Eagles and herons living together in RVA?

A tip of the cap to the Friends of the James River Park for highlighting this really interesting piece on William and Mary’s website. In the article, author Lillian Stevens talks to biologist Bryan Watts of VCU and William and Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology mostly about great blue herons.

Herons work on their nests at the downtown rookery on Feb. 10. Credit: Chris Johnson

Herons work on their nests at the downtown rookery on Feb. 10. Credit: Chris Johnson

In May and June, [Watts] logged 200 hours in the air conducting a census survey spanning 900 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay region (which includes the James River to downtown Richmond).

The CCB census revealed that great blue herons in the Bay region have climbed from just a dozen colonies in the late 1960s to 407 colonies (14,126 pairs) in 2013. In the 1980s the average colony size of great blues was over 100; now it’s about 35. So, over the past decade or so, even as the population itself has made a dramatic comeback, the size of breeding colonies of great blue herons in the region has been diminishing.

Pictures taken by Watts, Stevens writes, also revealed something interesting: Great blues and bald eagles nesting in the same trees.

“We refer to blue herons as colonial water birds because they tend to nest together in distinct colonies,” says Bryan Watts, CCB director. “Like eagles, great blues build their own nests.”

Sometimes a great blue heron colony forms around an eagle nest, and sometimes an eagle moves into a great blue colony. According to Watts, no one really knows why.

There are dozens of nests at the downtown rookery. Credit: Chris Johnson

There are dozens of nests at the downtown rookery. Credit: Chris Johnson

Watts goes into more depth and offers a few theories. Click here to read more.

Here in Richmond we’ve got nesting herons and bald eagles. This time of year they’re both building their nests in preparation for mating and raising young. Next time you’re downtown, head to the Pipeline and check out the huge heron rookery on the nearby island. If you see any eagles nesting among the herons, let us know…and don’t forget to snap a picture!


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Retro Video Night: The video

Check out this sweet video by Brandon Montijo and his production company, Tijo Media. We’ve featured Tijo Media videos before, but this is a particularly cool one of the huge community paddle put together by Ben Moore and Hunter Davis. Looking forward to more river-related videos from these guys.

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Hawkins fundraising produces three fountains

First RichmondOutside.com featured Retro Video Night, tomorrow’s paddlers’ party at The Camel (5 -9 p.m.), where boaters show all their homemade paddle porn from 2013, then Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine made the event its “Weekend Pick.” No matter the weather, it promises to be a big weekend for James River lovers in Central Virginia.


Greg Hawkins

One of those river lovers is Chris Hull, the James River Outdoor Coalition president. After I posted the piece on Retro Video Night, I spoke with Hull about the fundraising efforts he and others have undertaken for the past year in honor of Greg Hawkins, the former VCU Outdoor Adventure Program leader who died of lung cancer this summer. Hull said even before tomorrow’s James River Run 5K (another Hawkins fundraiser) enough money has been raised to buy three water fountains for the James River Park System.

The original goal was for one, a dual human/dog fountain, to be installed at the Reedy Creek entrance to the JRPS. Now another another two fountains will go in, one likely at the Texas Beach parking area and another at Great Shiplock Park. Not only will these fountains serve both humans and dogs, they’ll also have spigots so bikers can fill up their bottles. Anyone who’s done longer mountain bike rides in the hot summer on the downtown trails knows there are precious few places to fill up a bottle. Most people end up wearing Camelbacks because of it. These fountains could obviate that need.

Of course, dogs will also have the nearby James River.

Of course, dogs will also have the nearby James River to drink from.

One city employee I spoke to said the fountains are on order and could be installed as early as the spring.

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Make plans for James River Parade of Lights

The James River Advisory Council bills itself  “a forum for the diverse interests along the James River in Central Virginia.” For years part of its mission has been to communicate “with public officials about issues and challenges facing the river and its resources. JRAC’s vision is to unite the community by supporting and promoting the James River as a common resource and preserving its health, beauty, heritage, economic vitality and recreational value.”

