News and events

Ipswiches cope after Jonas

April 5, 2016

By Bryan Watts 

On Friday, January 22nd the squeeze play between a rare winter tropical storm named Jonas moving north along the Atlantic Coast and a high pressure ridge over eastern Canada created battering winds within the mid-Atlantic.  By 3:00 a.m. on Saturday sustained onshore winds of 50 mph and gusts above 80 mph stood up offshore waves to a height of over 25 feet.  This storm caused widespread property damage across several states and reworked the landscape of the Virginia Barrier Islands.  A standing question for decades is how do resident birds that depend on this landscape cope with such storms?

Fall and winter storms are the agents of change within this dynamic barrier island landscape.  The forces of water and wind move tremendous volumes of sand overtop dunes and set back the successional clock.  Succession will begin anew, building dunes that lead to grassland, then to shrubland, and ultimately to maritime forest. This alternating process of damage and repair is critical to several breeding bird species, like the federally threatened piping plover and the declining least tern that depend on open beaches for nesting. But the season of residency for these breeding birds is opposite of the storms, with storms occurring in the fall and winter and breeding occurring in the spring and summer. Very little is known about how the winter bird community copes with these storms and their aftermath.

The Ipswich sparrow is a geographically isolated subspecies of the savannah sparrow. The Ipswich is a true coastal sparrow, spending its entire lifecycle in dune habitat along the Atlantic Coast. Its breeding range is restricted to Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where it nests in dune and heath habitat. Its primary winter habitat includes coastal barriers and beaches along the Atlantic Coast. The global population is estimated to be only 6,000 individuals. Although a considerable body of research has been completed on the breeding grounds, very little is known about the winter ecology of this unusual bird.

On January 30th, just seven days after the passage of JonasBryan Watts, Fletcher Smith, Ned Brinkley, and Todd Day traveled out to Metomkin Island to survey Ipswiches. Over the past several years, CCB has determined that Metomkin is the center of abundance for Ipswiches along the Virginia Barrier Islands (read about our visit to the island in the winter of 2014-2015). The site supports the largest contiguous patch of preferred habitat in the state. On this day we surveyed the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) patch of habitat extending north from the south end of the island and recorded 115 Ipswich sparrows, 111 regular savanna sparrows, 12 horned larks, 10 northern harriers, 6 eastern meadowlarks and 4 lapland longspurs. Incredibly, the number of Ipswich sparrows counted is nearly identical to the 117 counted by Bryan Watts and Dana Bradshaw within the same patch in 2011.  

The trip to Metomkin offered a rare opportunity to examine barrier island habitats shortly after a major storm and to observe Ipswich response to changes. Despite the fact that the birds continued to be present on the island, their distribution and pattern of habitat use was dramatically different than during previous visits. In previous years, Ipswiches were mostly confined to the open dunes, overwash fans and hind-dune grasslands where the birds are easily camouflaged by their sand-colored plumage and foraged singly or in small groups. On this visit, most birds were compressed along the shrub line and were using dense vegetation.  

Upon inspection, it appeared that much of the grass and forb vegetation on the dunes and within the dune swales had been sand blasted, stripping and burying the seeds. It is possible that the entire year’s seed crop was lost in the storm leaving the birds to adjust and behave like their regular savanna cousins.  Maintaining flexibility and having a “plan B” may be the key to survival within this raw and dynamic landscape during the winter months.

Our Avian Heritage

April 1, 2016

By Bryan Watts

Most students of natural history wonder about earlier times. Most of us are puzzle builders attempting to see a species in full relief. Over and over we place tiny fragments of information into a large, complex mosaic that we know will never be completed. We recognize intuitively that historical context is an essential part of that mosaic and we would give a great sum to sit down with a naturalist from an earlier time to ask questions that may fill in some of the gaps. How common was the species in their time? How did the species fit within the landscape? How did human use of the landscape influence distribution and abundance? How did earlier cultures view the species? In essence, we want to know how the ghosts of the past have led us to the present.

Sadly, much of what has been known about many of our species of conservation concern by earlier naturalists has been lost to time. We can read the formal writings of selected scientists who had the means and opportunity to publish some of their findings, but these are of course incomplete records. They frequently lack the detail that leads to the insights that we crave. Simple, mundane observations that seemed to the observer to be not even worth mentioning in publications are the jewels we seek. Some of this juice, this essence of context may be found in the observer’s field notes. Field notes are records of events or observations or thoughts made at the time of observation. They are accounts made for future reference.

