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News and events
September 21, 2015

The Wanderers

By Bryan Watts

The American shad is a silvery beauty, a valuable creature so entwined in our culture that it's called the "Founding Fish".

We know very little about the time between when birds leave their natal territories and when they settle on their winter grounds. Although the period is a black hole of information, it is believed to be a critical time packed with learning and exploration when birds become self-sufficient, prospect for future breeding locations and learn about their extended neighborhood. Because individuals disappear during this dispersal period, questions about their activities during these formative months have remained beyond our reach. The development of satellite tracking techniques has ushered in a new era of ecological inquiry and for the first time has allowed us to peak into the private lives of birds wherever they go.

Mitchell Byrd, Bryan Watts,and Shawn Padgett attach a satellite transmitter to a peregrine falcon on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. _.jpg
Mitchell Byrd (standing), Bryan Watts (middle), and Shawn Padgett (right) attach a satellite transmitter to a peregrine falcon on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Photo by Bart Paxton.

Over a decade beginning in 2001, CCB deployed satellite transmitters on 61 young peregrine falcons to answer several questions about migratory strategy, winter destinations, the process of establishing breeding territories, and the nature of the dispersal period. Transmitters delivered more than 66,000 usable locations on birds covering important periods of the annual cycle. The dispersal period was characterized by long movements and wide-ranging exploration. The length of this period averaged 48 days before birds initiated directional flights to winter territories. During this time, birds visited 23 states with activities concentrated along the Atlantic Coast and southern Appalachians. Inland movements were bounded by the Great Lakes to the north and the Mississippi River to the west. Birds showed a clear attraction to major metropolitan areas including Washington D.C., Baltimore, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit.

A young peregrine falcon with solar-powered, satellite transmitter used to track movements during dispersal and beyond.  Photo by Bryan Watts.
A young peregrine falcon with solar-powered, satellite transmitter used to track movements during dispersal and beyond. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The name “peregrine” is derived from the word “peregrination” meaning to travel abroad, roam, or wander, reflecting the wide-ranging movements of this species. One of the more interesting findings of tracking birds during the dispersal period is that although they moved over great distances they did not appear to be aimlessly wandering. Birds were attracted to the grand geologic structures that supported peregrine breeding historically and new structures such as cities that tower over the surrounding landscape. Many of these structures support breeding peregrines today. Dispersing birds were locating and visiting other peregrines over large regions. The questions of how they were interacting with other birds and what they might be learning from the interactions remain a mystery.

Map showing movements of young peregrine falcons from Virginia during the dispersal period.  Different colored dots depict different individuals.
Map showing movements of young peregrine falcons from Virginia during the dispersal period. Different colored dots depict different individuals.

Tracking efforts and other projects are advancing our ability to manage this recovering species in eastern North America. They are providing a wealth of new information that will enable us over time to better integrate peregrine management into the larger conservation landscape. Partners in the tracking effort include the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Transportation, and Dominion Resources.

September 11, 2015

Dana Bradshaw recognized for commitment to woodpecker recovery

By Bryan Watts

Dana Bradshaw began work with the red-cockaded woodpecker in the fall of 1980 as a graduate student working under Mitchell Byrd in the biology department at the College of William and Mary. Having grown up in the heart of the species range in Virginia, Dana would bring a wealth of experience and a unique perspective to the work. The woodpecker had been classified as federally endangered and Virginia represented the northern edge of the species’ range. His thesis focused on foraging and home range requirements, topics that would later inform critical components of the state’s recovery strategy. But Dana’s enthusiasm for the woodpecker and commitment to its recovery would not end with his graduate work.

Dana Bradshaw with a brood of woodpeckers
Dana Bradshaw with a brood of woodpeckers within the Piney Grove Preserve. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Dana would move on from graduate work to become the first biologist within the newly formed non-game program within the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. Among other responsibilities, Dana would oversee red-cockaded woodpecker monitoring and management. He would later leave the agency to become a biologist and then a research associate within CCB. Despite working with many species and in many capacities, Dana continues to be one of the most consistent and knowledgeable voices for woodpecker recovery in Virginia.

Brood of red-cockaded woodpeckers within Piney Grove Preserve
Brood of red-cockaded woodpeckers within Piney Grove Preserve. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Recently, in recognition of 35 years of commitment to the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker, CCB presented Dana with a framed photo. The photo, taken by John DiGiorgio within The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve, depicts a milestone event within the decades-long effort to recover the Virginia population. The bird, a female from North Carolina, was the first to breed in the state after having been brought in from another population. The translocation program was a successful management strategy that helped to reverse the population decline.

Dana Bradshaw holds framed red-cockaded woodpecker photo
Dana Bradshaw holds framed red-cockaded woodpecker photo within the Paul Baker Library at CCB. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Learn more about Red-cockaded woodpecker population monitoring and management in Virginia

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Management Project Page

News Stories:

7/7/2015 Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpeckers finish season by fledging 21 young birds

1/12/2015 Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpeckers Continue to Surpass Expectations

5/28/2014 Shaped by fire

5/20/2014 CCB receives Conservation Partner Award

September 6, 2015

Despite decades of help, shad is still in trouble

By REX SPRINGSTON Richmond Times-Dispatch

The American shad is a silvery beauty, a valuable creature so entwined in our culture that it’s called the “Founding Fish.”

Today it’s a foundering fish — despite decades of work to save it.

Preliminary findings by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimate that the shad populations in the James and York rivers this spring were the lowest since the institute’s shad survey began in 1998.

“It’s concerning, but one year doesn’t mean a spiral,” said Eric Hilton, a VIMS fish expert who leads the survey.

Of more interest, Hilton said, are apparent trends over time: Shad seem to be increasing in the Rappahannock River; decreasing in the York; and exhibiting little trend, other than low numbers, in the James.

Why the variation?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hilton said.

VIMS workers and watermen catch shad in gill nets — nets stretched between stakes — in the tidal James, York and Rappahannock rivers each spring, when the fish swim out of the ocean and up freshwater rivers to spawn.

Among other things, the survey indicates the health of the population with a “catch index” — a figure based on the number of fish caught per net per day over the roughly three-month season. The higher the index, the better.

The 2015 numbers show:

  • A catch index of 1.2 in the James, the lowest number on record. The highest index for the James was 9.3 in 2003.
  • A catch of 1.9 in the York, also the lowest number on record. The highest index was 14.7 in 1998.
  • A catch of 5.1 in the Rappahannock, down from 8.7 last year, the highest number on record. The lowest number for the Rappahannock was 1.3 in 1999.

The numbers will be double-checked and included with other data in the 2015 shad-survey report, which comes out in spring 2016.

The numbers can be confusing to lay people, but they tell a sad story.

