Group of students on a beach.
Springing Into Service VCR's Brittany Gonzales, marine restoration specialist, leads Dickinson College students through a restoration workday at Hillcrest Oyster Sanctuary, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC

Stories in Virginia

Living Laboratories

A man hands a woman a concrete oyster castle block while standing in thigh deep water.
Building Resilience Students from UVA's Marine Science Society join TNC to build oyster castles. © Bo Lusk/TNC

For some college students in Virginia, their classroom experiences may include getting hip deep in muddy muck, analyzing coyote scat or navigating drones over forest plots. It’s all part of our collaboration with colleges and universities across the commonwealth, providing living laboratories for the next generation of conservationists.

To learn more, expand the list of college and university partners, which includes some of the schools we have worked with across the state—and beyond. Navigate using the tabs below to take a closer look at specific projects and partnerships and get more details about our work and collaborations.

  • College & University Partners
    • Blackburn College (Illinois)
    • Christopher Newport University
    • College of William & Mary
    • Colorado State University (Colorado)
    • Cornell University (New York)
    • Dickinson College (Pennsylvania)
    • Lincoln Memorial University (Tennessee)
    • Old Dominion University
    • Piedmont Virginia Community College
    • Randolph Macon College
    • Rochester Institute of Technology (New York)
    • University of Richmond
    • University of Mary Washington
    • University of Vermont (Vermont)
    • University of Virginia
    • Virginia Commonwealth University
    • Virginia Tech

Students from Dickinson College volunteer at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve for a unique spring break experience

By Daniel White, Senior Conservation Writer | June 29, 2020
Backpack with inspirational message written on it: "Have bag, will travel forward, with purpose. Dickinson."
Dickinson College Travel forward with purpose. © Daniel White/TNC

The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) has become widely recognized as one of the most important living laboratories in the world. VVCR attracts scientific researchers from Virginia and around the world and has spawned myriad partnerships with colleges and universities.

You don’t have to hold a Ph.D.—or even be in hot pursuit of one—to study in this laboratory, though. “We enjoy nothing more than sharing this special place and the important work we do here with students,” says director Jill Bieri. Indeed, VVCR welcomes learners on all levels, offering hands-on opportunities for local public-school students and for undergraduates.

In March—shortly before health concerns ushered in closures and travel restrictions—VVCR hosted a group from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The students undertook a variety of service projects ranging from shoreline and trail cleanups to oyster reef restoration. 

Come along as we recount these students’ experiences and contributions to conservation during their week on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

A girl carries a container filled with trash and debris.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College student Cyara Lambert carries trash and debris collected during a shoreline cleanup in the village of Oyster, VA. March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A girl carries a container filled with trash and debris.
A man and woman smile at each other while having a conversation.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students Richard Huynh and Inaya Carrington during a shoreline cleanup in the village of Oyster, VA. March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A man and woman smile at each other while having a conversation.
 A man carries a long pole through tall grass.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College student Nuhan Abid. © Daniel White/TNC

Shoreline Cleanup: Getting Their Feet Wet

TNC’s Jim McGowan manages land protection projects, but, like most members of the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve team, Jim wears many hats. Jim coordinated the Dickinson students’ activities, and on Monday morning, he met them with donuts and coffee at the University of Virginia’s Coastal Research Center in Oyster

Following a brief presentation outlining TNC’s work on the Eastern Shore, Jim directed the eight students, along with faculty advisor Gary Kirk, to the other side of Oyster Harbor. Marcus Killmon, who usually captains TNC’s boats, arrived by truck and quickly outfitted the crew with work gloves and rubber boots.

An animated gif of a man stacking interlocking concrete oyster castle. blocks.
Land Reef Oyster castle demonstration. © Whitney Hall / TNC

The students formed two groups to follow either Jim or Marcus to a section of restored living shoreline along the harbor. After weeks of planning and anticipation, the students were obviously eager to wade into work, retrieving a variety of trash and nautical debris from the reeds and water’s edge.   

Following the living-shoreline cleanup, a stack of oyster castles near the boat ramp drew the students’ attention. Jim gave an overview of how TNC and partners use these oversized concrete Legos to build a foundation for new oyster reefs to grow.