Credit: Richmond.com

Credit: Richmond.com

To those ends, the JRAC does three things every year three that I think have a huge impact on those of us that love the James River (more, actually, but these three I think are the most effective): 1) It prints and distributes the James River Days brochure, with dozens of listings of river-related events and things to do. 2) It organizes a huge June River cleanup. 3) It puts on the James River Parade of Lights.

This year the 21st annual Parade of Lights will be held on Saturday, Dec. 14th, starting at 6 p.m. The parade, open to any motor boat owner provider they register in advance, will cruise from above Rockett’s Landing in Richmond through Henrico to Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield Co. There will be entertainment, food and activities at the viewing sites in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield. The event is free and open to the public.

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Turning over rocks in the James River Park

Back in October, the Friends of the James River Park launched a cool initiative called Science in the Park. The effort is a collaboration between VCU’s Rice Center Environmental Outreach Education, the VCU Biology Department, Ralph White, the Friends of the James River Park, the James River Park System and others.


The bridge from Pony Pasture to the Wetlands.

The idea, according to the Friends, is to provide “science-focused educational materials about the geology, habitats, and flora and fauna of the James River Park System in Richmond, VA. We hope to enrich the Park experience for local and regional school systems, communities, visitors and regular users of the park through web-based, self-directed explorations, guides, videos, and lesson plans.”

When you go to the main “Science in the Park” page, you can click on Geology, Flora and Fauna and Rock Pools. Each has a wealth of information about these areas that so many of us spend time in but might not know much about. Recently, the Friends have begun releasing videos that accompany the science tours and highlight a particularly interesting plant, animal, feature, etc. Check out the video at the top of the page by local filmmaker Melissa Lesh on the elusive fairy shrimp of Pony Pasture Park. Go to the Friends of the James River Park Facebook page to see more videos.


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No off-season for James River sturgeon research

By now the Atlantic sturgeon that made their way up the James River for their fall spawning run have turned around and headed back out toward the ocean. In the past, this is where our knowledge of their whereabouts would end. Researchers knew they went north, generally, but where, exactly? And how quickly? At what depth? Where did they stop along the way?

For the first time, however, some of those questions could be answered.

Matt Balazik returning a sturgeon to the James near Hopewell in October.

Matt Balazik returning a sturgeon to the James near Hopewell in October.

Back in September, VCU researcher Matt Balazik chose three male sturgeons that he netted in the tidal James and inserted satellite “B-WET” tags under their dorsal scutes. (B-WET stands for NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training program. That’s where these tiny, titanium tags came from.)

“This is kind of a first…in 2003 they did a couple in the Hudson River,” he said. “But no one has done it since then (with adult fish) and with the more recent technology. They did some juveniles up in Canada…and they were only designed to stay on for a couple months.”

Balazik explained that the tags are programmed to pop off at a certain date (Aug. 11) or if certain conditions occur: “If the fish stays at a certain depth for a week straight, it’ll think that the fish is dead. It’ll corrode and release. If it goes over a depth of 3,000 meters, it’ll ping off and release.”

Sadly, for one five-foot-long male, that’s exactly what happened recently. Balazik was hoping not to have to retrieve a tag so soon, but on November 13 he and VCU professor Anne Wright found one on the beach next to the Lynnhaven Pier. It had been on the fish for about a month. The tag popped off automatically when the fish stayed at the same depth (give or take, considering tidal variations) for over a week.

“We have beautiful data in the river, then it’s out in the ocean and everything is going well,” Balazik said. “It goes from moving all over the place to doing a slow up and down… I fear it was a ship strike.”

So, now two males are left with tags in them. Every 10 minutes or so, the tag collects data on depth, water temperature and location, and stores it in a tiny memory card. But Balazik can’t collect that data until the tag surfaces and can transmit to the satellite — hopefully when it’s scheduled to on Aug. 11.

