News and events

People and shorebirds flock to beaches

March 29, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Let’s face it, people love to spend time on sandy beaches.  We love the combination of sun, sand, and water.  In the United States, travel and tourism is the nation’s largest industry, employer and foreign revenue earner, and beaches are the leading tourist destination.  Each year 180 million Americans make 2 billion visits to beaches – more than twice as many as to all national and state parklands combined.  The revenue generated by these visits is greater than the combined export value of agricultural grains, aircraft, computers, and telecommunications equipment.  The revenue supports one in every ten jobs in the country and represents the economic foundation of many coastal communities.    

Several species of migratory shorebirds depend on beaches for a portion of their annual cycle.  For some, beaches along the Atlantic Coast represent terminal refueling sites where shorebirds must forage to build up the energy reserves needed to make their final flight to arctic breeding grounds.  Many of these species are sensitive to human disturbance.  Human activities may force them from beaches to less profitable foraging areas, may alter their foraging behavior or foraging times and ultimately reduce food intake and energy storage.  For some species, human and shorebird use of beaches is not compatible.  Our love and use of the beach effectively renders extensive swaths of the coastline off-limits to some shorebird species.

Beaches along the south Atlantic Coast of North America are critical to both the regional economy and to migratory shorebirds.  How to accommodate these two important user groups is one of the great conservation challenges faced by coastal land managers.  During the springs of 2011 and 2012, CCB conducted aerial surveys of the entire coast of North Carolina to evaluate the interrelationship between human use of beaches, beach ownership, and shorebird distribution during the spring staging period.  A paper focusing on the federally threatened red knot titled “The influence of land ownership on the density of people and staging red knot on the coast of North Carolina” is being published in the journal Wader Study.  North Carolina is particularly well suited for this investigation because in recent decades the outer coast has reached “terminal build out,” where more than 98% of the coastline is either privately owned and developed or owned by government agencies focused on natural resources.  There is virtually no remaining opportunity for conservation acquisition. 

Land ownership had a dramatic influence of the distribution of both red knots and people.  Average knot density was more than four-fold higher on government compared to privately-owned lands.  Conversely, human density along the shoreline was more than ten-fold higher on private lands compared to government lands.  Along the coast of North Carolina, private lands include resort hotels that support extreme human densities and residential developments that support permanent residents or vacation rentals.  More than 80% of knots surveyed occurred on shoreline segments that supported less than five people per kilometer of shoreline.  These conditions were most frequently found on government lands with active beach closures.  Migrant red knots appear to benefit from beach closures imposed to protect nesting piping plovers and sea turtles.

For coastal landscapes that have reached terminal build out, some of the best opportunities for red knot conservation revolves around managing human behavior and access to critical sites on government-owned lands.  This may include seasonal closures of the most critical sites, limiting the number of access points to less critical sites and providing education system-wide to change human behavior during critical times of the year.  A great challenge will be to strike an appropriate balance between access that may be important for local economies and restrictions that are essential to shorebird conservation.   

Getting their feet wet

March 27, 2017

By Virginia Commonwealth University

As their classmates listen for the bell to ring at Armstrong High School, one group of students is listening instead to the gentle flow of water in Kimages Creek in rural Charles City County.

They are visiting this bucolic scene to learn more about water use and pollution in the concrete environs of Richmond, and what impact pollution has flowing down the James River and into the Chesapeake Bay.

The students, enrolled in VCU alumna Lauren Kern’s biology class, are partners in the Community Greening Project, which studies storm-water runoff issues in Richmond neighborhoods. They are developing an online multimedia map where community members can log problem areas, and are hosting community meetings to gather input and suggestions.

“In the classroom, students learned how their actions could impact urban runoff, which flows into the James River and makes its way south, to the Rice Rivers Center,” said Jennifer Ciminelli, research and data coordinator for the center and faculty in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies.

Read the rest of the article here.

First Wetlands and Waterfowl Symposium held at VCU Rice Rivers Center

March 23, 2017

The first annual Wetlands and Waterfowl Symposium was held at VCU Rice Rivers Center on March 22, 2017. Over 60 participants were welcomed by Bob Duncan, executive director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Dr. Rob Tombes, vice provost for VCU Life Sciences. 

Presentations included:

Bryan Watts (Center for Conservation Biology)
Influence of salinity on consumer density within Chesapeake Bay

John Devney (Delta Waterfowl)
Virginia ducks-where do they come from-A review of recent harvest derivation and banding data

Gary Costanzo (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)
Overview of VDGIF migratory game bird programs

Jamie Rader (Ducks Unlimited)
Ducks Unlimited conservation delivery in Virginia with a focus on river corridors

Greg Garman (VCU Rice Rivers Center)
Overview of the VCU Rice Rivers Center


Field Demonstations from VCU Rice Rivers Center faculty included:

Drones for wetland assessment (William Shuart)

Avian conservation methods (Cathy Viverette)

Tidal wetland restoration tactics (Ed Crawford)

Electrofishing (Steve McIninch and David Hopler)


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.

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