Significant field records are being lost daily and with them potential insights into past conditions. Records that passionate field people have kept for decades are frequently discarded by family members at death. Family members that have never been self-ordained into the family of natural historians simply do not recognize the ongoing value of these records. They do not realize that for many of these people the records are held as their most valued possessions which they would protect to their last breath. Having carefully collected them during their most enjoyable hours, they would want them to live on and contribute to the knowledge of future naturalists.

More than ten years ago, CCB established the Avian Heritage Program, a project that is focused on preserving sets of historic field records for future generations. The program has a growing catalog of records. Donated and loaned sets of records are archived and scanned to be included in our digital library, and original materials are returned to the owner.

CCB is dedicated to preserving our avian heritage. If you have collected field records yourself or have those from a relative or friend and would like to have them preserved, please contact our office at or 757-221-1645.

At Home on the Islands

March 31, 2016

By Bryan Watts

The Virginia Barrier Islands have been recognized for their extraordinary birdlife for centuries by the locals.  As word of this incredible place spread, waterfowl and shorebird hunters, bird collectors, researchers, and early photographers, flocked to the islands supporting a very early ecotourism industry by the late 1800s.  Early egg and bird collectors came from far and wide and today specimens from the area are distributed in museums throughout the world.  Olin Sewell Pettingill, the noted ornithologist and film maker from Maine, famously spent his honeymoon (no doubt to the excitement of his young wife Eleanor) in June of 1933 on Cobb Island photographing black skimmers and terns. 

Through all of this history, the source of the islands’ notoriety has been their support of large numbers of shorebirds and beach-nesting waterbirds.  The islands have never been touted for their support of breeding eagles.  Prior to the decline of eagles during the DDT era, only a single bald eagle nesting record was known for the island chain (a pair on Parramore Island).

Over the past decade as the bald eagle population within the Chesapeake Bay and along the Delmarva Peninsula has recovered, observations of eagles along the outer islands have increased dramatically.  Bryan Watts and Barry Truitt flew weekly shorebird surveys along the island chain during the 1990s.  During this time, recording three eagles along the 100 kilometers of open beach was a big day.  After 2010 it has been common to see 15 to 25 eagles of all age classes loafing along the beaches.  However, breeding eagles did not begin to colonize the islands in any numbers until after 2010, and in 2011 only three active territories were known.

The islands were recently surveyed by Bryan Watts, Mitchell Byrd, and Captain Fuzzzo as part of the 2016 bald eagle breeding survey.  Surprisingly, the crew mapped ten eagle nests on the islands including six in loblolly pines, two in small trees or shrubs, one on the ground in the dunes, and one on an old peregrine tower.  Ground nests are particularly rare in bald eagles except beyond the tree line in high latitudes.  Two ground nests have been documented on the islands in the past four years and these represent the first to be recorded along the Atlantic Coast (read more about ground nests on the islands). 


Adding bald eagles to the breeding avifauna of this rich landscape is in some ways unexpected.  Seeing them nesting among the dunes and standing in the surf extends our perception of their ecological boundaries.

Wild Bet on Woodpeckers Pays Off

March 30, 2016

By Bryan Watts

It was 5 April, 2000 and we (Bryan Watts, Dana Bradshaw and Marian Watts) caught the 5:40 AM ferry across the James River and made the 30-minute drive south to take up strategic positions in the woods before 6:45 AM.  Just after dawn, woodpeckers began to emerge from their roost cavities calling and rallying together in the center of the cluster of trees.  We would count four on this morning, and over the next week an additional nine birds.  Thirteen plus two bachelor males within other sites were all that remained of their kind in Virginia.  Once relatively common and distributed throughout the southeastern part of the state, the red-cockaded woodpecker suffered dramatic losses with the exploitation of pines during the colonial expansion and much deeper declines with the movement toward the production of wood products through short-rotation pine plantations.  However, as recently as 1975, 60 different breeding sites were still known.  By 2000 nearly all of those sites had been milled and the population was perched on the edge of the abyss (read about the decline). 

The 1998 purchase of the Piney Grove Preserve, a 2,000+ acre stand of old pines, by The Nature Conservancy represented the final bet by an exasperated conservation community to save the species in Virginia.  The site was the last game in town and its purchase was made with a clear understanding of the long odds for success.  A coalition of the willing that included The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Center for Conservation Biology formed with an initial objective of growing the population within the preserve.  The plan was to build a nucleus for recovery.