Next, the students helped Jim clean up the roadside leading into the village and along a new trail under construction. The Oyster Village Horse Island Trail is expected to be completed by summer, weather permitting. Local residents helped TNC plan the project, and a few were out strolling a portion of this shell-lined shoreline route to Horse Island Point.

Animated gif of a woman shoveling loose oyster shells from a large pile into a mesh bag.
Bagging Oyster Shells Student Lila Hunt bags oyster shells.

Reef Restoration: Shell Stocked

After breaking for lunch, the Dickinson crew traveled north to Brownsville Preserve and the VVCR maintenance shop. With quick instructions and assistance from Marcus, the group cheerfully set to work on their main task for the afternoon: bagging oyster shells and loading them onto a trailer.

Oysters engineer their own reefs in the wild, of course, and TNC uses natural shells for restoration when available. While confined to land today, the students will transfer the shells onto a boat later in the week back at the ramp in Oyster. They will then hop on board and participate in the next step of the reef-building process. 

The action-packed first day culminated with a tour of the grounds around Brownsville House and the nearby marsh and boat dock. A lively, wide-ranging discussion underscored TNC’s need for more research into the preserve’s plantation past. It also revealed a keen interest among the students in varied career paths related to natural resources and conservation.

A group of college students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk at Brownsville Preserve during a spring break service trip to VCR. March 2020. © Jim McGowan / TNC
× A group of college students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk.
A group of college students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk at Brownsville Preserve during a spring break service trip to VCR. March 2020. © Jim McGowan / TNC
× A group of college students demolish a damaged section of boardwalk.

Trail Maintenance: Tearing Down and Building Up

On Tuesday, the students threw themselves into the cathartic and surprisingly fun job of demolishing a boardwalk at Brownsville. Due to storm damage and other wear and tear, the preserve’s raised walkways periodically need to be repaired or replaced to maintain safe, enjoyable trails for visitors.

The next day, Wednesday, found the group back in Oyster wrestling with bags of shells from the town’s namesake. This time, the students stacked shells alongside the boat ramp and then loaded more aboard a skiff piloted by VVCR Marine Restoration Specialist Brittany Gonzales.

A smiling woman wearing a yellow life jacket.
Springing Into Service Student Sarah Serenyi at Hillcrest Oyster Sanctuary during Dickinson College's spring break service trip. March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A smiling woman wearing a yellow life jacket.
A woman places a mesh bag of oyster shells on a reef at low tide.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College student Lila Hunt helps build up new reef with bags of shell at the Hillcrest Oyster Sanctuary during a spring break service trip, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A woman places a mesh bag of oyster shells on a reef at low tide.
Four muddy, shoe-less feet
The sea--or rather, the mud--claimed its prize.

Building Resilience

Once again, the students split into two groups for short boat rides with Britt to the Hillcrest Oyster Sanctuary. Britt stopped first to show off an expanse of restored reef just visible with the falling tide. She waded over and brought back a cluster of oysters for the group to examine close-up.

Low tide had arrived—along with some welcome rays of sun breaking through the clouds—by the time the second group reached the sanctuary. This time, Britt took the students to the oysters, which studded the gleaming mudflats.

Both groups joined Britt in deploying bags of shell to extend the growing reef. Some fared much better than others navigating the boot-sucking mud!

Boiled shrimp, corn and white potatoes are spread out on newspaper for an Eastern Shore feast.
Ending the day with a feast!

Eastern Shore Hospitality

The students returned across the harbor to their dorms at UVA’s Coastal Research Center to scrub off the mud, change into dry clothes and prepare for a traditional Eastern Shore feast. As the students relaxed and socialized with UVA and VVCR staff, the center’s Buck Doughty served up a delicious traditional clambake cooked over a wood fire.

“I enjoyed getting to talk with the Dickinson students at the seafood boil about my outreach and education work,” says VVCR’s Margaret Van Clief. “It was nice to see how interested they all were in our work, and some seemed pleasantly surprised to learn the different paths some of us have taken to get into the conservation field.”

