Priority Areas

 

The decline of Northern Bobwhite populations mirrors that of an entire suite of species adapted to grassland ecosystems in the United States. Bobwhite rely on the plant communities and structural characteristics that were once maintained through fire and grazing. However, with the advent of modern land management practices and the discontinuation of prescribed burning, the habitats needed by bobwhite, and many other grassland species, have mostly vanished. To stop the decline of bobwhites will take habitat restoration on a landscape scale: from restoring quail habitats (and the beneficial disturbance cycles that sustain them) to protecting the remaining native habitats existing on private and public lands. The Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) aims to help bobwhite by "focusing [restoration, management, and monitoring] efforts on areas large enough to support sustainable bobwhite populations but small enough for a reasonable chance at success."

In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and QRI (or, "Virginia's Quail and Early Successional Species Recovery Initiative") lead the effort to coordinate with NBCI CIP. Their goals are to: 1) Restore and conserve early successional habitats throughout Virginia, 2) Promote education for the conservation of early-successional habitats, 3) Restore and conserve healthy populations of bobwhite quail and other early-successional species, and 4) Promote recreation and enjoyment of early-successional ecosystems.


VWL's Role:

VWL is a member of the Virginia Quail Council. VWL staff conduct bird and plant monitoring surveys at a single farm, which is not currently managed for bobwhite quail, in Northern Virginia.


Partners and Primary Investigators:

National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI)
Charlotte Lorick - Virginia Working Landscapes
National Bobwhite Technical Committee


Project Timeline & Status:

VWL has completed field work for 2018 - Ongoing


Funding:

 


Related Resources:

 

 

Grassland birds are declining more so than any other ecological guild of birds in North America (Brennan et al., 2005). These declines have been attributed to agricultural intensification and habitat loss and are exacerbated by global threats such as climate change and increasing energy demands (Rosenburg et al., 2016). Nationwide, survey efforts have been underway to understand population demographics and identify conservation measures for grassland birds and their habitats.

Although many monitoring protocols measure species occupancy, diversity, and abundance, they lack the methods required to demonstrate whether conservation measures improve reproductive success and population sustainability (Smallwood, 2001). These measures can be quantified as measures of nest density, productivity, or nest success within particular grassland habitats (Askins et al., 2007). However, the intensity of the effort required to accurately estimate nesting density and reproduction (Winter et al., 2003) precludes many studies from measuring these factors. Furthermore, nest searching conducted by humans increases the intensity of nest predation (Major, 1990), which could be extremely detrimental to a populations of endangered, threatened and/or sensitive species. Therefore, it is essential to develop alternative methods to survey for nests, methods which enable the measurement of conservation success and without increasing risks to nests. 

In collaboration with James Madison University (JMU xlabs https://jmuxlabs.org/about/) and the Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative, VWL is undertaking a project to develop methods using small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) to accurately locate active bird nests in grassland ecosystems. This sUAS, equipped with thermal and RGB cameras, uses thermal technology to detect nests from a safe distance above grassland habitats during nesting season, and could potentially eliminate the need for human surveyors. A pilot study has been successfully executed and will continue through 2019.

If these drones can demonstrate the precision and accuracy required to identify grassland nests and possess practical utility, in terms of battery longevity and ease of use, then this tool could be used in place of trained surveyors to locate nests of threatened and endangered grassland species. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus), for instance, has a population size of fewer than 60 individuals and is under severe threat of extinction due to an unexpected disease outbreak. Collaborative efforts aim to locate nests of wild individuals to supplement a captive breeding population as a hedge against extinction (A. Schuman, personal communication 2018). Successful nest searches are a critical component of this effort but it is also important to minimize disturbance of remaining birds and their habitats. Thus, our goal is to refine methods to use sUAS for nest searches in Virginia grasslands to locate nest of native bird species, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, as a model for future use in endangered species and general population monitoring.


 
VWL's Role:
We facilitated the selection of fields and sites for this project on properties in our area in the VWL landowner network.
 
