Dec. 10, 2013
Chesapeake Bay cormorants continue steep ascent
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology
By Bryan Watts
On May 23, 1978 while out conducting fieldwork, Charlie Blem, avian ecologist from Virginia Commonwealth University, discovered six pairs of double-crested cormorants nesting on the James River near Hopewell, Va. This was the first documented breeding of the species within the Chesapeake Bay region. The historic event was little noticed and there was no indication that in more than three decades the species would take root and become one of the dominant fish consumers within the estuary. However, during the 2013 breeding season, a survey conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology documented more than 5,000 pairs breeding in 12 colonies throughout the Chesapeake Bay. This population would be expected to consume nearly 3,000 metric tons of fish annually.
Growth in the Chesapeake Bay breeding population has been both rapid and dramatic. As recently as 1993, a survey conducted by the center documented only 354 pairs. During a visit in that year to Smith Island, Bryan Watts and Mitchell Byrd discovered six nests built on top of old brown pelican nests. In 2013, this colony is the largest in the bay supporting nearly 2,500 pairs.
Cormorant chicks on nest within the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Bryan Watts.
Cormorants of several species are now considered nuisances within numerous locations across the globe. In North America, populations were recovering from widespread shooting during the 1940s and 1950s only to be reduced to new lows by the 1960s due to the impacts of DDT. Since the banning of DDT, historic populations have experienced dramatic recoveries leading to conflicts over the destruction of habitat required by other bird species, nutrient inputs into waterways and fish consumption. Impacts of overwintering populations on the aquaculture industry throughout the southeast lead the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue an aquaculture depredation order for 13 southern states in 1998. Conflicts with commercial and recreational fishing have led to the ongoing control of northern breeding populations.
Mixed double-crested cormorant and brown pelican colony on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Bart Paxton.
The Chesapeake Bay has always been a significant wintering site for northern populations. For the decade prior to the discovery of breeding there was a documented increase of cormorants using the bay during the winter. The current size of the winter population is not known but believed to be substantial. Northern birds that have not reached breeding age also oversummer in the bay in unknown numbers. The rise of the breeding population greatly increases the fish demand during the summer period.
Forested island in the upper James River that support cormorant roosts during the winter. Heavy guano may kill trees over time forcing the roosts to relocate. Photo by Bryan Watts.
Nov. 21, 2013
Allyson Kennedy researches what occurs in development to create human birth defects such as cleft lip.
Yet for a research project, Kennedy and her research partners employed a technique most often used to examine fossil records.
“And we read a lot of papers that were outside of our field to get an idea of how to best apply our method,” she said, citing works in ecology, paleontology and even psychology.
Stephen Via hopes to use his research to identify explosives hidden in soil by that soil’s plant life. In addition to plant physiology and ecology, Via and his team employ physics to examine how light reflects off the vegetation.
“We’re approaching soil chemistry, how the soil compounds go into the plants, how they’re then altering the plants’ health and function, and then how we can detect all of this,” he said.
ILS student Neha Sakhawalkar discusses her poster, “Protein-Protein Interaction Networks in Microbes and Ecosystems: A Novel Technology Using Next Generation Sequencing” at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase.
Kennedy and Via are Ph.D. students in VCU Life Sciences’ Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) program. Each presented at Monday’s fourth annual ILS Student Research Showcase, which featured four student presentations and a poster session with 11 student presenters.
All of the research on display exemplified what Thomas Huff, Ph.D., VCU’s vice provost for life sciences and research, uses as a chief characterization of VCU’s ILS program: “radical interdisciplinarity.”
It is a concept William Eggelston, Ph.D., ILS Program director, said is the future of science.
“The days of one principal investigator sitting isolated in a lab are fast going away,” he said. “Multidiscipline, multidepartment and multiuniversity research is the future.”
Huff said this future was recognized 12 years ago when then-VCU President Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., leveraged VCU’s two-campus opportunity in working to establish VCU Life Sciences, which has come to embrace radical interdisciplinarity and a systems-based approach, “relying on a universitywide matrix organization that includes hundreds of faculty members.”
Fulbright scholar and ILS student Julie Charbonnier with her poster at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase. Conducted in Donana National Park, Spain, her experiment examined relationships between possible climate change outcomes and resulting tadpole population densities.
