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Jeff Corwin, Bryan Watts and Marie Pitts stand on the boat below an osprey nes

Expedition Chesapeake

July 19, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

The Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest estuaries in North America and one of the most productive aquatic ecosystems on the planet.  Its watershed covers portions of six states and is home to more than 18 million people.  The economic benefit flowing from the Bay to these six states is estimated to be 30 billion dollars annually.  In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order designating the Bay as a national treasure and recognizing its importance to the entire country.  An intended outcome of this designation was to rally the resources needed to protect the unique constellation of species that rely on the Bay.  The Bay is subjected to an unrelenting assault from the people and industries that live and operate within its watershed.

Expedition Chesapeake is a multi-media project funded by the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts that is designed to educate and inspire the residents of the watershed to become better stewards of the Bay.  It focuses on the interconnections found within the complex ecosystem and how activities within one portion of the Bay may have unintended consequences in others.  The anchor of the program will be a 44-minute, giant-screen documentary film that highlights the ecology and ongoing conservation research focused on six iconic species including the blue crab, oyster, striped bass, osprey, river otter and hellbender.  The film will be hosted by Emmy award winning TV personality, Jeff Corwin. 

CCB’s ongoing work with osprey on the upper James River will be featured in the documentary film.  Recently, a film crew from VIA Studios traveled down to the James along with Jeff Corwin to film nesting osprey and CCB biologists working on the river.  The film opening is scheduled for 19 March, 2019 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The film is intended to be distributed worldwide to reach museum audiences.


Buckets of shell ready to be placed into the Piankatank River

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program gathers media attention

July 19, 2018

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is very excited to partner with the The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Chesapeake Bay Office to construct more oyster reefs in the Piankatank River. Recycled shells, as part of the VOSRP, will be a veneer on top of these new sites to jump-start the restoration process once those shells are set with larval oysters!

We are thankful for the abudance of publicity we have received for this partnership.  Some recent stories include:

WRIC Richmond (video)
"A tide of change: Oyster reef restoration projects get funding from General Assembly


The Free Lance-Star (print)
"Rocking on in effort to add oyster reefs in the Piankatank River, and elsewhere"


Daily Press (print)
"World's largest oyster reef restoration continues on the Piankatank River" - (story)
Pictures - Oyster Reef Restoration - (photos)






A healthy brood of woodpeckers with new bands.

Up and down year for Virginia woodpeckers

July 18, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2018 breeding season was a roller coaster for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia.  Moving into the breeding season the state supported 17 potential breeding groups (clusters with at least a male and a female), including 14 within Piney Grove Preserve and 3 within the Great Dismal Swamp, NWR.  This is the largest breeding population supported by Virginia since the 1970s.  By 29 April the Piney Grove birds had already produced four clutches and by 4 May this rose to eight clutches, giving one of the earliest starts to the breeding season in recent memory.  By mid-May, 13 of the 14 Piney Grove groups had made breeding attempts.  However, after mid-May the tide of good nesting news had turned.  The one holdout pair had not laid a clutch and two of the existing clutches had failed.  Ultimately, three of the 13 pairs that made attempts would fail and the no show never showed.  In addition, the three pairs in the Great Dismal Swamp never laid clutches. 

Overall, the Virginia population fledged 22 woodpeckers resulting in a mediocre reproductive rate of 1.29 young per potential breeding group.  This compares to an average rate of 1.56 for the previous three years.  Only 23 (58%) of 40 eggs laid eventually hatched.  All 23 young hatched survived to banding age and all but one of these fledged from nest cavities.  The single young that did not fledge was grossly underweight at banding, weighing only 13.5 grams compared to 24 and 25.5 grams for its siblings.  Fledged birds included 12 females and 10 males.

A pair of adult eagles feed three young on Curles Neck Swamp along the James River

Eagle productivity continues slide

July 18, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2018 breeding season along the James River continued a trend that has been documented for the past 15 years.  The breeding population continues to increase while productivity continues to decline. The 2018 survey documented a modern record population of 289 breeding pairs along the James River compared to 274 in 2017 and 262 in 2016.  However, the number of young produced per territory sank to 1.09, a value not seen on the survey since 1982. The two opposing trends appear to continue the population’s path to stability.  

The shift in productivity can be seen in the details of breeding performance.  During the 2000 breeding season, only 15% of pairs that laid eggs failed to produce young compared to 34% in 2018.  Brood size has also become smaller over time. In 2000, 2-young broods represented 56% of all broods. In 2018, 2-young broods had fallen to 48% of all broods and 1-young broods had risen from 29% to 42%.  If this trend continues, 1-young broods will become the most common brood size. Three-young broods have declined from 15% to 10% and have become increasingly uncommon.


