September 23, 2022
Ph. D. student works with 400,000 photos every two weeks to monitor the success of living shorelines around Hampton Roads

By Mary Reid Barrow

How well do living shorelines built with oyster castles protect the water’s edge and provide habitat for wildlife?

And can non-profits, such as LRNow, monitor the success of their living shorelines in an efficient way that doesn’t require too many resources?

Ella DiPetto, a Ph.D. student in Ecological Science at Old Dominion University, hopes to find out as she gathers data for her dissertation.

Every minute, every day, 24 hours a day, wildlife cameras are snapping photos of several oyster castle shorelines and nearby unrestored shorelines around Hampton Roads.

The cameras are photographing birds and other critters that dine on little crustaceans, fish, and worms in these shoreline habitats.  Ella hopes the photos will reveal the habitat value of living shorelines versus unrestored ones.

Every two weeks, she visits each camera site, downloads the film, and installs new batteries in the cameras.

Her bi-weekly haul amounts to 400,000 photos!  Back at ODU she and undergraduate student volunteers look at every photo to pull out the ones that show wildlife interacting with the habitat.

Two monitored shorelines are on the Lynnhaven River and were built with the help of LRNow’s Living Shorelines program.  Eight others are elsewhere in Hampton Roads.  All are on private property, Ella said, and the homeowners have been very supportive.

“They’ve been an absolute pleasure to work with,“ she added, “And it’s clear they care about the ecology around their shorelines and health of their local waterways.

 Photos range from a bald eagle to herons and egrets, from raccoons to muskrats, from ducks and geese to sandpipers feeding on the oyster castles.  And, Ella noted, there were outliers such as a crow, a cardinal and a couple of cats!

The cameras are focused on just one grid defined by posts at the oyster castles and the unrestored areas.  Sometimes, there’s a tantalizing critter right outside the grid but it can’t be counted, Ella said.


“There are many instances of birds with prey items in their mouth right outside the grid,” she explained. “But to keep detections standard and consistent, the grid really is necessary.“

Though Ella said she was “shocked to see the eagle on the oysters,” her favorite photo so far is one of a spotted sandpiper.  Spotted sandpipers are not as common as some  other sandpipers and she was especially happy to see it feeding on the oyster castles.


Ella hopes to keep the wildlife cameras up this fall and into the winter and wrap up this part of her study after the first of the year.

Next year in a follow up study, she will look at the success of oyster castle shorelines in attracting oysters, protecting the marsh, and preventing erosion.

Ella said non-profit environmental organizations, like LRNow, are the prime supporters of living shorelines.  On the other hand, non-profits don’t have the personnel or funding to monitor their work long term because it is so time consuming.  She hopes her research will yield a plan to help non-profits assess the success of their work at low cost.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day,” Ella said, “I can provide a framework for organizations to evaluate their projects.”

 Reach Mary Reid:


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