July 20, 2016
The Center for Environmental Studies (CES) was well represented at the 2016 ESRI® User Conference in San Diego, California. ESRI®, the world’s largest geospatial software company, holds an annual user conference with 16,000+ attendees and invites users to present maps, posters, and oral presentations to an international audience focused on geospatial technologies. ESRI® is the world’s leader in geographic information systems (GIS) software, and CES has been using the technology since 1993 to analyze spatial data. CES faculty members Mr. William Shuart, Ms. Jennifer Ciminelli, and graduate student Mr. Wyatt Carpenter, who is also employed by VCU’s Office of Sustainability, attended the conference.
Mr. William Shuart presented some of his research, “Evaluating Point Clouds - LiDAR and UAV's,” that was performed at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's). UAV's can be used to collect aerial imagery that is useful in assessing the quality and health of wetland vegetation. CES and the VCU Rice Rivers Center will begin to implement the technology into their research and curriculum for students to provide them with a real world experience in near real-time data collection and processing. Mr. Shuart states, “Having access to industry leading UAV platforms is only part of the puzzle; understanding the data generated from them is where the answers lie. Being able to produce 4 cm aerial imagery that is of a known quality in a couple of hours is the key to mitigating impacts to the environment.”
Mr. Wyatt Carpenter's presentation “Worth it? Relating Landscape Composition & Residential Property Value” used GIS to focus on the potential financial benefit to real estate developers to preserve forested areas and wetlands in housing communities. Mr. Carpenter sums up the benefit of the conference to him personally this way: "One of my favorite parts of the conference was being in a huge group of people, all with different jobs, but connected by the common thread of GIS. Sharing that interest made it really easy to connect with other people and opened my eyes to the far-reaching applications of GIS."
July 11, 2016
History was made at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. The first SET (Surface Elevation Table) was installed at 12:33 PM on Wednesday, May 25th 2016, and became a contributing partner investigating coastal wetland response to sea level rise in the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site Cooperative. With the help of A.W. Demeo (VIMS), Claudia Deeg (a VIMS intern), Ron Lopez (M.S. ENVS 2017), Melissa Davis (M.S. ENVS 2016), Chris Gatens (ENVS 2016/BIOL 2016) and Dr. Ed Crawford (VCU, Biology), two SETs were successfully installed within Harris Creek, initiating our long-term study. These two SETs (and others to follow) represent the first SETs installed in tidal forested wetlands within the James River watershed.
Ron Lopez, one of the graduate students for this project, offers the following explanation on what exactly this project will provide:
Accelerated rates of relative sea-level rise (RSLR) are predicted as a result of climate change. While tidal freshwater wetlands have been able to keep pace with RSLR via self-regulating mechanisms of sediment accretion in the past, it is not certain that they can continue to keep pace. Tidal forested freshwater wetlands, in particular, are understudied, and the understanding of their accretion dynamics is in its infancy. With this study, researchers hope to gain insight into rates of elevation change, and influencing factors, in tidal forested freshwater wetlands in the James River watershed, as well as to gauge the success of the Kimages Creek restoration in terms of sediment accretion.
What are SETs?
The SET is a device for measuring elevation change relative to a fixed benchmark. The instrument consists of a horizontal arm attached a vertical rod that is inserted into permanent benchmarks that have been installed in the substrate. Through the horizontal arm run nine pins that are lowered to the sediment surface to take measurements. Often used in conjunction with SETs are feldspar marker horizons, which are layers of white feldspar clay placed on the sediment surface that become buried as sedimentation occurs; sediment accretion can be measured by taking a core through the feldspar layer and measuring from the clay marker horizon to the sediment surface. Using the array of SETs coupled with feldspar marker horizons, researchers will be measuring elevation change, sediment accretion, and shallow subsidence occurring within the wetland sites. To date, 15 of the 18 first SETs (with the final three to be installed in James River National Wildlife Refuge July 12th) have been installed. The intention is to further expand the array of SETs to continue the advancement of this long-term study.
Where are the SETs?