Today, ILS represents what multicampus, interdisciplinary research can be. The flexible program offers students opportunities to draw from the varied disciplines that comprise VCU Life Sciences as well as to work in laboratories on both campuses.
Those disciplines – including biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, forensic science, bioinformatics, physics and many others – have been fused in ILS research to identify genes associated with aging in yeast, to characterize reproductive patterns in James River Sturgeon, and as Kennedy shared with the group this week, to quantify orofacial development and median clefts.
An advantage beyond interdisciplinary research being a more powerful way to approach scientific questions, Huff said, “is that the job market and corporate employers work on interdisciplinary teams, so having our students already familiar with the work style of a highly interdisciplinary team gives them a leg up.”
Kennedy agrees that so far the approach has given her a leg up in her research.
Benjamin Colteaux discusses his ILS poster, “Historic Commercial Harvest of Snapping Turtles in Virginia.” Part of his abstract reads, “The most well-known examples of population collapses due to overharvesting have been documented in fisheries; however, reptiles, particularly turtles, are also threatened.”
“For us, with birth defects, they’re a multifaceted process in how they arise and the tissues that are affected, so it makes sense to take a multifaceted approach to studying them,” she said. “And a lot of things in science are like that; there are a lot of variables that go into many things and it makes sense to take different approaches to get to the heart of it – to get to the answer.”
The answer Via seeks addresses the concern that people are unknowingly coming across land mines and cluster bombs around the world with horrific results.
“We want to develop a system where you just go in and look at the vegetation without endangering human life,” he said. “And the ILS program is essential to my work because I have to have an understanding of chemistry, physics, plant function, soil function, microbial function –and I’ll admit that I’m not strong in all of those areas – but the ILS program has encouraged me to go out and find people that are strong in all of those areas.
“You can’t be a narrow-minded scientist that only studies a small facet of a system. You now have to look at the broader scale and take into consideration all of these different factors.”
ILS student Catherine Vaughan discusses her poster at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase. Her research focuses on p53, the most frequent mutated “driver” gene in some cancers, including lung cancer. The project demonstrates that a lung cancer cell’s capability of causing tumors can be blocked by certain targeting, thus pointing toward new treatment strategies for the majority of lung cancer patients.
Nov. 20, 2013
Laughing gulls no match for rising seas
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology
By Bryan Watts
In one of the most dramatic responses to sea-level rise to date, laughing gulls within a historic stronghold along the Lower Delmarva Peninsula have collapsed in less than a decade. A recent survey conducted by the Center for Conservation Biology has revealed that the population declined from more than 25,000 to less than 4,400 breeding pairs between 2003 and 2013.
Stable for decades, the breeding population began to experience notable problems in the early 2000s when significant tidal events repeatedly washed out eggs and nests. Since that time, tidal disturbance appears to have pushed the population beyond a tipping point. Because the marsh islands used for nesting have little topographic relief, nearly the entire system was impacted simultaneously and the space used for nesting declined by more than 85 percent. Now, historic landmarks, such as Gull Marsh and Egg Island, named for the breeding birds no longer support them.
A pair of laughing gulls court in Virginia before the breeding season. Photo by Bart Paxton.
Unlike herring and great black-backed gulls that have expanded their breeding range into the mid-Atlantic region over the past half century, laughing gulls have bred along the coast throughout recorded history. Breeding birds feed on a wide variety of prey but consume a large number of insects, many of which are agricultural pests. The species migrates to winter grounds in Central America, returning in April and May to historic breeding areas. For millions of Americans living along the outer coast, the raucous call of the laughing gull is one of the most familiar sounds of spring.
Historically, laughing gulls have been the most numerous seabird nesting within the mid-Atlantic region. The Center for Conservation Biology along with agency and nonprofit partners has surveyed the population periodically since the early 1980s.
A comparison of laughing gull nesting colonies along the Lower Delmarva Peninsula in Virginia. Many colonies on marsh islands have fallen to sea-level rise between 2003 and 2013. Data from The Center for Conservation Biology.
Oct. 30, 2013
Science in the Park
Whether it is by hopping on a bike and riding up and down rugged trails, heading onto the water for some rafting or taking a stroll in search of spring warblers, eagles and herons, the parks along the James River offer plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors.
