Stalking herons on the Pipeline

April 3, 2014 · 3 minute read

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Johnson has been a longtime friend of We’ve featured his photos here since we revamped and re-launched back in the fall. A local physician and Collegiate School grad, he spends a lot of time outdoors photographing Richmond’s natural beauty. The other day he went down to the Pipeline to check out the heron activity and came back with this report. This is the first in an occasional series from Johnson.

My plan for Tuesday had been to go to the river to test out my new neutral-density filter. It blocks out light so that you can shoot at long exposures even during bright, sunny days. I’d hoped to capture rapids in the river that would have the smooth, silky look with a long shutter speed.

Canal waterfall at Pump House Park. Credit: Chris Johnson

Canal waterfall at Pump House Park. Credit: Chris Johnson

One of the easiest river-access points for me is near the Atlantic Coast Railroad train bridge on the north bank of the James. I wasn’t really sure if I’d have any luck. When I’ve been down there before when the river is high, I’ve noticed that you lose a lot of the contours, and the river just looks like one gigantic muddy stream. I did get some nice photos in Pump House Park of the waterfall over the canal with the train bridge in the background, but, as expected, the river didn’t give me what I was looking for.

I decided to head down to the Pipeline because I remember it being pretty active with lots of white water even when the river has been high. It was a warm day and I figured the herons would also be active but didn’t know how much they’d be down on the river given how high it was.


A heron nabs a hickory shad. Credit: Chris Johnson

As soon as I got on the Pipeline, I saw herons flying all around. I took a few long-exposure shots with my tripod but quickly ditched that and went strictly to shooting with my telephoto lens. At one point I had 12 herons in plain sight right in front of me and three or four behind me. They’ve got to be some of the most patient birds. Most of them sat still just staring down at the river. In the two hours I was there I only saw three actually plunge in to go fishing: One was unsuccessful; one caught a fish, wrestled with it for about 20 seconds but lost it; and one caught and ate one.

The birds sitting on the river seemed pretty territorial. I saw several get too close to each other, which resulted in some skirmishes and dunks in the water. There was lots of activity on the nests. I’d say there were easily 20-30 nests, maybe more — I didn’t really take the time to count — and probably another 20 to 30 herons sitting in the trees. Some nests had two birds sitting on top. Others just had 1one. And some were empty. There was lots of coming and going from the nests. Most of the birds flew away and came back from what looked like more towards the south bank of the river.

Down the hatch! Credit: Chris Johnson

Down the hatch! Credit: Chris Johnson

There was a good amount of human traffic on the pipeline, too, which was great to see for a Tuesday morning. I probably passed or was passed by 10-12 people out there. Most were interested in the heron activity; some seemed just to be going for a stroll. With the herons, gulls, cormorants, ospreys and other birds so active in such a concentrated area, it’s an amazing time of year to head down there.

I’m excited to get back down again when the river is a little more calm and it warms up more. Hopefully by early to mid summer I’ll be able to see some of the chicks flying and fishing on their own.

It's hard to believe the size fish herons can fit in their throats. Credit: Chris Johnson

It’s hard to believe the size fish herons can fit in their throats. Credit: Chris Johnson