Urban Ecology

A story of a Cooper’s Hawk hunting sparrows right next to the Belmont Bridge. Even in the city, nature is all around us.  #

37 Responses to “Urban Ecology”

  • i think nature doesn’t require too much to adapt and thrive. Simple steps like banning DDT have allowed predatory birds to return to urban spaces. If we intentionally took other simple steps like using rain gardens, green roofs and artificial wetlands more instead of detention basins, or using more native plants in our designs, then we could do wonders in terms of bringing nature into the city.

    We must preserve wild ecosystems though, because I believe they are are our best template for any kind of habitat restoration in the urban area. For example, anyone designing a green roof should really visit a shale barren or a granite rock outcrop community. After doing so, you would never be able to think of your design the same way.

  • What a perfect opportunity to ask if anyone can help identify this hawk that I found eating breakfast on The Lawn yesterday (wish I had a better camera on me, but all I had was my phone). I’m pretty good at identifying birds at the my feeder and suet, but I’m at a loss when it comes to hawks.

    By the way, I watched him for a few minutes along with a UVa groundskeeper, who said he has run into the hawk in the gardens before. He added that it isn’t really concerned with humans. It seems interested in controlling the squirrel population on Grounds.

  • That’s a large bird, with a short broad tail. Though there are many other species in this area, I would guess that it’s either a Red-tailed or a Red-shouldered hawk…both very common around town.
    Have you guys ever noticed a nest?…or a very regular perching/hunting spot? What’s intriguing about this to me is that UVA may be home to this hawk and many generations of hawks prior…the plentiful and consistently accessible food (squirrel)and open understory in those giant trees has been there for a very long time. I wonder if there is a sustaining, reproducing, but small population of this species living in this giant urban garden we call UVA? I’d say it’s likely.
    If, at some point you can get closer to this bird, take note of its tail. An adult Red-tailed hawk will have a rusty-red tail..it’s very visible, both when the bird is on the ground, and when soaring high above.

  • I imagine UVa was liberally sprayed with DDT back in the day. You see a lot more hawks & eagles now than x years ago don’t you think?

    The post about the Copper’s Hawk had one error I thought. The writer said the hawk had not noticed him. When I see those birds, I figure they can see me a lot better than I can see them. It can be a bit uncanny, if they are staring right at you from close by!

    Anybody else noticed all the desperate squirrels downtown since the ground got snowed over? I saw one pick up a chunk a gravel on the Mall and examine it to make sure it was not edible. Another was licking ice in a crack in the sidewalk in the morning. Someone told me they are improvident teenagers, gone nuts.

  • In response to dirt worshiper, I think that using barrens and outcrops as a design model is an excellent idea! Let me take it one step further and say that it would be very interesting to have a look at hard surface ecological systems that are more immediately local to the place of new construction…as models that demonstrate the dynamics of local species inter-relationships.
    Only a couple of really magnificent outcroppings in real close proximity to C-ville come to mind…one of which is at Key West north on route 20, and adjascent to the river. I believe it is a meta-sandstone, and recall it being covered with very interesting growth…christmas ferns and many wildflower species call this place home…as do many reptiles and amphibians. The mosses and lichens are astounding as well. I recall seeing a curious Eastern Fence Lizard dart among the rocks.
    Wish I had a hard roof or exterior wall designed to harbour such things!

  • Have you guys ever noticed a nest?…or a very regular perching/hunting spot?

    I’m only on The Lawn for a few minutes each day, but the groundskeeper who was there seemed to know the area much better than I (I wonder if the grounds staff has territories?). Facilities Management must have someone who has made a habit of watching out for the wildlife around Grounds.