A man stands on a dock as a small boat approaches.
Springing Into Service Capt. Marcus Killmon greets a boat carrying Dickinson College students to VCR's Parramore Island during a spring break service trip. March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A man stands on a dock as a small boat approaches.
A woman looks on as a man uses loppers to trim back small branches overhanging a trail.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College student Sarah Serenyi looks on as Nuhan Abid cuts back a branch on Parramore Island's Volgenau Trail during a spring break service trip to VCR. March 2020 © Daniel White/TNC
× A woman looks on as a man uses loppers to trim back small branches overhanging a trail.
Springing Into Service Capt. Marcus Killmon greets a boat carrying Dickinson College students to VCR's Parramore Island during a spring break service trip. March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
Springing Into Service Dickinson College student Sarah Serenyi looks on as Nuhan Abid cuts back a branch on Parramore Island's Volgenau Trail during a spring break service trip to VCR. March 2020 © Daniel White/TNC
Small animal bones found in an owl pellet
Jenny Miller identifies the components of an owl pellet.

Island Hopping and Lopping

No visit to the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve would be complete without a barrier island adventure. Thursday morning, VVCR’s Jenny Miller and Marcus Killmon welcomed the Dickinson students onboard TNC boats at the Wachapreague docks. A half-hour later, the group carried loppers onto the Volgenau Trail traversing Parramore Island—the largest barrier island within the longest stretch of wilderness along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

As the students pruned overgrown branches to clear the trail, Jenny, VVCR's preserve and education manager, interpreted points of interest and findings along the way. She explained the courtship rituals of the ubiquitous fiddler crabs—males waving their one oversized claw as if bowing a violin—and dissected an owl pellet to analyze the nocturnal bird of prey’s recent diet.

A group of students walk along a beach behind a large sun bleached piece of driftwood.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students explore the beach on the Virginia Coast Reserve's Parramore Island during a spring break service trip, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
× A group of students walk along a beach behind a large sun bleached piece of driftwood.
A person walks along the beach at the edge of the surf.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students explore Parramore Island's beach during their spring break service trip to the Virginia Coast Reserve. March 2020. © Daniel White / TNC
× A person walks along the beach at the edge of the surf.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students explore the beach on the Virginia Coast Reserve's Parramore Island during a spring break service trip, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC
Springing Into Service Dickinson College students explore Parramore Island's beach during their spring break service trip to the Virginia Coast Reserve. March 2020. © Daniel White / TNC

Exploring Parramore: Shells and Shipwreck

Nothing says spring break—even an alternative one—like a trip to the beach. With clouds gathering and chilled winds rising, sunbathing was not an option. On the other hand, this was no doubt the first time these students had ever experienced having an entire beach to themselves.

Groups of two or three strolled together to the waves or through the migrating beach’s ghost forest of dead trees. A few seized a rare opportunity for solitary reflection while beachcombing for sand dollars and myriad other shells.

One group of hardy walkers reached the 19th-century shipwreck historians believe to be the Esk. Bound for Rhode Island laden with a cargo of Venezuelan dyewood, the Esk wrecked off Parramore in 1888. Though her crew escaped with their lives, the schooner remains captive to the shifting sand, her oak timbers slowly being reclaimed by the island.

A group of students pose together in front of a boat at Brownsville Preserve's maintenance shop.
Springing Into Service Dickinson College spring breakers pose for a group photo at Brownsville Preserve. © Jim McGowan / TNC

A Week to Remember

As the students wrapped up their Eastern Shore adventures, news from the outside world was beginning to cast doubt on their return to school. Fortunately for them and for The Nature Conservancy, they were able to complete a unique learning experience and provide a valuable service at the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve.

“We got a lot of work done in a short period of time,” Jim McGowan concludes. “The students and our staff learned from one another through overcoming challenges together, and the experience heightened our appreciation for the diversity of cultures represented by both American and international students.”  

VVCR Director Jill Bieri sums up the week: “When students such as the Dickinson group participate in our conservation work, they enrich their own education and our program through hands-on experience, great conversation, and many new relationships and partnerships.”

Wicked Problem: Old Dominion University Students Tackle Climate Resilience at Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve

By Daniel White, Senior Conservation Writer | June 29, 2020

The Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) has become widely recognized as one of the most important living laboratories in the world. Now celebrating 50 years of conservation, VVCR draws scientific researchers from Virginia and around the world and has spawned myriad partnerships with colleges and universities.

Earlier this year—shortly before closures and travel restrictions ushered in a new normal—VVCR’s Brownsville Preserve hosted a group of Old Dominion University students. Focused on what their professor calls a “wicked problem,” the students came to gather real-world observations and develop recommendations for enhancing Brownsville’s resilience to climate change.