Despite the long odds, with the hard work of many, many individuals, the bet with Piney Grove Preserve has paid off.  During the winter of 2015-2016, CCB counted 68 woodpeckers within the preserve, an incredible five-fold return.  In just 15 years the conservation experiment has reversed a 400-year-old decline.  Although the acres of this initial purchase are now approaching their capacity for woodpeckers, other initiatives are pushing forward.  The purchase of several thousand acres of pineland (The Big Woods) adjacent to the preserve by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries represents great promise for the future of pineland birds in the state.  The translocation of eight woodpeckers into the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in October represents a second phase of recovery.  The Piney Grove Preserve has truly fulfilled its intended role as a nucleus for recovery.

Untangling dispersal in coastal peregrines

March 29, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

Natal dispersal is the movement of an animal from the place of birth to the location where it will ultimately breed.  For the majority of bird species, dispersal progresses through three phases including 1) a decision to leave the natal territory, 2) a transition that includes exploration or prospecting and 3) a decision about where to settle or establish their own breeding territory.  Of these three phases we know the most about when young birds leave their natal territories.  We know far less about prospecting and, for many species, even less about where young birds ultimately settle.  Famously, peregrine falcons have an extended and dramatic period of exploration (read about the wanderings of young peregrines from Virginia as revealed through satellite tracking conducted by CCB).  They are named for their wide peregrinations.  In stark contrast to these extensive wanderings when it comes to establishing breeding territories they actually settle relatively close to their natal sites.

For more than two decades, a large portion of the peregrine falcons produced in eastern North America have been marked with two bands including a United States Geological Survey (USGS) aluminum band with a numeric code and a field-readable band with unique combinations of letters and numbers.  In most instances reading the USGS band requires that the bird be captured.  However, the field-readable band may be read using spotting scopes, binoculars, or cameras.  The use of these bands has allowed the community of biologists (and the public) to resight these birds over time and to contribute a great deal to what we know about their spatial ecology and natural history.

Since the early 2000s when Shawn Padgett pioneered the use of video cameras on nests to read bands, CCB and other groups have used camera traps to identify breeding adults.  This activity has opened up the possibility of addressing a long list of questions, including how long peregrines live (read about James, the longest living wild peregrine known), the degree of relatedness within the breeding population (we have documented close inbreeding between siblings and parent-offspring pairings), lifetime reproductive success, and patterns of dispersal, among others. 

Like many other raptor species, dispersal serves to reduce the likelihood of pairings between parents and offspring.  In addition, differences in dispersal distances between males and females makes pairings between full siblings less likely.  Dispersal distances documented by CCB and partners within coastal Virginia range from 4 to 207 km for males (median of 24 km) and 0 to 473 km for females (median of 105 km).  The banding and resighting efforts in Virginia are building an integrated database that is beginning to untangle several aspects of peregrine ecology that have been notoriously difficult to address.

Anne Wright, director of outreach education, receives Green Giant Award

March 22, 2016

Anne Wright was awarded the Green Giant Award by the Sierra Club Falls of the James Group this month in honor of her work in environmental education.

“We are happy to recognize Wright for her hard work in local environmental education,” said Adele Maclean, chairperson for the club. “She has brought attention and enthusiasm that has been truly inspirational to all of us with the Science in the Park program.”

Wright’s projects and students were featured in the short documentary “The Urban Forest,” which was honored at the recent RVA Environmental Film Festival.

The award is given annually to individuals who have demonstrated “outstanding commitment to protecting and improving the environment of greater Richmond.” Wright was presented with the award during the chapter’s March 9, 2016, meeting, during which she spoke about the game camera project currently underway in the James River Park System.

“Wright has been instrumental in encouraging students to learn and share their knowledge about local ecosystems,” said Scott Burger, coordinator of the film festival and FOJG, which is one of 14 Sierra Club chapters in Virginia.

Grad student blogs on one of Rice Rivers's Center primary avian reserach programs

March 22, 2016

by Jessie Reese

The motor of our small fishing boat hums as we travel up a stream bisecting a narrow peninsula of red mangrove forest called Bocas del Atrato, in a remote region of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We glide past massive mangrove prop roots and lush foliage, and come to stop along a patch of terra firma. A Common Black Hawk eyes us warily from an overhead perch as a chorus of howler monkeys lends an ominous feeling to the dawn. I ready my clipboard for a standardized bird survey and set my stopwatch for 10 minutes. It’s not long before I see a flash of brilliant yellow, and hear the distinctive chip note of a Prothonotary Warbler. I’ve followed this species from its temperate summer breeding grounds to its wintering habitat in the Neotropics, where I hope to unravel some of the mysteries of its poorly known winter ecology.

