Winter Update 2021 – Biological Field Station

The dangling fruit of Celtis occidentalis (common hackberry) provides an extended offering of nutrient-rich food for birds even during the middle of winter.

February 22, 2021

It’s been an unusually wet and icy winter thus far in the Central Virginia Piedmont, and we have been focused on writing, research, planning, and preparation for the coming season. The field station crew has a large pile of plant and mineral specimens to curate, as well as a great deal of natural plant community data from the prior survey season. We are currently processing those samples and crunching data to share with public agencies. We continue to see growing support from across the Piedmont and have managed to add a couple new clients a week related to biological assessment and education. We have several exciting new projects coming online this year, including education-based biological surveys and Piedmont grasslands research.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the field crew has managed to devise safety protocols that have allowed the Piedmont Grasslands Initiative to lay some important groundwork for research. Pictured here are Drew, Emily, Jessie, and Olivia – all eagerly await the prairie and savanna surveys of 2021.

Piedmont Grasslands Initiative update: finding clues in the historic record.

Grasslands education will continue to sweep the region as the general public is afforded opportunities to learn more about these diverse ecosystems. The grand myth of virgin forests stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River at the time European settlers arrived has caused lots of inadvertent harm in environmental education, conservation, and cultural inclusion and equity. There’s a lot of education work to do! So, if forests weren’t blanketing the landscape, what was? Early explorers’ notes, land patent details, and historic place names offer clues in such great numbers that the mounting body of evidence is undeniable. Grasslands, including vast sunny wetlands, prairies, and savannas, shared the land with woodlands and forests. We have begun inventorying these, mapping them, and visiting locations to see if natural grassland “remnants” still exist in forgotten, overlooked, unplowed places. 

Bison herds once roamed the Central Virginia Piedmont. Dozens geographic features, old pathways and roads, and place names provide indirect evidence of their former range and migration routes. Photograph by Jean Beaufort.

To give you a taste of the types of historic references we are uncovering, here are a couple of quotes that have been geo-referenced to the same part of the Piedmont at different points in time. These examples are from the northernmost headwaters of the Rivanna River, in the Piedmont Uplands of Albemarle and Greene Counties – an area mapped as “Savanae” in the 17th century.

“The parts inhabited here are pleasant and fruitful, because cleared of Wood, and laid open to the Sun. The Valleys feed numerous herds of Deer and Elks larger then Oxen: these Valleys they call Savanae, being Marish grounds at the foot of the Apalataei, and yearly laid under water in the beginning of Summer by flouds of melted Snow falling down from the Mountains” – J. Lederer, March 1669.

“We crossed one of the small mountains this side the Appalachian, and from the top of it we had a fine view of the plains below.” – J. Fontaine, September 1716

“…the old Richard Woods Road closely followed a buffalo trail. A tract of land …. sold in 1769 to Isaac Davis, and lying on the north fork of the Rivanna, is described as adjoining Buffalo Meadow.” – E. Woods. 1901

Map of our 2021 focal area for grasslands inventory and study. We plan to expand upon this focal area in future years to reach further north and south into the Piedmont.

The results of the preliminary site visits in 2020 were remarkable. We are finding hundreds, if not thousands, of unplanted, high quality prairie and savanna remnants – leftovers of diverse mixes of plants that take a thousand years or more to self assemble at any given site! This is inspiring news, As many, if not all of these small remnants we are seeing may be what remains of a pre-Columbian landscape. What this means is, despite what much of the conservation community has come to believe, the old grasslands are not lost. They are still here in all their variety, and they need our help expanding onto landscapes they formally occupied. We are very excited about the challenge that lies ahead! 

We aim to use research to begin seeing if biological field data correlates with the historic record in the Central Virginia Piedmont. We have assembled a small team (the Piedmont Grasslands Initiative) that includes archaeologists, historians, GIS mapping specialists, and botanists, and the work is underway. We have secured some private funds to support the work, and will be applying for a grant for research in 2021. The primary goal of the initiative for 2021 is to begin understanding the quantity, quality, diversity, and distribution of native grasslands in the Central Virginia Piedmont. 

Ammodramus savannarum (Grasshopper sparrow) is a species that is declining rapidly in the Piedmont region due to the loss of natural grasslands to agrictultural and unnatural forest succession. Photograph by Ezra Staengl

Wildlife Research and Education 

We are in the midst of reporting on the finds of 2021 survey work, and planning for research in 2021. These include a study of grassland birds of the region, amphibian and vernal pool conservation and education, and the submission of records for observations of animals in places they have not been seen before. 

Birds: Fresh off the press is a new report detailing a bird survey effort conducted by CUH technicians, Ezra Staengl and Drew Chaney, at a Central Virginia farm. Grassland bird species hang by a thread in the old farm fields of the Piedmont, and their survival is in the hands of the farmers that manage the land. The results from this year’s survey suggest there may be local nodes of stability, and some evidence that land managers are doing the right thing – habitat restoration and conservation. A repeat study at a farm in Albemarle County compared data from 2009 with that of 2020, and found that populations of eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, field sparrow, brown thrasher, and eastern towhee remain stable. However, prairie warblers were present in 2009 but not in 2020. Our hope is that ongoing natural savanna and prairie restoration at the farm will support them in the future.