  • Hawks in the city are a not uncommon occurrence. And I am sure there are some nests. I know some years back a Redshouldered Hawk nested in a yard out in Bellair. I have also seen them at the McIntire Rd/250 intersection in the woods adjacent to the golf course. This species of hawk prefers wooded areas that are lowlying,near water.Of course this hawk habitat will likely go come the Parkway.
    Redtailed Hawks generally prefer drier ,more open habitat. They are often seen perched in trees or on posts along the roadside.
    Other species in town I have seen include Sharpshinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and American Kestrel. Others have reported another falcon, the Merlin. And someone I know spotted an Osprey at the McIntire instersection I mentioned. I saw one at Free Bridge last fall.
    The most exciting raptor sighting in town I have had the good fortune to observe was the adult Bald Eagle flying over High Street by Martha Jefferson a couple years ago. I was looking up-and when I saw that white head and tail, I knew it was not one of our vultures.
    Not a hawk, but got a nice look yesterday at a Great Blue Heron flying over the same area obviously heading toward the river.
    And today witnessed two Yellowbellied Sapsuckers having a bit of a territorial battle in a hackberry tree in the wooded area back of my residence.
    Haven’t seen any gulls in town this winter, which turn up around Free Bridge and even 29N. They either accompany or are harbingers of inclement weather when they come into town-probably follow the James and then up the Rivanna-in winter and on into spring.

  • Devin,

    You’re right that identifying and integrating existing ecosystems into new development is a great way to do things when development must occur. Of course many of these natural habitats are very sensitive and have precisely balanced hydrology that could be disrupted by development in close proximity.

    If you ever consider a green roof, or living wall, then let me know and I’d be glad to recommend appropriate species. In fact, here are some relevant blog entries on the topic.

    Unlike Europe which has been integrating habitat into it’s development for quite some time, this is a relatively new concept in the United States, so even we do things like green roofs, rain gardens or living walls we tend to use european and asian plants. I hope that changes as people experiment more and apply lessons from our local ecology to design.

    I think the same thing could apply to birds. Why not build tall buildings with good nesting sites for birds of prey?

  • DW,
    Thanks for that blog link, very informative!
    One thing that I have noticed in just casual conversation about native plant gardening is that people tend to choose what they think is most interesting or beautiful, and available/affordable. …And this may not be a choice that will prove self-sustaining or low maintenance. When considering upkeep, there are so many native species that need zero in urban areas. But, like you say, we must be willing to experiment. We must be willing to have a deeper look at those abandoned lots, and the so-called “weeds” that grow in them. The fact is, a surface that holds any amount soil will soon have a plant rooted in it.
    It would be really interesting to build a wall, for exerimental purposes, with varying sized cracks, shelves, etc….and let time and seed transport autonomously establish flora.
    I think ecologists can predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy what would grow there, and how the mix would differ dependent upon aspect, soil depth/ph, drainage, and moisture availablity. So, is it really a lack of available knowledge so much as it is a lack societal interest and trends?
    It may one day be normal practice to incorporate native species with intent. But, for now, it seems there needs to be many readily available examples, and it needs to be just as easy and fun as planting shrubs from China and bulbs from Europe.

  • By the way, you may be interested in this story, also at Piedmont Discovery; it’s about tenous relationships between a few upper food chain giants: the Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Great-Horned Owl:
    Though this specific story was reported from Florida, I thought it was timely given the “Raptor” topic… and because in some areas around C-ville, this type of interaction is quite possible!

  • This thread has been incredibly interesting, and so nice to read with all the negative stuff that’s been going on. In addition to lots of hawks, here in the Woolen Mills we’ve seen bald eagles and blue herons along Moore’s Creek and the Rivanna.

    It’s my fervent hope that the city and county will stop turning their backs on our priceless riverine ecosystem. We need to look into enlightened solutions like the river walk in Asheville NC. Instead of encouraging zoning that allows auto parts stores and repair shops immediately adjacent to the river, let’s instead promote recreation like hiking, biking and kayaking, and cafes with gorgeous river views.

    Eventually, the East High corridor, along with other areas, will be redeveloped. Now is the time to start getting serious about what we, as a community, value along the river. Is it runoff, pollution, and dying wildlife? Or is it environmentally sensitive development and native landscaping that will be an asset to both the city and county, AND bring in much-needed revenue? The choice is ours to make.

  • Devin, you make a good point that just planting native isn’t nearly enough. A native plant put in the wrong spot is arguably worse than a chinese species used correctly.

    I think one of the problems is that when people go to nurseries there is often no indicaton of what is native or what is not. People seem least likely to notice the most popular and hardy species as actually being native. Moss Phlox is a great example of that.