Credit: VCU

Credit: VCU

“That’s why it’s so nerve wracking,” he said. “You just have to sit here and wait either until something bad happens and the tag pops off prematurely, or you wait until you get some emails from the satellite on Aug. 11.”

In the meantime, Balazik imagines the kind of answers these tags will provide researchers for the first time.

“I want to know where it goes over winter…I want to know, (when) it comes back to the (James), it if all of a sudden, if its way up in Maine, is it like, ‘Oh crap, it’s time for me to go spawn,’ and makes a huge bolt down in like a week or so. Or does it meander down and just turn in.”

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Riverside Outfitters to expand downtown outpost

Matt Perry and Riverside Outfitters are doubling down on downtown.

The river rafting company, which also rents bikes, boats, and offers camps has long been based near the Stratford Hills Shopping Center off Forest Hill Avenue. Two years ago the outfit opened an outpost on Brown’s Island, renting mountain bikes, kayaks and standup paddleboards for people to use on the nearby sections of trail and in Tredegar Pool between Brown’s Island and Belle Isle.

RO outpost on Brown's Island.

RO outpost on Brown’s Island.

But the Brown’s Island shop was only open Friday-Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This coming spring, says Perry, Riverside’s co-owner, he’ll staff the outpost seven days a week — 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. — during the same traditional summer season (Memorial Day weekend  to Labor Day weekend).

“You don’t want people to stop and think, ‘Hmmm, it’s Wednesday, are they open down there?'” he said. “You lose a fair percentage of people that way.”

Downtown, Perry added, “you aren’t really dealing with a captive audience.” People have options for how to use their time. The goal is “to become a more certain entertain option down there.”

Riverside Outfitters first worked out the deal with Venture Richmond (which operates Browns Island) to open the outpost in the spring of 2011. Perry said the idea was to give it two seasons and see what the demand was. This past summer the high water forced them to shut down for six weeks — June through mid-July.

But when they opened back up after the water went down, “we were kind of getting some momentum, awareness was building back up again,” Perry said. “The last three weekends in August were the best we’d ever seen by a long shot. We had multiple hours where all the boats were out.”photo-3-300x225

SUPs and kayaks are $15 an hour, and mountain bikes are $10. Those numbers won’t change this year, he said.

“It was a two-summer long test, and we were ready to make the decision of do we pack up or roll out and we decided to roll out.”

Perry added: “If you’re going to be the best river city in the country, you have to have something like this.”

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Time well spent

The dreamer:

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.                                 – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The doer:

Do not waste time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.                       -Benjamin Franklin


Air condition – 88 degrees, pleasant; Water condition –  70 degrees, transparent

A typical summer day in Richmond, only on this day the 1 p.m. sun looks me a bit more in the eye than did July’s midday sun, and when I turn my back to the low-angled glare I find that the sycamores along the northern bank of the river have dyed their hair some burnt shade separating green from brown. Blush or rouge has been applied in splotches to the canopy on the higher slopes, and beneath my waist I see discarded flakes of this late season tree, maquillage littering the river surface.  No, this is no summer day. It’s a warm and rare day in early October.

My daughter Brooke and I are at one of our favorite James River Places – the lowest step of the watery granite staircase known as Pony Pasture Rapids. With our two dogs we wade out to the first significant channel connecting the water on the first elevation to the long flat pool passing quietly between Windsor farms on the north and Willow Oaks on the south. We spread our things out on a massive monolith of granite partially perched on the river bed such that a diving flow of water at the upstream center of the slab is able to crawl under rather than go around. Brooke drops leaves into the small upstream whirlpool, watches them swirl and disappear, and then takes the high route over the boulder to meet with them again on the downstream side where I sit with my body half in and half out of the flow, helping her verify the identity of the surfacing arrivals, and marveling with her at this magical leaf teleportation.