During the summer, Prothonotary Warblers are found in forested wetlands throughout the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, including at VCU’s long-term study site in the Lower James River Important Bird Area. For the winter months, Prothonotaries migrate to Central and northern South America, where highest concentrations are found in coastal mangrove forests. With funding from the Riverbanks Conservation Support Fund and the Northern Neck Audubon Society, I traveled with Alessandro Molina (B.S. Biology, VCU ‘14) and Dr. Lesley Bulluck on a month-long expedition to study Prothonotary Warblers overwintering Colombia. There we partnered with Dr. Nick Bayly and Angela Caguazango from SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics, a Colombian non-profit research institute with a focus on migratory bird ecology. Our goals were to conduct density surveys to determine where the birds are most abundant, to capture birds and collect feather samples, and to quantify habitat associations.

Our trip spanned over 700 miles of the Caribbean coast. We visited four mangrove forests and one freshwater lagoon, conducting a total of 70 density surveys and collecting 115 feather samples. As we traversed between sites, the humid lowland forest on the border of Panama transitioned to dry tropical forest in the east, where the landscape was peppered with cacti. Our expedition was a success, not only in terms of the data we collected but also through the connections we made to local people and places. Guides from the community shared their knowledge of local flora and fauna, and biologists from the Sistema de Parque Nacionales Naturales told us about their conservation successes and challenges. Leaving Colombia’s rich avifauna and welcoming culture was bittersweet, but almost as exciting as collecting the data will be understanding the story it can tell us. Working with my graduate thesis advisor Dr. Bulluck, I will analyze isotope ratios in the feathers we collected, which will help determine how populations are geographically linked between seasons. Ultimately, we hope to use our increased knowledge of Prothonotary Warbler ecology to inform management strategies and promote full life-cycle conservation, a goal which will certainly be advanced by the partnerships we made during this expedition. 

Tracking Red-cockaded Woodpeckers through winter and their recovery

March 22, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

This winter marked the Center’s 12th year of conducting the annual winter survey of the red-cockaded woodpecker population at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve. We monitor the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers by conducting a full census of all individuals in the spring just before the breeding season and again during the winter. We also monitor all nesting activity in the early summer.  Because every bird in the population is color banded as nestlings, we can follow the movement of individuals between breeding groups, assess their survival, and determine their breeding behavior. The winter survey provides an opportunity to examine how the autumn-winter period influences survival patterns and document the dispersal of adults and summer fledglings. 

During the winter of 2015-2016, we recorded the highest number of red-cockaded woodpeckers in decades with 69 individuals distributed among 14 groups. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders so groups may contain the breeding male and female, as well as additional birds that assist with incubating and feeding young. These groups will remain together throughout the entire annual cycle and travel together daily for foraging even in winter. The Piney Grove population continues to grow every season as the winter survey has shown through time, with 29 birds detected in 2002, 45 birds in 2011, and 57 birds as recent as 2013.  Among the birds detected this past survey included 16 of the 21 birds fledged in 2015. We typically lose 50-75% of the recently fledged birds by winter so the number of birds remaining bodes well for new recruitment into the 2016 breeding population.      

The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve has been the nucleus of recovery in the state since the early 2000s when the Commonwealth’s population of woodpeckers sank to an all-time low. A multi-organizational partnership that includes the Nature Conservancy, The Center for Conservation Biology, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked together on habitat and population management to bring the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers back from the brink.  

Tracking and training on Chiloe Island, Chile

March 22, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

by Fletcher Smith

Several species of shorebirds make truly epic journeys, flying non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand (6,835 mi) or from Atlantic Canada to Brazil (4,350 mi). These journeys are fueled by stores of fat built up during migration stopovers or on wintering staging areas. One of the most powerful migrants in the Western Hemisphere is the Hudsonian godwit. The godwits are comprised of three disjunct breeding populations, one in Alaska, one in the Mackenzie Delta, and one in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. These high-latitude nesting birds make epic non-stop flights from the breeding grounds to stopovers in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, then continue on to wintering locations in Argentina and Chile.   