Crouching man takes a water sample
Living Classroom An Old Dominion University student tests water samples at Camp Occohannock on the Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore of Virginia, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC

Exploring a Living Shoreline

Joining VVCR’s new science director, Dr. Susan Bates, we met the students as they were finishing a working lunch in a meeting room (serving then as a classroom) at Brownsville House. Dr. Hans-Peter Plag, professor of Ocean, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at ODU, introduced the group of seven graduate and undergraduate researchers studying under his guidance.

The afternoon’s first destination was Camp Occohannock on the Bay. Several years ago, the Methodist retreat worked with TNC and other partners on a demonstration project, restoring a living shoreline along a swath of Chesapeake Bay frontage. The students toured the restored shoreline with Susan and field-tested water samples from the Bay and ponds within the camp.

“Being new to TNC, I was experiencing many things here for the first time just as the students did,” says Susan. “It was great to learn alongside them.”

A woman hands a man a concrete oyster castle block
Coastal Resilience Using oyster castles to build new reefs at Tom's Cove, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, 2016. © Daniel White / TNC
× A woman hands a man a concrete oyster castle block
Oyster castles at low tide
Building Resilience Close-up of oyster castles arrayed along the shoreline of Tom's Cove at low tide. © Daniel White/TNC
× Oyster castles at low tide
Coastal Resilience Using oyster castles to build new reefs at Tom's Cove, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, 2016. © Daniel White / TNC
Building Resilience Close-up of oyster castles arrayed along the shoreline of Tom's Cove at low tide. © Daniel White/TNC

Building Resilience: Oyster Castles

Our caravan continued north to the visitor center at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Kevin Holcomb, supervisory biologist, presented an overview of conservation efforts at the refuge, particularly in response to the challenges of climate change. 

Holcomb then guided us along the Beach Road to Toms Cove for the students to observe a recent installation of oyster castles. In 2016, TNC and the refuge engaged volunteers to help construct three new oyster reefs using the concrete castles as a foundation. The restoration sites, including Tom's Cove, had suffered serious damage from Hurricane Sandy, and the oyster castles are designed to help buffer against future storms. 

A man gestures to a group during a tour
Coastal Tour Biologist Kevin Holcomb leads a tour of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during Old Dominion University students' visit to the Eastern Shore. © Daniel White/TNC
A seagull sits on top of a parking sign
Assateague Island Gull illegally parking outside the Tom's Cove Visitor Center. © Daniel White/TNC

Beachfront Parking

Bracing against winter-like winds, we finished the tour on the adjacent beach of Assateague Island National Seashore. With heavy machinery parked in the background, the discussion here focused on the immense costs of and potential alternatives to the annual reconstruction of beachfront parking on this dynamic island.

A group of people walk towards a boat.
Coastal Excursion Old Dominion University students visit Parramore Island, Virginia Coast Reserve, March 2020. © Daniel White/TNC

Discovering a Barrier Island

No visit to the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve would be complete without a barrier island excursion. Late Thursday morning, VVCR’s Jenny Miller and Marcus Killmon welcomed the ODU students onboard TNC boats at the Wachapreague docks. A half-hour later, the group was trekking along the Volgenau Trail across Parramore Island—the largest barrier island within the longest stretch of wilderness along the U.S. Atlantic coast.

Sand dollar tucked into the hollow of a tree
Island Treasure Secret sand dolllar. © Whitney Hall / TNC

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have an entire beach to themselves, the group strolled through Parramore’s ghost forest of dead trees. Some students searched for sand dollars and myriad other shells. One proceeded to collect debris washed ashore by the ocean, or—in the case of several clusters of formerly helium-filled balloons—deposited by the wind.

A lunch break back along the trail provided an opportunity to discuss the dynamics of barrier islands, which constantly reshape themselves, as sea levels rise.  

When students participate in our conservation work, they enrich their own education and our program through hands-on experience, great conversation, and many new relationships and partnerships.

Program Director, Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve

Developing Real-World Solutions

As the students’ academic explorations of the Eastern Shore wound down, news from the outside world was beginning to cast doubt on their return to school. Unfortunately, the group had to depart a day early and postpone a planned group presentation to the VVCR staff.

