Saturday, March 27, 2010

Birdwatching with a Bridge-Builder

I abandoned Grace Street and my usual four-mile walk today for the sake of a Heron Rookery Walk being offered by the city's Department of Parks & Recreation.

Like most everyone, I've seen herons down by the river, but I was curious about their city digs.

It was the perfect tie-in to the Loft Tour going on downtown today and I saw plenty of people waiting at the Loft Tour stops as I drove down to the north end of the Mayo Bridge to meet the group.

Usually these walks are led by the James River's most enthusiastic and articulate cheerleader, Ralph White.

Unfortunately, recent surgery had taken him out of the game temporarily, so we were being talked to and led by two birding guys who had plenty to share with the group.

Our leader did apologize in advance for not being able to live up to Ralph White's high standards of knowledge and entertainment, but then, who could (no one knows the river and parks like Ralph and his passion for it is contagious)?

As he began explaining the mating customs, he apologized again.

"Ralph actually demonstrates the breeding rituals, but I'm not going to do that," he said and blushed.

We headed down toward the river and after descending a metal ladder (to the obvious consternation of several of the group members), took the Pipeline Walkway to the first island.

It was a far cry from Grace Street to be standing on the sandy shore in the sun with the river lapping at it and admiring the heron population just across the active water.

The first surprise was this extensive heron rookery essentially in the center of the city.

It currently has about 45 nests in it as the herons begin breeding season.

The most amazing part of that is that as recently as 2006, there were no heron nests downtown.

 In 2007, there were seven; obviously, the heron population has gotten the word out about the amenities of downtown living in RVA.

The second surprise for me was learning that these birds, despite a six-foot wingspan, only weigh about five pounds with their hollow bones.

There were many herons walking branches, sitting on nests and just generally doing the Saturday morning thing.

We were told that a few have already laid eggs and others are preparing to do so.

As it turns out, herons are monogamous for a year, so the males choose a mate (unlike most of the bird population where the female does the choosing) and do the nest-sitting during the day while females replace them at night.

An enormous osprey nest atop a tower was pointed out to the group and, serendipitously, an osprey swooped down into it, to our amazement.

Ducks swam by and geese honked.

We all used binoculars almost continually and one of the Audubon guys set up a high-powered scope for even closer viewing.

The true bird-lovers in the group were beside themselves.

Since we'd only come a short distance on the Pipeline Walkway, I wanted to explore the rest; this was my daily walk after all.

The walkway was a metal grid with metal side rails over a big pipeline and water on both sides. I continued walking to see where it went, only to discover that it abruptly ended.

Well, not ended, but the grid we were walking on and the handrails went away.

Now if I wanted to go on, I would have to walk on a cement-covered pipe, rough with pebbles and beside water that was far more agitated.

There was a guy from the group walking just ahead of me, so I figured if he was going to do it, why shouldn't I?

Once the surface changed, though, he turned to me so I asked if we should continue.

"I used to build bridges, so I can walk on a steel beam," he said with a grin. "I could dance on this!"

Okay, so he was telling me that we were going on sans walkway and guard rails.

I was in.

Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the best part of the walk. The water was so turbulent you could smell it.

We got out further and discovered two herons only a couple of rocks away; he took pictures and I admired them preening in the sunshine.

 Eventually we got to the point that the pipe was underwater and had to give up and head back, both really pleased that we'd chosen to go this route.

Only at this point did my new companion think to turn and ask me, "You can swim can't you?"

NOW you ask?

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