For this research, observations and data collection will occur in three tidal forested freshwater wetlands: Harris Creek (at the Rice Rivers Center), Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, and James River National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, researchers will be taking measurements in Kimages Creek (an ongoing restoration that previously existed as tidal forested freshwater wetland) in order to measure the success of the Kimages Creek restoration in the context of sediment accretion by comparing accretion measurements with those of the reference/ benchmark site at Harris Creek.
In order to gain insight into some of the factors that may govern variability in our measured rates of accretion and elevation change, researchers will be measuring predictor variables at each site to include: aboveground vegetation density, aboveground surface roughness, distance to sediment source, tidal inundation parameters, and suspended sediment concentration within each channel. Real Time Kinematic (RTK) base stations will be used to attain actual elevations at each site. The state-of-the-art RTK units are capable of sub-centimeter accuracy in the z-coordinate, allowing for precise elevation measurements.
In addition to bolstering the understanding of accretion dynamics in mature and restored tidal forested freshwater wetlands and allowing observation of elevation change in these ecosystems, this study marks a historical milestone for VCU Rice Rivers Center, as these SETs are the first installed in tidal forested freshwater wetlands in the James River watershed. Furthermore, the partnership with the national wildlife refuges and the incorporation of data into the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Sites Cooperative sets a precedent of cooperative information sharing and adaption to sea-level rise.
July 8, 2016
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
Blood is a universal diagnostic tissue used to monitor a dizzying and expanding array of health indicators in humans. Blood is particularly attractive as an indicator tissue because it is relatively easy and non-invasive to collect and it contains a host of constituents that have been shown to reflect a wide range of health conditions such as organ function, disease exposure, nutritional status, and cancer activity. The ongoing increase in the number of health questions that may be addressed using only a blood sample is astounding.
Aside from the value of blood for veterinarian diagnostic purposes in pets and wildlife, bird blood has been used for decades to address a long list of ecological questions and to monitor environmental health. Over the years, CCB biologists have collected blood from a long list of species often in collaboration with partners to monitor contaminant exposure in species of conservation concern or to investigate ecological questions.
During the spring of 2016, CCB, in collaboration with the National Park Service, began a two-year investigation of contaminant exposure in eagles breeding on park service lands within the Chesapeake Bay. Blood samples were collected from nestling eagles to investigate exposure to heavy metals and organic compounds. The study is a sister project with a similar investigation on park service lands in the Great Lakes. During their 100th anniversary year, the National Park Service continues to pursue an ethic of land stewardship that is a model for all.
July 8, 2016
By Fletcher Smith
Three black-bellied plovers have been tracked from their wintering grounds back to their breeding grounds, completing the annual cycle of this species. These birds were originally tagged on Bathurst Island during the breeding season of 2015 by The Center for Conservation Biology and Canadian Wildlife Service staff. These birds were tracked to a broad range of wintering locations, and recently migrated back to their breeding grounds. This annual migration cycle of black-bellies was previously unknown and the study has begun to shed light on the behaviors and habitats of the plovers.
The locations of the wintering grounds were somewhat surprising in that the plovers were spread along a 40 degree longitudinal gradient of the tropics (from Honduras to Brazil). The majority (78%) of tracked shorebirds showed little variability in wintering location, especially in one breeding population/area. This large winter range suggests that black-bellied plovers may be able to withstand local and potentially large scale pressures better than other shorebird species that concentrate in large numbers in narrow migration corridors (i.e. Whimbrel, Lesser Yellowlegs).
The plovers arrived on stopover grounds near Swanquarter, North Carolina, in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the north shore of Lake Erie, near Windsor, Ontario, in late April and early May. One plover flew non-stop 3,400 miles from Brazil to North Carolina in roughly five days, which is both amazing and now expected. After three weeks of feeding and resting at those stopover sites, the plovers were back on the wing, stopping along Lake Manitoba, and in the far northern reaches of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Canada. These stops lasted between a week and ten days with the pull of the breeding season winning out. All three plovers arrived on breeding grounds in early to mid-June. Understanding the linkages between these far-flung stopover sites will be critical in conservation of these and other shorebirds moving forward.