 Colony-wide metabolic demand peaks in July when the young are large but still growing

The fish factory

July 17, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The brown pelican and double-crested cormorant nesting colony on South Point Marsh is like a shape shifter where fish are harvested, consumed and magically converted to bird flesh.  Located within an old marsh pasture on the south end of Smith Island, the colony is strategically positioned within the heart of the Bay and is one in a series of seabird colonies that stretch from Tangier Island north to Poplar Island.  But South Point stands high above all of the others.  In mid-July, when the metabolic engine revs up to its highest pitch, the colony is estimated to consume 4,900 kilograms (10,800 pounds) of forage fish per day, including staples like menhaden, bay anchovy and silversides.  During the course of the season, the colony is estimated to consume 950 metric tons of fish.  Many questions remain about the details of how the colony interacts with the various fisheries. 

The development of South Point Marsh into one of the great natural fish factories in the Chesapeake has happened over a short period of time.  In June of 1993, Gary Costanza was working black ducks on the Bay islands when Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts hitched a ride out to Fishbone Island to check on a tern colony and then up to South Point to survey the emerging colony that they had seen from the air.  The tide was ebbing fast, threatening to strand the boat for several hours on the expansive flats around Cheeseman Island as Gary put them off on the beach.  They had only minutes to scramble up over the low dunes and work through the colony.  Fifty-three pelican nests were scattered through the vegetation.  In a small cluster just on the crest of the dunes was a group of six cormorant nests with fresh eggs. 

As part of the state-wide colonial waterbird survey, CCB has had the opportunity to monitor the South Point colony over the years.  The most recent count conducted on 31 May, 2018 found 1,753 brown pelican nests and 4,606 double-crested cormorant nests.  After a dramatic increase through the 1990s and early 2000s, pelicans appear to have stabilized and come off of their peak of 1,857 pairs counted in 2013.  Cormorants continue to demonstrate explosive growth, nearly doubling since 2013 and now dominating the colony.  Collectively the breeding pairs represent the largest seabird colony within the mid-Atlantic region.

During the peak season, the South Point colony is a beehive of activity with fish-laden adults arriving from all directions.  The movement and sounds of adults and young rival that of Times Square during rush hour.  But the smells of addled eggs, dead young, rotting fish and guano are more like the rising stench of a landfill on a hot summer day.  The specific relationship between the colony and the fisheries it depends on is still poorly understood.  What is the size and shape of the net the colony casts on the Bay?  During the summer of 1999, Bryan Watts, Dana Bradshaw and Marian Watts made observations of the colony for more than a month.  Pelicans rose out of the colony on thermals nearly out of sight overhead and moved off great distances to forage.  Pelicans are now observed up the Potomac River as far as Colonial Beach during the summer, suggesting that the pelicans are harvesting fish from a large portion of the Bay.  But details on their foraging behavior and what impact the seabirds may be having on the various fisheries remain to be explored.

Male yellow-crowned night heron with a stick collected for nest building

Urban herons hold their own

July 17, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology


CCB biologists have monitored breeding herons within residential neighborhoods of tidewater Virginia (including the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth) since the mid-1980s.  As part of the 2018 Virginia colonial waterbird survey (funded by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and CCB), residential neighborhoods, parks and other urban areas were once again surveyed for breeding herons.  Despite the relentless efforts of homeowners to encourage the birds to move off of their properties, the birds continue to hold their own.

Although 11 species of herons, egrets and ibises nest in Virginia, only three including yellow-crowned night herons, great egrets and green herons are tolerant enough of humans to nest in urban settings.  Yellow-crowned night herons are the most widespread, nesting in neighborhoods that have stands of loblolly pines between 40 and 80 years old that are positioned around productive cordgrass marshes where they feed on crabs.  Their breeding locations appear like halos around these marshes. Great egrets nest in the crowns of loblolly pine stands that are greater than 100 years old. Great egrets feed on fish and because they are capable of flying up to 20 miles to feed, their colonies may form just about anywhere in tidewater.  Green herons typically nest in dense, low trees such as live oaks, willow oaks or crepe myrtles. Although they often nest in small colonies, isolated pairs also nest making them difficult to survey.

Over the past 30 years, urban herons have held their own in Virginia.  The population of yellow-crowned night herons has more than doubled over this time as pine trees in many neighborhoods have matured and now provide nesting substrates close to more marsh patches.  Although the number of great egret colonies has declined and colonies are associated with fewer estuaries, the overall number of pairs has declined by only 20%. The number of known green heron pairs has declined by more than 40%, but this species is particularly difficult to survey and monitor.