Greg Garman, a VCU fish ecologist, said there are so few shad today that what looks like up-or-down population trends over the years simply could be “natural variation or statistical noise” — minor differences with little significance in the effort to restore shad.

“It’s like counting pennies when you’re already a million dollars in debt,” Garman said.


American shad, with silver sides and greenish-blue backs, grow to about 20 inches.

Huge numbers of shad on spring spawning runs once fed hungry Indians and settlers at winter’s end. Americans have caught shad for fun and profit since Colonial days.

Legend has it that migrating shad saved George Washington’s troops from starvation at Valley Forge in 1778. Many call the shad our “Founding Fish,” after a 2002 book of that title by outdoor writer John McPhee.

Scientists say shad numbers dropped from centuries of pollution, overfishing and dam building, which blocked the fish from many miles of spawning grounds.

Efforts during the past quarter-century to bring back shad included opening or removing dams in the James and Rappahannock and stocking millions of hatchery-raised baby shad in the James well above Richmond.

Millions in federal, state, local and private dollars have been spent in the James alone. That included building a $1.5 million fish passage that opened in the Bosher Dam, just west of the Willey Bridge, in 1999.

Experts thought the passage eventually would allow thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of shad to swim past the dam each year to reclaim long-blocked spawning territory.

One state official called the passage “the final chapter of a success story.”

Instead, about 200 shad swim through the passage on average each year.

It could be that something is wrong with the passage — although thousands of other fish swim through it — or that few shad make it to the dam, said Alan Weaver, a biologist with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

As the fish struggle in the Chesapeake Bay region and along much of the Atlantic Coast, their problems aren’t totally understood.

“There is obviously some major ingredient missing to get these fish back to anything close to their heyday,” Weaver said.

Perhaps shad are caught accidentally at sea in nets set for other fish. Perhaps pollution continues to bedevil them.

It even could be that blue catfish — voracious, invasive predators taking over much of the Chesapeake Bay and are particularly numerous in the James — are gobbling up lots of shad.


Shad were beloved by Virginians who caught them in huge numbers and ate their roe and tasty-but-bony flesh.

The state made it illegal in 1994 to keep shad. That ended centuries of commercial shad fishing and angling for their meat.

It also means a generation of Virginians have grown up who don’t look forward to shad meals in spring.

“It’s still an important fish for catch-and-release” angling, said Rob O’Reilly, chief of fisheries management for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates commercial fishing.

And shad are important ecologically, because they provide meals for striped bass and other fish.

VCU’s Garman said the importance of shad today may lie in what they can teach us — that human activities may push a species “to a biological point of no return, where no amount of time or effort can turn things around.”

“I hope that is not the case for American shad,” he said.
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August 28, 2015

Whimbrel tracked into Tropical Storm Erika

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts and Fletcher Smith

While most of us along the Atlantic Coast keep our eyes on Tropical Storm Erika churning in the Caribbean, Upinraaq (named for the Inuvialuktun word for summer) the whimbrel has already met with the storm in the middle of the open Atlantic. Upinraaq, wearing a tiny tracking device, was migrating south from Newfoundland to South America when she crossed paths with Erika nearly 1,000 miles east of the West Indies. Erika was a developing tropical storm with sustained winds of 46 miles per hour when the encounter occurred. Amazingly, Upinraaq had been flying non-stop for more than 3 days and 2,700 miles (4,300 kilometers) when she successfully flew directly through the heart of the storm and continued on to the coast of Suriname.

Upinraaq on the MacKenzie River during the 2014 breeding season showing her bands and flag. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Upinraaq on the MacKenzie River during the 2014 breeding season showing her bands and flag. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

For generations, scientists have wondered how birds migrating from North America to South America during the height of the hurricane season. Do the birds fly around the storms? Do they die at sea? Do the birds have some way of predicting that storms are brewing and wait until the coast is clear? The rendezvous between Upinraaq and Erika represents the 9th such interaction between a migrating whimbrel and major storms that a tracking study has documented since 2007. Information from 31 flights over the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean is beginning to reveal the migratory behavior of this large, migratory shorebird. Birds launching out over the Atlantic from the high latitudes of the Canadian Maritimes appear to have no inkling about storms forming in the lower sub-tropical latitudes. Despite flying out over the vast Atlantic with no place to hide, no birds have been lost at sea.

Christine Anderson, a shorebird technician working with the Canadian Wildlife Service holds Upinraaq on the breeding grounds while Fletcher Smith attaches satellite transmitter. Video by Fletcher Smith.

Although several birds have skirted around major storms while crossing the Atlantic, 6 birds have flown directly through the storms. One of the most incredible of these encounters occurred in August of 2011 when a bird named Chinquapin flew directly through the northeast quadrant of Hurricane Irene, a monstrous storm that caused extensive damage along the eastern seaboard. A second dramatic encounter occurred when a whimbrel named Hope flew through Tropical Storm Gert in the North Atlantic. This bird encountered high headwinds for 27 hours averaging only 9 miles per hour. Once through the storm, flight speed increased to more than 90 miles per hour as the bird was pushed by significant tail winds and made it back to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 2008, a bird was tracked into Hurricane Hanna and landed in the Bahamas only to be hit later by Hurricane Ike.

Upinraaq wearing a 5-gram, solar-powered satellite transmitter. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Upinraaq wearing a 5-gram, solar-powered satellite transmitter. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Although Upinraaq survived her encounter with Erika, she was not unaffected. She made landfall near Paramaribo, Suriname roughly 1,000 miles west of her winter range in Brazil. She will have to run a gauntlet of hunters along the coast of South America to reach her winter home. Scientists will be tracking her progress in the coming weeks. Upinraaq breeds along the MacKenzie River in western Canada. After the nesting season, she flies east to the Canadian Maritimes to stage for her long transoceanic flight to Brazil where she winters near São Luís and the Gulf of Maranhão. She leaves in the spring, flying to the Gulf of Mexico to stage before the long flight back to the breeding grounds.

Christine Anderson releases Upinraaq after processing on breeding grounds along the MacKenzie River. Video by Fletcher Smith.

Migration route of Upinraaq the whimbrel through Tropical Storm Erika.  Image of storm courtesy of NOAA.

Migration route of Upinraaq the whimbrel through Tropical Storm Erika. Image of storm courtesy of NOAA.

Upinraaq is one of 36 whimbrels that have been fitted with state-of-the-art satellite transmitters and tracked throughout their annual cycle to discover migratory routes that connect breeding and winter areas and to identify en route migratory staging areas that are critical to the conservation of this declining species. The project is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary – Virginia Commonwealth University, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and Manomet.

