Ashley Moulton CRLC Land Stewardship Manager at Varina LandLab speaking with VCU Students of Urban Restoration Ecology class.

Learning at the Varina LandLab

By Ashley Moulton

University students took to the fields and forests protected by the Capital Region Land Conservancy this year! That’s exactly the vision CRLC had for the Varina LandLab when the new, 350+ acre conservation area in Henrico County was first donated to CRLC in 2021. With opportunities for research in biology, sustainability, history, geography, landscape design, and much more, Varina LandLab is a fantastic site for place-based learning.

Four different college level classes utilized properties owned by Capital Region Land Conservancy for academic inquiry and semester-long projects. We are thrilled to share some of the work, ideas, and solutions these students have crafted throughout the year.

Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Environmental Studies, Urban and Restoration Ecology Class
Professors: Dr. Edward Crawford, Dr. Cathy Viverette, Professor Jennifer Ciminelli

VCU students with the Department of Environmental Studies have a unique opportunity for ongoing study at the Varina LandLab through a project investigating how birds live on, feed, and utilize habitats across the property. Specifically, they want to find out if there is a correlation between the abundance and diversity of birds found in specific types and sizes of habitat. To do this, students from the restoration ecology class sampled and recorded plant species including, forbs, shrubs, saplings, and trees at set locations. For each location, they also recorded the abundance and diversity of birds found in those same habitat patches.

Students also utilized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or mapping to develop an iPad app they could use to collect data in the field.

Knowing what plants and habitats support the greatest diversity of bird species will help CRLC better manage this land. Growing healthy avian habitats will help us reach our goals of supporting avian ecology and making Varina LandLab a destination for recreational birding that everyone can enjoy.

William & Mary University, Institute for Integrative Conservation
Professors: Dr. Robert Rose & Dr. John Swaddle

The Conservation Research Program at William & Mary is a year-long program that matches students with conservation partners to conduct conservation research addressing the needs of that partner. This year, two students worked on a project with Capital Region Land Conservancy to improve our access to historical aerial imagery for the Richmond, Virginia area.

This project was inspired by a historical imagery viewer created by the University of Virginia for Albemarle County. In that project, students sourced aerial imagery from the US Department of Agriculture, which has collected imagery of the entire Chesapeake Watershed every 10 to 20 years since 1937. As it stands, historical aerial imagery available via Google Earth only goes back to 2002. We are hopeful that this current project will allow us to see further back than what Google imagery currently allows.

This project will take several semesters to complete and will cover all the counties in our service area, including Charles City, Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, and Powhatan as well as the Town of Ashland and City of Richmond. This current semester’s project focused on georeferencing historical aerial imagery in the Varina/Henrico County, Virginia area.

CRLC plans to use this aerial imagery to better understand historical land use changes in our area, support conservation and ecological restoration efforts, and facilitate meaningful conversations about how we use the land.

Virginia Commonwealth University, mOb studio and Storefront for Community Design

VCUarts mOb studiO professors: Emily Smith (VCU Department of Interior Design) and Kristin Caskey (VCU Department of Fashion Design + Merchandising) + Storefront for Community Design, design session program manager: Anya Shcherbakova

VCU students, working through the VCUarts mOb studiO and Storefront for Community Design, partnered with Capital Region Land Conservancy to create a cohesive vision and identity for the Varina Land Lab with an emphasis on preserving habitats for plants and wildlife. Components of their design include signage, pavilion, and trail maps for the site.

Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Biology

Professor: Dr. Lesley Bullock, Bullock Avian Ecology Lab at VCU

Dr. Lesley Bullock utilized the Varina LandLab throughout 2022 to study the principles of habitat management and research design and to provide students with field skills including mist netting and banding of birds. These skills are put to work as her classes study how bird communities change over time, within a year and across years.

This year, Dr. Bullock’s avian ecology students conducted surveys of breeding birds and counts of birds identified at Varina Landlab. In 2023, Dr. Bullock and her students will return to the Varina LandLab to compare bird communities across different habitat types and seasons.

Are you or your class interested in doing field work for a university level class at the Varina LandLab? Email Ashley Moulton, Land Conservation Specialist (ashley@capitalregionland.org) for more details about academic experiences in 2023.

Picture of Ashley Moulton

Ashley Moulton

CRLC Land Conservation Specialist