March 6, 2018
Megan Wilson, a journalist from Richmond's Grid digital and print magazine, sat down with Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program Director Todd Janeski.
Read the article, Back to the Bay: restoring oyster populations in Virginia
February 15, 2018
The annual Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) Doctoral Program research showcase was held in the VCU Student Commons on February 8, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 40 ILS students, mentored by research faculty from over a dozen departments and units across VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV Campuses, participated in oral and poster presentations. The ILS students were able to showcase their posters during a lunch-time social session, attended by over 100 faculty and students representing both campuses.
To view more photos from the event, go to the Life Sciences Facebook page.
February 1, 2018
Many adolescents who have spent their lives in Richmond’s high-poverty areas are not able to explore the natural wonders this river city and surrounding areas have to offer. Lack of transportation, money and time are the main barriers of access to the natural world for low-income families.
VCU Rice Rivers Center aims to get more kids outside despite the obstacles through a collaboration with the Richmond-based nonprofit Blue Sky Fund.
Rice Rivers Center is one of multiple sites throughout the state used by Blue Sky Fund for weekend, school-day and after-school programs.
The center is a nearly 500-acre environmental research facility located in Charles City County along the James River, which makes it an invaluable resource for Blue Sky Fund youth programs. Blue Sky Fund takes Richmond Public Schools students to the center to receive real-world environmental science instruction and to experience activities such as camping, volunteering and canoeing on the river.
January 22, 2018
Trevor Frost has made his mark as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker with National Geographic. Prior to working a job that takes him around the world, Frost spent his undergraduate years at VCU. He earned his BS from the Center for Environmental Studies in 2006, while spending time working on coastal ecosystems at Rice Rivers Center.
Read more about Frost: Worth a thousand words.
January 19, 2018
Ryan Weaver and Anna Tucker are two of five co-authors of an article published in Nature, the international journal of science.
Weaver was a environmental studies undergrad who graduated in May 2013. He was also part of Team Warbler joining the spring 2012 class in Panama, then returning as a teaching assistant in spring 2013.
Tucker received her Master in Biology in May 2014 and was the Panama teaching assistant in spring 2014.
January 17, 2018
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
Unlike many familiar bird species, male and female bald eagles have identical plumage making them difficult to distinguish in the field, but they are not the same. In the hand, females have distinctly larger feet and this character alone may be used successfully to separate the sexes. Females are 30% heavier than males with a nearly 20% longer tarsus (lower leg bone). Females also have longer wings and deeper bills than males. When standing together, males and females of a mated pair are nearly always easy to distinguish. However, geographic variation confounds separation on the basis of size alone when birds are alone or in mixed groups.
Beyond the measurements, males and females cut a different line across the sky. Differences in weight result in subtle differences in the proportions of body to wings that with experience may be observed in flight. It is like watching a quarter horse and a draft horse running across a field. The differences in weight and build influence movement. Female eagles express a more labored flight style. Watch closely for these differences the next time you see a group of eagles in active flight.
During the breeding season there is a division of labor between the sexes that extends to incubation. Females have a much larger brood patch, making them more suited to incubate clutches and brood small young, particularly during poor weather. Females cover more of the incubation duties and incubate when they choose. In effect, males fill in for the female when she wants to be relieved. This dynamic is readily apparent when observing shift changes. If the male returns to the nest to relieve the female without being called she may or may not accommodate the male regardless of how vigorously he attempts to replace her. By comparison, if the female returns to the nest she will supplant the male regardless of how long he has been incubating.
Although patterns may vary between pairs, for nests within the Chesapeake Bay, females observed on video accounted for 73% of the incubation duties on average. The gender disparity was driven primarily by the female taking the night shift. In all cases recorded (>150), the female covered incubation for the night. Night shifts averaged 13 hours and 20 minutes, or more than half of the 24-hour cycle. During the daylight hours between 6:00 AM and 4:00 PM, the pair split incubation duties relatively evenly.
One of the more interesting aspects of the team effort is that the length of the night shift imposes a basic structure on the daily pattern of incubation. The most predictable shift change occurs around dawn after the long shift performed by the female. The male is punctual in relieving the female and often performs his longest shift of the day. Covering the early morning shift allows the female to leave the nest and take care of self-maintenance activities such as feeding and preening. When she returns, the female typically performs her longest shift of the daylight sequence. The afternoon is the most dynamic period within the 24-hour cycle, with multiple exchanges and short shifts. The day typically concludes with the male performing his shortest shift of the day just before the female settles in for the long night shift.
January 16, 2018
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
Virginia supported a known population of 29 pairs of peregrine falcons during the 2017 breeding season (download 2017 report). Two new breeding sites were documented but three long-standing territories were unoccupied. The population had a relatively high hatching rate (81%, 56 of 69 eggs hatched) but some losses both before banding (16.1%, 9 of 56 young lost) and after fledging (3 young known to be lost post-fledging). Of 21 clutches that could be followed completely from laying to fledging, 41 of 53 (77.4%) eggs hatched and 35 of 41 (85.4%) young survived to banding age. The reproductive rate (1.62 young/occupied territory) was considerably lower than in recent years.
Efforts continued in 2017 to identify breeding adults via field-readable bands to better understand dispersal and demography throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The banding status of 47 (81%) of the 58 adult peregrines known within the breeding population was determined. Ten (21%) of the 47 birds were unbanded. The alpha-numerics were read for 29 adults and of these the USGS bands have been recorded for 26. Of the banded birds where state of origin could be determined, 22 were from VA, 5 from NJ, and 3 from MD. Birds ranged in age from 2 to 17 years old.
