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News and events
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

June 10, 2015

“Footprints on the James” class


Beginning on May 18, the much-anticipated return of this fascinating class began. Starting with preparations in town at the VCU Outing Rental Center, the class geared up for a four week journey that will cover the length of the James River. From the headwaters near Irongate all the way to Jamestown, the class is traveling in canoes and kayaks and camping along the way, including a stop at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. The aim of the class is to explore the past and present of the river from a historical and biological standpoint, paying particular attention to the influences these areas have on each other. The class is a collaboration between the Department of Biology and the Center for Environmental Studies.

Follow the Footprints via this story tour:

Follow the Footprints on Instagram:

June 10, 2015

Rice Rivers Center director featured speaker at Focus Club

Dr. Len Smock

On April 27, Dr. Len Smock, Director of the VCU Rice Rivers Center, was the speaker for the Richmond Focus Club’s final meeting of the 2014-2015 season; he gave a comprehensive overview of the Center and the research conducted therein. The Focus Club, in existence since 1953, is aimed at increasing awareness and involvement in civic matters. The Rice Rivers Center is grateful for the opportunity to spread understanding of the issues that face not only the James River, but rivers worldwide, their watersheds and the species that inhabit those watersheds.

June 10, 2015

Students connecting the bays

Students in costume

On May 12, VCU Graphic Design professor and VCU Rice Rivers Center’s artist in residence, Laura Chessin, began a quest to tell the story of connections. Accompanied by Wyatt Carpenter, graduate student in the Center for Environmental Studies, Chessin has launched a blog to help track their journey from Virginia to Panama.

As part of a Community Engagement grant co-authored with Cathy Viverette, Lesley Bulluck and Ed Crawford, this trip is an effort to continue to make connections between the people and resources of Panama and Virginia. Chessin notes, “As we connect cultures, we emphasize that we share resources and conservation challenges. Protection of habitat for the Prothonotary Warbler—the bird that is at the center of all of these Panama-Virginia projects— and the many species of plants and animals living throughout their ecosystems is important to nearby communities. Things important to avian communities are important to human communities — essential things for quality of life: clean water, healthy habitat, good food sources, and sustainable livelihoods.”

Since 2010, TEAM Warbler has been working with students from Chesterfield and Goochland Middle Schools learning about the Prothonotary Warblers and the critical wetland habitats that sustain them here in Virginia. During the summer of 2014, Chessin featured students from Goochland Middle School exploring the Chesapeake Bay along with VCU researchers in her film “From BaytoBay”. This year she returned to Panama to tell the story of middle and high school students exploring the critical mangrove habitats fringing Panama and Chame Bays. They began the journey by starting with middle school students at Sabot Stony Point, gathering notes, drawings and stories from the students and a teacher by way of introducing themselves to the students with whom they would connect in Panama.

This summer, Chessin will take the footage collected on their journey and use it to further tell the story of the Warbler project, the mangrove preservation and restoration efforts, sustainability and the human connections being made across the sea.

Click here to access the blog:

June 10, 2015

Linda Fernandez, Ph.D. lead investigator on Arctic bioeconomic analysis

Arctic ice

It has been called the “wild west” and one of our last frontiers; VCU’s Linda Fernandez, Ph.D. aims to help save it. Funded under the Belmont Forum, an international consortium focusing on global environmental research and the NSF, Fernandez’ international team has received a grant of over $700K to cover five years of study.

The project is entitled “Bioeconomic analysis for Arctic Marine Resource Governance and Policy” (abbreviated BAAMRGP).

The aim of the study is to provide insights for governance and marine resource management in order to prevent, contain, mitigate, and/or adapt to changes in Arctic marine resource productivity. The questions that must be answered include:

  1. What are the bioeconomic features of Arctic marine resources at risk of change over space and time?
  2. How do human behavior and policy incentives directly and indirectly impact these marine resources?
  3. What are the best governance options for Arctic marine resources?

Fernandez and her team will develop, through innovative bioeconomic analyses and application of game theoretic tools, integrated marine resource management tools for decision making designed for the unique Arctic environment, its complex geopolitical configuration, and the changing risks and uncertainties over space and time.

An international interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research team of principal investigators has been established. They will focus on the dynamics of existing and new commercial fisheries generated from introduced invasive species, the threat of marine invasive species, vessel strikes of marine mammals and noise from vectors accompanying increasing trade and marine infrastructure in the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route. Their research offers predictive analysis of policy and governance options to sustain marine resources through an integrated framework that formally includes adaptive management through use of Arctic Observing Systems data. The researchers address three themes:

  1. The Natural and Living Environment,
  2. Natural Resource Management and Development and
  3. Governance.

This research will result in an integrated ecological and game theoretic behavioral framework that contributes to Arctic stewardship by enabling policymakers to specify appropriate policies for sustainable harvest practices, abating invasive species and marine pollution, and optimal resource conservation. Through the policies, society and the economy linked to the Arctic are positively impacted. The research plan calls for engagement with two Arctic Council working groups: the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna and the Sustainable Development Working Group.

