Tag Archives: Virginia

Fall into Lore at Great Dismal Swamp

Legends of pirates’ loot, lost vessels, and hidden colonies….8263420592_871ae84492_n

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge’s fall festival was unlike any other. Their 2016 refuge event, located in Southeastern Virginia, encompassed a wide range of activities for all ages, and offered a mesmerizing mix of historical lore and legends with guided tours in and around the swamp. In addition to this was an author’s book talk and a recreational craft station for the younger folks. The event was short and sweet, lasting on a Sunday from sun up until four.


The refuge manager, Chris Lowie (pictured middle), even got involved by dressing up as President George Washington, who had visited the swamps back in the 1760s and purchased some of the Dismal Swamp land for his logging company. Children often tried to guess who Lowie’s historical character could be.


A crowd of mostly young adults came out for the book talk to discuss “Unbound: A Novel In Verse,” written by award winning author Ann E Burg. This novel is about a young slave girl and her family escaping familial separation to find a safe haven deep within the remote wilderness of  Great Dismal Swamp.  Even though this is a fictional story, the swamp has been directly connected to maroons or escaped slaves, and historians have discovered artifacts of small colonies where maroons hid to find freedom. Native Americans helped the refugee slaves acclimate to the challenges of living in the swamp’s environment.

This Fall festival provided a craft-making area for kids where fire fly lamps of plastic cups and lights were made to reflect the poem “A Ballad: A Lake of the Dismal Swamp” by Sir Thomas More.

“Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds, –

His path was rugged and sore,

Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds”




Volunteers also dressed in colonial garb and spoke of mythological stories and legends, while stationed along the guided tour. “The White Deer – Virginia Dare” was one of the tour stories told about a young colonist girl who wandered into the swampy woods and was accidentally shot with a special arrow by a man of the Chowan tribe. He had been hunting a rare white deer, which was known throughout the nation that this prize would make him the greatest hunter of all. After not being able to locate what his arrow had hit, he returns home.  The young girl, being hit directly in the heart, turns into a white deer and is said to wander the swamp immortal and mysteriously majestic.


Another story being read by a costumed lady pirate (pictured above in black), is “French Gold,” a myth about a plundering french ship washing up in the Great Dismal Swamp area after its crew tried to flee from a Vessel of British Soldiers. The group of French pirates fled on foot. They carried as much gold as they could and eventually buried it, but were ultimately followed by the soldiers and eventually killed. Legend has it the gold is supposedly buried deep within the swamps, and the eerie voices of the deceased pirates call out to locate their cursed looted treasure. Fake gold coins were placed around the refuge and children could find and collect them along the tour as well.

Great Dismal Swamp will continue their Fall Festival tradition next year and plans to include more costumed characters in the future.

For more information on Great Dismal Swamp Widlife Refuge, you can refer to this link: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/great_dismal_swamp/

Whether you are visiting Great Dismal Swamp to see wildlife, explore and learn about the swamp’s rich history, or get involved in some fun activities, Great Dismal Swamp provides an abundance of reasons one should come out and visit this year!


Virginia rivers opened for the first time in 100 years!

Colonial leaders got it right for fish … and people too.

As far back as 1670, Virginia prohibited structures like dams that would hinder fish migrating up and down our rivers. Why? They recognized their future depended on the millions of delicious migratory fish swimming our coastal rivers. Fish biologist Albert Spells will tell you that feasting on Atlantic sturgeon saved the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown.


Albert Spells with an Atlantic sturgeon caught on the Chesapeake Bay. Credit:USFWS

Flash forward to the 1900s, and the rivers paint a different picture. The growing cities and towns have built hundreds of dams and road culverts blocking fish from their spawning grounds. Commercial fishing has expanded rapidly to feed the region and the world. Fish numbers drop, and keep dropping.

