Report from the Field Station

Above: Part of the CUH survey crew at a survey site near Montebello, Virginia. Crew members, left to right, Devin, Jessie, Olivia, Emily, Ashley, and Ezra.  Image by the client, Anna Lane.

What have we been up to in 2020?

It’s been a challenging year for all of us, but we are happy to report that we have pulled through. With your support we were able to accomplish a great deal of education and conservation work in 2020! The crew of the field station conducted research, restoration, and education at 62 different project sites this year alone!

Grasshopper sparrow. Image by CUH Field Tech Ezra Staengl.

Wildlife Conservation. We worked with VDOT, Albemarle County, Riberbend Developers, and Atlas Construction to accomplish wildlife tunnels at the Spotted Salamander migration site north of Charlottesville. These salamanders migrate during rush hour in winter and suffer high mortality rates. The tunnels are in, and we eagerly await the migration of winter 2021 to see how effective they will be! We also conducted quantitative grassland bird surveys in 2020 to begin learning about how native bird species such as grasshopper sparrow and meadowlark interact with agricultural landscapes in the Piedmont. One of the farms that is supporting this initiative is Oakencroft Farm, in Albemarle County, and we are so happy to be forging partnerships with folks that own and manage large open spaces!

Map of survey results from the Hedgerow Tract, 2020. Map by CUH staff, Matt Smith.
Mary Jane Epps, senior field tech, examines flora in a seepage swamp. Image by Emily Luebke.

Biological Surveys. We completed biological surveys at 7 substantial properties in the region, all with a goal of generating place-based knowledge pertaining to natural and cultural resources The data will be used to inform plans to restore, interpret, and conserve Virginia landscapes. These surveys focused on natural plant community assessments, geologic assessments, plant and animal inventories, critical resource mapping, trail planning, and cultural resource inventory. Included were The Hedgerow Tract (future County Park), The Heyward Tract (City Park), Zinks Mill Biome (near the Blue Ridge Parkway), The Thieblot Preserve (along the Rockfish River), and Preddy Creek Prairie (northern Albemarle County).

Part of the CUH Survey crew in a high quality Piedmont Prairie remnant. Ezra, Emily, and Drew. Image by Devin Floyd

Grasslands of the Piedmont. The Field Station also launched a new project this season : The Piedmont Grasslands Inventory. In 2020 we documented 46 new high quality grassland sites, and accomplished intensive surveys at 10 of those sites. Rare species, and high levels of diversity were observed. In the wake of realizing that there may be hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of remnant high quality grasslands in the Central Virginia Piedmont, we were inspired to take action! In 2020 we began to build a map of grassland indicative place-names and historic records (think, bison, buffalo, glade, plain, field, etc). While doing that we also began a systematic reconnaissance sweep of a 7-county area in order to begin mapping high quality grassland occurrences. They are very poorly studied, mostly because they are small and forgotten. The twist is that recent research in other grasslands around the world suggest that those that are composed of entirely native species, rare species, and lots of species might be “old growth” grasslands (>1000 years old)!!! Yes, you read that right, and guess what? There are hundreds of examples of these in each of the 7 counties in our study area. Pretty exciting, ehh? The work will continue in 2021 with a number of new partners in the effort, including The Clifton Institute, The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Olivia and Ezra collect data in a landscape installation at the IX Art Park.

Progress Assessments in Landscaping. As you know by now, the landscape designs we do are modeled after natural communities of flora and fauna (there’s just no other way to truly support biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes). Because of the overlap with ecology, we have high standards, even in urban designs and those spots with heavy design restrictions. To assure success, the survey crew joins the landscape crew periodically to do detailed quantitative assessments of the restoration. This provides an objective view of progress. The resulting data allows the Landscape Project manager to identify issues, pivot if necessary, and ensure the restorations are meeting objectives and targets. The survey team does these “sample plots” to track progress in all our landscape design and installation settings – even in formal urban landscapes!

Curating and Sharing Discoveries, Photographs, and Data. One of the critical roles of the Field Station is to curate its findings. We keep a database of georeferenced photographs for all projects. Every new survey produces new “county record” occurrences for ecosystems, and plant and animal species, and we record these and report them to the authorities that keep track of ranges and change. This allows the public and researchers to see shifts during this era of climate change, and it also allows everyone to better see the actuality of the natural world that is hiding right before us. You will see our discoveries reflected in updates in the Virginia Atlas of Flora and at the DCR-DNH natural community maps over time. You will also see new records for butterflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians at other sites including eBird, Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), and the Virginia Herpetological Society. Lastly, we will mention that we have a growing Herbarium collection and Geology collection, both of which we plan to make accessible to you in the future!

General Consultation. Last, but not least, the Field Station crew consulted on more than 50 natural and cultural resource projects in 2020. These included site visits for master planning at parks and natural history centers, expertise provided to landscape architects, private property consultations for ecosystem and wildlife conservation and education, and expert advisory service on critical resources for park planning and rare and critical species conservation.

Devin Floyd ambles through a high elevation grassland in Central Virginia. Image by Ezra Staengl.

Thank you! To our clients, donors, volunteers, partners, and hard working staff, we cannot express enough appreciation and gratitude for your ongoing support. You’ve allowed us to experiment over the years with a very progressive and effective means of accomplishing education and conservation. We’ve created hundreds of little nodes of natural history education, one property at a time! It’s a model for success and we plan to build on this to fully realize the benefits of your efforts and investments of time, energy, materials, and money. Education and Conservation will be evermore on the front burner, and we want you, our “Founding Trustees”, to know that none of it would be possible without you!