Tag Archives: Virginia Tech

Weathering the storm: piping plovers flock to Long Island beaches

If you live in the Northeast, you won’t soon forget 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. But there is one storm story you may have yet to hear.

Along some areas of the Long Island coast, strong winds and waves washed over the beaches, spreading out sand to create the sandy, open spaces that the island’s winged residents rely on for nesting. For biologists, the restored beach habitat was a sign of hope for the threatened piping plover, whose numbers had been precariously low in New York.

An example of an overwash area on Fire Island Wilderness area Photo credit: USFWS

Researchers from Virginia Tech investigated the effects of Sandy on Long Island with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Suffolk County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In comparing 2010 and 2015 plover habitat areas and population abundances, they found a substantial increase in suitable habitat and a modest population increase. Notably, more than half of the new habitat on Fire Island and Westhampton Island was created during the storm, with the rest of the habitat engineered by the Corps.

Outreach Coordinator Bret Serbin with Long Island Field Office biologists at the Fire Island Wilderness area. From left: Steve Papa, Kerri Dikun, Bret Serbin, and Steve Sinkevich. Photo credit: USFWS

This increase in available habitat likely contributed to the 40.6 percent increase in plover population on Fire Island and Westhampton Island since the hurricane. This boost is a welcome addition for the bird, which faces numerous threats and is struggling to reach the goal of 575 pairs set out in the federal recovery plan. The researchers also found that the number of nesting pairs in the area has increased over the past 5 years, and they are optimistic that 2018 will be a year of continued productivity for the birds in the area.

Since piping plover chicks have to forage for themselves, plovers like to build nests on flat open beaches close to the shoreline where they have easy access to the tiny invertebrates that they feed on. By creating a number of new overwashes and breaches, Sandy helped expand the territory where plovers and their chicks can live, eat, and grow before their winter journey.

A rare sight: an abundance of piping plovers! Photo credit: USFWS

The reaction from the local plover population has been telling: among new and returning plovers at each beach in the study area, more than 80 percent chose the newly-created habitats to build their nests. And the new plovers exclusively nested in these new areas, completely avoiding the less favorable habitat that existed before Sandy’s contributions. The Hurricane Sandy beach redesign seems popular among the plovers.

This new habitat inches the birds one step closer towards recovery. But what the researchers call a “modest increase” in population is still a long way off from the desired plover population on Long Island. And since much of the newly created habitat is not in protected areas, only time will tell how long and how much the birds will really be able to enjoy these new spaces. To recover this species and others that depend on storm-generated habitat, we must look for solutions that balance shorebird habitat creation while protecting human infrastructure so that we can both weather the storm.

Meet #ScienceWoman Anne Secord

Anne Secord BrandedCelebrate Women’s History Month with us! This year, we’re looking forward by honoring women across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and female conservationists who are making history in our agency and in conservation. With each #ScienceWoman, we’ll share a photo and a couple questions and answers about her work. Stay tuned for posts throughout the month!

Meet Anne Secord, the chief of the environmental quality branch in our New York Field Office in Cortland. Anne led a team that secured $19.4 million of restoration funds from parties responsible for releasing hazardous substances into the St. Lawrence River since at least the 1950s.

Anne and fellow New York Field Office biologist Sandie Doran getting ready to conduct winter census of bat hibernaculum in New York. Photo courtesy of Anne.

Anne and fellow New York Field Office biologist Sandie Doran getting ready to conduct winter census of bat hibernaculum in New York. Photo courtesy of Anne.

She studied wildlife biology at Cornell University and Virginia Tech. Her female conservation hero is Anne LaBastille, an ecologist who authored scientific papers, popular articles and books like the Woodswoman series and Women of the Wilderness.

Anne checking on the large number of bald eagles that winter at Onondaga Lake, the location of a Superfund site and cooperative case to assess and restore injured natural resources. Photo courtesy of Anne.

Anne checking on the large number of bald eagles that winter at Onondaga Lake, the location of a Superfund site and cooperative case to assess and restore injured natural resources. Photo courtesy of Anne.

Q. What’s your favorite thing about working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? A. We work for the only federal agency that provides “in-the-dirt” protection for fish and wildlife resources. The agency is full of people who care deeply about our natural resources and take measurable steps to protect and improve them.

Anne investigating whether emerging contaminants like detergents or pharmaceuticals from sewage treatment plants are affecting fish health in the Raquette River, New York. Photo courtesy of Anne.

Anne investigating whether emerging contaminants like detergents or pharmaceuticals from sewage treatment plants are affecting fish health in the Raquette River, New York. Photo courtesy of Anne.

Q. If you could have one incredible animal adaptation, what would it be? A. I would love to be able to fly – to see the world from above it all – and it would shorten my commute.

See more #ScienceWoman profiles!

Biologist Jess Jones of our Virginia field office just received the Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence. Jess is a national leader in freshwater mussel conservation. Credit: USFWS

Meet a leading scientist in freshwater mussel conservation

Biologist Jess Jones of our Virginia field office just received the Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence. Jess is a national leader in freshwater mussel conservation. Credit: USFWS

Biologist Jess Jones of our Virginia field office just received the 2013 Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence. Jess is a national leader in freshwater mussel conservation. Credit: USFWS

You’ve heard us say this many times…Freshwater mussels are not rocks. They’re way more than just shells covering river bottoms. Mussel populations tell us if the river is healthy, meaning it is a good resource for drinking water, for fishing, and for waterfowl and other species.

Now, here’s something even more incredible than mussels’ crazy names (like Appalachian monkeyface pearlymussel) or their amazing skills for tricking fish. There are more types of freshwater mussels in Virginia and Tennessee’s Powell River than in all of Europe. Their existence there has been threatened many times–including by two large oil spills that caused the loss of much habitat.

This is where Jess Jones steps in. Jess is a national leader in freshwater mussel conservation and restoration. Recipient of the 2013 Rachel Carson Award for Scientific Excellence, Jess works with the latest technology to breed and raise juvenile mussels at Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center for release in the Clinch and Powell rivers. He’s based out of our U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in eastern Virginia.

How incredible is his work?

  • After one of Virginia’s most catastrophic spills destroyed one of the last remaining populations of the endangered tan riffleshell, Jess worked with other agencies to release more than 26,000 mussel larvae (glochidia) and juvenile mussels to augment the 100 adult tan riffleshells that remained.
  • The laboratory Jess oversees has successfully reared thousands of juvenile endangered oyster mussels to breeding age (4 years) and has recently documented that these mussels are reproducing in captivity.
  • Jess and his partners have released hundreds of thousands of hatchery-reared mussels to restore one of the nation’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. In 2010, his team released 2,500 endangered oyster mussels.
  • Through his novel monitoring methodologies, Jess has confirmed that survival and growth rates for propagated and released mussels at multiple sites are very similar to natural rates in the sections of the same rivers not affected by the spills.

Breeding mussels and supporting populations that will survive into the future are no simple tasks. The freshwater mussel life cycle is one of the most complex in the animal world (check out our video on it). They face incredible challenges for survival, as the quality of their stream and river homes is affected by land use, industries, climate change and invasive species.

We couldn’t be more appreciative of Jess’ scientific expertise and dedication for conserving and restoring the incredible diversity of Virginia’s waters — and contributing to the health and well-being of wildlife and people. Congratulations, Jess!

Jess took his passion for mussel conservation abroad to China — check out his blog from the trip!