The Canadian Wildlife Service crew is back at Bathurst Island this summer and hopefully they observe good nesting success from the tracked plovers and the other birds of Bathurst Island. The satellite tracking of black-bellied plovers is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University and the Canadian Wildlife Service, who initiated the tracking project in 2014. Logistical support for the Bathurst Island field expedition was provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute, Nunavut. The tracking of the plovers is an ongoing project and the birds can be followed at Seaturtle.org.
July 7, 2016
By Bryan Watts
The outer coast of the mid-Atlantic region has become an important site for the conservation of both breeding peregrine falcons and migratory shorebirds. The region is a terminal, spring staging area where several shorebird species stop for an extended stay to build fat reserves for their final flight to arctic breeding grounds. The region has served this role for thousands of years and includes designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserves with both “hemispheric” and “international” status as well as many conservation lands dedicated to shorebird protection. The region is also the site where, during the 1970s, a decision was made to establish a breeding population of peregrine falcons to advance the cause of peregrine restoration in eastern North America.
The eastern peregrine falcon was a casualty of the DDT era. With no alternatives, the recovery team decided on a bold plan to stand up a captive breeding program and release birds into the wild. After some experimental releases a fateful decision was made in 1975 to release birds on the outer Coastal Plain, a geographic area with no natural cliffs for nesting and no historic breeding population. The hope was that a breeding population would be established that would ultimately colonize the historic Appalachian breeding range. Between 1975 and 1985, 307 captive-reared peregrines were released on the Coastal Plain (VA to NJ) on artificial towers. A breeding population was rapidly established that has blossomed to more than 70 pairs (read more about establishment of the coastal breeding population). All of these pairs nest on man-made structures.
Migratory shorebirds make up the bulk of the prey used to feed peregrine broods on the outer coast and peregrines have adjusted their breeding season to capitalize on staging shorebirds. Two independent studies of diet including one in Virginia and one in New Jersey have shown that shorebirds account for more than 70% of the prey used to feed young. As the peregrine population has grown over the past 30 years, the annual take of staging shorebirds is now estimated to be several thousand. Several shorebird species seem to receive the most attention including dunlin, short-billed dowitcher, black-bellied plover, willet, and some red knots. A sample of video footage from 2016 on one pair for seven days included 12 dunlin, 4 semipalmated plover, 1 American oystercatcher, 1 willet, 1 black-bellied plover, 1 ruddy turnstone, 1 short-billed dowitcher, and 1 spotted sandpiper.
The establishment of a robust breeding population of peregrine falcons within one of the most significant shorebird staging sites along the Western Atlantic Flyway represents a conflict between opposing conservation objectives. Of the 35 shorebird populations that use the flyway, 65% are declining. Some believe that the establishment of the peregrine breeding population may be contributing to these declines. For some shorebird species, the estimated take by the peregrine population may approach sustainable mortality limits (read more about sustainable mortality limits for shorebirds), suggesting that the population may be contributing to declines.
One possible management solution may be to translocate young peregrines from the outer coast to the mountains for release. The Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the National Park Service and CCB have had a long-term partnership of moving birds to mountain hack sites (read more about this hacking program). The focus of this program has been to re-establish breeding falcons within the historic mountain range while increasing the survival of young peregrines reared in hazardous locations. A third objective of moving birds from the outer coast would be to provide relief to migratory shorebirds by greatly reducing the number of mouths to feed.
The win-win-win program of moving young peregrines to the mountains would mitigate some of the conservation conflict between breeding peregrines and staging shorebirds. A modest amount of funding is needed to expand the hacking program to accommodate the young peregrines.
