News and events

Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D. receives outstanding faculty mentor award

May 12, 2016

Dr. Lesley Bulluck, Assistant professor with the Center for Environmental Studies and Department of Biology at VCU, has been honored as a 2016 Outstanding Faculty Mentor. Her central research interests are population ecology and behavior of birds, and she is most often motivated by the ability to influence conservation and management.

For award nominations, undergraduate students were asked to select a faculty member who has made a lasting impression through their guidance and mentorship of undergraduates conducting research and scholarship at VCU. Denney Turner, UROP Research Fellow, selected Dr. Bulluck specifically for her efforts toward student engagement in research activities and experiences, her enhancement of student learning and research training in the discipline, and for her overall support and guidance. Turner states, “Working this past year with Dr. Bulluck has been nothing short of extraordinary. She opened my eyes to many different aspects of research. I have learned so much from Dr. Bulluck, the hands on experience alone was rewarding enough but working one on one with a professor that is so knowledgeable and passionate in their field was unbelievable. Working with Dr. Bulluck, I have broadened my knowledge of everything that goes into research. One can learn a lot in classroom-based education but working out in the field or lab, immersed in the subject can alter your thinking and conception. Overall, Dr. Bulluck helped me find my true passion this past summer. It has been a life changing experience that I am so thankful to have had with such a wonderful professor.”

AT THE RICE RIVERS CENTER: VDH hosts minority health month event with Virginia tribes

May 9, 2016

On April 15 at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (VDH-OMHHE) hosted an event celebrating April as Minority Health Month in Virginia.

The event began with a presentation of the signed gubernatorial proclamation by Secretary of Health and Human Resources, the Honorable William A. Hazel, Jr., MD. Dr. Hazel also made remarks about the importance of focusing on the health of all minorities in Virginia.

“For the three leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer and stroke – mortality rates in Virginia are 30 percent higher for blacks than they are for whites and 27 percent higher for all causes of death,” said Dr. Hazel. “The opportunity to be healthy is not equally available to all people living in all places in Virginia. It’s time we bring awareness to this injustice.”

The event continued with honoring two champions of equity in the tribal communities.  Elder Sharon Day of Minnesota, who also conducted a water ceremony at the event, is a nationally recognized health champion whose water walks around the United States highlight the link between health and nature. Narinder S. Arora, MD, is a pulmonologist practicing in Charlottesville, VA, who started the Healing Eagle Clinic on the Mattaponi reservation in King William, VA. He has travelled the 150 miles between his home and the reservation twice a month for the past 20 years in order to provide members of the tribal communities with medical care at no cost.

The event culminated in a listening session (similar to a town hall), which served as an open forum for Virginia’s tribal communities to discuss matters of health with leaders of various state agencies.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for government officials to interact with our state’s native tribes and hear the concerns they have about the well-being of their communities,” said Dr. Levine. “The listening session provided valuable insight on the concerns of Virginia’s tribal communities.  Having healthy, connected communities is one aim of Virginia’s state health improvement plan, the Plan for Well-Being. Having important discussions about health concerns, like the one we had today, opens the door for improving overall health for all Virginians.”

The theme for National Minority Health Month 2016 is “Accelerating Health Equity for the Nation.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health leads national minority health month efforts to raise awareness of the health disparities that continue to affect racial and ethnic minorities and how the country is working together to accelerate health equity.

Another Crowned Eagle Lost to Electrocution

April 5, 2016

By Bryan Watts

On 6 March, 2016 we began to get an indication that a critically endangered crowned solitary eagle carrying a satellite transmitter in Argentina may be in trouble. The transmitter was stationary and its battery level was falling. On 15 March, José Sarasola traveled 1,300 kilometers to the last coordinate near San Luis and found the bird under a power pole. The bird named “Mahuida” by the Buenos Aires Zoo had been electrocuted. 

