Shorebird Habitat Conservation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Some of my favorite birding areas in the entire state of Virginia are on the coast: Virginia Beach and Northampton and Accomack Counties on the Eastern Shore.  Back Bay NWR, Pleasure House Point, Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve, Kiptopeke State Park and Chincoteague NWR are some of the best spots.  My friends and I have done a January Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach birding trip for the last two years, and both times it’s been one of the highlights of my winter.  Another annual birding event that takes place in the region is the Kiptopeke Challenge (KC), which my friend Tucker, my brother and I participated in last year.  The Kiptopeke Challenge is a birding big day that takes place in the Coastal Plain of VA in the height of fall migration and also serves as an important fund raiser for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory (CVWO).

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The ruddy Tturnstone (Arenaria interpres), our Kiptopeke Challenge team mascot.

This year — on September 22nd — Tucker and I are excited to be doing the Kiptopeke Challenge as Team Turnstone for the second year in a row.  Not only does the KC offer fantastic birding, but I’m also happy to be raising money for the CVWO because their mission is important to me. The CVWO’s mission is “protecting wildlife through field research, education, and habitat conservation.”  Some of their more well-known research programs include the Kiptopeke Hawkwatch and Baywatch — a survey of migrating water birds, including raptors, gulls and terns, waterfowl and shorebirds.  They also conduct regular shorebird surveys at Craney Island in Portsmouth and Grandview Beach Nature Preserve in Hampton.

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Sanderling (Calidris alba)

The CVWO’s research, education and conservation projects benefit one of my favorite kinds of birds.  Shorebirds are not only very beautiful and diverse, but also perform awe-inspiring migrations twice each year.  They often sport beautiful plumages, from the stunning plumes of breeding male ruffs to the subtler but still striking buffy orange color of a non-breeding marbled godwit or buff-breasted sandpiper.  They also come in many different sizes, from the tiny least sandpiper up to humongous curlews, godwits and oystercatchers. Many species of shorebirds fly incredibly long distances each spring and fall, some moving from breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way to South America.  The greater yellowlegs, for instance, breeds in Canada and winters as far south as Argentina and Chile.

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

Shorebird habitat conservation is critically important. Shorebirds need places they can safely stop to rest and refuel during their migrations.  Lower Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is one such stopover location where birds rest before making the potentially dangerous crossing of the Chessapeake Bay.   Further, as CVWO states on their webpage, the area, “represents a significant stopover bottleneck for millions of landbirds migrating along the Atlantic Coast [with habitats] essential to their survival.”  Preserving coastal habitats not only helps birds but is also important for a resilient coastline, protecting against severe weather and flooding.

Please help CVWO continue its important research and conservation efforts and support our KC team, Team Turnstone, by donating here. All money raised will go directly to the CVWO.  If you can’t donate, please share this post.  Thank you!

El Quetzal de Mindo Chocolate Tour

Every day that we were in Mindo it rained, usually starting around 1 pm.  Despite the constant downpour, we still went out after long mornings of birding to hike, hoping to see even more birds.  Towards the end of our trip, though, the rain and our tiredness made my brother and me more receptive to a suggestion my parents had made on our first day: take a chocolate tour.  That afternoon, we walked to El Quetzal de Mindo, a restaurant, artisanal chocolate factory, and lodge on the edge of town.

Our tour was led by an energetic Portuguese man named Sergio.  He started the tour by showing us examples of cacao in various stages of production, and giving us a brief overview of the process.

Sergio then led us out into the central courtyard of the chocolate factory, and to a small garden.  They had a few young cacao trees on display in the garden, as examples of what they look like, since Mindo is too high and cold for chocolate to do well.

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Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small, compact tree, at least when it’s cultivated.  It has broad, glossy leaves and flowers consistently throughout the year, as is typical of many tropical trees that do not have to worry about seasons.

The flowers are tiny and pop right out of the trunk and larger branches, giving the tree an abnormal appearance.

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Cacao Flower

If a flower is pollinated by a cacao midge — various species in the genus Forcipomyia — it ripens into a long, grooved, orange, pod.

One of the other people on the chocolate tour mentioned that they’d heard that chocolate was in danger of going extinct.  Sergio said something about the cacao midge declining, worrying Ecuadorian authorities.  This statement piqued my curiosity, so I did a little research.  It soon became obvious that cacao is in no danger as a species, but there are some concerns for the well-being of the cacao industry.  Climate change is likely to move and reduce suitable habitat for both cacao and its only pollinator.  Cacao does best in humid climates with lots of rain and warm, stable temperatures — it is well adapted to its home in the lowland rainforests of South and Central America.   Despite cacao’s origin and long history of use in tropical America, the majority of industrial cacao production is in West Africa.

