at The Clifton Institute
Clifton Institute staff, interns, and collaborators do ecological research to better understand the causes of decline in native plants and animals and to identify land management practices to support declining species. All of our research projects produce actionable recommendations that inform land managers and conservation practitioners. We have four focal research areas:
You can find more information about our research projects below.
Want to get involved? Please visit cliftoninstitute.org/employment for a listing of open positions and check this page for more information on internships. Middle and high school students wanting to conduct their own research can participate in our Young Scientists Research Experience, which we offer every June. You can learn more here about how to get involved in our community science projects. We also welcome scientists from other institutions to do research at the field station. We have a wide range of habitats, economical housing is available, and there is very little red tape. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Native savannas and grasslands were once widespread in the Piedmont of the eastern Unites States. Most of these habitats have vanished as a result of fire suppression, extirpation of bison, invasion by non-native pasture grasses, and urban development. At the Clifton Institute we are studying remnant grasslands in the Piedmont of northern Virginia to (1) better understand what plants and animals are found in these habitats, (2) learn about the conservation status of these species and sites, and (3) come up with strategies to restore Piedmont prairies.
The Composition and Conservation Status of Piedmont Prairies in Northern Virginia
In the summer of 2020, we teamed up with researchers from the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech to study remnant grasslands at 38 sites in five counties. We found nearly 500 species of plants, including several rare or threatened species such as Torrey’s Mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), and Yellow Nodding Ladies’ Tresses Orchid (Spiranthes ochroleuca). Amazingly, one of our 50-by-2-meter plots had 93 species of plants, which made it the third most diverse vegetation plot that has been sampled in the state (out of 4,500 surveys). We also found that most of the high quality grasslands we encountered were in power line clearings (as opposed to pastures, hay fields, or fallow fields) and that diverse prairies were found on a wide range of soil types. Finally several of the diverse prairies we studied are threatened by invasive plants or urban development, and we are working with landowners and power companies to conserve these sites. We aim to publish these results in 2022. This research was funded by the Virginia Native Plant Society.
Experimental Restoration of Native Grasslands for the Benefit of Plants, Insects, and Birds
In 2019 we started a major project to restore 110 acres of overgrazed cattle pasture to a native grassland. The first step in establishing a native grassland is getting rid of the nonnative plant species; we did this by using herbicides and repeated discing (an organic alternative similar to plowing). Once native plants are established, we will maintain the grassland by mowing or prescribed burning. We are testing eight combinations of establishment and management methods in order to figure out how best to help declining native species. The map below shows the layout of our experiment. Virginia Working Landscapes and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation are replicating this experiment on their respective properties. The restoration work is being funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, and the Raines Family Fund.
We are measuring the effectiveness of each treatment with biodiversity and soil surveys. To get a baseline understanding of the state of the pasture, volunteers from the Piedmont Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society estimated the relative abundance of all plant species in the pasture over the course of the summer of 2018 (you can find the full list here). Starting in the summer of 2018, Clifton Institute staff, collaborators, and volunteers have conducted regular bird, butterfly, and plant surveys, all of which will continue in the years to come. Jordan Coscia, a Ph.D. student in the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech, is measuring the effectiveness of each experimental treatment in terms of restoring native plants as part of her dissertation. Our findings will be used to guide our future restoration projects and to educate local landowners.
More than 90% of the land in Virginia is privately owned and very little early successional habitat is found on public lands. The conservation of most declining species in the state is therefore in the hands of farmers and other private landowners. We study how declining species, such as American Kestrels and Box Turtles, use agricultural and other open habitats. We then use our results to design strategies to mitigate the negative effects of land management practices, such as hay cutting, grazing, mowing, and prescribed burning on biodiversity.
American Kestrel Habitat Use
A recent study estimated that we have lost 3 billion birds in North America since 1970. Many birds that were once common in eastern grasslands and forests are in steep decline, and the reasons for these declines are poorly understood. We prioritize our avian research by focusing on species that are declining across their range, and we select projects that produce results which landowners and managers can use to support declining species. Our priority species for research in the coming years are American Kestrel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Whippoorwill. In the past few years we have focused our efforts on kestrels.