Where does that put us today? Well much has changed on the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers that flow to it from Virginia. One change is a return back to that early wisdom. We are removing obstacles to fish migration so fish can reach their spawning habitat and produce new generations of fish. Our goal is to reverse the trend in declining fish populations and create truly sustainable fisheries.

Albert Spells with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Charles City, Virginia and Alan Weaver, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), have been working together for years, alongside the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers, dam owners, local watershed groups and towns to re-open Virginia’s rivers to migratory fish like American shad and river herring. And restore our fishing heritage.

Over 1000 miles of river have been re-opened to migratory fish in Virginia in the past decade thanks to these collaborative efforts.

In 2005, the Embrey Dam (built in 1910) was removed, re-opening 106 miles on the Rappahannock River and gaining a full 186 miles of free-flowing river. American shad, blueback herring and striped bass have all been found upstream of the former dam.

This past October, a large section of the 150 year-old Monumental Mills Dam on the Hazel River was removed, re-opening 83 miles to fish migrating up from the Rappahannock.

In 2010, the Riverton Dam was removed on the beautiful North Fork Shenandoah River, a tributary to the Potomac River. This opened 95 miles of the North Fork to migratory fish returning from the Chesapeake Bay.


Riverton Dam being removed on the North Fork Shenandoah River. Credit: Alan Weaver/ VDGIF.

After removing the Harvell Dam in 2014, over 127 miles of the Appomattox River, a tributary to the James River, were open to migratory fish for the first time in 130 years.


Over 127 miles of the Appomattox River is open to fish now that the Harvell Dam has been removed. Credit: Alan Weaver/VDGIF

The Harvell Dam removal was a high priority for migratory fish restoration in Virginia because it was the first obstruction on the Appomattox, and therefore, a critical fish passage site. Just one year after it’s removal, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring were found upstream of the former dam.


Hickory shad found upstream in the Appomattox River one year after the Harvell Dam was removed. Credit: Robert Willis/VDGIF

A strong fisheries can help generate a strong economy. And removing barriers to fish migration will allow a great number of fishes to recover – if we adhere to water quality and fishing regulations.

Albert and Alan will continue to work together to remove obsolete and hazardous dams, and install fish-friendly culverts that allow more water (and fish) to pass. Fewer roads and bridges will wash-out during high water events; fewer accidents will occur around obsolete dams and more fish will thrive in the rivers of Virginia.

And more people will enjoy the music of flowing rivers, enjoy fishing and boating, and know that beneath the water’s surface is a world of fishes that are fun to watch and good to eat.

The race to save the golden riffleshell

The golden riffleshell… sounds like an exotic treasure to us. It’s not gold or any fancy metal for that matter, but to some it is a treasure: to those that know the role of freshwater mussels in water quality and food webs, to those that know that some of the rarest mussels in the world live in the Appalachia, and to those biologists who discovered that this very freshwater mussel had clung to survival at the edge of extinction. Read the story below from Roberta Hylton and Jess Jones of our Southwest Virginia office and Leroy Koch of our Kentucky office.

 In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

In late April 2016 a male golden riffleshell sits anchored in the sunlit stream bottom of Indian Creek near Cedar Bluff, VA. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

The quiet, pastoral landscape of remote southwestern Virginia was filled with sudden loud cheers when biologists managed to collect three golden riffleshell mussels from a stream near Cedar Bluff, Virginia.

This endangered species – which is listed as the tan riffleshell, despite a recent change in its scientific name – is now likely one of the rarest freshwater mussels on Earth.

It survives only in a single, small and isolated population in Indian Creek, a tributary to the Clinch River, and biologists racing to save it from extinction were thrilled to discover that not only were the golden riffleshell they had found all female, they were also carrying glochidia, which is what immature, young mussels are called.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

A biologist uses a view bucket to peer beneath the water as he wades the shallow riffles of Indian Creek on a sunny spring day in search of female golden riffleshells. Credit: Roberta Hylton/USFWS

 The golden riffleshell is just one of the many freshwater mussels species that call the Clinch River watershed home. In fact, the region boasts one of the most diverse assemblages of these freshwater animals in the U.S. With fanciful names such as birdwing pearlymussel, Appalachian monkeyface, and rough rabbitsfoot, these animals provide a critical role, filtering and cleaning river water. They serve as “bio-indicators,” letting us know when something is not quite right in our waterways.

