VCU Rice Center

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News and events
Sept. 8, 2014

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

Red knot staging in Virginia. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

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

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

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

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

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

August 27, 2014

Banding woodpeckers
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

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

By Bryan Watts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 19, 2014

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

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

By Bryan Watts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 31, 2014

Short film features tiny travelers

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

July 29, 2014

Rice Rivers Center announces Mountains to the Sea collaboration

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


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

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

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

Unique opportunities

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

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

Student interns

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

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

Partners in education

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

July 23, 2014

Three-year grant funded for oyster restoration study

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

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

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

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

July 23, 2014

Green roof a star

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

July 23, 2014

Update on VCU’s long-term studies of the Prothonotary Warbler along the lower James River 2014: Geolocators

Between June 16 and June 26 , 25 geolocators were deployed by Team Warbler members from VCU and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College at two study sites along the upper James River (Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and Deep Bottom Park). The units were deployed on 19 females and six male Prothonotary Warblers, at least two years of age, and with active nests. These birds that are two years old or older that have nested a second year at a specific site have the highest return rates in subsequent years. All individuals fitted with geolocators continued to be monitored by Team Warbler to ensure the units remain in place and do not interfering with normal nesting activities.

Prothonotary Warblers provide an ideal research model for Neotropical migratory species because they readily utilize artificial nest boxes and have a high tolerance for handling, making them easy to capture and monitor over long periods. In addition to the James River population in Virginia, Prothonotary Warblers currently are being monitored by researchers across their breeding range including research initiatives in Illinois, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Louisiana. However, data gaps still exist regarding migratory pathways and geographic (migratory and genetic) connectivity among populations occupying breeding and wintering habitats. Understanding the connections between breeding and wintering ranges is essential to informing conservation strategies going forward.

To that end, a group of conservation partners comprised of several federal, state, non-government organizations (NGOs), and universities including Virginia Commonwealth University and its Audubon partners, are working to better understand the full life-cycle of the Prothonotary Warbler. The research partners are utilizing cutting-edge technologies, including stable isotope analysis, population genetics, and deployment of geolocators (miniaturized solar light-logging devices) to track Prothonotary Warbler migratory routes in order to understand the ecology and conservation needs of migrant birds throughout the entire annual cycle.

The first year of the project is a trial study involving deployment of 50 geolocators on Prothonotary Warblers at two sites (Virginia and Louisiana). The geolocators being deployed are smaller than used previously on Prothonotary Warblers, and have specially designed light stalks. The small size and angled aspect of the light stalks are designed to decrease weight and drag, maximizing return rates of individual birds carrying the units. The birds have to be recaptured upon return to the breeding grounds in 2015 in order to download the data from the geolocators. The data should provide information on the species’ migration routes, timing, duration and location of tropical wintering grounds.

Funds toward purchasing geolocators and conducting stable isotope analysis have been generously provided by the VCU Center for Environmental Studies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge System and the Norcross Wildlife Foundation through a grant to the Virginia Audubon Council.

July 23, 2014

Another crowned eagle shot
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Young eagle on banding day that was recently shot. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

In June, The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) received news from Argentina that another crowned solitary eagle had been shot.

This bird was one of 12 individuals being tracked with satellite transmitters as part of a collaborative study between the Center for the Study of Birds of Prey of Argentina (Centro para el Estudio y Conservación de las Aves Rapaces en Argentina, located within the Universidad de La Pampa, The Center for Conservation Biology, and The Peregrine Fund ( The broad study was designed to investigate dispersal and movement patterns during the juvenile stage, a period during the life cycle of crowned eagles that biologists know nothing about.

Maxi Galmes ( top) and Manu Grande (below) from the raptor center climb a calden nest tree to retrieve the single young for banding. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The bird was initially marked in 2012 along with five other nestlings. Only a single bird of this initial cohort is still on the wing. Two of the birds have been shot and two have been electrocuted.

This remarkable eagle is critically endangered with a declining global population estimated to be well below 1,000 individuals. The species is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List (, is included on the threatened lists of both Brazil and Argentina and is presumed extirpated in Uruguay with no reported sightings since 1933. Extremely little is known about crowned eagle population biology and basic ecology.

Isabel Luque Romero holds the young eagle on banding day. Photo by Bart Paxton.

The shooting of these individuals is senseless. Crowned eagles feed almost exclusively on snakes and armadillos and pose no threat to any domestic animals. The crowned eagle has a very low reproductive rate, producing a maximum of only one young per year. This life history strategy is not sustainable without relatively high survival. In addition to habitat loss, juvenile and/or adult mortality from human sources may play an important role in the continuing decline. The ongoing tracking study is intended to quantify survival to breeding age. Four birds still remain from the 2013 cohort and two remain from the 2014 cohort.