August 21, 2015

News of Hope

Hope the whimbrel was observed and photographed on 19 August, 2015 by Lisa Yntema on her winter territory at Great Pond, St. Croix. Hope has been recorded on this same small pond during the fall and winter months since she was captured and outfitted with a satellite transmitter in Virginia during the spring of 2009. She was last photographed there on 14 February, 2014 by Lisa before migrating to her breeding grounds along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Hope the whimbrel with friend at Great Pond
Hope the whimbrel with friend at Great Pond on 19 August, 2015. Photo by Lisa Yntema.

Originally captured on 19 May, 2009 while staging on Boxtree Creek on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Hope was tracked by satellite for over 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) between 2009 and 2012, including four back and forth migrations between breeding and winter grounds. She lost her transmitter antenna in the early fall of 2012 and was recaptured to remove the unit on 20 November of that year. She retains her coded leg flag for identification and Lisa has continued to observe her in the mangrove-lined pond since that time. She now would have flown an estimated 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers) since the spring of 2009.

Map of Hope's movements
Map of Hope’s movements from the spring of 2009 to the fall of 2012 as tracked by satellite transmitter.

Hope’s incredible attachment to her tiny territory on Great Pond, her spring staging area on Boxtree Creek, and her breeding territory on the Mackenzie River has demonstrated to followers throughout the world the link between local actions and shorebird conservation. The subject of an award-winning children’s book, Hope’s story continues to inspire.

More stories about Hope:

Hope for children (Dec. 18, 2013)
Biologist reunites with Hope (Dec. 6, 2012)
Hope the whimbrel returns (Mar. 5, 2010)
Flight of Hope (May 4, 2009)

August 19, 2015


Dr. Paul Bukaveckas has produced a prodigious amount of research this year, providing invaluable data to help understand and manage the worldwide problem of algal blooms.

Dr. Paul Bukaveckas

As an aquatic ecologist whose research addresses basic and applied aspects of material and energy cycling in ecosystems, he focuses on two interrelated research topics: (1) the processes that regulate photosynthetic production in diverse aquatic habitats and (2) the role of primary producers in carbon and nutrient cycling. Current projects examine the interplay between hydrologic and ecological processes in flowing waters (streams, rivers, estuaries). The goal of this research is to address basic questions in ecosystems ecology that are important to understanding human impacts on aquatic resources.

Below is a listing of his most recent publications:

Bukaveckas, P.A. and J.D. Wood. 2014.  Nitrogen retention in a restored tidal stream (Kimages Creek, VA) assessed by mass balance and tracer approaches. Journal of Environmental Quality 43:1614-1623.

Wood, J. D., and P. A. Bukaveckas 2014. Increasing severity of phytoplankton nutrient limitation following reductions in point source inputs to the tidal freshwater segment of the James River Estuary. Estuaries and Coasts 37:1188-1201.

Wood, J. D., R. B. Franklin, G. C. Garman, S. P. McIninch, A. J. Porter, and P. A. Bukaveckas. 2014. Seasonality and inter-specific variation in accumulation of the algal toxin Microcystin among fish and shellfish in the James River Estuary, Virginia. Environmental Science and Technology 48:5194-5202.

Zilius,M., M. Bartoli, M. Bresciani, M. Katarzyte, T. Ruginis, J. Petkuviene, I. Lubiene, C. Giardino, P. A. Bukaveckas, A. Razinkovas-Baziukas, and R. de Wit.  2014.  Feedback mechanisms between cyanobacterial blooms, transit hypoxia and benthic phosphorus regeneration in shallow coastal environments.  Estuaries and Coasts 37:680-694.

Lesutiene, J.  P.A. Bukaveckas, Z.R. Gasiūnaitė, R.Pilkaitytė, and A. Razinkovas.  2014. Consumer utilization of autochthonous organic matter during a cyanobacteria bloom in a coastal lagoon of the Baltic Sea. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 138: 47-56.

Agencies internationally are relying partially on Dr. Bukaveckas' expertise to make impactful decisions with regard to water management, including the Department of Environmental Quality, which is using Dr. Bukaveckas' research findings to help inform new guidelines for the TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay.

August 19, 2015


Dr. Peter L. de Fur

Dr. Peter L. de Fur, Research Associate Professor in the Center for Environmental Studies and an Affiliate faculty member of the Rice Rivers Center, has been reappointed to the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council as the Virginia representative. The appointment lasts three years; in his role he will help address regulations for blueline tilefish, a new fishery under the Council's jurisdiction, how to recover the flounder population that is showing signs of compromise, and restoration of river herring.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is responsible for the conservation and management of fishery resources within the federal 200-mile limit of the Atlantic off the coasts of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

The Mid-Atlantic Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils created when  Congress passed Public Law 94-265, the Magnuson Fishery Conservation And Management Act of 1976 (also known as Magnuson-Stevens Act, MFCMA or MSA). The law created a system of regional fisheries management that was designed to allow regional, participatory governance by knowledgeable people with a stake in fishery management.

The regional fishery management councils develop fishery management plans and recommend management measures for the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the east coast of the United States (3-200 miles). State jurisdiction extends from the shoreline to three miles out, and all coastal states have their own laws and fishing agencies to manage fisheries within three miles of their coasts. The councils recommend fishery management measures to the Secretary of Commerce through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The decisions made by the councils are not final until they are approved or partially approved by the Secretary of Commerce through NMFS.

The Council is made up of 21 voting members and four non-voting members. Seven of the voting members represent the constituent states' fish and wildlife agencies, and 13 are private citizens who are knowledgeable about recreational fishing, commercial fishing, or marine conservation. The four non-voting members represent the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Mid-Atlantic Council develops fishery management plans and management measures (such as fishing seasons, quotas, and closed areas) for thirteen species of fish and shellfish. Several of these species are managed under multi-species fishery management plans because they are found in the same geographic region or have similar life histories.

For more information:

Dr. deFur is one of two members with academic doctoral degrees; the other is a fisheries economist. Peter has experience conducting laboratory and field research on marine and estuarine species under the Council’s jurisdiction, and has worked on fisheries conservation and management for many years. In his first term, he chaired the committee that initiated the recent action to protect deep sea corals from fishery activities. Dr. deFur has been with VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies for more than 21 years, teaching graduate courses and advising graduate research projects.

August 19, 2015


Dr. Chris Gough, Dr. Scott Neubauer and their team of researchers, including ILS Ph.D. student Ellen Stuart-Haentjens, are closing in on a long-anticipated installation of an eddy covariance flux system, located in the wetland restoration area of Kimages Creek at the Rice Rivers Center. By later this fall, instrumentation will be in place and data will be collected to contribute to studies that, among other applications, have implications for climate change.

