Every time I come out, there’s always something new to see,” says Zachary Bradford excitedly, as he surveys the swaying saltmarsh cordgrass glowing chartreuse in the morning light. “To date, Virginia Natural Heritage biologists have found 36 species new to science and 313 species new to Virginia. And that list continues to grow.”
We are standing on the Nature Conservancy’s observation platform at New Point Comfort, one of eight preserves in eastern Virginia that Zach oversees. On closer inspection, the eye discerns a patchwork of colors and textures; a living tapestry filled with vibrancy and hue. It’s a wonderfully productive system, this network of tidal marsh grasses— saltmarsh cordgrass, saltmeadow hay, salt grass, and wild asters. It’s a fragile system but perfectly balanced. Just count the number of northeastern beach tiger beetles, a task Zach relishes every year.
Conducting field surveys by counting beetles, as well as bird’s nests and monitoring flowering plants during their blooming seasons, Zach’s favorite days are those spent in the field. “I always say counting northeastern tiger beetles are the best days because I get to wear shorts and flip flops,” he laughs. Data collected is then entered into a state database for other scientists to access.
So what’s so special about this beetle? Nearly endemic to the Chesapeake Bay region, as detritivores, they feed on dead creatures washed up on the beach, and because they also hunt small invertebrates, they’ve earned the name “tiger beetle” for their predatory nature. They exist within a delicate balance and, like the proverbial canary in the mine, are an indication of the health of the beach and the waters nearby. “When we see them, we know the beach is healthy and dynamic,” Zach says.
His research takes him from the fresh water tidal marshes and woodlands of New Kent County to the shoreline and tidal marshes of Mathews County. His work takes a broad approach to conservation; save the unique communities and therefore save the species that inhabit them.
Zach’s interest in the natural world began as a youngster growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. “My parents were avid hikers and I went with them often, hiking into the National Park,” Zach recalls. “When I was in third grade my dad bought my mother a basic wildflower identification guide, and I memorized it cover to cover. That sparked my interest in native plants, and my favorite aspect of working outdoors is seeing the various plants that exist and observe them in their natural habitats.”
Zach attended the College of William and Mary, majoring in biology and environmental science, during which time he studied native orchids, specifically the lady slipper orchid. His personal goal: to see all sixty-two species of orchids growing in Virginia. By tracking and monitoring rare plants, insects, amphibians, and rare communities as a whole, a scientific strategy can be employed to protect both common and rare living resources.
“We want the public to know that the Natural Area Preserve System was created to protect Virginia’s rare plants and animals, and rare and exceptional communities and geologic features. We love providing public access, but must balance that with our primary conservation goals and objectives. We don’t want Virginia’s preserves loved to death,” says Zach.
From the stately Blue Ridge Mountains to the giant sand dunes of the Eastern Shore, the Commonwealth of Virginia encompasses more than 25 million acres. Across this vastness, like tiny jewels scattered upon the land, lie sixty-three Natural Area Preserves that total some fifty-five thousand acres. Each is as unique and diverse as the Commonwealth itself, harboring rare, threatened, and endangered species—plants, animals, and insects— whose existence may be on the cusp of extinction.
These preserves protect 760 rare and exceptional natural communities and species, all achieved during a period of time when our state’s population grew by one million people, putting increasing pressure on these fragile waysides. As our wild places have disappeared, more Americans are denied the access to and intimacy with nature.
As part of the state’s lead conservation agency, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Virginia Natural Heritage program is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Partnering with many other government agencies, localities, universities, land trusts, conservation non-profits, and private landowners, the Heritage program employs forty full-time staffers working to ensure the survival and health of these vital ecosystems.
Although undeveloped, some of the preserves offer public access: boardwalks, observation platforms, hiking trails, kayak and canoe launch sites, and sandy shorelines. Others are on private lands, or have no amenities to enable full public access, but Natural Area Stewards are often able to arrange tours for special groups interested in these unique habitats.