    Or, where we have perfectly good native species that are equivalent or even better than their non-native counterparts people by habit choose the non-native variety. For example, we have a native lily of the valley that is virtually identical to the European one, but it blooms longer. We also have a bleeding heart and a native edible Rosemary that are also both superior to the non-native species (if used correctly in the landscape).

    Speaking of Rosemary, when I was hiking in Italy, I realized why their food was seasoned the way it was. essentially the seasonings are almost all plants that grow natively through the area. So, someone would go out of their kitchen and up the mountain pick some thyme and such and add it to their pasta. I agree with Jefferson that it’s way past time that we develop our own unique Landscape and food more based on local varieties and species, but unfortunately most people don’t even know what a Paw Paw is, nor an Albemarle Pippin, so we have a ways to go.

  • I like the Italy example. Around here we’ve got some tasty spices that have been all but ignored since colonial times. A couple of examples are sweetshrub and spicebush…the latter of which grows like weeds in the understory of our local woodlands. Planting a few of these in the shady portions of your yard will give you tea and an all-spice alternative…and it will support wildlife richness (spicebush swallowtail butterfly being one part of the spicebush foodweb). This is the impact of using locally adapted plants…the animals that are locally adapted like them too!..and who doesn’t enjoy butterflys and songbirds?
    While endless species of native plants could be used, they aren’t. And yes, this has partially to do with what is mad available at nurseries. They are shifting however! I encourage all of you to continue to ask for native flora when you visit…and be specific (because they frequently include western U.S. species as “native”)..clarify with the words “Locally adapted”.
    To throw a monkey wrench in, I insert the Mountain Laurel…which is very finicky. It helps to understand the soil/geology below your feet before planting anything. The eastern half of C-ville sits on a low acid Meta-Greenstone (old lava flows). UVA sits on another low-acid strata, amphibolite (chosen by TJ for that very reason). Locally adapted laurels are seen growing in gigantic thickets in the larger upper Piedmont…but only on high-acid and poor nutrient soils. So, in Charlottesville, there are specific areas where one can enjoy this shrub in their yard, but not in others (from about Ridge Ave. to the eastern edge of UVA is one area). I learned the hard way, planting 10 mountain laurels on the greenstone soils over in Belmont…they are all dead (turns out spicebush, sassafras, pawpaw, omong others, all would have worked just fine). It wasn’t till later that I learned why.
    Anyway, knowledge is important if one wishes to live among any form of ecological richness. I definetely support the further understanding of local species and the use of them in landscaping applications.
    If anyone wants further resources on using native plants in landscaping, let me know, and I’d be happy to forward my limited sources.

  • Good advice Devin.

  • @Dirt Worshipper

    I happen to love rosemary and have planted a great deal of it. I never knew of a native variety– can you give me a pointer (sp. name)?

  • Sure. It’s Conradina verticillata, or cumberland Rosemary, and you can buy it here.

    It’s not a Virginia native but is native to the Southeast and hardy to around zone 5 or 6. It has the same evergreen foliage as the European species but is prostrate with larger flowers. It’s not quite as strong a flavor as the European one, but very similar and not as woody. Overall, everone I know who has grown it says it is superior.

    It’s also extremely rare in the wild, so by growing it you’re helping to make sure it doesn’t vanish from the earth forever.

  • That’s awesome!!
    I’ve got an inquiry out to a circle of “experts” as well, and will report back if anything other than that is available.
    Thanks DW!

  • …and if you want a fantastic native Virginia substitute for oregano, then there’s Cunila origanoides. As a bonus, it makes frost flowers. Given it’s habitat, it’d probably also be a great green roof candidate.

  • There are two other varieties, and it appears they are even more rare than the one mentioned above. Here’s all three, from the work in progress at the UNC herbarium:

    “Conradina canescens A. Gray, Gray Rosemary. Cp (AL, FL, MS): sandhills, scrub, flatwoods; uncommon. January-May.
    Panhandle FL and s. AL west to s. MS. [= K, Z; > C. canescens – S; > C. puberula Small – S]

    Conradina glabra Shinners, Apalachicola Rosemary. Cp (AL, FL): sandhills; rare. Panhandle FL and s. AL. [= K, Z]