Gunshot wound on wing of downed eagle. Photo by Maxi Galmes.

Learn more about the crowned solitary eagle tracking project (

July 23, 2014

Rice Rivers Center hires full-time data manager

We are pleased to announce that Jennifer Ciminelli has joined the Rice Rivers Center as data manager and research coordinator. Jennifer comes back to VCU after gaining extensive experience working in the geospatial technology field. She received her B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology from the State University of New York and an M.S. in Environmental Science from VCU.

Her work and research experience have involved using geospatial technologies to model change in terrestrial and aquatic environments. In addition, she has worked in IT positions with local government, state government, and the private sector. Her work has included collaborations on environmental applications of geospatial technology as well as management of enterprise geographic systems. Jennifer will be a great asset to the Rice Rivers Center, bringing her interest in the application of geospatial technology to the environmental field in data coordination, collaboration and teaching.

July 22, 2014

Wetland restoration update

Restoration of the 70-acre wetlands at the Rice Rivers Center is proceeding apace. Subcontractors from The Nature Conservancy have planted approximately 15,000 trees and shrubs, and an additional 10,000 plants will be planted in the fall. Vegetation monitoring starts this summer under the supervision of Dr. Ed Crawford, using undergraduate and graduate student research assistance. Dr. Len Smock, the Rice Rivers Center director, is conducting stream monitoring of Kimages Creek.

The overarching goal of the project is to restore the wetland to the state it was in before the area was dammed to create Charles Lake in the early 20th century. Researchers have examined stumps that remain from that era, and are replacing similar species in the wetlands as were originally there. Each stump is being geo-located to accurately plant replacements.

The method for identifying the original trees is multifaceted: cross-sections of stumps (“stump cookies”) are cut and brought into the lab, sanded down and identified. Graduate student Richard Ward has developed an 11-step process to identify species and determine the average age of the trees.

This process has been completed on approximately 10 percent of the stumps. A total of 4,500 stumps have been found and geo-located. It has been determined that there are approximately 15-20 species of trees native to the wetland.

With the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, drones carrying high-tech instrumentation are being used to create high-resolution images of the wetland to help gauge the success of the restoration efforts.

July 22, 2014

Osprey return to the Elizabeth
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Female osprey on nest with brood. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

During the height of the DDT era, breeding ospreys along the Elizabeth River in Virginia disappeared completely. Some 30 years later, when the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) surveyed the Chesapeake Bay osprey population, the tributary still seemed to be frozen in time. During the historic survey of 1995, only 8 breeding pairs were found. Unlike the other vibrant creeks, rivers and bays of the estuary where ospreys were thriving, piloting a survey boat along the Elizabeth gave an eerie flashback to the 1960s and 1970s. Like its sister superfund tributaries the Anacostia and Baltimore Harbor, the Elizabeth was a ghost town full of empty nesting structures.

Bryan Watts (r) from CCB and Casey Shaw (l) from the Elizabeth River Project use an extendable mirror pole to check an osprey brood along the Elizabeth River. Photo by Marian Watts.

In 2000 and 2001, wildlife contaminants expert Barnett Rattner from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center collected egg samples from the Elizabeth River, Anacostia River, and Baltimore Harbor to compare to three “clean” tributaries. During this period, eggs collected within the Elizabeth still contained elevated levels of DDT derivatives and various industrial compounds. However, productivity was not suppressed and eggshell thickness, an outward indicator of pesticide problems, had nearly recovered to pre-DDT levels.

Map of osprey pairs along the Elizabeth River from the 1995 survey.

Map of osprey pairs along the Elizabeth River from the 2014 survey.

Now, more than 40 years after the federal ban on DDT, osprey pairs are returning to the Elizabeth River in numbers. During the 2014 breeding season, CCB along with staff from the Elizabeth River Project ( the entire tributary, mapping 60 breeding pairs and documenting 73 young. One of the more satisfying aspects of the population recovery to date is that 16 of the 60 pairs are nesting on osprey platforms erected by private citizens along the shoreline. Aside from the overall cleanup of the tributary, platforms are one of the most effective management tools we have for the breeding population.

To build a platform for nesting osprey or to adopt a pair to monitor in future years, visit our OspreyWatch ( website.

An osprey chick less than one day after hatching. Photo by Bryan Watts.