In addition to adults breeding in Virginia, bands for 12 additional falcons were read and reported over the past year. Seven of these birds (all females) originated in Virginia and were found breeding in other states, including 3 birds in Pennsylvania and 4 birds in New Jersey. A second-year female was photographed multiple times on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. A hatch-year male from Richmond was photographed in Lyndhurst, NJ and a hatch-year female that had been hacked in Shenandoah National Park was photographed near Silver Lake in Rockingham County, VA. A 5-year-old female was identified in Westchester, NY during the early breeding season and may have been on a territory.
The translocation of falcons from the coast to the mountains in an effort to re-establish the historic mountain range continued in 2017. Ten young falcons (including five females and five males) were moved to Shenandoah National Park and hacked. All birds were from bridges that have experienced poor fledging success except two birds that were found on the ground under the Possum Point stack around the time of fledging. All birds fledged and dispersed successfully.
The Virginia population continues to benefit from a tremendous community of dedicated agencies, corporations, and individuals including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, Dominion, and The Nature Conservancy.
January 3, 2018
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
On 22 December as the nation was gearing down for the festive Christmas holiday, the Department of Interior quietly released a memo redefining the terms of how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) will be enforced. The document, written by the agency’s new Principal Deputy Solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, will have far-reaching impacts on bird conservation throughout the United States and represents the culmination of a decades-long fight by lobbyists to undermine the Act. The action effectively removes (by interpretation) a key prohibition and constrains the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from pursuing the original intent of the Act.
The MBTA (and its predecessors) has been the legal cornerstone of bird protection in the United States for more than 100 years. The Act represents the legal first-line-of-defense for more than 1,000 species and its mere existence and long history is a reflection of how our society has valued bird populations. By drawing a line in the sand defining acceptable conduct, the Act has educated generations of conservation-minded citizens and set a standard for corporate behavior. The memo released on 22 December shifts the line and by doing so represents a sea-change in the value that our society places on bird populations.
Wildlife laws are often vague and include terms that are open to interpretation. From a practical standpoint, implementation of these laws requires that regulatory agencies formulate working definitions that may be used to clarify prohibited activities to telegraph intended prosecutorial boundaries. Changing the definitions effectively changes which behaviors will be prosecuted under the law. The MBTA clearly states a prohibition on “killing” protected birds. Over the past several decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized killing to include “intended take” (e.g. shooting and capture) and “incidental take” (unintended killing) as prohibited behaviors under the Act.
In practice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized two forms of “incidental take,” including accidental killing where the mortality could not have been reasonably anticipated or avoided and unintended killings where the mortality could have been reasonably anticipated and prevented. No one wants to prosecute every homeowner who has had a bird fly into a window or every driver who has hit a bird flying across the road, and no prosecutions of this type have been brought forth. However, situations where a party knowingly places large numbers of birds at risk of being killed should be avoided (see example below following the main story), and it is in the public’s interest to have legal deterrents to these activities. In the past, the USFWS has used the MBTA to work toward resolving these types of incidental takes to protect bird populations. The 22 December memorandum eliminates the legal avenue to find a reasonable solution.
The MBTA was passed during a time when very large numbers of birds were being taken for commercial enterprises for collections or to prevent perceived impacts to game or farm animals. However, the intent of the MBTA was not merely to restrict recreational collecting and other activities, but instead to preserve bird populations in perpetuity. In his long and winding memorandum, Solicitor Jorjani abandons the original intent and redefines “killing” as only including acts with the “intent” to kill birds. Birds that are killed during activities where the primary intent is other than to specifically kill birds are no longer subject to the Act.
In making this change, Jorjani invoked the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “the value of the sword of Damocles is that it hangs – not that it drops.” Marshall used the anecdote to refer to the chilling effects that power or the overbroad interpretation of laws may have on the liberties of those subject to the law. Without question, balance is the key to effective implementation of wildlife laws. However, bird populations belong to the public, and reasoned measures should be taken to protect our shared heritage. In making this change, Jorjani has in effect hung the sword over the heads of many bird populations and left them without a legal advocate.
I have worked in the bird conservation business long enough to have seen many, many examples of how the MBTA has been used reasonably and effectively to avoid unnecessary impacts to bird populations. In the majority of cases, birds could be protected with minimal impacts to business. One example from the past comes to mind.
In June of 1994, while surveying for piping plovers on the north end of Wallops Island in Virginia, I could see an unusually white wrack line in the distance as the tide ebbed out. The mystery was not resolved until I actually reached the line, examined the white objects, and realized that they were the bleached keels of red-throated loons. The line of keels stretched more than a mile to the north and represented 10,000+ loons. Sometime during the winter there had been a significant kill and the keels piled up by the surf were what remained. Later investigation revealed that the loons were bycatch from the nearshore gill netters, the same group that had been responsible for scores of sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins that had been washing up on the islands for years. The netters were not charged, but with full consideration of the implications of MBTA, they were convinced to move farther off shore beyond the normal foraging area of the loons.
Under the MBTA that Jorjani envisions, the loons killed by gill netters would not be subject to any legal violation. After all, the gill netters were there to catch fish, not birds. Yet since they had to remove the loons from nets, they had to be aware of the hazard they were creating for a federally protected species. But here killing the loons was a mere nuisance. Removing any legal liability from parties who recklessly kill large numbers of protected birds, despite being able to avoid doing so, is a clear perversion of the original intent of MBTA and serves no one but those in special interest groups.
December 13, 2017
VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is one of 10 things VCU did to challenge the norm and make a real difference.
Read all about it in VCU's 2016-17 University Annual Report.