Ambystoma maculatum (spotted salamander), migrating across a ground cover of snow at Polo Grounds in Albemarle County, Virginia.

Salamanders: We are eagerly anticipating the coming spotted salamander migrations along the Rivanna river in Albemarle County. New salamander tunnels have been constructed across Polo Grounds Road and we are planning a research effort that will assess the efficacy of the tunnels. We expect migrations to begin in Late February this year. Volunteers have been monitoring the site, and there was no sign of activity in the first three weeks of February.

Celastrina neglectamajor (Appalachian azure) alighting upon its host plant, Actaea racemosa (black cohosh) in a remote hollow 2 miles southwest of Charlottesville. Photograph by Emily Luebke.

Butterflies: In 2020 we submitted an unusual record for the butterfly species, Appalachian Azure. This species is extremely rare in the Piedmont region, and a sustained breeding population resides in the deep ravines of the Ragged Mountains of Charlottesville/Albemarle. The report was confirmed and accepted, and you can read more in the link that follows: 

“Thank you again for your submission of record 1245422 to the Butterflies and Moths of North America database on April 9, 2020. Your sighting has been accepted, and your regional coordinator has verified your submission as Celastrina neglectamajor.”

Map showing our sample locations and the emergent natural communities overlain on an archaeological sample grid at an ongoing savanna restoration at James Madison’s Montpelier.

Biological Survey Reporting/Mapping

We are currently working on creating reports and maps for several different projects in the region. Among those are a several hundred acre property in the Blue Ridge Mountains, another in the Nelson County Piedmont, and a recently completed project in the Ragged Mountains of Albemarle County. 

This year we are adding several biological survey projects in the central Va Piedmont region, including research in Buckingham, Amherst, Madison, Greene, Orange, and Louisa counties. All of them have overarching goals of land owner education and natural and cultural resource conservation and restoration.

Our most recent publication and release is a report that is probably the most significant summary of natural and cultural history we have ever produced. To learn more about all aspects of Natural History in the Central Virginia Piedmont, we encourage you to dive into our latest report! Here’s a link to the PDF. [insert link to the updated report]:

A large and active beaver impoundment at a farm in Greene County, Virginia hosts a large colony of a county record native aquatic plant species. This, along with natural community quality, suggests that the ecosystem has been present in this drainage for hundreds of years.

Education Consulting

We are actively engaged in natural history education on private and public lands, and we do 1-2 new site visits per week through the winter. We delivered our most recent interpretive tour at a property in Greene County, Va., and we took the property owners on a journey through time – through a dark thicket woodland (with echoes of a forgotten post oak savanna) and into an open valley that has likely been active with beaver for thousands of years. At the site, currently being managed by a population of American beaver, we located a large county record population of the native yellow pond-lily (Nuphar advena). We hypothesize that this drainage, at the headwaters of the James, supports a genetic lineage of beaver that dates to the pre-Columbian grasslands of the area. These giant rodents are special agents of grassland management in the Piedmont, and it is nice to see them returning and thriving after centuries of being overhunted. Along with the large grazers (elk and bison), beaver populations in the region helped generate and sustain large savannas and prairies along streams and streamlets in the Piedmont uplands. In fact the enormous “Marish grounds” described in the area in 1669 (Lederer) as part of the “Savanae” was likely a direct reference to wet grasslands, wetlands, and ponds being sustained by robust beaver populations. Flowery wet meadows advance upon abandoned beaver impoundments, and the fantastic mosaic of savannas, prairies, wetlands, and woodlands that follow in their wake through time helps endow the Piedmont region with grand diversity in plants and animals.

Pycnanthemum verticillatum (whorled mountain-mint) county record specimen from Buckingham County, Va.

Voucher Entry and Curation

When conducting a biological survey it is not uncommon to encounter a plant that has not been documented in the county the survey is taking place in. When this occurs, survey staff collect a sample to be pressed and prepared as a voucher (the botanical term for a specimen submitted to document new records). Prepared vouchers are delivered to botanists at Virginia’s Department of Conservation for verification, and then submitted to state herbaria for long-term archival storage. Once submitted, county records are updated to reflect the discovery (you can see county-by-county range maps at the website, Biological field station staff members Drew Chaney and Ezra Staengl have prepared over 50 specimens from our 2020 survey season for submission. 

Thank you!

To our beloved clients, donors, volunteers, and partners, the staff of CUH is grateful for your ongoing support. Because of you we continue to  accomplish education and conservation in a meaningful way even during challenging time. Education and Conservation define our work as we strive to inspire future generations of stewards. None of this work would be possible without you!