Flux tower dry land assembly, prior to installation
Flux tower dry land assembly, prior to installation

A byproduct of fossil-based energy production is carbon dioxide, which is rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere and is implicated in contemporary climate change. Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth and play a crucial role in offsetting carbon dioxide emissions by absorbing and storing carbon in plant biomass and soils. In the coastal zone, wetlands continually form new soil as they grow vertically to keep up with steadily rising sea levels; many coastal wetlands have been storing significant amounts of carbon for hundreds to thousands of years. Indeed, persistent and high rates of wetland carbon sequestration have motivated current “blue carbon” initiatives that are promoting the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands. One important caveat is that wetland emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, can offset some of their carbon sequestration functions. Quantifying and understanding what regulates carbon uptake and the simultaneous exchange of multiple greenhouse gases between wetlands and the atmosphere is essential to advancing science and developing effective management policies aimed at offsetting human-derived carbon emissions. The eddy covariance flux system employed here offers a powerful platform for quantifying carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor fluxes exchanged with the atmosphere at the ecosystem scale, providing novel, real-time data for a restored wetland. Data products will contribute to course instruction, undergraduate and graduate research, and high-profile collaborative publications with VCU and international investigators. In the longer term, results from the study will inform land management and climate change policies that aim to offset human-derived greenhouse gas emissions through ecosystem management.

One thing that makes the Rice Rivers Center's flux tower especially important is its unique location in a restored freshwater tidal wetland, an underrepresented ecosystem in the global network of towers measuring carbon sequestration and methane emissions. In other words, not much is known yet about this ecosystem's ability to sequester — or perhaps emit — greenhouse gases. So, novel results from this location will be of high interest to ecologists and climate modelers.

An outcome of this installation will be VCU Rice Rivers Center’s partnership in an international network, FLUXNET, of meteorological tower sites that measure carbon sequestration and emissions in an array of ecosystems and climates, from wetlands to upland forests.  FLUXNET is a global “network of regional networks” that provides infrastructure to compile, archive and distribute data for the scientific community, land managers, and policy makers. It works to ensure that different flux networks are calibrated to facilitate comparison between sites, and it provides a forum for the distribution of knowledge and data between scientists.

As of April 2014, there are over 683 tower sites in continuous long-term operation. Researchers, including those at Rice Rivers Center, collect complementary data on site vegetation, soil, trace gas fluxes, hydrology, and meteorological characteristics at the tower sites. The VCU Rice Rivers Center looks forward to joining this international collaboration in the coming year, and partnering with other field stations globally to understand how the Earth's ecosystems affect global climate.

August 19, 2015


Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences and the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and an affiliate researcher for the VCU Rice Rivers Center, is overseeing the field work in Bryan Park outlined in this article from VCU News.

Researchers during a bird study

August 19, 2015


Since its inception in May of 2013, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) has grown to encompass more parts of the state, with recycling efforts in Richmond, Charlottesville, Hampton Roads, and the Northern Neck. Interest is high from all corners of the region. The VOSRP continues to be directed by Todd Janeski, who administers all aspects of the Program including recruitment of private and public partners, volunteers, shell distribution, transportation and ensures the shell are appropriately utilized.

Oyster recycling program team
(Photo credit: Rappahannock Record)

The Program struggles to operate on a limited budget of small direct donations and grants, but despite this hurdle, the grass-roots effort has provided much-needed material for oyster reef restoration in Virginia. Shell collection efforts have been so successful that more restoration areas are being evaluated for shell donations.

The Northern Neck of VA now has a public oyster shell drop-off location in Kilmarnock as part of the shell recycling program. Located at the Lancaster County Refuse Collection and Recycling site, this shell drop-off location would not have been possible without the help of the Town of Kilmarnock, VA, Lancaster County, Lamberth Building Materials, Chesapeake Bay Foundation - Hampton Roads Office, Byrd's Seafood Co, LLC, Windmill Point Oyster Co., The Dog and Oyster Vineyard, Hope and Glory Inn, Kilmarnock Farm and Garden, Virginia Oyster Country, and the Rappahannock Record. The shells collected will be returned to the VA portion of the Bay as part of oyster restoration activities.

In Richmond, Metzger Bar & Butchery and Ruby Salts Oyster Company hosted $1 Oyster Night to benefit the shell recycling program. With the help of Chris Buck of Ruby Salts, hundreds of oysters were sold to a standing room only crowd where Janeski and Buck educated the public on the benefits of returning their shells to the Bay.

Also in Richmond, the VOSRP has caught the attention of the Governor and his wife, who are staunch supporters of the recycling efforts; the Governor's Mansion participates in the recycling program by collecting their used shells.

And finally, the VOSRP has gotten its fair share of press in recent months, including this article in the July issue of Richmond Magazine.

With a number of events scheduled for the fall, the VOSRP is always willing to accept new volunteers to help with collecting shells from the program partners, seek funding and assist with events. The VOSRP is continually seeking funding to support the implementation of the program to meet the demand from the additional communities.

For more information:

August 19, 2015


Presentations from the most recent Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium are now available online at VCU’s Scholars Compass. Publications will continue to be uploaded to this site as they are made available:

Scholars Compass is a publishing platform for the intellectual output of VCU’s academic, research, and administrative communities. Its goal is to provide wide and stable access to the exemplary work of VCU’s faculty, researchers, students, and staff. VCU Libraries administers and oversees the Scholars Compass.

Scholars Compass hosts content that is produced, submitted, or sponsored by VCU faculty, researchers, or staff, and demonstrates scholarly, educational, or research value. Presentations at professional conferences and publications in scholarly venues from graduate and professional students are encouraged. Other content produced or submitted by VCU students must be sponsored by VCU faculty, researchers, or staff.

Graphic of a compass

August 19, 2015


On August 17, the Richmond Times-Dispatch featured an article outlining efforts to solve the problem of invasive blue catfish in the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Rice Rivers Center researchers are collaborating on this project with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and commercial waterman, George Trice; click here to read the full article.


August 19, 2015


Rice Rivers Center affiliated faculty members are leading the team conducting research in the article below. Dr. Rima Franklin and Dr. Scott Neubauer also are conducting other related research at the Rice Rivers Center, such as sea level rise in wetlands along the James.

Click here to read the article.

Research in the wetlands
Along the muddy banks of the Pamunkey River in Virginia’s New Kent County, VCU researchers have built an irrigation system to simulate the potential effects of climate change on tidal wetlands.

August 19, 2015


By way of an introduction to the Rice Rivers Center, the newly-produced video below gives an overview of the research mission of the Center. Many thanks to Connie Kottman, Nicholas Seitz and Dylan Wyco of VCU RecSports for their technical contribution to the effort.

What is happening to our rivers?
Click to watch video

August 19, 2015


The Third Port at Fort Eustis, Virginia, is currently partnered with members of the VCU Rice Rivers Center to support the search for local Atlantic sturgeon through September 2015.

Click here for the full story.