It’s also an area brimming with natural wonder. And beneath that wonder is a foundation of science.
That science – geology, plant and animal life, rock pools, and more – is now being showcased through a newly launched component on the James River Park System website called “Science in the Park.”
Visitors to the park use their smartphones as a walking companion to take a guided tour through the fall zone geology, and area students can surf the net from their classrooms to learn more about nature unique to the James River as they click through the site to view videos, lectures and more featuring local experts in those fields.
VCU biology students examine life found in a rock pool at James River Park in Richmond.
The initiative, led by Anne Wright, assistant professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education, was created to highlight signature aspects of the park from a scientific perspective. Wright also serves as a board member for The Friends of the James River Park.
The Science in the Park tab offers fun facts, videos and information about the geology, plant and animal life of the James River.
“Visitors to the park can do and view a lot right on their cell phones and it offers them a window into what they can do and see at the park that is science-based,” Wright said. “We hope this effort adds a dimension of understanding and appreciation of the park and the nature there -- there’s more there than meets the eye.”
The site further serves as an educational tool that can be used by the community at large to learn about the value and wonder taking place in their own backyards. There are teaching resources and lesson plans for area school teachers to incorporate into their curriculums and help spark interest in conservation and the environment among youngsters.
VCU biology students measure and examine a rock pool, also known as a pothole, at James River Park.
For the past year, Wright worked closely with videographer Melissa Lesh, a recent VCU graduate, to create videos that capture the scientific nature of various elements found within the park system. The pair collaborated with Ralph White, park manager emeritus, to narrate a video about fairy shrimp. One about dragonflies and damselflies will be released soon.
The fairy shrimp video, filmed in the wetlands area of the James River Park System by Lesh, Wright and White, was chosen as one of 65 short science-related films highlighted during the Sixth Annual Imagine Science Film Festival in New York earlier this month. The film was selected from a competitive pool of nearly 500 entries.
Fairy shrimp have a short window of time when they may be found. They are found in temporary waters, or vernal pools, that fill up with rain and snow during the winters and then dry up just as fast as summer approaches.
“These are iconic species found in these pools, and we were very excited when we found them one day last year in a system of wetlands in the park,” Wright said.
Another video on the site explores the biology and life in rock pools, or potholes, found in the park. The video features VCU biologist James Vonesh, Ph.D., who teaches a course in community ecology using these geologic marvels that dot the granite bedrock around Belle Isle. Rock pools are typically round or oval in shape and are created when gravel or stones grind in one spot for an extensive period of time. The resulting holes that form ae a haven for a variety of plant and animal life and make for an interesting long-term study on ecological processes.
Fairy shrimp from a local Richmond vernal pool
An online plant guide was created to complement the rock pool explorations and highlights a variety of trees, vines, aquatic plants, wildflowers and grasses found in the pools and bedrock around Belle Isle. There is also information about the ongoing research on Atlantic sturgeon being led by VCU Rice Center researchers. Sturgeon have been confirmed returning to the park in the fall, presumably to spawn in the park’s famous rapids.
Moving forward, Wright hopes the project will expand to include more videos and activities on the inhabitants and ecology of the park and the historical past visible along its trails, rocks and waterways. She also hopes to develop watershed /runoff activities and ties to sustainable water quality.
Science in the Park is a partnership between VCU Rice Center, VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education and Friends of the James River Park. The project was supported by a grant from Altria.
Exploring the geology of James River Park through a walking tour.
Oct. 30, 2013
VCU Rice Rivers Center research buoy to contribute to Chesapeake Bay system
The VCU Rice Rivers Center this month deployed a 450-pound, 9-foot-tall “smart buoy” that will contribute data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System (CBIBS) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing System (MARACOOS).
The Rice Rivers Center’s research buoy is the first contributor to CBIBS to be purchased and deployed by a university partner.
According to its website, CBIBS “supports the use and management of a healthy Chesapeake Bay by providing the data and information needed to improve safety, enhance the economy and protect the environment.”
The Rice Rivers Center’s buoy, positioned about one kilometer off shore from Rice in the James River, will relay data to researchers, educators and the public via the CBIBS and MARACOOS websites in real time about the wind, weather and water quality in the area.