Mahuida is the fourth eagle included in the crowned eagle tracking project to be electrocuted in as many years. Electrocution of raptors is a global conservation problem. Birds are electrocuted either by perching on poles and touching their body parts to conductors and completing a circuit, or by flying into two lines and completing a circuit. Within open landscapes power poles offer attractive hunting or loafing perches and are used by many bird species. These same poles represent death traps when electrical suppliers do not use avian-safe practices. Avian-safe practices were developed by the power industry decades ago but have yet to be implemented in many areas. During 2012 CECARA, the Center for the Study and Conservation of Birds of Prey of Argentina (Centro para el Estudio y Conservación de las Aves Rapaces en Argentina) surveyed 3,114 power poles within a 12,000 square-kilometer area and found five dead crowned eagles. All poles associated with mortalities had “jumpers” or connecting wires above the pole crossbeam, a configuration that is not avian-safe. Such poles represented only 2% of those surveyed.

The crowned solitary eagle has an estimated global population of well below 1,000 individuals, 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. The species has a very low reproductive rate and so has a correspondingly low capacity to absorb mortality (read about sustainable mortality limits).

Evidence is mounting that mortality factors such as electrocutions and shootings are playing a significant role in the observed declines of this charismatic species.  We know how to prevent pole electrocutions.  Poles that represent death traps need to be retrofitted to comply with avian-safe practices throughout the breeding range of the crowned eagle.

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.

Studying the Red Knot in Coastal Georgia

April 4, 2016

By Fletcher Smith

The day will begin around six hours before high tide. Researchers will prepare enough food and water for the day ahead, and double check that all field gear is loaded up. The boat will drop into the water approximately four hours before high tide, and we will arrive on the island about three hours before high tide. The sand bars still expand for what seems like miles in every direction. This is the result of the up to nine-foot tides that characterize coastal Georgia. But as the water creeps up and the bars become smaller, the birds we are studying become more concentrated and much easier to access. By the time the tide reaches its apex, the birds will be in astonishingly huge concentrations, with upwards of 10,000 shorebirds (mixed flocks) occupying sand bars as small as one or two acres in size. But we are here to work with red knots, not the other shorebirds, and will focus our efforts on them during the mid-rising to mid-falling tide periods. 

The red knot is a robin-sized shorebird (and formerly called “beach robins”) that has two contrasting wintering strategies. A portion of the population will migrate to southern Argentina and Chile from breeding grounds in the high Arctic, while another portion will winter as far north as Virginia, all through the Caribbean and northern South America. When we arrive in Georgia in early April, the wintering population will be present, but the long distance migrants will not arrive until early May. We know all of this because a large percentage (around 5%) of red knots are individually marked with coded leg flags. These knots were captured in a variety of locations, from Delaware Bay to coastal Massachusetts (green flags), the breeding grounds in Canada and coastal stopover locations there (white flags), southern Chile (red flags), coastal Argentina (orange flags), and Brazil (blue flags). The majority of flags seen in April will be green (banded in the USA) but as the season progresses more of the long-distance migrants will arrive, displaying the full range of flags representing the above locations. This marked population makes studying arrival times, stopover duration, and population estimation easier than working with an unmarked population.  

This upcoming field season, our goals are to project a population estimate utilizing the coast of Georgia, map the important stopover locations, and attempt to increase the public awareness of red knots using the South Atlantic Coast of the US. During the 2015 field season, we saw peak numbers of red knots in the 7,000-8,000 range, and hopefully we will be neck-deep in knots again this year. 

This project is a collaboration among the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Non-game Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, and The Center for Conservation Biology. Numerous other entities have assisted us in this multi-year project, including staff from Little St. Simons Island, St. Catherines Island, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia Riverkeepers staff, and staff from Cumberland Island National Seashore. We will be relying on volunteer help from some of the best “resighters” out there, especially Pat and Doris Leary.    

This red knot resighting project is receiving funding from Gulf Power and Southern Company through their National Fish and Wildlife Foundation partnership. 

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.

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