Senior Airman Kimberly Nagle
Senior Airman Kimberly Nagle

Matt Balazik, Virginia Commonwealth University Rice River Center researcher, places a sturgeon into a bin filled with water at Fort Eustis, Va., July 28, 2015. The sturgeon was caught after Balazik and his team placed gill nets into the James River as part of a research project. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kimberly Nagle/Released)

July 30, 2015

Local teacher who partners with VCU earns Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators

President Barack Obama this month named Goochland County middle school teacher Anne Moore a recipient of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. The PIAEE awards are given to 15 environmental educators nationwide who use innovative, hands-on and experiential approaches in their lessons. Moore’s award was based in part on her involvement in a research consortium with Virginia Commonwealth University, informally named the Team Warbler project.

Christy Goldfuss, Anne Moore, Gina McCarthy
Photo from left to right: Christy Goldfuss, Managing Director, White House Council of Environmental Quality; Anne Moore; and Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the EPA.

Through collaboration with VCU faculty and students, Moore leads her Goochland Middle School students in the study of prothonotary warblers, a migratory bird that breeds along rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay and spends winters in the tropics. Team Warbler includes community partners such as the Audubon Society along with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Each winter VCU students enrolled in the Panama Avian Ecology course travel to Panama for two weeks to study the warblers wintering in tropical mangrove forests fringing the Panama Bay. While there, they work closely with the Panama Audubon Society and host local Panamanian schoolchildren for a day in the field to observe the research. When the VCU students and faculty return to Virginia, they teach Moore’s students about wetlands, warblers and conservation challenges shared by communities living on both the Chesapeake and Panama Bays.

Moore’s students have participated in hands-on learning activities, from measuring the light reflected in a bird’s feather to collecting data on nest predation rates along a rural-urban gradient. They also design and build nest boxes to be used at VCU’s long-term study sites along the James River. The work culminates at the end of the spring semester with the middle school class joining the VCU team for a day of hands-on learning about warblers and wetlands on the James River.

The project, now in its fifth year, is based on the concept that preservation of habitats critical to migratory birds is often important to the environmental, economic and cultural well-being of nearby communities, and long-term conservation of these habitats requires cross-cultural cooperation and understanding.

“To solve our future environmental challenges, young people need to understand the science behind the natural world and create a personal connection to the outdoors,” said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. “These teachers and students are demonstrating the important role of environmental education, and showing how individual actions can help address climate change, protect the air we breathe and safeguard the water we drink.”

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center
Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see

July 8, 2015

Living in a world full of hazards

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

Black over red 3-8 was a male peregrine falcon that was hatched on a railroad bridge that crosses the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, VA, in 1993. Within 3 years the bird established a new breeding territory on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge near Hopewell, VA, and produced 27 young over the next 10 years. On 12 February 2007 the bird was found dead near the bridge. Like so many other peregrines that we have tracked over time, the old male flew into a guy wire and was killed.

Male peregrine

Male peregrine 3-8 was killed when it flew into a guy wire near its eyrie on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in 2007. From tracking studies in Virginia we have determined that flying into structures like wires is one of the leading causes of mortality for peregrines. Photo by Bryan Watts.

We kill billions of birds across the globe every year. Many of these birds are like 3-8, unintentional casualties of the infrastructure we have built to support modern society. They fly into hazards that we have erected in their airspace like tall buildings, transmission lines, radio towers, and wind turbines. They are poisoned by chemicals or soiled by oil spills. They become entangled in fishing gear or are hit by cars or trains or airplanes. Some are killed intentionally by hunters or by people who classify them as pests.

Great blue heron found dead under a roadside power line.

Great blue heron found dead under a roadside power line. Work by The Center for Conservation Biology and other research groups has determined that siting of power lines is the primary factor influencing strike-related mortality. Lines should be sited in areas away from primary flightlines. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Two northern gannets tangled in a long-line fishing rig.

Two northern gannets tangled in a long-line fishing rig. Fishing bycatch is a major source of mortality for seabirds throughout the world. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Like with human mortality, we have spent considerable time and effort to quantify the major causes of death. In the United States alone, we estimate that every year nearly 60 million birds are killed by vehicles, 50 million are killed by communication towers, 70 million are killed by pesticides and possibly as many as 1 billion are killed when they fly into buildings. A recent study has estimated that free-ranging domestic cats in the United States kill more than 1 billion birds annually. Understanding mortality factors is an important step toward improving survival. However, mortality factors represent only one side of the story.

American robin hit by a car

American robin hit by a car along a major interstate. Vehicle strikes are estimated to kill 60 million birds, including mostly passerines, annually in the United States alone. Photo by Bart Paxton.

From a conservation perspective, the central question is not how many individuals are killed annually but whether populations have the capacity to absorb the mortality incurred and still reach management objectives. Understanding the relationship between realized mortality rates and sustainable mortality limits serves to focus management actions on factors that have the potential to cause population declines. Over the past several years, The Center for Conservation Biology has been borrowing from harvest theory to estimate sustainable mortality limits for species of conservation concern.

Female osprey shot on nest

Female osprey shot on nest along the York River in Virginia while incubating two eggs. This type of indiscriminate poaching is illegal and has no place in modern society. Photo by Andy Glass.

In 2010, CCB evaluated sustainable mortality limits for waterbird populations using the Western North Atlantic to provide a foundation for understanding potential impacts of offshore wind development (read Wind and Waterbirds). More recently, we have worked with the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to estimate sustainable mortality limits for populations of migratory shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway to better understand the potential impact of shorebird hunting. A paper from this work will be published during the summer of 2015 and is now available online. Following this effort, we have recently worked to estimate sustainable mortality limits for shorebirds using the East Asian-Australasian Flyway to better understand how hunting and other factors may be causing population declines.

A bag of of shorebirds.

A “bag” of shorebirds from a hunting swamp on Guadeloupe. The Center has been focused on modeling mortality limits for shorebirds to better understand how hunting may be involved in ongoing population declines. Photo by Anthony Levesque.

July 7, 2015

Virginia Red-cockaded Woodpeckers finish season by fledging 21 young birds

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Mike Wilson

The breeding season for red-cockaded woodpeckers at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve drew to a close with fledge checks completed during June and July. Thirteen breeding groups produced only 21 young, including 10 males and 11 females. The term “breeding group” is used because red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders where a breeding pair is often assisted in incubation or nest provisioning by helper birds. The 2015 reproductive rate was low compared to the past several years when young per pair has averaged 1.5. Five of the 13 breeding groups that laid eggs failed to fledge any young and one group never laid eggs this season. The lower reproductive output this season was due in part to new breeding pairs that have settled in lower quality habitat and/or are inexperienced. Inexperienced pairs seem to raise fewer young in their first few years. Even some of the long-standing breeding groups that have had a recent turnover of breeding individuals fledged fewer birds than usual. The groups that have retained the same breeding individuals for at least the last 3 years produced larger (3-4 young) broods.