One frequently cited study forecasts that the region suitable for cacao production in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced, will move uphill into the mountains as the climate becomes drier, due to climate change.   This smaller and more inaccessible territory would be a problem for the Ivory Coast, especially, as according to Wikipedia, 40% of their national export income is from cacao.   Drier conditions are also a serious problem for cacao midges (Forcipomyia), the only bugs that can pollinate cacao.  They are adapted to moist, shady conditions, as is the cacao plant itself.  They need rich, damp leaf litter to complete their life-cycles.  The midges’ need for moisture is already causing the chocolate industry problems due to the industry’s favored growing technique of large monoculture plantations.  When cacao is planted in large plantations with no other trees, it creates a drier micro-climate, without good leaf-litter.  These dry conditions result in the pollination rate of plantation cacao flowers being only .3%.

Both present and future problems with cacao production could be partially addressed by cultivating cacao under a canopy of native rainforest trees on smaller farms instead of on large monoculture plantations.  The additional trees create a damper microclimate, which the cacao trees need to thrive.  Shade grown cacao farms have a much higher pollination rate, because the cacao midges also prefer the dampness and leaf litter that the larger trees offer.  Shade growing cacao could also help combat the effects of climate change on the cacao industry by creating damper conditions in an overall drier climate.  Furthermore, trees in cacao “agroforests” sequester more carbon than cacao monocultures, providing an opportunity to address climate change at its roots.

Although agroforests are not a substitute for primary rainforest, their greater plant diversity provides much better habitat for many species of insects, amphibians, birds and other creatures than plantations, while still producing a similar cacao bean yield.   Shifting from plantations to shade grown cacao could become increasingly important in the future if pressures continue to reduce primary rainforest habitat.   Many species of neo-tropical migrant songbirds, such as the warblers that breed in the Appalachian Mountains near where I live, need rainforest in Central and South America for wintering habitat and agroforests could meet some, but by no means all, of this need.

“Bird friendly” shade grown coffee has become relatively well-known recently, with several organizations developing certification programs so that buyers know they are getting a more environmentally friendly product, and growers can charge a premium price.  Certifications for shade grown cacao don’t seem to have made it as much into the main stream, although I did find one program, Forest Chocolate, that certifies organic and shade grown chocolate.  Fair trade chocolate, in general, is more likely to be shade grown since it comes from smaller producers.

Back in the chocolate factory, Sergio showed us the ripe, unprocessed cacao pods.  The cacao “beans” were lined up in rows, and coated with thick, white pulp.

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Opened Cacao Pod

Sergio pulled a seed out of the pod and gave it to us to suck.  The pulp tasted like a fruit and not at all chocolatey.  The first step in making the chocolate is to scoop all the pulp and cacao “beans” out of the pods and dump them into a sealed cedar box to ferment.

Once the chocolate pulp has fermented for a few days, it is scooped out of the boxes onto open trays in a greenhouse to dry.  By this point, most of the pulp has rotted off, and the inside of the beans is beginning to smell similar to chocolate.

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Drying Cacao Beans

When the cacao is dry, it is ground and roasted with hand-made simple machines.  The ground and roasted pieces of cacao are blown through a tunnel, where the heavier insides of the cacao fall to the floor while the lighter shells blow out the front.  These lightly ground, shell less, roasted chunks of cacao are called cacao nibs.  The cacao nibs are ground into a finer paste, which is either pressed into cacao powder and cacao butter or exposed to high pressures and temperatures which liquify it.  Liquid chocolate is then hand tempered, so the crystals inside the chocolate form in a way that allows the finished chocolate bar to break cleanly.  The chocolate is poured into molds, and the finished bars are hand-wrapped.  El Quetzal makes 87%, 77%, and 67% pure chocolate bars.  Sergio said that the only thing added to the chocolate was organic sugar, and in some cases flavorings, such as macadamia nuts, hot pepper, and ginger.

After the tour, Sergio brought us a host of delicious looking chocolate products to try.  I don’t eat chocolate, out of a possibly irrational paranoia that it causes my migraines, but I was seriously tempted to try some.  We were offered all the different bars in many different flavors.  Once the pieces of bars had been eaten, unfortunately not by me, Sergio gave us each one of EL Quetzal’s famous brownies.  My mom ate mine with pleasure.

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El Quetzal Chocolate Products

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  

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Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.

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The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.