Driving through the dozens of neighborhoods during the spring of 2018 has been like traveling down memory lane with the ghosts of herons past perched on many corners.  Many of the nesting areas from the past are no longer being used. Since the 1980s, we have lost nine great egret colonies, some of which had been known for more than 50 years.  Many of these had occurred on vacant lots that are now developed. Others were nesting over houses leading to the removal of all nest trees. Unwanted, the birds have been bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood with the end result that colonies are now restricted to fewer estuaries.  For unknown reasons, yellow-crowned night herons prefer to build their nests over man-made structures including roofs, decks, driveways and cars. This behavior places the birds in direct conflict with homeowners, often resulting in owners removing trees or limbs to prevent nesting. Green herons fly under the radar and virtually all homeowners that host them never know they are present.  

Despite all of the opposition of homeowners to their nesting, herons have been resilient and have found ways of persisting.  Over the past 30 years, homeowners have come and gone. Many people who removed nest limbs or used other approaches to prevent nesting have died or moved away.  They have passed through neighborhoods like the summer rain. But the herons still return each spring, building their nests, raising their young and foraging in the rich estuaries that are their homes too.


Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D. announced as new director for Center for Biological Complexity

July 1, 2018

Dr. Robert M. Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced that Dr. Michael Rosenberg will become the new director of the Center for Biological Complexity (CSBC). Dr. Rosenberg has held the position of associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University since 2008.  He received his Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology and Evolution from the State University of New York in Stony Brook in 2000, and his Bachelor of Arts in Biology, Geology and Anthropology from Northwestern University in 1994.

Rosenberg’s vision as director is that of biological data science: the use of computational and statistical approaches to collect, organize, analyze, and interpret life sciences data at all scales, from molecular and cellular levels through individuals, populations, and communities, thus encompassing scale-dependent subdisciplines such as bioinformatics, ecoinformatics, phyloinformatics, and biodiversity informatics. He seeks to recruit a set of independent tenure-track faculty with complementary expertise in computational methodologies who will collaborate and connect with diverse units and scholars across both campuses to tackle questions spanning all aspects of life sciences. He envisions his faculty offering core competency courses and/or workshops in bioinformatics for the VCU community at large.

“I am confident that Dr. Rosenberg has the experience and enthusiasm necessary to lead faculty and students, and to be an excellent collaborator,” stated Dr. Tombes.  “His use of modern bioinformatics tools to assess a full spectrum of problems from human disease to invertebrate evolution will benefit students and the entire research community.”

Examples of the diversity of his recent projects include comparative primate genomics, rattlesnake population genetics and the evolution of human diseases including HIV, tuberculosis and leprosy.

Dr. Rosenberg has published 47 peer-reviewed articles, is co-author of chapters in publications including Handbook of Meta-analysis in Ecology and Evolution and Handbook of Statistical Bioinformatics, as well a creator of meta-analysis and spatial statistical software. He will continue his position as associate editor for Molecular Biology and Evolution.

William Shuart, environmental technology coordinator with Virginia Commonwealth University, launches his Cumulus drone to map wind speeds, terrain as part of the study to measure fluctuating ozone levels.

Will Shuart featured in Bloomberg article

June 29, 2018

(Photo by Amena H. Saiyid/Bloomberg Environment)


Will Shuart from VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, is featured in an article from Bloomberg Environment highlighing his collaborative work measuring fluctuating ozone levels.

Read the full article, "Answering Why Ozone Forms Over Water Could Help Control Pollution."


A rainbow arches over a bridge that crosses the James River

Dr. Paul Bukaveckas published in Science Trends

June 25, 2018

Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, associate professor for VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, provides a synopsis of his recent article on climate change and the James River for the website Science Trend.

Read, "Climate Change and Estuaries: C, N, and P Retention Fluxes."


Oyster in net

VCU receives funding for oyster restoration work

June 13, 2018

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has partnered with Toadfish Outfitters of Charleston, South Carolina, to advance its efforts to replenish oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Toadfish Outfitters, a manufacturer of coastal lifestyle products, has designated the VOSRP as the sole recipient of proceeds from the sale of Toadfish products in Virginia. VOSRP will use the funding initially to acquire 20 million oyster larvae that will be planted on recycled oyster shell placed in Chesapeake Bay waterways. This will allow VCU to plant more than 2 million oysters in the watershed, and coincides with Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week.

“Oysters are the ultimate friend of the coast as they help to keep our waters clean,” said Casey Davidson, founder of Toadfish Outfitters. “Since day one, we’ve promised to give back a portion of every product sold toward oyster habitat restoration, so working with VCU was a natural fit.”

VOSRP, part of VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, is a collaborative, community-based oyster restoration program that works closely with the Virginia seafood industry. The VOSRP currently collects recycled oyster shells from more than 50 restaurants and 30 public drop-off locations statewide to use in the creation of sanctuary oyster reefs. The shells are seeded with juvenile oysters before they are planted. These efforts are direly needed because the Virginia oyster population is currently estimated to be at two percent of peak numbers.

Read the entire article, "VCU receives funding for oyster retoration work."


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