News and events

Bridge Birds

March 21, 2017


By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Bridges often occupy a dominant position on the landscape overlooking extensive areas of open water or land.  Due to their height and exposure they receive nearly constant winds.  In many ways they mimic the conditions that attract nesting peregrines to coastal cliff sites throughout much of the world.  In coastal Virginia where cliff formations are completely lacking, bridges have played a significant role in the recovery of the breeding population.

Since 1993, bridges have consistently supported more than 30% (ranging up to as high as 50%) of the known breeding population of peregrine falcons in Virginia.  The association began in the early spring of 1988 when a single peregrine was resident on the Coleman Bridge across the York River.  Between 1988 and 2016, peregrines have been documented to use 15 different bridges including five that have been used for 18 years or more.  During the 2016 breeding season, peregrines nested on 11 bridges.  

Supporting breeding peregrines on bridge structures has not been a completely benign relationship. Peregrines are protected by seasonal and spatial restrictions designed to improve breeding success.  Restrictions have increased operational costs for bridges and caused concerns for bridge management and maintenance planning.   Risks may be mitigated by knowing the occupancy status of a bridge in advance of bridge maintenance projects and by managing nesting birds away from operational areas or areas that require regular maintenance.  Managing peregrine falcons on bridge structures has been a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Center for Conservation Biology, and the Virginia Department of Transportation.  

During the 2016 breeding season CCB biologists, in collaboration with the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research and the Virginia Department of Transportation, surveyed 83 bridges in coastal Virginia for occupancy by peregrine falcons (download report).  The primary objective of the project was to determine bridge occupancy that would reduce uncertainty in planning operations and maintenance activities.  Additional objectives included the testing of a rapid survey protocol that may be used in future bridge surveys, the identification of bridge characteristics that attract falcon pairs that may be used in identifying bridges with high potential for colonization in the future, and a retrospective study of the effectiveness of falcon management techniques that have been and continue to be used on bridges in Virginia.  

Eleven of the 83 bridges were determined to be used by peregrines in 2016, including two bridges that were previously unknown to support pairs.  Response of birds to the taped calls used to survey bridges was dramatic with a more than 90% response rate by known pairs.  Most birds responded to tapes immediately with 60% responding within 5 seconds and 80% responding within 10 seconds of tape initiation.  Territorial birds called repeatedly and often circled around the tape.  Occupied bridges were longer, embedded within more open landscapes, and had more potential nest sites compared to bridges that were not occupied.  Lift or draw bridges were particularly sought after by peregrines, with eight of ten available moveable bridges being used for nesting over the past ten years.  These bridge types have the highest availability of potential nest sites with overhead structures allowing peregrines to nest with protection from the weather.

One of the most satisfying findings of the retrospective investigation of peregrine management techniques used on Virginia bridges is how effectively they have improved breeding performance.  When breeding performance is compared before and after nest boxes or trays were installed on bridges, peregrine pairs were more than twice as successful while using boxes, and successful pairs produced more than twice the number of young.  The often overlooked benefit of using boxes to manage pairs is that they may frequently be used to entice pairs away from areas of the bridge that require regular maintenance.  One of the clear conclusions of the study is that active pair management is beneficial to both the birds and to bridge operations.  

Radio IQ interviews director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

March 9, 2017

Radio IQ sat down with Todd Janeski, director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), to learn more about how VOSRP and VCU Rice Rivers Center work to help restore the wild oyster population.

You can hear the interview here.

Find out more about the VOSRP here

Armstrong HS students, VCU researchers to develop community stormwater map

March 6, 2017

“Down the street from Martin Luther King Middle, at the store,” one Armstrong student said. “It fills up when it rains!”

“The bottom of the hill, where it just floods,” another said.

“It floods right here,” said a student pointing out the window.

“You guys are the experts. Tell us where you want to put stuff to reduce runoff,” said Jennifer Ciminelli, research and data coordinator for the Rice Rivers Center and faculty in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies.

Read the rest of the article here.

Integrated Life Sciences Research Showcase

February 28, 2017

The Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) Research Showcase was held on February 9, 2017 at the VCU Commons on the Monroe Park Campus.  Students from the Integrative Life Sciences Student Organization (ILSSO) presented their work in conjunction with the Graduate Organization in Biology (GOBS) 18th annual Darwin Day.  

The Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program is a flexible, interdisciplinary program designed for students seeking new ways to answer emerging research questions. While still centered on a core academic curriculum, this program offers opportunities to draw from the varied disciplines that comprise VCU Life Sciences.  

For a full listing of ISL Research Showcase presentations, visit here.