The students had already completed their field work, however, and were able to summarize their top findings via a Zoom meeting in April for the VVCR team and invited partners, including representatives from the University of Virginia’s Long-Term Ecological Research project based in Oyster. A final report outlining specific preserve-management strategies is anticipated soon.

VVCR director Jill Bieri sums up the week: “When students participate in our conservation work, they enrich their own education and our program through hands-on experience, great conversation, and many new relationships and partnerships.”

“So much of my experience has been from the perspective of understanding how the physical world works, and the students really opened my eyes to new thinking about the management aspect of nature,” adds Susan. “One example is their idea of planting certain trees now that science tells us might thrive here in the future.”

The Nature Conservancy welcomes the opportunity to provide unique, hands-on, mutually beneficial learning experiences. We thank Dr. Plag and his students at Old Dominion University for their valuable service to the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve.

Aerial view of Hog Island looking down on a large stretch of sand extending into the Atlantic Ocean
Hog Island Aerial view of Hog Island, Virginia. © Peter Frank Edwards

University of Virginia

The Virginia chapter has a close relationship with UVA’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program. The largest and longest-lived ecological network in the United States, LTER brings together a multi-disciplinary group of scientists to study, document and analyze environmental change at sites across the country.  The LTER program at the Virginia Coast Reserve began in 1987 and is administered through the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia.  

LTER provides long-term data demonstrating changes to a myriad of natural systems located within VCR—salt marsh, seagrass, upland forests and barrier islands—that may be affected by climate change disturbances and how that may affect both human and natural communities on the Eastern Shore.  Our partnership includes:

  • Determination of research priorities within the Virginia Coast Reserve, with input from scientists and graduate students from all LTER institutions (including Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Institute for Marine Science and the University of North Carolina) 
  • Data dissemination (i.e. using LTER models and data for creation of portions of the Virginia Eastern Shore Coastal Resilience Tool)
  • Oyster restoration and wave attenuation studies
  • Recruitment of volunteers for field studies and restoration
  • Issuing and managing research permits for all aspects of LTER work that occur on TNC properties, including Brownsville Preserve and the barrier islands
  • Co-lead professional development courses for teachers and educators
  • Working collaboratively to manage the cross-island trail, dock and other infrastructure on Hog Island

In Charlottesville, UVA professors have used the Virginia Aquatic Resources Trust Fund’s (VATRF) Meadow Creek project as a study site for their courses.  Meadow Creek is one of the largest urban stream restoration projects completed in Virginia to date. UVA graduate students have conducted research at the site and VARTF has partnered with a UVA professor on a grant from the Landscape Architecture Foundation to study the economic and social benefits of the restoration.

LIving Shorelines See how the University of Virginia's Virginia Coast Reserve Long Term Ecological Research program is working with The Nature Conservancy to help control coastal erosion on the Virginia Eastern Shore using "Living Shorelines."
Aerial view looking down onto a floating barge depositing crushed granite at the site of a new oyster reef.
Building a Reef Granite rock is placed in the Piankatank River to form new oyster reef. © Patrick Bloodgood/U.S. Army photo

Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU's field research station, Rice Rivers Center in Charles City County, is the site of a TNC held easement and a Virginia Aquatic Resources Trust Fund (VARTF) wetland and stream mitigation project.

This longstanding partnership with VCU provides great educational and research opportunities, including a NOAA funded project administered by VCU's Center for Environmental Studies to assess fish production around newly restored oyster reefs in the Piankatank River. Nikki Rovner, TNC Virginia's associate state director, has also taught a graduate level natural resources legislation class in the Center for Environmental Studies. 

Our Allegheny Highlands program has also collaborated with VCU to conduct research in western Virginia, including avian studies to track the migration of golden-winged warblers and cerulean warblers as well as developing proposals for land management studies for the benefit of golden-winged warblers and other wildlife.

red cockaded woodpecker chicks sit on a red blanket after receiving color coded leg bands
Red-cockaded woodpecker Newly banded red-cockaded woodpecker chicks at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC
An oystercaster chick stands between the legs of an adult foraging for food.
Oyster catcher and chick Oyster catcher and chick © Ursula Dubrik fStop Foundation
Red-cockaded woodpecker Newly banded red-cockaded woodpecker chicks at Virginia's Piney Grove Preserve. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC
Oyster catcher and chick Oyster catcher and chick © Ursula Dubrik fStop Foundation

Center for Conservation Biology

At Piney Grove Preserve, TNC is working to restore the longleaf pine of the commonwealth's founding forest and the northernmost population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, Virginia's rarest bird. The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has been a key partner in this effort for more than two decades.