The buoy also features acoustic telemetry technology that allows researchers to track fish movement in real time. The technology, enabled by acoustic transmitters placed in fish, will provide a better understanding of migration and spawning behaviors in Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass and other species.
Rice Rivers Center research director Greg Garman, Ph.D., led the buoy deployment team on a cold, wet and windy October afternoon.
The soggy 10-hour day he and his team put in deconstructing, transporting, reconstructing, launching and anchoring the buoy was a long time in the making.
The idea to host a research buoy at the Rice Rivers Center was first presented to Garman and Thomas Huff, Ph.D., VCU’s vice provost for life sciences and research, about six years ago when CBIBS was in its infancy.
“And we had been talking about it for some time until we were approached again two years ago by NOAA, who wanted to set up the James River as a national pilot,” Garman said.
Officials at NOAA were interested in putting a concentration of data assets in one river because its buoys to that point were relatively scattered throughout the Chesapeake and its tributaries.
“They wanted to have a continuum from the bay up through the tidal reach of a single river,” Garman said. “Ours is now the second buoy in the James and third in close proximity.”
Instrumental in helping make the Rice Rivers Center buoy a reality, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office provided technical support to Garman and his team in buoy deployment and will continue that role in long-term data collection.
"NOAA is excited about the launch of the VCU buoy and the real-time monitoring data that will come from it," said Peyton Robertson, director of the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office. "As a result of the VCU-NOAA partnership, the data from this buoy will be integrated into the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System, thereby providing essential information for scientists and decision-makers about the James River, the bay and the living resources that depend on them."
Doug Wilson, who is a consultant with the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the director of MARACOOS Chesapeake Bay, was on board and braved the elements with Garman on deployment day.
He said the James River is important in studying the Chesapeake Bay both because of its living resources, such as the Atlantic sturgeon, and because of opportunities to study water quality, turbidity and dissolved oxygen in the third largest contributor of fresh water to the bay.
“The James is more urbanized and more influenced by human activity than many of the other tributaries,” Garman said. “Also, the river’s position at the bottom of the bay allows us to study whether that water flows into the bay or the ocean.”
Being on the James in general is not the Rice Rivers Center’s only location-based research advantage, so too is its distance upriver – about 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.
“We’re in an interesting place on a tidal river,” Garman said. “It’s a location that is the mixing point – the interface – between waters and landscapes dominated more by the Chesapeake Bay or the ocean and waters and landscapes dominated more by the watershed of the James River. Depending on the tide, we might have more marine-dominated water or more inland-influenced water.
“This unique location affects everything from the animal life to water chemistry and water pollution.”
In realizing these research prospects, Garman said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to connect the Rice Rivers Center to CBIBS and MARACOOS, so he took it upon his team at the center to do as much as possible to support VCU Life Sciences’ decision to purchase the first university-financed buoy.
This is an important step, Wilson said, as he would like to see regional expansion of CBIBS and MARACOOS .
“If there is going to be expansion it’s going to be by developing these partnership opportunities,” he said.
“It was a pilot, and now it’s a model,” Garman said. “If NOAA wants to expand their system, they can point to us and say, ‘This is how VCU did it.’”
Oct. 29, 2013
Sir Peter Crane inspires and elevates
On Sept. 24 and 25, VCU Rice Rivers Center was honored to host Sir Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A deeply thoughtful scientist, Dean Crane gave a fascinating lecture on the history, science and culture of the Ginkgo tree based on his research for his most recent book, “Ginkgo”. Participants were enlightened on the unusual reproductive properties of the tree, the longevity of the genus and its legacy throughout many world cultures.
During his visit, Dean Crane also had the opportunity to discuss potential collaborations with VCU Rice Rivers Center researchers as well as to spend time with students in a forestry ecology class taught by Chris Gough, Ph.D.
Additionally, the Board of Trustees for the VCU Rice Rivers Center was privileged to have Dean Crane make a short presentation at their meeting, which was followed by an in-depth discussion of environmental studies at research universities and their importance to the overall health of the environment. Specifically, discussion focused on how critical environmental issues can be moved forward in the public arena.