A young red-cockaded woodpecker blissfully sleeps

A young red-cockaded woodpecker blissfully sleeps off the banding experience. This young bird will not open its eyes for another 3 days. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The low reproductive output this season does not undermine the overall success of red-cockaded woodpecker population growth and habitat management at the Preserve. The number of potential breeding groups has almost doubled since 2010. Three new breeding pairs were established in the 2014 breeding season including a site pioneered without the facilitation of artificial recruitment cavities, a first in Virginia since the 1980s. Long term restoration of the habitat at Piney Grove by the Nature Conservancy along with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, has now provided red-cockaded woodpeckers with substantially more breeding and foraging opportunities than have ever existed at this site. This management has benefitted the entire suite of species that rely on the open-canopy southeastern pine ecosystem. The preserve harbors the greatest density of northern bobwhites, red-headed woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches, prairie warblers, and field sparrows in Virginia. The Piney Grove Preserve serves as a model for southeastern pine management within the region and, along with adjacent sites such as the Big Woods Wildlife Management Area and State Forest, forms the cornerstone for long-term ecosystem restoration.

Preparing a color band to be applied to a young red-cockaded woodpecker

Preparing a color band to be applied to a young red-cockaded woodpecker. Unique combinations of color bands are used to identify and follow individuals through their entire lives. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The Center for Conservation Biology will continue annual monitoring of this population with the next activity being the winter census, during which all red-cockaded woodpeckers in the population will be counted to determine status and movement of individuals between groups.

The brood's runt

Consistent with other broods during the 2015 breeding season, this brood has a runt (bottom) that weighed less than half of its larger siblings. This individual did not survive to fledging age. Brood reduction via mortality of smaller young is a common occurrence that serves to match the energy demand of the brood to that provided by parents and insures that at least some young remain healthy and survive to fledging age. Photo by Bryan Watts.

July 6, 2015

CCB launches new and improved Mapping Portal

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Marie Pitts and Bryan Watts

Information is the one lasting contribution that science makes to society. Information is also the common thread that joins all of the diverse disciplines of conservation biology together. The primary focus of The Center for Conservation Biology is the collection, interpretation, and dissemination of information that is central to solving today’s environmental problems. We believe that information is vital to effective conservation and we are committed to meeting the information needs of an expanding community of end users.

In 2009, The Center launched the Virginia Bald Eagle Nest Locator, an online platform that allows users to interact with up-to-date eagle survey results. Due to regulatory requirements, this data resource is in high demand and making the information available online has improved and streamlined the permitting process. This application receives more than 20,000 visits per year. To learn more about the bald eagle annual survey, or to interact with survey data, visit the Eagle Nest Locator data in the Mapping Portal.

An adult bald eagle and two 10-wk old chicks near a nest

An adult bald eagle hangs out near the nest with two 10-wk old chicks along the James River. The Eagle Nest Locator, which displays data from the bald eagle annual survey, is available with new tools on the CCB Mapping Portal. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Screenshot example of the Eagle Nest Locator

Example of the Eagle Nest Locator, including the primary and secondary butter areas.

Responding to the conservation community, The Center has added new features to the Eagle Nest Locator. Beginning in early 2015, The Center requested assistance from AidData (a group with tremendous technical capacity that provides geo-referenced data focused on global aid) to update the features and offerings of the Mapping Portal. Some notable upgrades include: a substantial distance and area measuring tool, a “Generate Link” button that saves the current map view in the URL bar so that you can bookmark or share it with others, a “Print Report” button that generates a one-page report pdf file, and a set of Draw Tools that allow you to add your own lines, shapes, and markers. You can learn more about the new Mapping Portal features on the Mapping Portal FAQ page.

Screenshot of the CCB Mapping Portal

Main components of the CCB Mapping Portal.

Screenshot of the Print Report tool

The “Print Report” tool creates a one-page pdf file that includes the current map view, the current active legend, the names of all active layers, the coordinates of the map center, the date the report was generated, and a link to map at the time the report was generated.

In addition to several new applications, CCB is providing an expanded list of data resources to the Mapping Portal including the National Eagle Roost Registry and recent Colonial Waterbird Surveys. Communal roosts used by bald and golden eagles are locations where numerous eagles spend the night. Roosts are federally protected from disturbance, and the Mapping Portal provides information for regulators by showing roost centroids, polygons, primary/secondary buffers, and a topographic map. Waterbird species are also represented in the Mapping Portal, with layers for the 2003, 2008, and 2013 Colonial Waterbird Surveys. All of these surveys have systematically covered all 24 species of colonial waterbirds throughout the Coastal Plain province of Virginia, and allow for the development of conservation strategies for these sensitive populations. Layers for ongoing citizen science projects OspreyWatch and the U.S. Nightjar Survey have also been added. Stay tuned for newly added data layers!

Brown pelican and double-crested cormorant chicks

Brown pelican and double-crested cormorant chicks on Smith Island in the upper Chesapeake Bay. Both pelicans and cormorants are counted in the CCB colonial waterbird surveys. Surveys from 2003, 2008, and 2013 are currently available to view in the Mapping Portal. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Screenshot of website

The OspreyWatch layer shows a live feed from the website, where users around the globe contribute osprey breeding data.

Additional Links:
Data Distribution Policy
Data Use Agreement

July 2, 2015

Red Skies at Morning, Black Rail Warning

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Mike Wilson

Like the old sailor’s adage, surveys conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology are providing an ominous forecast on the status of black rails within the mid-Atlantic region. Black rails are declining rapidly and are on a crash course for extirpation from the mid-Atlantic region in our lifetime. Biologists at CCB have been conducting a multi-year effort to document the distribution of the black rail throughout this region and recently completed the 2nd year of a 2-year study to determine the status of black rail in North Carolina. It is our hope that locating populations of this species will allow for their protection and management and will help to ensure their future.

An ominous red sky appears in the morning

An ominous red sky appears in the morning as the black rail survey team finishes the all-night survey on the water to document the distribution of black rails. Survey results are forecasting an impending doom for this species unless conservation actions are taken to prevent their extirpation. Photo by Zak Poulton.

Results of the black rail survey in North Carolina tell a tale much like those of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. In the mid-Atlantic, black rails currently occur in a small number of places relative to the amount of available marsh habitat and have declined substantially within their greatest strongholds. We detected black rails at only 19 of 262 survey points in North Carolina, with 9 of these positive locations in close proximity to one another on the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge has long been known to harbor a significant population of black rails with historical accounts of more than 30 birds. However, surveys on the refuge over the last two years have only detected 8 birds. The remaining 10 detections were widely scattered across marshes in coastal counties, with locations including areas such as the Hobucken marshes, where rails have been known to occur since the 1990s. Detections at these off-refuge locations were typically of single birds.

Black rail

Black rail. Photo by David Seibel.