July 22, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center’s latest publication

As we approach the fifty-publication mark at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, we congratulate Dr. Michael Fine on his latest article, “Reduction of the pectoral spine and girdle in domesticated channel catfish is likely caused by changes in selection pressure”, by Michael L. Fine, Shweta Lahiri, Amanda D. H. Sullivan, Mark Mayo, Scott H. Newton and Edward N. Sismour, which was published in the July 2014 journal, Evolution: The International Journal of Organic Evolution.

Catfishes are one of the most successful groups of vertebrates, with over 3,000 different species. One of the adaptations that have led to their success is a pectoral spine that looks like a medieval weapon. When locked at a right angle, the spines increase the catfish's size and make it harder for predators to eat them. In this study, Fine and colleagues have shown that domesticated channel catfish that have not experienced fish predation for a number of generations have smaller spines than wild catfish, and that the difference appears to result from changes in selection pressure.

Images of a catfish spine (click to enlarge)

July 21, 2014

One if by land, two if by sea
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

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

By Mike Wilson

The black rail is the most imperiled bird species along the Atlantic Coast. This species has undergone a range reduction, a loss of historical breeding sites, and a decline in numbers at their most critical strongholds. Recent surveys have shown a drastic 80% loss of breeding sites in the Chesapeake Bay over the short span of 15 years. It is very possible that black rail will become extirpated in many portions of their range in our lifetime without emergency management intervention.

Like Paul Revere’s historic ride to warn the people of Concord of the impending British march, conservation biologists are pressed to provide the appropriate signal in the tower of the Old North Church to prevent the species collapse. The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has taken a lead role in bringing biologists together and is undertaking specific field studies to help plot a course to halt and reverse this species’ declines.

Marsh complex of low and high elevation habitats. High marsh is composed of salt-meadow hay (Spartina patens) and intermixed with shrubs (Baccharis spp.) and black needlerush (Juncus roemarianus) and used exclusively by black rails. These habitats are at high risk to be lost from sea-level rise and contain significant populations of nest predators. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Unfortunately, recent investigations suggest that all three lanterns are required to warn the conservation community. Black rails appear to be threatened by two distinct lines of attack resulting from unprecedented rates of sea-level rise and high levels of nest predators that emanate from adjacent upland habitats.

This past year, CCB conducted an experimental approach to investigate the nesting potential of the high marsh habitats that black rails exclusively rely upon. The high marsh is a thin margin of habitat that forms on elevated terraces between the lower marsh and terrestrial upland. Historically, high marshes were only inundated during extreme tidal events and storms. The vegetation of this habitat forms a savanna-like groundcover of distinct marsh grasses and the ground is relatively dry when travelling across. Black rails successfully evolved nesting in these higher elevation habitats because they were at a lower risk of being flooded.

Clapper rail nest in high marsh of the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Daniel Poulton.

Specifically, our study was designed to determine fates of artificial nests containing quail eggs in the high marsh to pose as surrogates for species like clapper rails, Virginia rails, and black rails. Sea-level rise ultimately threatens to alter or destroy high marsh habitats through conversion but more proximately acts as a silent killer to species like black rails by inundating nests at a greater frequency. High marshes undergoing higher rates of inundation may show little sign of habitat change over the short term while the habitats are essentially being denuded of reproductive potential. Throughout the course of the study, the high marshes examined were repeatedly flooded with water levels greater than nesting height. Each of these flooding events poses significant risks of nesting failure.

The pattern of nest predation also revealed how reproductive potential of high marshes are severely limited. Sixty-four percent of artificial nests were depredated within the first 7 days of exposure and nearly 92% were depredated within the first 20 days of exposure. The average number of exposure days before depredation (=7.4) of all nests was less than half the time required for species such as black rails, clapper rails, and Virginia rails to complete a full incubation period.

Nest losses from flooding and predation are overwhelming threats to black rails and other ground nesters in high marsh habitats. Results from broad surveys for black rails in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina indicate that there are large blocks of appropriate habitat that remain unoccupied. This suggests that disruption of demographic processes may be more important to explaining population declines than habitat loss. Losses of black rails from historic strongholds that appear to have experienced little or no vegetation change in the face of sea-level rise further support the notion that population declines are tied to demographic threats such as reproductive success or adult survival. However, the future for black rail habitats also appears dire. Previous work completed by CCB has shown that greater than 95% of black rail habitats will be lost over the next 100 years at current rates of sea-level rise (

Management solutions for black rails must provide habitats with high nesting potential that are also protected over the long term from the negative effects of sea-level rise. The next challenge for CCB is to begin working on configuring management recommendations for impounded wetland habitats so they may be made available for black rail occupation and nesting.

Seaside Sparrows use both high and low marsh habitats but are at risks of wetland loss from rising sea-levels and high nest predation. Photo by Bryan Watts.