July 1, 2016
By Bryan Watts, The Center for Conservation Biology
(Williamsburg, VA)---The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University has compiled 2016 survey results for the Virginia bald eagle population. After more than 160 hours of aerial surveys, ground efforts in residential areas of lower Tidewater, and observations from inland volunteers, the survey documented 1,070 occupied breeding territories. This result continues the dramatic year over year recovery documented over the past 40 years. The population had fallen to a low of 20 pairs by 1970. A federal ban on the use of DDT and like compounds in 1972 initiated a recovery by the late 1970s. By 2007, the population had reached 500 pairs for the first time in the modern era. The 2016 survey mapped eagle territories within 57 counties and 12 independent cities. The highest breeding densities continue to be in counties situated around major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay with highest numbers including 75 pairs in Westmoreland County, 73 pairs in King George County and 71 pairs in Essex County.
In addition to the historic breach of the 1,000-pair barrier, this season marks some notable survey anniversaries. 2016 represents the 60th year of the annual eagle survey initiated by Jackson Abbott and volunteers of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. In addition to this incredible milestone, the 2016 survey represents the 40th year of Mitchell Byrd’s tenure, the 25th year of Bryan Watts’ tenure conducting the survey, and the 25th year of Captain Fuzzzo Shermer piloting the survey. Together, this young team has logged more than 3,500 hours of eagle survey flights, more than 24,000 nest checks, and documented the production of more than 15,000 eaglets. It has been one amazing ride.
The Virginia Bald Eagle Survey is a national treasure. The survey has become one of the most significant serial data sets in the world. More than population information alone, the effort has produced a wealth of ecological information on a population recovering within an increasingly human-dominated landscape. It has become one of the best records of arguably the greatest conservation accomplishment in our nation’s history. Since 2009, results of the survey have been made available on CCB’s website via an interactive mapping portal where users are able to view known nest locations throughout the state. The web application receives more than 30,000 visits per year and has become a critical resource for land planners.
The 2016 survey was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, Dominion, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and The Center for Conservation Biology. Reese Lukei managed the ground survey in lower Tidewater, Bart Paxton assisted with aerial surveys on the upper Potomac and many observers throughout the state provided observations of nesting activity. We thank all of these organizations and great observers for their commitment to eagle conservation in Virginia.
June 30, 2016
This summer, the Center for Environmental Studies will begin the first course on the scientific application of drone technology held at VCU. ENVS-591: Environmental Applications of Drone Technology will be a one-credit, two-day intensive course, and will be held at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.
The use of drone technology is well-suited to the ecological and environmental sciences, and emerging sensor technologies will allow scientists to gather higher resolution data faster. In this course, students will receive exposure to technical software related to the operation of the UAVs, and also will learn how to create elevation point clouds, elevation models and compute vegetation indices. Training will be on industry-leading fixed-wing and multi-rotor platforms. Real-time kinematic GPS and control, along with web application display, will enable each student to create usable output from the data collected in flight. Students also will be exposed to flight planning, safe operation, and regulations regarding use of UAVs.
This cutting-edge technology will equip students with a marketable skill that will dramatically further their potential as researchers.
June 30, 2016
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
Yellow-crowned Night Herons are showing a clear response to the earlier and earlier appearance of spring temperatures in Virginia. The 2015 breeding season was the earliest recorded with pairs arriving and laying eggs more than 20 days earlier than pairs recorded in the same breeding areas during the 1960s. This trend continued in 2016 with pairs arriving and laying eggs (on average) a full week earlier than 2015. The birds are proving to be a sensitive barometer of shifts in regional temperatures.
The yellow-crowned night heron is primarily a tropical species with four of the five living forms being sedentary and confined to tropical latitudes. All forms are crab specialists, exploiting a wide range of crabs adapted to their locality. A study of crab use in Virginia during the 1980s (Watts 1988) collected and identified more than 2,000 crab claws from under nests and determined that three species including the mud fiddler, the red-jointed fiddler, and the white-fingered mud crab accounted for 94% of the diet with the sand fiddler, ghost crab, blue crab, mole crab, toad crab, and common mud crab accounting for the remainder. The three dominant species occur in salt marshes and associated shallows.
Yellow-crowned night herons that breed in Virginia are migratory and their arrival on the breeding grounds is closely tuned to the emergence of crabs in the spring. Emergence of crabs is very sensitive to temperature. When the temperature rises above 15°C (59°F), they emerge from their burrows and become active. Crabs retreat to their burrows and move underground when the temperature drops below 15°C. The date in spring when temperature passes the 15°C threshold is advancing, extending the season of fiddler availability. Yellow-crowns appear to be adjusting to the shift in season.