    Conradina verticillata Jennison, Cumberland Rosemary. Mt (KY, TN): flood-scoured cobble bars of large rivers; rare.
    Endemic to the Cumberland Plateau area of ne. TN and se. KY. It has an odor similar to rosemary, and showy purplish flowers.[= K, Z; = C. montana Small – S]”

    So, it looks like the Cumberland Rosemary is the most logical option. And it is endemic to the Cumberland Plateau, a very limited native range (which means it has very specific habitat requirements, or it’s a relic of the past, one that may have grown in a broader area at some point in time…which means it may just a need a little nudge).
    I wonder if there are similar locally native herbs that could serve as replacement for the wonderful rosemary flavor and odor (a tall order, I know!)?

  • Sweetshrub, aka Calycanthus, is amazing. Very intoxicating scent. Trivia alert: The first house built in 1799 where Estouteville sits now, was called Calycanthus Hill. Anyone know if there’s still sweetshrub there?

  • I’ve tried the other species of Conradina several times (and the related genus Clinopodium, wild savory) but found most are just short of being hardy here. If we were about half a zone warmer then there’d be more possibilities. It’s possible that in the city itself you may be able to grow some of the more interesting Clinopodium’s. I’ve also never tried C. vulgare or C.arkansanum, but they should be hardy here.

  • This is a great thread. I’m definitely going to try planting Conradina this year. I’ve been meaning to plant a Calycanthus floridus for several years now, and this has given me even more impetus. Does anyone have any cultivation advice for that plant?

  • How many animal nests will be destroyed and habitat lost by clear cutting 54,000 trees at Ragged Mt Natural Area for the new dam ?

    The Ragged Mountain Natural Area (RMNA) is a beautiful 980-acre park located two miles south of the Charlottesville city limits. With its mature forest and rugged topography, RMNA offers near wilderness hiking within minutes of town.

    The Future Water Supply Plan will raise the level of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir at RMNA by 45 vertical feet to 112 feet . This will require clearcutting 180 acres of parkland at RMNA. With those 180 acres, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority will:

    * Flood 135 acres of mature forest that has been cited for its exceptional wildlife habitat by a Smithsonian study and Albemarle County Biodiversity Committee
    In the summer of 2002, Dr. Matthew Etterson of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center conducted a research project on the effects of forest fragmentation on nesting success of Wood Thrush at several sites in the Piedmont, including Fernbrook, Humpback Rocks, Betsy Bell, Fortune’s Cove, Natural Chimneys, Paul State Forest and Ragged Mountain Natural Area. He found that among all these sites, Ragged Mountain Natural Area proved to be not only the most productive, with a total of 64 nests, but also the site of greatest nesting success. Etterson attributed that success to the maturity of the forest and the protective topography of the land.
    In the 2006 Albemarle County Biodiversity Report, the Ragged Mountains and Reservoir were cited as significant for unusual habitat that support species scarce in our area such as River Otter, Prothontary Warbler, and Wood Frog.

    Rivanna Water And Sewer Authority to build the 112 foot dam will:

    * Build five miles of roads at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area
    Roads will be required for clear cutting of timber, dam construction, and reinforcement of the I-64 embankment. In addition, two miles of the now rural Reservoir Road will need to be widened and improved for the heavy equipment needed to build the dam.

    the 112 foot new Reservoir at Ragged Mt. will pass under I-64

    * Note: The steep earthen embankment rising to I-64 was not constructed to hold back water. It will need to be stabilized by stripping, filling, and seeding/mulching as well as constructing extensions of the box culvert with new head walls. In order to gain access to this portion of the expanded RMR, approximately 2,650 feet of permanent access road will be constructed.

  • Urban Ecologist, how much forest will be removed by rural developments in the county once conservation rules are relaxed by the “business” friendly BOS? How much forest will be destroyed by the expansion of the growth area? Or, how much habitat will be eliminated by the addition of a light industrial area next to Crozet?

    My problem with the Sierra Club and the other dam protesters is that when a tiny patch of anything occurs in or near the city they’re all up in arms. So much so that they prefer to cut and paste their standard statement everywhere they can without actually participating in intellegent discussion. When it’s a developer doing the some thing up on 29, or off near crozet, then they seem like they could care less.