“We are lucky to have such incredible diversity right in our backyard and it is our responsibility to ensure its future,” says Sarah Colletti of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “If we can maintain healthy diverse freshwater mussel communities in our rivers, then we know we are doing a good job of protecting water quality too, and clean water is important to us all.”

Over the years, the golden riffleshell and a number of other freshwater mussel species found in the Clinch River watershed have dwindled to precariously low numbers, and locating individuals has become highly problematic. Today, biologists believe there are less than a few hundred golden riffleshell left in a single stretch of stream.

Biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries have recognized for years now that the golden riffleshell and other freshwater mussels throughout the Upper Tennessee River Basin face incredible challenges to their survival. Though government regulations have brought about water quality improvements, freshwater mussels and fish are harmed wherever streams are affected by poor land use practices, mining, industrial spills, climate change, invasive species and other factors.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Golden riffleshell “glochidia”, or tiny immature young, reveal themselves with the aid of a microscope. Credit: Monte McGregor, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Biologists with our agency, with Kentucky and Virginia, Virginia Tech, and The Nature Conservancy worked cooperatively and quickly this past March to extract the glochidia and return the females unharmed back to Indian Creek. The glochidia were transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation where scientists are using new techniques in an attempt to grow the species in captivity and help increase its population.

The golden riffleshell is on the brink of extinction. Still, conservationists hope that if we work hard and fast, we just may have a chance to save it.

While habitat conservation, restoration of water quality, and educating the public about the values of aquatic ecosystems are important components of recovery efforts, for the golden riffleshell, culturing (i.e., growing) this species in the laboratory is likely this species’ last best hope. Culturing mussels isn’t easy because the life cycle of a freshwater mussel is one of the most complex in the animal world.

In the past, biologists have used a variety of conventional techniques to propagate golden riffleshell, but success has been limited as numbers in the wild have continued to decline. However, efforts led by Monte McGregor of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Center for Mollusk Conservation to refine lab techniques for culturing mussels in serum extracted from the blood of rabbits offered new hope for saving the golden riffleshell. McGregor and his staff have been successful in propagating and culturing the tan riffleshell, which is closely related to the golden riffleshell, from the Cumberland River system in Kentucky. If the success using rabbit serum can be repeated for the golden riffleshell, biologists just might be able to accomplish their mission to save this small aquatic animal.

biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Biologist uses a syringe to extract the tiny immature young from an adult golden riffleshell female so they can be transported to Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, cultured with a technique using rabbit serum, and reared to a larger size for reintroduction back into the wild. Credit: Tim Lane, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The determination of biologists who are partnering across state lines in Virginia and Kentucky is paying off.

From the three gravid (with young mussels) female golden riffleshell collected in Virginia in March, the Kentucky Center for Mollusk Conservation has successfully used rabbit serum to rear about 12,000 glochidia to the juvenile stage.

While there may be some mortality, this first batch of mussels appear to be among the healthiest ever cultured by McGregor and we expect a few thousand will make it to larger sizes suitable for reintroduction into the wild. Although some of the young mussels will remain at the Kentucky facility, by mid to late summer of this year, many will be transported to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, Virginia, and Virginia Tech’s Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Center in Blacksburg, Virginia, to allow for continuous monitoring and growth.

Eventually, if all goes well, the young golden riffleshells will be released back into the wild. The road ahead may be a long one, but the success of propagating golden riffleshell to date has provided new hope in the race to save this species.

This story originally appeared on our website and in our Endangered Species Bulletin Summer 2016 edition.