Beyond the closely-gathered circle of my younger daughter and our two goofy dogs, I find myself likewise shepherding a scattered flock of resting clouds, each wooly sky-sheep seemingly as content with its current GPS reading as I am.  The only evidence of my proximity to a semi-major east coast metropolis is the missile-shaped upper half of the Carillon aimed for launch from a thick crowd of trees at Dogwood Dell a mile or so to my downriver side. 

Amazing city! That I can find a spot like this a mere two river miles from the city center, properly orient myself, and look out to see a world mostly the way it was before humans arrived and hopefully the way it will be long after we’re gone.     

I almost wish I weren’t wise enough to know that in a blink of an eye from this day I will come to this same river on a warm fall day and have only the ghosts of my playing children to watch over. Already the image of my older daughter Anna bouncing alongside me in innocent play has faded from flesh to shadow, and if I watch Brooke’s 11-year-old shape and mannerisms carefully, I understand that my playful time with her also fades. Sad? I’m not sure. The mental sore spot of this fore-knowledge is strangely interesting, and I find myself probing it with my thoughts as one might probe a mouth-sore or vacant tooth socket with his tongue. The pain is not alarming, or hard to bear. Only interesting. Interesting because the resting clouds, the bright and optimistic young face under the red hair, the voice of the river singing “Forever, forever, forever . . .” as it tumbles over my feet and legs, these all create such an illusion of permanence. But the reality is change. The colorful leaves floating past me speak of it. The low-angle sun on the back of my neck speaks of it. That shadow of thought trailing just behind the present speaks of it. “Change” is the word we humans use to speak of it.  Sometimes aggravating, sometimes painful, sometimes welcome, but always, always, interesting. Change. Yes, the reality is that time passes and things change. Sad? No. I refuse to be sad about my one and only reality. Just interested.

Brooke humors me, bears with me, really, in this “melancholy shepherd” role as long as she can before pulling me up to play. She puts her hand on her hip, waves her opposite pointy finger like a windshield wiper, and says what YouTube sensation SweetBrown says in her starring role: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” And just like that Brooke slices all that stuff, that moody contemplation, away from my present and I find myself properly playing with her and the James. We play our all-time favorite river games. We find a nice exposed slab just upstream from a deep pool where Brooke can jump and test her duck wings. We play “rock-star,” seeing who can build the highest river rock tower. We uncover 40- million year old secrets by throwing brown river stones against larger rocks and breaking them open to discover what the crust of earth looked like during some crisis of temperature and pressure in its ancient history. We wonder, we explore, we rock-hop, and we find any possible excuse to break into a raucous duet of laughter. We play.

Before I know it, and without a thought, it’s time to leave.  I don’t know where the time went, but some deep sense or awareness of satisfaction leads me to believe that it went somewhere good. That if there truly is a “cost” of time levied on our earth experience, then these last three hours were time well spent. This unexamined, playful life is worth living, even if often transparent to the mind’s eye or the writer’s hand. Maybe if Socrates had spent more time at play with his daughter he would never have uttered his famous quote to the contrary.

The dogs drag themselves forward with Brooke and I as we walk the trail back to the parking lot. They will never learn to pace themselves out here. There is just too much dog-joy to be found, and they are afraid to take one second of the experience for granted. They run, climb, and swim themselves to exhaustion as quickly as exhaustion can be achieved.

Around me on the trail, chlorophyll, the green of summer, is being drained from the forest with increasing counter-clockwise turns on the spigot handle. The green shade of bio-business is being purposefully drained away, leaving us a glimpse of how colorfully unique all the trees look in their street clothes, or their retiring attire. They prepare for a new season, for their autumn. They change. The forest speaks of it.  .  . Change. Change, the passage of time, and the interesting, slightly painful shadow of thought trailing just behind.    

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Playing in Pipeline

Friend of the program and videographer extraordinaire Hunter Davis put together this clip of his friends, Isaac Hull and Cooper Sallade getting after it at Pipeline Rapid the other day. These guys are good. And if you needed another reminder of what we have here in the heart of Richmond, consider this our offering for the day.

State of the James: ‘Pipeline’ from Hunter on Vimeo.

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