    So, sure, by all means let’s fight the dam project. A good argument can be made that without Biscuit Run being developed that it is no longer needed. Of course the best way to fight the dam is to fight the root cause… and that is the unsustainable development of former greenspace in the county and the expansion of the growth area. After all, expansion of growth area = expansion of Ragged Mountain reservior.

  • DirtWorshipper, this isn’t just any patch of forest, as you can read from the post, it’s over 900 acres of mature forest at the Ragged Mt Natural Area, cited for its exceptional wildlife habitat by a Smithsonian study and Albemarle County Biodiversity Committee

    This is from the Cvillewater.info web-site but if you are an environmentalist you must realize how important this is:

    “In the summer of 2002, Dr. Matthew Etterson of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center conducted a research project on the effects of forest fragmentation on nesting success of Wood Thrush at several sites in the Piedmont, including Fernbrook, Humpback Rocks, Betsy Bell, Fortune’s Cove, Natural Chimneys, Paul State Forest and Ragged Mountain Natural Area. He found that among all these sites, Ragged Mountain Natural Area proved to be not only the most productive, with a total of 64 nests, but also the site of greatest nesting success. Etterson attributed that success to the maturity of the forest and the protective topography of the land.”

    Note he says the maturity of the forest and topography of the land, you won’t find that just anyplace whether close in or in the County.

    So you see, this is a very special place, and should be protected. 29 is a loss, there are no locations along that road where you will find this large an area of contiguous mature forest with the commendations for protection that Ragged Mt. Natural Area has.

    That said, I don’t think you’ll find any serious environmentalist in the City or County that supports expanding the County growth area. The problem is those who vote in the County just elected 2 supervisors who do.

    I don’t see any environmentalists in the County, willing to go before the BOS, and demand a re-evaluation of the water plan, full of holes and bad information, and now, that the city is trying to do just that; the county is fighting them every step of the way.

  • Like the other Dam Protesters, you’re missing the point completely. The water supply issue is a symptom, not the problem itself. If protesters spent half the time they’ve spent on the water supply issue getting involved in things like Places 29, then we wouldn’t need a parkway or to expand water supply. The real problem all along is the unsustainable way that the area is growing.

    So, how can you stop the flooding of Ragged Mountain? The only way is to demand that we change the way that we are growing. By ignoring that, you’re just delaying the inevitable.

    As for your statement:

    So you see, this is a very special place, and should be protected. 29 is a loss, there are no locations along that road where you will find this large an area of contiguous mature forest with the commendations for protection that Ragged Mt. Natural Area has.

    I think you’ll find that you are mistaken. There are plenty of places in Albemarle that are more significant, and even places along 29 that are. Keep in mind, the wood thrush, while having suffered significant declines is still a G5 (demonstrably secure) species. You’ll find plenty of locations in the county, even on the 29 corridor with species classified as rare or even endangered. Somehow those sites have been totally lost in the conversation. In fact, some Dam Protesters (although perhaps a minority) have made suggestions that would imperil species with federal endangered species status.

    So, as I said, protest the dam. I’m not for it. That said, don’t get so caught up quoting other people that you lose sight of the big picture of Albemarle’s environment. Even dredging has some major environmental consequences and tunnel vision doesn’t serve any good purpose.

  • Though this conversation has meandered a bit, this has everything to do with the Cooper’s Hawk, and with the enormous system of which it is a part. the fact is, each little part is connected to a larger whole. No portion can be logically removed in any form of debate or policy consideration. So, I support the bigger-picture thinking here…the broad awareness and consideration. The fate of RMNA rests within a larger dynamic, culturally and ecologically, and priorities and decisions should be made based upon consdierations of that.

    I think it would be quite useful to list some of those engangered/threatened species and some of the endangered habitats/ecosystems in the larger Albemarle area (especially the 29 corridor) so that comparisons are more pallatable.

    I totally agree about activism, or anything that involves firm belief and passion. We all have these, and they are, in part, what defines us as Human. But, I think we can all agree that with these comes the innevitable “tunnel vision” that DW describes. It seems that the moment a human stops questioning, inquiring, and digging deeper, the tunnel begins to grow; and an ever changing world begins to pass us by.

