February 12, 2013
November 2, 2012
June 19, 2012
May 22, 2012
Welcome to Discover the James. This website is your avenue to the James River near Richmond, Virginia where we focus our adventures on both the tidal and non-tidal sections of the James.
The James River in many ways is as it has been for the last 15,000 years, but you have to look deep, or simply listen to find it. Through a combination of programs and adventures on the history, wildlife, and fishing, you too can get a glimpse of the River as it has been for centuries.
DiscovertheJames.com is a pathway for discovery of a historic river. Throughout these pages you will view images and read stories about the James while learning about our programs. I hope you enjoy this website as much as I enjoy maintaining it. Keep up on recent stories through the blog below and look for new programming from Discover the James, as our vision of programs and adventures continue to grow every day.
This home page also contains a blog about my own 'discovery' on the James through the people I meet, the wildlife, landscapes and history of this wonderful river.
For more information, to comment on this site, or to book an excursion, contact Capt Mike at Mike@DiscoverTheJames.com or 804-938-2350.
Photo credit: Top right: This is Bandit, a resident bald eagle in Jefferson's Reach on the James. The photo was taken by Shelly Fowler on a recent Bald Eagle Tour, and Bandit stole the show during that beautiful Saturday evening. Shelly and her friends took over 100 gigabytes worth of photos that night! Whew! -- Photo by Shelly Fowler (To see more of Shelly's work from that evening tour, click here)
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September, 2012. The James River during any month or season can be quite special for most people. For me, it’s a no brainer. But, spending time on or around the tidal James during the month of September can be absolutely extraordinary … for September has become ‘Sturgeon Watching’ season.
You don’t need to be in a boat, although it helps, but you do need a clear view of the river from the shoreline, or (for real excitement) be on a bridge in downtown Richmond … really.
This story started with a phone call. I was on the tidal James, near the Varina-Enon Bridge, looking at bald eagles when Chris Hull called me. Chris, a former president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, excitedly said, “I’m on the Mayo Bridge, RIGHT NOW, in downtown Richmond and watching four sturgeon in the river.” At first, I thought no way, but then remembered how much of an avid fisherman Chris is, and was certain he could tell the difference between an Atlantic Sturgeon and a REALLY BIG carp or gar. I was in somewhat disbelief, but thought, “Why not!” There had been so many sightings of breaching sturgeon over the last few years that they could certainly be reaching their historic breeding grounds at the fall line of the James River in downtown Richmond. The fall line is the point where a river turns from being free flowing to tidal, or where the oceanic tide effects a river. For the James, the fall line is located at a point 240 miles from it’s headwaters, and 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.
The next evening, my wife, Lynda and I took a ride down to the Mayo Bridge about 5:00pm, roughly the same time of day the sturgeon were spotted the day before. Upon our arrival, Mark Holmberg, a local TV news reporter and his cameraman were already there, diligently looking. The four of us scanned upriver, to the west, then downriver, crossing the road numerous times to peer down into the water from each side of the bridge. We methodically searched for over an hour with no sighting. By this time, Mark was in the water, telling his story, while his cameraman recorded from the bridge. Mark was summing up his sturgeon watching experience from a unique perspective, while giving some historical background information.
About 6:15, Lynda and I decided to slowly work our way back to the car, call it a day, and head home. As we began out walk towards the south side of Mayo Bridge something caught my eye … something almost better than a sturgeon showed up. It was the James River Park System’s own Ralph White and his wife Cricket.
Ralph, the manager of the James River Park, was quite excited at the thought of seeing a sturgeon. We met and talked for a while, enjoying the evening sun and beautiful river with the city skyline at our backs. Lynda and I told Ralph & Cricket of our intensive search and that we had no luck. About ten minutes into our conversation, I stuck my head over the rail and looked down into the river.
I was instantly rewarded, surprised and shouted. I saw something unexpected … a six-foot, prehistoric fish in the fall line of the James River. I yelled, “STURGEON!” Everyone on the bridge reeled towards the side and looked over to share in the historic moment … the return of the Atlantic sturgeon to Richmond.