To learn more about ILSSO, visit here.

To learn more about our Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences program, visit here or contact Brian C. Verrelli, Ph.D., director of the Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. program at

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program volunteers featured

February 16, 2017

Two volunteers from our Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) were featured in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article titled, "Annual 'Water Day' has steady flow of ideas."

You can read the full article here.

To learn more about how the VOSRP and Rice Rivers Center help to restore wild oyster populations, improve water quality and provide new fish habitat, or to inquire about becoming a volunteer, visit the VOSRP page


VCU student produces video of Panama experiences

February 10, 2017

Brendan Wang, a student in VCU Life Sciences' Panama Avian Field Ecology study abroad program, captured the sights and adventures the class experienced in the Central American country. Students traveled to Panama  January 2 - 12 of this year, to visit and learn about four major ecosystems important to migratory birds including Panama Bay, coastal mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest, and tropical cloud forest.



Learn more about the cloud forest site the students visited during the trip here.

Chesterfield County's Cosby High School introduces oysters into classroom

February 9, 2017

By Sarah Vogelsong, The Progress-Index

CHESTERFIELD - Even good vibrations can cause an oyster to clam up.

As students move around Anthony Palombella's biology classroom at Cosby High School in Midlothian, carrying out experiments and talking scientific shop, the nine oysters that inhabit a simple rectangular tank on the room's edge sense their presence through sound waves and go still.

It's only when the vibrations diminish that the creatures feel secure enough to open the protective lips of their shell to feed and, in so doing, filter the surrounding water.

This scientific observation - one that reveals much about the role and behavior of this prized bivalve within Virginia's rivers and coastal waters - is just one of many that Palombella's students have made this year as part of Chesterfield County Public Schools' collaboration with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program.

Read more here.

A Bird's Eye View - STEM Integration

February 9, 2017

Anne Moore,  a teacher at Goochland Middle School and one of VCU Rice Rivers Center's community partners, was asked to write an article for the Winter 2017 edition of The Science Educator. The article describes her association with VCU's "Team Warbler," and how she integrates the project into her middle school STEM curriculum. The publication is distibuted by the Virginia Association of Science Teachers (VAST).

Ms. Moore's article, "A Bird's Eye View - STEM Integration," can be found on page 21 here

The VCU students that attended the Panama course also spoke to Ms. Moore's classes about their experiences studying abroad and bird conservation on the wintering grounds. They also worked with the middle school students through the Spring Semester on the yearly project.  


VCU to host annual events promoting environmental awareness

February 3, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

 Interested in learning how global warming impacts the hundreds of miles of Greenland’s ice sheet? What about how urbanization impacts the western black widow spider? The environmentally conscious can learn about these and other concerns next week during a two-day roster of events hosted by either VCU biology and integrative life sciences student associations, local environmentalists or other academic and community partners. All events are free and open to the public.

“This is the week we get our science out to the public,” said Lindsay Miles, Integrative Life Sciences Student Organization member and event organizer. “That’s our main goal. Anyone is welcome.”

Read more here.



New Director of Center for Environmental Studies named

February 1, 2017

Dr. Robert M. Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced Dr. Rodney Dyer as director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES). Dr. Dyer held the position of assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies for the past two years, and has been a member of the VCU faculty since he began in 2004 as assistant professor in Biology.

Dr. Dyer’s vision for CES is to produce quantitatively skilled practitioners of environmental sciences.  Approximately 70 CES students graduate annually, with graduates enjoying one of the highest rates of job-related placements.

 “Dr. Dyer is a world-renowned quantitative population geneticist whose creative teaching and scholarship are pioneering and perfectly aligned with the integrative nature of CES and Life Sciences,” stated Dr. Tombes.  “I am grateful for the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Dr. Greg Garman, who will now focus on the growth of research at our field station, the Rice Rivers Center.” 

A botanist by training, Dr. Dyer’s research focuses on population genetics and the impact that intervening landscape features have on genetic connectivity.  He has mentored 11 graduate students in Masters programs in CES and Biology, and the Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program.  The vast majority of that graduate work has been conducted at the Rice Rivers Center.

Dr. Dyer continues his phylogeographic work in Baja California, examining how coevolving plant and insect systems respond after climatic changes following the Pleistocene. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). He also has received NSF funding to study terrestrial genetic connectivity along urban gradients from Richmond, Virginia, to Rice Rivers Center in Charles City, Virginia, using flowering dogwood as a model system.  Dr. Dyer is a strong believer in Open Source research and publishing; his authored textbooks, “Landscape Genetic Data Analysis” and “Applied Population Genetics,” are both available without charge at his website,

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