The reasons for the decline of black rails are not completely understood. It is thought that declines may be a result of sea-level rise, nest predators, mosquito control (i.e., ditching and insecticides) and other incompatible management such as prescribed burning, or a combination of these factors. The mid-Atlantic region is projected to undergo a 2-meter rise in sea level in the next 100 years. Rising sea-level can negatively influence habitat over the long term by transforming the high marsh that rails rely on for breeding sites into low marsh, or in the short term by disrupting reproduction due to higher than normal flooding that damages nests and drowns eggs. Overall, the dramatic population loss of Black Rails across eastern tidal salt marshes provides indication that the ecosystem they rely on is no longer suitable. Emergency management actions are required to prevent further population loss and begin restoration.

Project funding for the North Carolina black rails survey is made available through partnership with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dan McCauley

CCB technician Dan McCauley, dons an anti-bug suit while conducting black rail surveys on a marsh edge in North Carolina. Photo by accompanying biologist and boat captain, Zak Poulton.

July 1, 2015

CCB completes successful season of Red Knot resighting in Georgia

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Fletcher Smith and Bryan Watts

Conditions within spring staging sites along the western Atlantic Coast are critical to the future of the rufa population of red knots, which was recently listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. While staging within these sites, birds must build a large enough energy reserve to complete their flight to the Arctic and arrive with enough of a surplus to initiate reproduction and take advantage of the short breeding season. Although considerable work has been conducted to identify and study staging sites within the mid-Atlantic region, much less is known about the distribution and status of sites along the south Atlantic Coast. Filling information gaps about the importance of this region in the life cycle of this imperiled population has become a conservation priority.

Red knot in breeding plumage

Red knot in breeding plumage stages along the Georgia Coast in May. Photo by Perri Rothemich.

A flagged red knot

A flagged red knot forages along the Georgia Coast. This knot was seen by researchers in San Antonio Oeste, Argentina, until the large migratory flocks departed there on April 26th and 27th. The bird was first seen in Georgia on May 7th at Pelican Spit, completing the 6,000-mile journey in at most 10 days. Photo by Perri Rothemich.

The Center for Conservation Biology recently completed the 2nd year of a 3-year study of red knot distribution and population size in coastal Georgia during spring migration. The focus of fieldwork was to use previously flagged birds to examine duration of residency, local movements, connectivity with other staging areas and the number of birds using the coast of Georgia. The project focused on several locations and involved repeated visits to these sites to read leg flags. Information will be used to better understand the importance of the south Atlantic Coast and to designate critical habitat for this population.

CCB technician Amy Whitear

CCB technician Amy Whitear uses a spotting scope to resight red knots foraging among spawning Horseshoe Crabs along the Georgia coast. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

One of the interesting observations during the 2015 season was the foraging flexibility demonstrated by the knots staging in Georgia. Throughout April, knots fed on small clams. As horseshoe crab spawning events were initiated in late April and early May, knots fed on concentrations of crab eggs during high tide and would then switch to feeding on clams when the outgoing tide exposed them to the birds. This two-fisted strategy is highly efficient and different than those of knots in Delaware Bay that feed mostly on horseshoe crabs and knots in Virginia that feed mostly on clams and mussels. In Georgia, the knots fed exclusively on clams in April, fed on clams and crab eggs in late April through mid-May and then fed exclusively on crab eggs in late May. Large concentrations of other shorebirds (including semi-palmated sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, sanderlings, and ruddy turnstones) were observed feeding on horseshoe crab eggs as well.

Horseshoe crabs spawn on a sand bar

Horseshoe crabs spawn on a sand bar along the Georgia coast. Similar spawning events took place in several locations daily between late April and the 3rd week of May. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Several large flocks of red knots were monitored along the coast between Tybee Island and Brunswick. The peak count was on the 23rd of May, when approximately 6,000 knots were seen at the primary roosting and foraging sites. Over 5,000 knots departed Georgia between 24 and 26 May. This late departure suggests that the birds are flying directly from the Georgia Coast to arctic breeding grounds.

A mixed flock of shorebirds forage on horseshoe crab eggs

A mixed flock of shorebirds forage on horseshoe crab eggs on a rising tide in coastal Georgia. Photo by Hillary Thompson.

This project is a collaborative effort by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, The Nature Conservancy, and The Center for Conservation Biology. Significant assistance was provided by the staff of Little St. Simons Island and by Pat and Doris Leary and Perri Rothemich. Funding for the three-year project is provided by US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Georgia Power, and The Center for Conservation Biology.

June 24, 2015

Rediscovering Dolly

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

We mark wildlife in order to identify individuals during future encounters. For some individuals this allows us to determine where they go, how long they live, where they breed and how many young they produce over a lifetime. Releasing a banded bird into the wild is often coupled with a sense of possibility and wonder. We wonder if we will ever hear about this bird again. Will someone, somewhere identify the bird and provide a report of the encounter? In a similar way, when we encounter a marked bird we wonder when and where it was marked and by whom. For some, the story that emerges is unexpectedly rich.

Dolly on her breeding territory along the James River
A beautiful photo of Dolly on her breeding territory along the James River. Photo by Lynda Richardson.

On 26 April 2005, an eaglet was hatched in the Birmingham Zoo by two non-releasable adults given the names Camilla and Gonzo. Camilla was brought to the zoo in 1985 after being shot in Florida. Gonzo was also brought to the zoo in 1985 after he suffered an injury from fishing gear near Seattle, Washington. The eaglet produced by the pair was raised by the zoo until it was 6 weeks old, then driven by Cindy Pinger (Curator of Birds) on 8 June 2005 to the American Eagle Foundation’s (AEF) Douglas Lake hacking facility near Dandridge, Tennessee. The bird was banded with an aluminum band that bore the unique code 629-43814. Following a national naming contest held by AEF, the eaglet was named Dolly in honor of country music legend and AEF patron Dolly Parton.

Dolly along the shoreline of Swift Creek Reservoir
Dolly along the shoreline of Swift Creek Reservoir several months after release on Douglas Lake. She was looking ragged in her second year. Photo by David Bean.

“Dolly” the eagle was housed in the hack tower overlooking Douglas Lake until release on 26 July when she was 13 weeks old. Two days before release, Dolly was fitted with a patagial marker on her left wing that read “5C” in orange digits on a white oval over a green background. On this same day, Dolly was fitted with a tail-mounted radio transmitter and weighed. She weighed 9.8 pounds. After dispersal from the hack site, Dolly was not observed again until 7 months later, when she was photographed by David Bean on 29 March 2006 and identified by her patagial marker on Swift Creek Reservoir just 12 miles southwest of Richmond, Virginia. Following this unusual encounter, Dolly was not noticed again for more than 3 years.