Biologists from CCB monitor breeding activity and complete two population censuses each spring and fall to document productivity and allow for banding of all red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) individuals within Piney Grove. Starting from just two breeding pairs, CCB has documented modern-day highs at Piney Grove for the numbers of breeding pairs and fledglings. Approximately 70 red-cockaded woodpeckers now call Piney Grove home.

CCB also monitors RCW populations that have moved into the neighboring Big Woods Wildlife Management Area as well as a population in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge established from birds reintroduced into the refuge in 2015.

On the Eastern Shore, the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve also has a long history of collaboration with CCB, partnering to implement ongoing monitoring and management programs, including a 5 year coastal plain survey for all colonial waterbirds, Whimbrel Watch, historic aerial shorebird surveys, and peregrine towers as well as identifying and prioritizing pressing conservation, management and research requirements related to our work with whimbrel, oystercatchers and red knots. 

Virginia Tech

The Virginia chapter has relationships with Virginia Tech across many of our landscape and conservation programs.

TNC's Allegheny Highlands program works closely with faculty and students from Virginia Tech to facilitate research and provide access to the chapter's 10,000 acre Warm Springs Mountain Preserve.

A researcher wearing a blue glove holds a bat during a field survey
Bat Survey Staff from TNC, Virginia Tech and USDA Forest Service conduct a bat survey in the field at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. June 2016. © TNC
A coyote caught on wild life camera
Canid Camera A coyote is caught on wildlife camera. © The Nature Conservancy
Bat Survey Staff from TNC, Virginia Tech and USDA Forest Service conduct a bat survey in the field at Warm Springs Mountain Preserve. June 2016. © TNC
Canid Camera A coyote is caught on wildlife camera. © The Nature Conservancy

Recent and ongoing research has included studies to determine the distribution and habitat use of eastern spotted skunks in western Virginia; a comprehensive bat research and monitoring program on Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and the adjacent George Washington National Forest (funded by the national Joint Fire Science Program); estimating population abundance and determining habitat use and movement patterns of coyotes (Canis latrans) in the Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and surrounding National Forest, state, and private lands in Bath County; and studying the predation and scavenging behavior of bobcats, bears, and coyotes on white-tailed deer and the implications of that behavior on white-tailed deer populations. 

A man holds a handful of freshwater mussels in the clear, running water of the Clinch River.
Clinch River Mussels: The Clinch River has the highest biodiversity for rare freshwater mussel species of any place in the world. © Jon Golden/The Nature Conservancy

In southwest Virginia, our Clinch Valley program works to protect habitats in the Clinch River that support some of the world’s most diverse assemblages of freshwater mussels. TNC recently embarked on a significant ramp-up of mussel-augmentation capacity in partnership with Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).

Thanks to an approximately $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and matching resources from the partners, TNC will collaborate with the Virginia Tech Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center and VDGIF’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center to produce 100,000 juvenile mussels—an approximately six-fold increase—for release into the Russell County, Virginia, reach of the Clinch River.

The grant will also support a cutting-edge new juvenile mussel transformation technique that, instead of requiring live fish hosts, uses in-vitro media. If successful, this innovation may enable far greater mussel production than previously possible. This three-year project commenced April 1, 2020 with the first mussel releases anticipated to occur in summer or fall of 2021.

A large group of red knots fly above the Atlantic Ocean surf on a Virginia barrier island.
Red Knots (Calidris canutus) Some red knots migrate more than 9,300 miles along the Atlantic coast, from summer breeding grounds in the Arctic to winter retreats as far south as Chile and Argentina. © Barry Truitt / TNC

On the Eastern Shore, the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) program has worked with Virginia Tech’s Shorebird Program since 2006 to further our understanding of red knot ecology on the Virginia barrier islands. 

Work led by Dr. Jim Fraser and Dr. Sarah Karpanty has shed considerable light on the importance of coastal habitats at VVCR for the rufa subspecies of red knot.  We continue to support their annual efforts to sample the islands for red knot prey availability. 

VVCR has also collaborated with Dr. Karpanty on several projects through her role with UVA’s LTER program including investigating mammalian predator population dynamics and implications for island, and the use of drones for predator and shorebird management.

