‘Sex on the James’ as great blue heron return to rookery for spring

James River Park manager Ralph White led a tour of the great blue heron rookery with the Richmond Audubon Society at the Pipeline Rapids walkway Phil Riggan – James River News Hub

James River Park manager Ralph White led a tour of the great blue heron rookery with the Richmond Audubon Society at the Pipeline Rapids walkway on Saturday and had plenty of knowledge to share about “sex on the James” and the “strange behavior” that unfolds each spring at the end of the Falls of the James River in Richmond.

“Most of the rookeries tend to be in isolated areas, so this is strange behavior,” White said. “Herons are known to be a little skittish around people, but here they have chosen to live next to people. The reason is, they are perfectly safe. It is isolated. There is water, there is an island and tall trees.”  

Great blue heron in the Pipeline rookeryThe rookery is located mainly on Vauxhall Island across from Pipeline Rapids walkway and has been growing each year since 2003-04, starting with one nest, then four and has now grown to 40 or more, White said. There were many nests in the tree tops this past weekend, but when the majority of the more than 45 people on the tour reached the rookery, there were only two heron to be found. Members of the Audubon Society that had been scoping the scene said that the group just missed more than 15 heron that left just before the bulk of the tour arrived to the unique urban rookery.

“This is a safe nesting spot and they nest in groups,” he said. “They chose it because it is a safe place and it is right next to the best feeding spot on the entire river.

“This where the shad and river herring come up in the springtime and school at the beginning of the rapids. This is where they all cluster, making it good pickings for the heron and the perfect conditions for a rookery. So there is a lot of food, they don’t have to fly far, just fall out of the nest and start fishing,” White said.

“It is at the toe of the rapids. That’s the reason for Richmond to be here – its as far as you can bring a boat up the [tidal] river. It’s the place where the most energy in the river – water falls, the water is full of oxygen, the sun penetrates the water, there are all kinds of aquatic insects,” he said. 

Great blue herons make nests about three feet across, made of sticks. Mating couples tend to be “seasonally monogamous,” according to According to Mary Elfner of the National Audubon Society. The males do the majority of the nest construction, the females do most of the nest making and the egg-sitting, White said. “They have anywhere from 3-9 eggs, with only 2-3 surviving. It is survival of the fittest. This is nature’s system.”

Members of the Richmond Audubon Society watch for great blue heronEnvironment beat writer Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch was there with his Audubon Society friends and once again declared Pipeline to be his favorite spot on the river. He noted the many signs that spring is almost here, especially red hue in the tops of some trees along the banks, indicating the buds of leaves ready to seek the sunlight.

Pipeline is a wonderful place to watch the wild river and nature and to escape the bustle of the urban city. Visitors can go on their own to the site and parking is available at the observation tower at Byrd and 12th streets. There are plans for three more tours and the next one is two weeks away:

Spotting scopes and interpretation provided. Bring cameras and binoculars. Dress warmly. Site on Pipeline (“Trestle”) Trail near 12th and Byrd Street has a short ladder. Special Parking at Whitewater Boater’s Lot at north end of 14th Street Bridge.

WHEN: Feb. 26: 10 a.m. to noon — $5 adults/kids $1. Sponsors: Richmond Audubon Society and the James River Park System (Richmond Recreation, Parks & Community Facilities) – 646-8911 – www.RichmondGov.com

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5 responses to “‘Sex on the James’ as great blue heron return to rookery for spring

  1. Outstanding info … the tours are a fantastic idea. I hope folks will go several times to watch the steady increase in “spring time activities”. This morning, 7:40, we counted 35 heron in the rookery. As the morning went, so did they. Most head East then bend South along the James, a few head North past Monroe Tower towards Mechanicisville … Chickhominy Swamp maybe? They are mostly paired up now, with a couple couples courting with their neck stretching, beak grabbing “dance”. Still very little nest building. We’re noticing more herons, 5 or so, settled down in their nest as opposed to their typical standing by.

    • Excellent Jim, thank you for keeping up with the heron count and reporting to us. I looked up a few times for your lookout, but I didn’t take into account the CSX viaduct would block my view. I did tell Ralph White of your count and he was impressed with the numbers.

  2. Thanks for the excellent observations of the Great Blue Heron Rookery. National Audubon is proud to be a partner of this effort to connect people to nature, and we look forward to the next guided walk on Saturday, February 26th.

  3. How do we get there? I’m not sure where to park and once I find parking, where do I go from there to get a good view?

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