Chesapeake Bay Shoreline Preserves
New Point Comfort
On a 105 acre peninsula jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay, this preserve comprises three major natural habitats: tidal salt marsh, maritime forest, and sandy shoreline. A key Atlantic Flyway stopover for songbirds and migratory birds, it’s also home to numerous shore birds, crustaceans, a rare seaside dragonlet (Virginia’s only saltwater dragonfly), and the rare and federally protected northeastern beach tiger beetle. Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with DCR, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and observation deck provides an unobstructed view of New Point Comfort lighthouse.
This 105 acre preserve in Mathews County has a long Chesapeake Bay shoreline, a combination of low dunes and salt marshes. In any season there is spectacular bird watching, with more than 185 species observed here. The dunes provide vital nesting areas for the least tern and habitat for the northeastern beach tiger beetle.
Located in Northumberland County, Dameron Marsh comprises 316 acres of pristine shoreline, tidal marsh, and shrub-forest habitat. The preserve contains one of the most significant wetlands on the Bay for marsh birds. It’s also home to the northeastern beach tiger beetle. Most of the upland portions of the preserve were once used for agriculture. In partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers, the DCR has restored the former fields to forested habitats that support a diversity of wildlife and contribute to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
This 204 acre preserve near Kilmarnock teems with wildlife. A mix of natural communities that are comprised of shoreline, dunes, wetlands, and pine forest, the preserve offers fine birding, especially during spring and fall migrations. July is a prime month for viewing the eastern rose mallow. A variety of wildlife, along with the northeastern beach tiger beetle, can be found here.
Fringe and Inland
Consistently largely of upland mixed pine-hardwood forest, this preserve also features an extremely diverse forested wetland called Cabin Swamp, home to nearly 500 plant species and supporting a rare natural community in the form of a southern coastal plain basic seepage swamp. With over four miles of hiking trails, visitors can wander through forestlands to view a variety of wildlife. The preserve is owned by the Northern Neck Audubon Society and managed in partnership with the DCR.
Bush Mill Stream
This 102 acre preserve takes its name from Bush Mill Stream, which forms its northern boundary. Here, a fresh water stream meets the saltwater of the Great Wicomico River. Fresh and brackish tidal marshes and mud flats provide food and shelter for an abundance of waterfowl and wading birds, blue crabs, menhaden, white perch, and a rare shrimp-like creature, the tidewater amphipod, which inhabits the preserve’s natural springs and groundwater.
One of the largest eastern preserves, Cumberland Marsh in New Kent County comprises 1193 acres of freshwater tidal marsh and wooded upland along the tidal Pamunkey River. The mix of fresh and salt water provides a pristine habitat for waterfowl and supports the world’s largest population of the rare plant sensitive joint-vetch. Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with DCR, the preserve has a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and observation deck where visitors can view a tidal freshwater marsh.
Owned by the City of Newport News, Grafton Ponds is a series of depression ponds and the best remaining example of a coastal plain pond complex. Formed by the dissolution of the underlying calcareous marine deposits of the Yorktown Formation, this wetland houses the rare barking tree frog, Mabee’s salamander, and Harper’s fimbry and pondspice. Some species bloom only when the ponds are drawn down. Information on access to this preserve can be obtained from Newport News Parks.
“For those preserves still in private hands and generously shared by the landowners, DCR has pledged that those special places will always be preserved,” says Julie Buchanan, DCR’s Senior Public Relations and Marketing Specialist. “They won’t be developed or otherwise altered. The program’s influence extends beyond state boundaries. As a member of NatureServe, Natural Heritage staff collaborates with a global network of scientists dedicated to monitoring and understanding at-risk species and the threats they face.”
Even as we survey this particular piece of tidal salt marsh, along its upland fringe lurks an unwelcomed visitor— Phragmites or common weed, its silvery fronds announcing its presence. A foreign invader that displaces native grasses and is a devil to eradicate, Zach notes the progress of its growth and will later enter that information into the DCR database for other scientists to examine.