Bay where knots feed on horseshoe crab eggs, knots staging in Virginia feed on intertidal mollusks. In most years, blue mussels are the food of choice.

Spat of the blue mussel on intertidal peat along Cedar Island in Virginia

The distribution of blue mussels is undergoing a catastrophic shift due to climate change. Blue mussels are extremely sensitive to warm seas, and over the past 50 years their range has been contracting northward at an average rate of 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) per year. Virginia is now within the trailing edge of this range, suggesting that within the relatively near term, knots may no longer have access to this resource. The loss of blue mussels may have a much greater impact on the migration system of the red knot than the well-publicized harvest of horseshoe crabs.

Other red knot news stories:


Nov. 12, 2014

Three Chopt Garden Club visits Rice Rivers Center

On October 28, the Three Chopt Garden Club held their membership meeting at the Rice Rivers Center. It was a glorious day to experience the field station. Former James River Park System Manager/Naturalist, Ralph White, gave the keynote speech on the history and value of the James River. Catherine Dahl, Director of Development and Special Projects for Life Sciences gave a brief overview of the Center and how it fits in with the overall mission of river stewardship worldwide. Members enjoyed tours of the property, including the waterfront and the wetlands.