The world of shorebird biologists is very small. There are probably only hundreds of biologists that study these fascinating creatures in the entire Western Hemisphere. I had the good fortune of talking to a Chilean colleague about satellite tracking of shorebirds at a professional meeting, and that discussion led to a trip to the island of Chiloe, located in the southern Pacific Coast of Chile. The primary goal of the trip was to assist local biologists in tagging of Hudsonian godwits with satellite transmitters and potentiall to train them to tag other shorebirds in the future. In total, five godwits were tagged during the trip, all within the Quinchao Island on a high tide roost near Chullec. The primary goals of this project are to determine winter territory size of godwits and to determine the various sites that are used for foraging and roosting. This information will be used to protect any unknown high-use sites for the godwits. 

The results of the tagging are filtering in, and some surprising movements are being recorded. Shorebirds tend to have high site fidelity to feeding and roosting sites in winter, but their movements in-between tides are not well documented. The rugged and remote Chiloe coastline makes fieldwork particularly difficult. At least two of the godwits appear to be making large flights to feeding sites 40-50 miles away, or are moving during the winter to better foraging sites. More data is needed to decipher their winter flight patterns, but all five transmitters are sending data on movements and roost sites and we should know more in another couple of months.      

The tracking of Hudsonian godwits is a collaborative effort between ConservaciÓn Marina and The Center for Conservation Biology. The success of the trapping efforts was due to the intense scouting and long-term shorebird counts that Luis Espinoza and Claudio Delgado performed prior to my arrival.  

Master's students present at research society meeting

March 21, 2016

Master’s students Dana Devore and Spencer Tassone presented the results of their thesis research at the March 11 Atlantic Estuarine Research Society meeting.  Devore has been working on the Mountains to the Sea project, which is a collaboration among VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies at the Rice Rivers Center, Randolph-Macon College, Washington & Lee, and the United States Geological Survey. Tassone has been analyzing the continuous water quality monitoring data from the Rice Rivers Center pier to better understand the oxygen metabolism of the James. 

Below is the abstract from Devore’s research:

The Effects of Tidal Forcing on Nutrient Fluxes in the Tidal, Freshwater James River Estuary, VA

Dana Devore, Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Environmental Studies
Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Environmental Studies and Department of Biology

A 12-month study (January to December 2015) focused on the effects of tidal forcing on nutrient fluxes in the tidal, freshwater segment of the James River Estuary (JRE). Discrete sampling of nutrient chemistry and continuous monitoring of tidal discharge were used to determine the volume and timing of the tides, differences in nutrient concentrations between incoming and outgoing tides, and associated nutrient fluxes. The goal of this study was to improve understanding of tidal influence on nutrient fluxes and their role in nutrient transport to the lower estuary.  Our results show that differences in nutrient concentrations between incoming and outgoing tides were small throughout the year.  This finding suggests that nutrient fluxes at the tidal fresh-oligohaline boundary are determined by tidal volume, not gradients in concentrations.   We analyzed changes in water quality during seaward and landward tidal excursions to infer biogeochemical processes.  Differences in oxygen production and nitrate utilization suggest greater autotrophy during landward excursions, consistent with more favorable light conditions.   This work was conducted as a collaborative effort among VCU Center for Environmental Studies at the Rice Rivers Center, Randolph-Macon College, Washington & Lee University, and the United States Geological Survey, participating in the “Mountains to the Sea” project.

Below is the abstract from Tassone’s research:

Estuarine metabolism and zooplankton dynamics in the tidal freshwater segment of the James River

Spencer Tassone, Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Biology
Paul Bukaveckas, Virginia Commonwealth University, Center for Environmental Studies and Department of Biology

Utilizing daily dissolved oxygen data from a fixed station within the tidal freshwater James River Estuary, VA we examined seasonal and interannual trends in primary production, respiration and net ecosystem metabolism (NEM). Results show that this segment of the James River is net autotrophic on an annual time scale with peak NEM occurring during March-November. Annual mean NEM ranged from 0.8-1.2 g O2 m-2 d-1 with previous studies in Chesapeake Bay reporting ranges from -5.6-0.5 g O2 m-2 d-1. Annual mean production rates were within the same range as previous studies of Chesapeake Bay (5.8-7.5 vs. 5.2-8.9 g O2 m-2 d-1) however respiration rates were lower (2.4-3.2 vs. 4.7-12.3 g O2 m-2 d-1). Dominant zooplankton in this segment were the copepod Eurytemora affinis, the cladoceran Bosmina longirostris, and the rotifer Brachionus calyciflorus. Patterns in zooplankton abundance were then, in some cases, related to NEM along with water temperature and water replacement time. These results provide evidence that the tidal freshwater segment of the James River is among the most productive sites within the Chesapeake Bay Estuary and that high rates of metabolism may in turn influence production at higher trophic levels.

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