Partners and Primary Investigators:
Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Jared Stabach - SCBI, Movement of Life
Sarah Macey - SCBI, Movement of Life
James Barnes, Patrice Ludwig & Kristen Grimshaw - James Madison University
 
Project Timeline & Status:
Field work began Spring 2018 - Ongoing
 
Funding:
This project is supported by the Smithsonian Women's Committee
 
 

In the News:

Jul. 20, 2018, All Atwitter About Drones, Conservation News
Did you know: grassland birds incubate their nests around 86 degrees Fahrenheit — hot enough for a drone outfitted with a thermal camera to detect. Virginia Working Landscapes and students at James Madison University are working together to take a 21st-century approach to monitoring a species that is rapidly disappearing. Get the scoop from Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) ecologist Amy Johnson.
 
 

 

 

 

References:

Askins, R.A., Chavez-Ramirez, F., Dale, B.C., Haas, C.A., Herkert, J.R., Knopf, F.L., Vickery, P.D., 2007. Conservation of grassland birds in North America: Understanding ecological processes in different regions. Auk 124, 1–46.

Brennan, L.A., Kuvlesky, W.P., Morrison, 2005. Invited paper: north american grassland birds: an unfolding conservation crisis? J. Wildl. Manag. 69, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.2193/0022-541X(2005)069<0001:NAGBAU>2.0.CO;2

Israel, M., Reinhard, A., 2017. Detecting nests of lapwing birds with the aid of a small unmanned aerial vehicle with thermal camera, in: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (ICUAS), 2017 International Conference On. IEEE, pp. 1199–1207.

Major, R.E., 1990. The effect of human observers on the intensity of nest predation. Ibis 132, 608–612.

Smallwood, K.S., 2001. Linking habitat restoration to meaningful units of animal demography. Restor. Ecol. 9, 253–261.

Stander, R., Lawson, D., n.d. Doug Howell, Waterfowl Biologist North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Wildlife Management Division Surveys and Research Program.

Winter, M., Hawks, S.E., Shaffer, J.A., Johnson, D.H., 2003. Guidelines for finding nests of passerine birds in tallgrass prairie. USGS North. Prairie Wildl. Res. Cent. 160.

 

Of the approximately 210 known orchids in North America, more than 60 percent are listed as threatened or endangered in all or part of their range. Many have disappeared from certain states. Although progress has been made in understanding basic orchid ecology and biology, conservation efforts are slow, which threatens native orchids’ long-term survival. Orchids are remarkably sensitive to environmental disturbances and, thus, their presence or absence may provide indicators as to the health of forest habitats. This is because orchids form complex symbiotic associations with mycorrhizae fungi at all life stages, and frequently have specialized habitat requirements and pollinator partnerships. Factors that influence any of these relationships could play a role in determining orchid population distributions. In order to enable the successful conservation of native orchids and/or to use orchid presence as an indicator of forest health, we must first determine the distribution of orchids (and their associated fungi and pollinators) as well as the interactions between orchids and the landscape.

In collaboration with the Changing Landscapes Initiative and Field Ecology Lab at SCBI, VWL is undertaking a project to determine the feasibility of a long-term orchid monitoring effort by citizen scientists, and to investigate orchid occupancy as a function of patch size and position along land use gradients. Broadly, VWL's role in this project is to engage with our network of  landowners to find properties for surveys, as well as to dedicate time and resources to developing survey methods, establishing survey plots, and training volunteers. Field work began summer 2018, with the establishment of 10 pilot study sites in three counties surrounding Front Royal, VA.


VWL's Role:

VWL provides a network of landowners who are interested in land use issues and land management best practices, who allow surveyors access to private property, opening up new areas for monitoring and research


Partners and Primary Investigators:

Amy Johnson - Virginia Working Landscapes
Iara Lacher - Changing Landscapes Initiative
Bill McShea - SCBI Field Ecology Lab


Project Timeline & Status:

Started Spring 2018


Funding:


Related Resources:

North American Orchid Conservation Center webpage link

 

Current Projects 

Conservation science and research is at the core of the Virginia Working Landscapes program. We collaborate with several partners to conduct innovative research and use results to help inform best management practices for biodiversity conservation.