VCU Rice Rivers Center is deeply grateful for the extensive, generous gift of Dean Crane’s time and expertise.
L to R: Dr. Bob Harman, Dr. Len Smock, Sir Peter Crane, Dr. Daniel Fort, Dr. Jim Coleman, Dr. Tom Huff
Oct. 18, 2013
Día Mundial del Monitoreo del Agua
Panamanian students participated in World Water Monitoring Day on Sept. 18, using the water quality monitoring kits that VCU's 2013 Panama Avian Ecology class donated to Panama Audubon with funds from a Service Learning Project Award, matched by $1,000 raised by the seventh graders at Robious Middle School.
Students, teachers and volunteers from HSBC celebrated this day in conjunction with Green Classroom staff, monitoring the water quality near their schools in Juan Diaz. Thanks HSBC, NAS and VCU for support in carrying out this activity.
Oct. 17, 2013
Virginia Hospitality: Realizing a vision
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology
Nearly 20 years ago The Center for Conservation Biology, with funding from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, produced an educational booklet titled “Virginia Hospitality: Sharing the natural bounty of Virginia’s Eastern Shore with hosts of fall migrants.” The document focused on the lower Delmarva Peninsula with the primary message that we need to provide more habitat and food for fall migrants within this critical landscape. The booklet was an attempt to convey results from one of the largest migration studies ever conducted in North America to the general public.
Today, conservation is literally growing across this important migration area. In recent years blocks of private land have been acquired by state and federal agencies for the purpose of restoring habitat for migratory land birds. This activity represents a sea of change in both the character and purpose of this landscape. In the heart of the most important staging area 290 hectares (715 acres) are undergoing the long restoration from agricultural fields to forest habitat. Over time, these lands are expected to support more than 750,000 bird days during fall migration.
The lower Delmarva and Cape May peninsulas are the most significant migration bottlenecks in eastern North America, concentrating large numbers of birds within relatively small land areas. Habitats on these peninsulas receive extremely high use by migrant landbirds during the fall months and are considered to have some of the highest conservation values on the continent. Along the lower Delmarva Peninsula, fall migrants “fall out” in the early morning hours as they reach the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and form a steep density gradient extending south to north within the lower 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). For some species, densities are ten-fold higher near the tip compared to just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to the north.
The ongoing habitat restoration along the Delmarva is a tremendous example of how conservation can and should work. Well-conceived and focused research was conducted to identify the highest priority management actions. The conservation community has come together and worked effectively to produce real conservation results.
Read the booklet » [PDF]
Devil’s walking stick is a common forest understory plant that provides important food for fall migrants along the lower Delmarva. Photo by Bart Paxton.
Map of the Delmarva Peninsula highlighting the area near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where migrants reach their highest density. CCB has conducted a great deal of research within this area focused on guiding conservation efforts.
Map of the lower 15 km of the Delmarva illustrating ongoing restoration efforts.
Oct. 16, 2013
“Fairy Shrimp” film stars
VCU Rice Rivers Center is pleased to announce the acceptance of “Fairy Shrimp,“ into the Sixth Annual Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City. This short film, to be screened Oct. 18, was developed for the Altria Science in the Park feature soon being added to the Friends of James River Park website.
Produced and co-directed by our own Anne Wright, the film is part of a larger festival presenting scientific fact in compelling visual narrative. This year, the festival will explore how data in all its forms and sizes is translated into cinematic stories.
Richmond’s iconic “voice of the river”, Ralph White, wrote and narrated the film, which was directed and edited by Melissa Lesh. A young filmmaker and recent graduate from VCU, Lesh works closely with research scientists to explain the natural world and help inspire through the art of film.
To view the film, please visit http://www.imaginesciencefilms.org/2013/09/19/fairy-shrimp/. You can also visit the festival’s website, or view the complete film line-up.
Oct. 10, 2013
Dominion renews carbon grant
On Sept. 24, VCU Rice Rivers Center Board member Pam Faggert presented a check on behalf of the Dominion Foundation to Anne Wright in the amount of $40,000 as part of a grant for the Carbon Awareness Partnership. This generous grant will enhance greatly the partnership already in existence thanks to Dominion’s grant of the past year. As part of this project, three classes are being developed for undergraduate students : Carbon Forest, The Psychology of Recycling, and Hybrid Energy Systems. Lesson plans and films to further understanding of the carbon cycle are being developed to be used in area school systems.