In an instant a few special memories that will last a lifetime all happened at once.
Lynda snapped images from her camera and captured a wonderful image of the great fish, an image that tells the story of a fish’s return from an absence for more than a century. Ralph’s face beamed for an hour … culminating with a story he told that I will remember forever.
With a curious smile on his face, Ralph White recalled something from his past … from 38 years ago. He said, “When I was interviewing for the park manager job, with the City, I told them if I was hired I would work until the sturgeon returned to Richmond. Well it has happened now, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes … I can now retire a happy man.” For those who know how dedicated Ralph has been, and remains for the James River Park, you know how incredible that moment was.
A couple of days later, I went back to the Mayo Bridge for an early morning Atlantic sturgeon watching trip. I met Andy Thompson, outdoor writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch, and Matt Balazik, a leading researcher on Atlantic sturgeon, and doctorate student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Matt was out of town during the three days of sturgeon sightings from the bridge, he was busy trying to capture sturgeon on the upper Bay. On the fourth day, Matt was in the water, searching for fertilized sturgeon eggs, something that has not been found anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay for over 100 years. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but if they were there, the ‘Sturgeon Whisperer’ would find them. Matt believed the sturgeon in the area were more than likely spawning, and he wanted to discover that first fertilized sturgeon egg.
With fins and goggles, Matt searched for hours in the cool, clear river. Eventually he began looking in a shallow riffle that flowed crosswise in the middle of the river from the south to the north. Sturgeon eggs have a very adhesive quality to them, and he guessed that this would be a perfect spot for them to attach to the rocks. Chilled to the bone, and looking in just a few inches of water Matt clearly became overly excited. Not in a ‘woo whooo’ sort of way, but in a shaky, can’t control the hands sort of way. I could not tell if Matt was ‘that’ cold or if it was just pure excitement, but he could not hold his hands still. They were shaking wildly as he was trying to pull a couple of potential fertilized sturgeon eggs from a rock and place them into a vile. After a few intense moments, he waded out of the river and up the rocky shoreline. The smile on his face when he held that vile after leaving the river was just awesome. I love it when the James’ quality as a fountain of youth kicks in. Matt was excited as a 10 year old kid who just discovered something in the river.
Matt left the river and headed to VCU to check the validity of his find. A few hours later, I got the call. They were not sturgeon eggs; they were blue-green algae, which can look exactly like the aforementioned prize.
Even though a sturgeon sighting was not involved with the second part of the story, the excitement level of the potential historic find was heart pounding. I know Matt will continue looking, and for now, I suppose we’ll just have to be satisfied with knowing Ralph can finally retire, and that the first image of an Atlantic Sturgeon in the fall line of a tributary in the Chesapeake Bay has been officially documented.
The Photo's Stories. Top Left: Historic image of Atlantic sturgeon in the fall line of the James. Photo by Lynda Richardson.
June 19, 2012. The last month has been just a blur. Between the Fishing Trips, Eagle Tours, Bald Eagles of the James Photography Exhibition, grant writing, and the recent weeklong pontoon boat ride up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), it really is just a blur.
The trip up the ICW was interesting. I volunteered to assist in taking the new James River Association boat over 800 miles through wondrous waterways all the way to Jordan Point on the James River. I thought it would be a relaxing, refreshing trip and I’d have time to write.... didn't happen. Thankfully I took lots of notes so getting in some quality details to remain forever etched into the vaults of the Internet is still a possibility. Turns out the only time I turned on my computer was to charge my phone (that is a whole story in itself ... the charging of phones!)