    Ya know, it seems useful to take a “tracker’s” approach to the RMNA issue (I heard Hub Knott, a local tracking expert, speak of this technique recently). That is, use “owl eyes”…maintaining a broad vision that is generally focused but very sensitive and reactive to that which is right in front and in the periphery….with the ability to zoom into a specific detail for a closer look if needed. Unlike the owl, we tend to get stuck looking at that single detail. We forget to pan back out and assume the broad-vision approach to seeing and thinking again.


  • And yes, I agree that the real problem is an approach to growth that is unsustainable. Conserving places like the RMNA would be a logical spin-off of creative thinking and long-term planning that addresses sustainability. It does not, in my opinion, work the other way around.

  • Well for starters one of the places dredging advocates have proposed dumping the dredged materials has a rare fern ally that has S1 Status (critically imperiled).

    The floodplain of the north fork of the Rivanna contains many rare species in the county, including Asplenium bradleyi which has S2 status.

    Keep in mind, these are only a few of the things publically known, and generally for everything rare species you find there are probably tons more that we’ve missed.

    While I love Otters too (also G5, and listed as “Secure” in Virginia) they are also not rare anymore. I’m not saying Ragged Mountain is not worth protecting, but there are a huge number of other places that are more important and being thrown under the bulldozer.

  • Sorry, didn’t close my html properly. Only “not” was supposed to be in bold. (Waldo, where’s my preview feature ;-)

  • I got it fixed for you. :)

  • DW, I agree there should be a far greater awareness of the natural environment that needs protecting throughout the region–perhaps we need a map showing where these rare and endangered species are located, and if there is to be development then they can be moved and protected before they are bulldozed.

    That said, it makes no sense to build a dam that mandates an uphill pipeline if you don’t need it, and certainly one thing we can agree upon is, if an environmentally suitable location for the dredged material is found, that is a far less environmentally destructive solution than destroying Ragged Mt. Natural Area and tearing up the countryside, in the county, for a new $100 – $150 million dollar pipeline that would pump the equivalent of the third largest river in Albemarle–uphill . What is the carbon footprint of that ?

    We need a better financial and environmemtal ananlysis of the dam plan vs. conservation/dredging.

  • Urban Ecologist,

    I do indeed agree that if a environmentally suitable place for dredged material is found, and the appropriate environmental impacts are evaluated, that dredging may be a far better option than flooding forest. For that to be more than a short term solution though, Activists involved in the water supply issue (incuding city residents) must take a stand on where and how growth occurs in the county. Without that owl-eye vision though, any attempt to change the water supply plan will fail.

    Also, for the most part, habitats cannot be moved. Most of these places when they are gone, they are gone forever. For example, if the county offered to capture all the otters and the wood thrush and relocate them, I’m sure you’d agree it’d be a completely ineffective and inadequate as a “solution”. Even so, in some cases, where suitable habitat exists elsewhere, sometimes species can be relocated as a last resort. In the case of some of the habitats that would be affected on 29 north, I heard the landowners were approached about the possibility of relocating rare species and so far they’ve rejected that option.

    As for the mapping, there are indeed many citizens engaged in doing that work, but with very little support from local governments. Maybe that’ll change with the new leadership in the city and county? Either way, discussions like this thread about urban habitat will be key to our ability to move forward as a county in a way that ensures other people will continue to see Eagles, Hawks, Otters and wood thrush here.

  • DW, I wish that you were on the Board of Supervisors, consider running some day. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments.

  • Hah! You aren’t the first person to have said that… and I also appreciate your honest dialogue about this issue.

    I fear though that I’m a little too similar to Slutzky in the sense that I’m somewhat of a policy wonk. I’m not afraid to ruffle feathers in the effort to get to the real issues and find common ground. That means that often I’ll play devils advocate on issues or say controversial things. Because of that, I don’t know how I’d fare in a world where everything is reduced to a sound-bite… (That, and being a card-carrying Tree Hugging Dirt Worshipper ;-)

    Regardless, we’ll see how Snow does, and if he disappoints me then maybe I’ll take that challenge. At the very least, it’d be rather entertaining.

  • After a few more mountaintops get lopped off for Wendell Wood size homes, I’ll bet people will beg you to run.


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