Dolly's aluminum United States Geological Survey band with partial code
Dolly’s aluminum United States Geological Survey band with partial code. Many photos were used to piece together the full code needed to identify Dolly. Photo by Dave Parish.

Captain Mike Ostrander from Richmond runs fishing, wildlife viewing, and history boat tours along a stretch of the James River referred to as Jefferson’s Reach. In the fall of 2009, Ostrander observed an eagle pair establishing a territory along the shoreline of Hatcher’s Island. He would later recognize that the female adult was banded and nicknamed her “Bandit.” Dolly had likely lost the patagial marker and transmitter years before. It would take a number of skilled photographers and many photographs to eventually piece together the aluminum band code 629-43814 to identify Dolly and unlock her long story.

Dolly's young in the nest
Dolly’s young in the nest (rt side) along Hatcher Island on 29 April 2015. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Since the fall of 2009, Ostrander has chronicled the details of Dolly’s life along Jefferson’s Reach. He has watched her lose several nests to storms only to rebuild before each breeding season. He has documented at least 3 different mates. For 4 years he has observed Dolly fight to keep her territory against repeated intrusions by competing females, including one bird that persisted along the boundary of the territory for more than a year. He has observed her vacate the territory when injured only to reappear and exert her control unexpectedly. Although Dolly has attempted to breed through the years, she produced no young until 2015.

Dolly watching over young near fledging age in nest
Dolly (lft) watching over young near fledging age in nest along Hatcher Island on 15 June 2015. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Dolly, now in her 11th calendar year and 6th breeding season, produced a single young in 2015. During CCB’s first aerial survey of the James on 7 March, we observed Dolly incubating. Later in the spring on 29 April, we observed a single young in the nest that was approximately 2 weeks old. This young was observed in the nest throughout the late spring and successfully fledged in June.

From an unlikely beginning in an urban zoo, Dolly has struggled to establish herself and produce young along the James River during a time in the population’s recovery when competitors are many. People along the way who care about bald eagles have contributed to her story, and others have discovered her history through their own curiosity. She has become a fixture along the shoreline of Hatcher Island.

To see Dolly in person and the many eagles of Jefferson’s Reach, take a trip with Captain Mike Ostrander along the James River.

June 16, 2015

VCU Rice Rivers Center researchers publish new work on climate change study

In an interview with the online journal, Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., discusses his work on measuring the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change.

Read more from »

Ariel photograph of wetlands

June 16, 2015

Eagles continue their advance along James River

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

The James River continues to be one of the best barometers of bald eagle recovery within the Chesapeake Bay and likely the nation. Not only does the breeding population continue to rise to new highs year after year, but the birds are revealing patterns that reflect their shifting ecology.

A 3-chick brood stands in a nest
A 3-chick brood stands in a nest along the James River. Three-chick broods were produced by only 10% of pairs in 2015 but in other years have represented as much as 20%. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The 2015 aerial survey of the James conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology recorded 236 pairs that produced 313 young. The population increase (6%) over the 2014 season is slightly lower than the 30-year average and begs the question of when the growth of this population will begin to level off. Productivity (1.3 chicks/pair) is comparable to that recorded on the river over the past ten years, with 20% of pairs failing to produce any young and 10% of pairs producing three-chick broods.

Graph illustrating the history of the bald eagle breeding population
Graph illustrating the history of the bald eagle breeding population along the James River since 1964. Recovery in recent years has been dramatic. Data from The Center for Conservation Biology

The sheer size of the population, its momentum, and the short period of recovery from the DDT era are astounding. In 1990 the James supported only 18 breeding pairs of eagles, and as recently as 2000, the river supported only 57 pairs. Charles City County alone now supports 51 pairs. The concentration of pairs within this historic county is part of a larger pattern of distribution along the river. Much of the colonization over the past 20 years has occurred within the upper, low-salinity reach of the watershed. In the early 2000s, breeding density was 4-fold higher along the freshwater reaches compared to the saltier reaches near the mouth of the river. Over the past 15 years, the density gap has continued to widen with the fresher areas now supporting densities more than 10 times higher than those of areas closer to the mouth of the river. This distribution pattern points to the areas along the river that are best suited to support breeding eagles. These same areas are where we should focus eagle management activities.

Maps comparing the 2015 population of breeding eagle pairs to that surveyed in 2000
Maps comparing the 2015 population of breeding eagle pairs to that surveyed in 2000. Data from The Center for Conservation Biology

Since the aerial survey along the James River was initiated in 1962, we have seen the population decline to zero only to roar back in recent years to modern highs. Now that the population appears to be “out of the woods,” why do we continue to invest in surveys of this recovering population? The answer is that this ecological story is not complete. Many questions remain that are significant not just to eagles but to understanding many other predator populations across the planet.

Visit CCB’s Eagle Nest Locator to access an interactive map of nest locations along the James River, or learn more about CCB’s Annual Bald Eagle Survey.

June 10, 2015

Trailblazers club visits Rice Rivers Center

The Trailblazers of Ford’s Colony visited the VCU Rice Rivers Center on May 14; about 30 people came to hike the trails, kayak through the wetlands and bike the surrounding beautiful area. This group focuses on planning visits to sites of “interest” and chose the RRC as one which was of definite interest to this engaged and active group of outdoor adventurers. Having been given a brief presentation on the research, education and outreach done at and through the Center, a participant noted, “It is so good that you are doing this important work.”

Trailblazers club

June 10, 2015

Saving a songbird

The golden-winged warbler (GWWA) is a declining migratory songbird that requires high elevation shrubland habitat. In Virginia, the highest concentration of this species is in the mountains that mark the headwaters of the James and Potomac Rivers (specifically, in Highland and Bath Counties). Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and The Nature Conservancy are all members of the Virginia GWWA Partners, a working group of the Virginia Bird Conservation Initiative. VDGIF contracted with Dr. Lesley Bulluck (Assistant Professor of Biology and an Affiliate Faculty Member of the VCU Rice Rivers Center) to purchase and deploy 25 geolocators in the Allegheny Highlands this spring. This effort is part of a larger, range-wide effort to understand the degree of migratory connectedness among breeding populations in North America and non-breeding areas in central and South America resulting in further connectivity between researchers from far flung parts of the globe — a collaboration perfectly exemplified by the assistance given by three crew members from the University of Minnesota who visited the Rice Rivers Center to show the team how to deploy the units.

Golden-winged warbler male with geolocator
Golden-winged warbler male with geolocator

Geolocators ready to deploy
Geolocators ready to deploy

From left: Gunnar Kramer (with field technicians Kate and Cassie) of University of Minnesota; Jenna Dodson, Nik Moy, and Lesley Bulluck of VCU
From left: Gunnar Kramer (with field technicians Kate and Cassie) of University of Minnesota; Jenna Dodson, Nik Moy, and Lesley Bulluck of VCU