Fernandez’ team includes Brooks Kaiser, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, Denmark; Jan Sundet, Institute of Marine Research, Tromsø, Norway; Niels Vestergaard, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, Denmark; Whitman Miller of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Annapolis, MD; Sergey Bakanov and Konstantin Sokolov, Polar Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography, Murmansk, Russia; Sue Moore, NOAA, Seattle, WA.

For more information on the study and the Belmont Forum:

June 10, 2015

Rice River Center’s own Anne Wright receives award

Friends of James River Park has honored three individuals to be the 2015 Ralph White River Hero Award winners in a ceremony held on April 30 at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. In 2011, the Friends of the James River Park launched the River Heroes Award as a way to acknowledge and honor individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the James River Park System. The award was renamed the Ralph White River Hero Award in 2015 to honor the contributions of former Park Superintendent Ralph White.

Honorees are chosen for a variety of reasons, which include volunteer work, educational efforts, preservation, and promotional activities that encourage responsible use of the Park. VCU Rice Rivers Center’s own Anne Wright was one of three recipients, honored for her cumulative work in the James River Park system over many years with special emphasis on the excellent work she has accomplished in developing and launching the Science in the Park website. Though many talented and knowledgeable individuals have contributed to this wonderful program, Wright has been central to the collaboration and this award acknowledges her critical role.

The VCU Rice Rivers Center extends hearty congratulations to all three of the winners.

2015 winners of Ralph White River Hero Award

2015 winners of Ralph White River Hero Award: Scott Turner, founder and co-owner of TrueTimber Tree service and Riverside Outfitters; Dennis Bussey of James River Hikers; Anne Wright, VCU Rice Rivers Center, Outreach and Community Engagement

Past and present winners of Ralph White River Hero Award

Past and present winners of Ralph White River Hero Award

June 10, 2015

iNaturalists contribute citizen science data in park system


On May 16, the public was invited to “Become an iNaturalist Photographer” in the James River Park System. iNaturalist is a website that is creating a “living record of life on Earth”, and relies on team members to post digital records such as photographs and sound files that document species in an area. Local naturalist Paul Bedell, along with VCU Rice Rivers Center’s Anne Wright, conducted the training session, which included both an introduction to iNaturalist and to our own James River Park System iNat project. Next, the group headed into the Park to photograph plants and animals; upon returning to Park Headquarters, participants learned how to prepare their images and post them to the website.

The participants are continuing to deliver many observations to the Park project, and their observations are recorded here:

Another training session will be held on Saturday, August 8 from 9-12 at Park Headquarters. For more information, contact

Learn more on the iNaturalist website.

June 7, 2015

Redknots and Climate Change

VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Knots in the news:

Bryan Watts (CCB) and Alex Wilke (TNC) took environmental reporter Rex Springston and photographer Alex Edlund from the Richmond Times Dispatch out to Metomkin Island along Virginia’s Eastern Shore to see red knots and discuss the role of Virginia in their annual cycle. Due to severe declines over the past two decades, the rufa population of red knots was federally listed as threatened in December of 2014. Red knots stage along the Virginia barrier islands in spring before making their final fight to arctic breeding grounds.

Read the RTD story here:

Alex Wilke talks with reporter Rex Springston and Kathy Springston about red knots
Alex Wilke (right) talks with reporter Rex Springston (left) and Kathy Springston (middle) about red knots on the north end of Metomkin Island as a flock forages along the inlet. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Alex Edlund photographs a flock of red knots
Alex Edlund photographs a flock of red knots on the north end of Metomkin Island. Photo by Bryan Watts.

June 3, 2015

President Rao joins class on river

On April 21, VCU President Michael Rao joined Dr. Paul Bukaveckas’ class on River and Estuarine Ecology. The president joined the students in fish and water sampling close to the VCU Rice Rivers Center and all enjoyed an extraordinarily beautiful day. In talking with the students Dr. Rao emphasized the importance of the Rice Rivers Center in providing opportunities for learning outside the classroom and especially in providing students with the practical experience needed to become the next generation of water resource professionals. Many thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for their help in facilitating this trip.

VCU President Michael Rao with Dr. Paul Bukaveckas' class on the river VCU President Michael Rao inspects river water with a student