Click on the images below to learn about our current or past research projects.

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Grassland Biodiversity Surveys

Exploring how land management practices in local grasslands impact native wildlife
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Drone Nesting Density Project

Assessing the feasibility of using drone technology to estimate grassland bird nesting density
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Arthropod Nutritional Study

Quantifying arthropod abundance, diversity, and nutritional quality in native vs. non-native grasslands
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Loggerhead Shrike Population Monitoring

Developing new survey protocols and assisting with state-led monitoring efforts

BIODIVERSITY IS THE FOUNDATION OF HEALTHY WORKING LANDSCAPES

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Pollen Study

Investigating the effects of native versus exotic pollen collection by native bumblebees on colony health
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Northern Bobwhite Quail Monitoring

A project led by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative Coordinated Implementation Program

BIODIVERSITY IS THE FOUNDATION OF HEALTHY WORKING LANDSCAPES

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Orchid Monitoring

Testing methods of orchid population monitoring with citizen science
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Pollinator Conservation Project

The Xeric, Grassland, Barren, and Woodland Pollinator Conservation Project, led by the Regional Conservation Needs (RCN) Program

 

 

 

 


Past Projects 

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Urban to Wild

Using camera traps to determine how many and what kind of mammals live on private properties along an urbanization gradient (wild, exurban, suburban, and urban)

 

 

 The Native Bumblebee Pollen Survey attends to the urgent need for research about native bee populations and the possible reasons for their decline. Specifically, this project investigates bumblebee colony health in relation to the food resources available in meadows dominated by either native or exotic plants. This research is currently taking place in 20 meadows at UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm, at The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and at several privately-owned properties. The results of this work will significantly advance our understanding of how invasive plants may negatively affect bees, which are responsible for a disproportionately large share of an invaluable ecosystem service (i.e., pollination).

Even though there is a huge share of land that could support bee-mediated ecosystem services within developed areas, most traditional landscaping approaches fail to do so. Lawns, for example, provide minimal ecosystem services, yet lawn acreage far outpaces all US National Parks, combined. Landscaping decisions are therefore highly relevant to maintaining biodiversity and environmental health. This work will test whether the choice among landscaping options (native versus exotic) can enhance the value of habitat for native bees.

Half of the meadows included in the study are actively managed for wildflowers and the other half are left fallow. All will host a single hive of Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) from late May to mid-August. In that time, UVA students and researchers, VWL staff, and citizen scientists will conduct twice-monthly visits to sample pollen from bees and to survey the surrounding vegetation. This data will allow researchers to quantify bee foraging efficiency, colony growth, and reproductive success – all factors that are likely to be important for the long-term survival of bee populations.

This project benefits the many public and private landowners who are eager to manage their land for biodiversity, provides important new information about native bees, and ultimately serves the general public, especially if bee-friendly land management practices are adopted more broadly.


 
VWL's Role:
We facilitated the selection of fields and sites for this project on properties in our area in the VWL landowner network.
 
Partners and Primary Investigators:
David Carr & T'ai Roulston at University of Virginia's State Arboretum & Blandy Experimental Farm
 
Project Timeline & Status:
Field work began Spring 2018 - Ongoing
 
Funding:
 
Related Resources:
Check out our management guides page and quick start guides to learn what you can do to promote native biodiversity at home!
 
Additional resources: Bringing Nature Home. D Tallamy, 2009, Timber Press: Portland.

Situated on over 3,200 acres of forest, grassland, and stream habitat in Front Royal, VA, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is in unique position to facilitate large-scale experimental research on land management practices.

By partnering with SCBI, Virginia Working Landscapes is enabled to field-test land management and monitoring techniques and conduct active research into grassland biodiversity and sustainable land uses. Furthermore, VWL shares with the public any insights gained through this work, in order to help citizens implement effective land conservation efforts in their local community.

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Virginia Working Landscapes
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
1500 Remount Road
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
 
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540.635.0038