Funded by Dominion, Wright and students Eric Hall, Rachel Cooper, and Lindsey Koren developed the original VCU Carbon Awareness Partnership Program to highlight carbon cycling dynamics and sustainability issues for multiple levels of post-secondary students and educators. Following the original workshops developed through the Dominion grant, Wright’s partnership developed a Carbon Capstone Service Learning course that trains VCU undergraduates to effectively lead a multi-day carbon module investigation for high school classes, to conduct a scientifically relevant carbon research experiment and to produce an academic poster/presentation to disseminate their research and teaching experiences to the greater community.
Community partners in this effort include Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, Chesterfield County Anti-Litter Campaign and 10 local and regional school systems.
Wright addresses VCU Rice Rivers Center Board of Directors
Pam Faggert of Dominion and VCU Rice Rivers Center Center Director, Len Smock, Ph.D.
Oct. 03, 2013
Oct. 02, 2013
VCU Rice Rivers Center benefits from James River cleanup efforts
More than 900 volunteers among 15 sites picked up trash along the James River and several feeder creeks or streams today, working to make the river a cleaner place. With sites as far west as Lynchburg and as far east as Newport News, this was the James River Advisory Council’s (JRAC) largest cleanup effort to date.
“The volunteer turnout for the 14th Annual James River Regional Cleanup was outstanding, and we thank everyone who rolled up their sleeves and helped to make the James a better place,” said Kimberly Conley, JRAC executive director.
Beginning at 9 a.m., the volunteers scouted the river and creeks for trash and recyclable materials. Preliminary results showed that they collected 486 bags of trash and 225 bags of recyclable materials, including plastic and glass bottles, aluminum cans, paper and cardboard. They also removed many tires and other large items, such as grills and deck furniture, from the river. Plastic bags continue to be a problem on the river, as today’s cleanup results showed.
Each year, the cleanup benefits from a lot of support from boaters, 25 of which participated today, including 22 paddle craft and three power boats. Boaters reach out-of-the-way areas that participants on foot cannot reach.
The VCU Rice Rivers Center location of the cleanup had 22 participants, and collected 35 bags of trash.
In addition to cleaning up trash from the river, JRAC uses its event to encourage similar efforts by individuals throughout the year.
“The James is an invaluable natural and recreational resource that our volunteers recognize as something that needs continual care,” Conley said. “Holding a one-day event helps to bring attention to that need while also shining a light on the river’s impact as a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.”
For more information about the James River Advisory Council, visit jrac-va.org.
Sep. 26, 2013
Great blue herons rebound in the Chesapeake Bay
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology
Breeding populations of great blue herons have made a dramatic comeback within the Chesapeake Bay according to a 2013 survey conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology. As with bald eagles and osprey, great blue heron populations suffered deep declines during the DDT era, reaching a low in the late 1960s of approximately a dozen known breeding colonies. The 2013 survey documented 14,126 pairs within 407 breeding colonies making the species the most widespread and abundant breeding waterbird in the Chesapeake Bay. The population would consume an estimated 8,200 metric tons of fish annually. Colonies were documented within every county along the tidal reach of the estuary.
An interesting finding of the survey is that the size of breeding colonies has been declining for more than a decade. The average colony size in 2013 was 35 pairs, compared to more than 110 pairs in 1985. Large colonies that were stable for decades have begun to splinter and scatter across the landscape. Although the underlying cause of the decline remains unclear, one possible contributing factor may be the recovery of bald eagles. Bald eagles now nest in a growing number of heron colonies. The largest colony in the Chesapeake Bay on Pooles Island (1,450 pairs) now contains four bald eagle nests, and the second largest colony on Mason Neck (1,250 pairs) now contains two eagle nests.
In addition to great blue herons, the survey also included great egrets. More associated with coastal waters and never as common as great blue herons in the Chesapeake Bay, 1,775 egret pairs were found in 39 colonies. This number represents a nearly threefold increase in the population over the past 30 years.