The Virginia Aquatic Resources Trust Fund (VARTF) is providing multiple years of hydrology data from several of VARTF's coastal plain and piedmont wetland sites. The data will contribute to a project led by Dr. Lee Daniels, Dept. of Soil Environmental Science, to create an advanced database and modelling software to identify target hydroperiods, or the period of time during which a wetland is covered by water.

Closeup view of a purple coneflower
Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) © Chris Helzer/The Nature Conservancy

Virginia's Director of Land Management and Fire Program Manager, Sam Lindblom, has served as a project mentor for Dr. Sarah Karpanty’s senior capstone class in Virginia's Tech's Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

2019's group studied smooth coneflower at TNC's Den Creek and Walnut Hill Preserves in Montgomery County, reviewing the existing management plans for the two sites and conducting field work to measure canopy cover at both sites.

The current year’s group is developing a feral hog survey methodology for volunteers to use on TNC's Virginia preserves. We don’t (yet) have hogs, but they are known to be on nearby properties in Montgomery County. Being able to detect them early will increase our chance of success with control efforts.

The College of William & Mary

The Virginia chapter has close and long-standing relationships with the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) and Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), two research groups based within the College of William & Mary.

Collage of images showing eelgrass in large water filled storage tanks and a man in a wetsuit standing next to a tank.
Restoration Success Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth from VIMS stands next to a holding tank at the Conservancy's facility in Oyster, VA (right). Eelgrass shoots are measured into holding tanks to cure. © Daniel White / TNC (l-both); Peter Frank Edwards for The Nature Conservancy (r)

Virginia Institute of Marine Science

TNC and VIMS are both partners in the Seaside Heritage Program which began funding for the large-scale, successful eelgrass and oyster restoration efforts that continue today. Our most notable partnership with VIMS centers on eelgrass, the largest seagrass restoration project in the world. The Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve (VVCR) and VIMS collaborate together on annual seed collection, curing and storing of seeds in VVCR’s facility in Oyster, and seed planting and monitoring.

Scallop restoration and reintroduction represents another significant area of effort. We work closely with VIMS’ Eastern Shore Laboratory (ESL) on techniques for growing scallops at VVCR’s facility in Oyster along with field monitoring studies to track scallop survival.

VVCR’s Parramore Island, one of 14 undeveloped barrier and marsh islands, is regularly used by ESL staff and VIMS faculty for educational trips.

TNC has also worked with VIMS on a Chesapeake Bay aquaculture project aimed at quantifying the ecological benefits of oyster aquaculture to the bay. VIMS provided the scientific expertise to measure the water quality impacts and benefits to help answer the question, can oyster aquaculture make the bay cleaner, faster?

Aquaculture by Design Chesapeake Bay: Results A study conducted by TNC and VIMS indicates that the oyster aquaculture industry can help to restore water quality in our rivers and bays.

Center for Conservation Biology

At Piney Grove Preserve, TNC is working to restore the longleaf pine of the commonwealth's founding forest and the northernmost population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, Virginia's rarest bird. The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has been a key partner in this effort for more than two decades.

A man uses a ladder to climb a pine tree while the sun rises in the background.
Red-Cockaded Recovery Dr. Byan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology climbs a pine tree to band the first red-cockaded woodpeckers to be born on Big Woods WMA, May, 2019. © Robert B. Clontz / TNC

Biologists from CCB monitor breeding activity and complete two population censuses each spring and fall to document productivity and allow for banding of all red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) individuals within Piney Grove. Starting from just two breeding pairs, CCB has documented modern-day highs at Piney Grove for the numbers of breeding pairs and fledglings. Approximately 70 red-cockaded woodpeckers now call Piney Grove home.

CCB also monitors RCW populations that have moved into the neighboring Big Woods Wildlife Management Area as well as a population in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge established from birds reintroduced into the refuge in 2015.

On the Eastern Shore, VVCR also has a long history of collaboration with CCB, partnering to implement ongoing monitoring and management programs, including a 5 year coastal plain survey for all colonial waterbirds, Whimbrel Watch, historic aerial shorebird surveys, and peregrine towers as well as identifying and prioritizing pressing conservation, management and research requirements related to our work with whimbrel, oystercatchers and red knots.