American Kestrels are declining across northeastern North America. The declines are poorly understood, but habitat alteration, pesticides, and predation by Cooper’s Hawks are possible causes. One key aspect that has not been investigated in detail is the types of fields that kestrels use for hunting. We wanted to know more about which kinds of agricultural habitats and natural grasslands are most productive as hunting grounds, so that we can provide land owners and farmers advice about how to use their land if they wish to help kestrels. In the spring of 2021 we collaborated with Dr. Joe Kolowski from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Alan Williams to tag 19 kestrels with GPS transmitters. We are using the GPS locations to compare kestrels’ use of different kinds of fields (natural grassland, pasture, row crops) and finding out how their use of these fields changes as the nesting season progresses and the vegetation gets taller and denser. Preliminary results indicate that kestrels prefer cattle pastures over other field types for hunting. You can see the locations of tracked birds here! Our results will be applicable across the eastern United States, where the same major field types predominate.
This research is supported by the Raines Family Fund, Nick Lapham, the Peregrine Fund, the Washington Biologists’ Field Club, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and Janine Moseley.
The Clifton Institute is located just west of the expanding suburban sprawl that surrounds Washington, D.C., and exurban development in rural counties in our region is intensifying rapidly. Smaller forest patches, more roads, increased coverage of pavement, and associated pollution all have profound effects on plants and animals in our area. We are studying the effects of urbanization on species of conservation concern to identify which species are most vulnerable and to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of development. We studied the effects of urbanization on Spotted Salamanders in 2019 (see below), and we are planning future projects that will track Box Turtle movement and find ways to make suburban properties more hospitable to insects and birds.
The Effects of Urbanization on Spotted Salamanders in Northern Virginia
Spotted Salamanders live underground for most of the year but they emerge in the early spring to breed in vernal pools (ponds that dry up each year). Spotted Salamanders are thought to be declining as a result of urbanization, but it is unclear how much development they can tolerate in the mid-Atlantic. They may be particularly vulnerable to urbanization because they have to cross roads when they migrate from their underground homes to breeding pools. In 2019 we worked with interns from the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation to sample 34 vernal pools from Fairfax to Front Royal, VA. We related the presence or absence of salamander egg masses to several urbanization, water pollution, and habitat variables. We found that Spotted Salamanders were present across the urbanization gradient, but they were absent in pools that had more than 30% urban land cover within 250 meters of the pool. This result indicates that urban planners should leave at least 70% natural habitat within the immediate vicinity of vernal pools to conserve Spotted Salamanders and other species that rely on these special habitats. This research was funded by the Virginia Herpetological Society.
We are engaged in multiple projects that use repeated observations to measure the effects of climate change on native species. One way that animals may respond to climate change is by moving to higher elevations, where the climate is cooler. Our co-directors, Bert and Eleanor Harris, together with Dr. Brett Scheffers from the University of Florida, are conducting bird surveys along altitudinal gradients, in North Carolina, in order to track changes in distribution and abundance as a function of climate change. We complement these bird surveys with plant studies, in order to have a more complete understanding of how the ecosystem is responding to climate change.
For years, the Clifton Institute has been participating in the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program, a nationwide program coordinated by the Institute for Bird Populations. This project is run by Tom Wood of George Mason University. As part of MAPS, Dr. Wood and volunteers band birds on the field station every ten days from late spring through summer in different habitats on the field station. Of particular interest are the Neotropical migrants who use the property as breeding habitat. The data that have been collected over the last several years are being used to study the habitats that different species use, the resources that they need and how their abundance is changing over time. Correlations between climate change and population trends will be analyzed.
Have you ever wanted to conduct scientific research? Or just wanted an excuse to go for a walk in the woods? Community science gives everyone the opportunity to spend time outdoors, to learn about biology, and to contribute to the meaningful goal of understanding the natural world around us.
There are several ways to get involved with community science at our field station. Any time you visit the Clifton Institute, you can record your observations of animals, plants, and fungi and submit them to one of our online databases.
We use the iNaturalist website and app to keep a list of ALL the species that have been observed here. You can contribute by uploading a picture of something you saw. You don’t even have to know what it is you took a picture of! The community of naturalists there will help you identify it.
We use eBird to record observations of birds on the field station and we encourage bird walk participants and other visitors to contribute to eBird.
We also participate in two nation-wide community science efforts. We host a North American Butterfly Association butterfly count every July and a Christmas Bird Count every December. We also hosted an inaugural dragonfly count in 2021. Keep an eye on our calendar to sign up when registration opens!