The 2013 aerial survey conducted by Bryan Watts and Bart Paxton required 200 hours of flying and covered more than 900 tidal tributaries of the Chesapeake. Funding for the survey was provided by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and The Center for Conservation Biology. The Center for Conservation Biology is a research unit within the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Map of great blue heron and great egret colonies along tidal tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Colonies were mapped and surveyed as part of a 2013 population assessment.
Wings of great blue heron in bald eagle nest with chicks along the Chickahominy River. Bald eagles may be altering heron colony dynamics. Photo by Bryan Watts.
Brood of great egrets in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Bryan Watts.
Sep. 12, 2013
Machi and Goshen’s conservation legacy
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology
By Bryan Watts
The loss of Machi and Goshen on Guadeloupe (two whimbrel being tracked by CCB scientists) to hunters on Sept. 12, 2011 was a watershed event in shorebird conservation. The shooting of these two birds shined a light on the dangers of migration for this declining population and heightened awareness of shorebird hunting within the conservation community. The outcry was heard. Shortly after this event occurred, an international working group was formed to begin assessing the potential impact of hunting on shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway. The group has focused on sustainable shorebird harvest limits, current harvest levels, hunting policy and law enforcement. Although work is ongoing in all of these areas, the effort is beginning to bear fruit.
Several changes to hunting policies have been made within major hunting communities in the West Indies. The Ministries for the Environment of both Guadeloupe and Martinique have agreed to several regulation changes including 1) addition of red knots and solitary sandpiper to the no-hunt-list, 2) a bag limit of 20 birds per day per hunter and 3) a three-year moratorium on the shooting of Hudsonian godwits and whimbrels (implemented on Martinique in 2013). A recent determination by the Environmental Ministry in Paris has set penalties for shooting red knots. Hunting is a long-standing part of French culture. Policy changes by the ministries are a tremendous step toward shorebird conservation.
In addition to positive policy changes on Guadeloupe and Martinique, the Barbados Wildfowlers Association has passed a series of self-imposed regulations. These include 1) limiting the total annual harvest on the island to 22,500 birds, 2) limiting the annual harvest to 2,500 birds per swamp, 3) limiting the daily harvest to 300 birds per swamp, 4) limiting the annual harvest of lesser yellowlegs to 1,250 birds per swamp, 5) limiting the harvest of American Golden Plovers to 100 birds per day per swamp and 6) limiting the number of active hunters to 3 per swamp. The group had previously passed a self-imposed moratorium on hunting whimbrel. The voluntary adoption of hunting policy is a positive development for shorebird conservation.
Machi and Goshen have proven to be a catalyst for change. Following their widely publicized loss, the conservation community, government agencies, environmental ministers, and responsible hunting groups have come together to move toward sustaining vulnerable shorebird populations.
The working group includes The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Canadian Wildlife Service, Birdlife International, The Society for the Study and Conservation of Caribbean Birds, AMAZONIA, New Jersey Audubon, and The Center for Conservation Biology.
Libby Mojica fits Machi with a satellite transmitter in the fall of 2009. Photo by Bart Paxton.
Port Louis shooting swamp in Guadeloupe where Goshen was shot in September 2011. Photo by Fletcher Smith.
Aug. 30, 2013
VCU’s Bukaveckas delivers keynote at international Baltic Sea conference
The Ninth Baltic Sea Science Congress convened in Klaipėda, Lithuania, on Aug. 26-30, where Dr. Paul Bukaveckas presented a keynote speech entitled, “Research on Harmful Algal Blooms to Meet Science and Policy Needs.” A VCU Rice Center researcher, Bukaveckas drew on his current research monitoring and modeling algal blooms in the James River that is part of a six-year, $3 million dollar project to evaluate existing water quality standards for the James and their associated nutrient load allocations.
In recognition of the value of exchanging information and strengthening interdisciplinary approaches to solve the problems facing the Baltic Sea today, the congress was devoted to the presentation of results of research on the climate, physics, chemistry, biology and geology of the Baltic Sea. The objective of the congress is to bring together marine scientists and experts, as well as young researchers of Baltic Sea region, and invite them to participate in other European marine researcher communities.
VCU congratulates Dr. Bukaveckas on continuing the VCU Rice Center’s tradition of informing public policy through research and making a global impact.Tweet