The 2016 season is the second in a multi-year study to compare the breeding ecology of the yellow-crowned night heron to a study conducted within the same colonies in the 1960s. The ten-year dataset from the 1960s was collected by Constance DuPont Darden. Mrs. Darden (former first lady of Virginia) was passionate about yellow-crowns, and her information has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the species. Her dataset is housed within The Center for Conservation Biology.
Climate change is a change in the statistical properties of the climate system over long periods of time. Regardless of the underlying causes of this change, the earth has been experiencing a documented shift in climate for decades. How wild species respond to changes in climate will determine many aspects of their ecology including their geographic distribution, the timing of significant events in their annual cycle, and for some their survival. Understanding the implications of these shifts is a growing focus of conservation biology. Because of both their migratory status and specialized diet, yellow-crowned night herons represent a model system for investigating how species respond to a changing climate.
June 29, 2016
By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology
One of the greatest challenges in managing migratory birds is that they exist within a legal quandary. As a recognized principle of international law, states have sovereign rights over all wild animals that fall within their jurisdictional boundaries but no jurisdiction over animals outside of these boundaries. The practical result of this principle is that animals that migrate from one jurisdiction to another are subject, in succession, to the sovereign rights and policies of all states along their migration route. According to conventional international law, there is nothing to prevent a jurisdiction from overexploiting a migratory species to the point of extinction while other jurisdictions expend considerable resources to protect it. Because a migratory population represents a single biological unit, cooperation among range states is critical to successful management.
Shorebirds are among the bird groups of highest conservation concern in the world with three times as many species declining as increasing. In recent years, unregulated hunting has been identified as a possible driver of declines particularly within the Western Atlantic and East Asia-Australian Flyways. A significant barrier to progress toward holistic management is that we currently have no comprehensive overview of the patchwork of policies that regulate shorebird hunting across the Western Hemisphere.
In 2015 with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CCB conducted a comprehensive assessment of hunting policies pertaining to shorebirds for the 57 jurisdictions within the Western Hemisphere. The assessment (Watts and Turrin 2016) was recently published in “Wader Study” the international journal devoted to shorebird ecology and conservation. We focused on participation in international treaties and the existence and terms of domestic legislation with respect to the subsistence, commercial and sport hunting of shorebirds.
Most (91.2%) jurisdictions fall into two policy categories, including those that protect all or nearly all (>90%) and those that protect very few (<10%) migratory shorebird species. The former includes 39 (68.4%) jurisdictions, 29 of which have complete prohibitions on shorebird hunting. One of the most interesting findings of the study was that ten of 11 jurisdictions where sport hunting of shorebirds is legal and practiced are exclusive to the Atlantic Flyway. Shorebird hunting jurisdictions are concentrated within the Lesser Antilles where hunters capitalize on waves of shorebirds that are “put down” on the islands by tropical storms in the late summer and early fall period.
The presumptive objective of hunting policy is to ensure the future health of hunted populations by limiting take to or below the limits of what populations are capable of withstanding. An immediate conservation priority for migratory shorebirds within the Western Hemisphere is to make policy adjustments that will prevent the collective harvest from exceeding sustainable limits. A recent paper (Watts et al. 2015) published in Wader Study estimates sustainable mortality limits for shorebird populations within the Western Atlantic Flyway. Estimates of sustainable mortality limits in combination with the recent assessment of current policies points the way forward.
June 28, 2016
Virginia Commonwealth University recently hosted the annual meeting of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. The Fisheries GIT is a consortium of federal and state agencies that manage important Chesapeake Bay commercial fisheries, including Blue Crabs, Oysters, and Striped Bass. During the two-day meeting, over fifty academic scientists, agency biologists, and resource managers from throughout the Bay Region took part in technical presentations and heard about VCU's own applied research initiatives related to water quality, ecosystem restoration, fishery ecology, and environmental technology.