We started out with an all night drive to Ferdinanda Beach, Florida, where we were to launch the 44-foot pontoon boat named the JRA. Shortly after meeting the delivery driver, who had the JRA on a massive trailer, we eased her back into the water for the first time, at exactly 9:36am on May 25, 2012. As soon as the boat’s stern hit the water, an Atlantic Sturgeon breached in the middle of the channel. I took that as a very positive sign for this boat. Perhaps that is why I never had the first thought of doubt or worry on this trip, even with the newly formed tropical storm that happened to chase up all the way to Virginia. Once the boat was underway and making way, Chuck Frederickson and Scott Williams piloted the boat back to the Amelia Island Marina, meeting the rest of us to gas up and pack for our journey to the James. The Fellowship of the Barge began. While waiting for the JRA to arrive back at the dock, I started to fish and caught a nice puppy drum, which we ate for dinner that night, along with a few smaller fish.
With no sleep on Thursday night and running all day on Friday until late, we were all somewhat sleep deprived. That first night, we finally settled on an anchorage location in a creek just near Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast.
Day two we plodded away north. One of the highlights was seeing breaching Atlantic sturgeon in the South Edisto River. By the middle of day two, things were becoming fairly routine. Chuck would start the engines and we’d pull anchor sometime between 5:15 and 5:30am. Underway and making way. About 6:45 I’d take over and run until 8:30. Then Gabe would take over, and we would routinely switch out every hour or two. Not much down time for fun and fishing, but on occasion we would stop for ice, food or gas. Some of those stoppages were pretty memorable, especially the little shacks with gas along the ICW that had fresh seafood. Always love looking at fresh seafood, but I also had to catch fish too, after all, I was the fishmonger for the trip. Many of the stops provided about 10 minutes of fishing and I could usually catch a bluefish, spot or croaker. Sometimes, only crabs were taking the bait. On the third day we stopped in Charleston. Ahh, Charleston Harbor.
The trip was incredible, but what made it even more so, was the fact we were trying to outrun Tropical Storm Beryl by the end of day two. For the most part, we were ok, but Beryl’s winds caught us in Charleston Harbor. We took on a lot of water that day, with one of two memorable waves hitting us early on in the crossing of Charleston Harbor.
(Click here to go to a short video of the waves we encountered on Charleston Harbor. I didn't video tape the one wave that made us realize we finally were in the thick of the winds from Beryl, but it's a pretty stout see we were in for well over an hour -- Nice job getting us through it Capt. Chuck!)
Capt. Chuck was at the helm, keeping the boat and it’s passengers safe. It was on that day that I realized Capt. Chuck was a great Captain and a heck of a James Riverkeeper, although he did recently retire from that job. Speaking of Chuck, it was during these six days I realized what a special man he really is and I look forward to working with him in the future.
Day three was pretty interesting. Most of the trip was scenic, but we hit a dry spell in South Carolina. A wide, non-descript, muddy river was our route for a good portion of the morning. As we crossed a bay where a few rivers met, our route up the ICW took us under a long bridge. I thought to myself, “I sure hope we get to some scenic skinny water soon.” Once we crossed beneath the bridge, we were in the mouth of the Waccamaw River. WOW, did things change.
The Waccamaw started out with Cyprus trees along the bank about every 200 yards or so with thick forest about 400 or 500 yards off the bank. The further upriver we traveled, the canopy of the forest closed in and the Cyprus trees grew closer together. It was not long before we were in the midst of the thickest, greenest ecosystem yet. There were so many frogs chirping at night, bats, dragonflies and insect-eating birds that a mosquito, thankfully, didn’t have a chance. No one was bit, not once, all evening, night or morning. It was the perfect, mosquitoless anchorage in Bull Creek, a tributary off of the Waccamaw … a true retreat for the well bitten.
Day four brought us into North Carolina. It was the first time I was able to get out of the boat and fish. We stopped at Dick Bay in NC along the southern outer banks. Beautiful country to say the least. I ended up catching about 15 blues, spot, croaker, pinfish and sand perch. I gutted them all, and scaled them, cooking them whole for dinner. Along with a little shrimp, onions and a little seasoning, these 15 provided a fine meal. The highlight of the cooking of these smaller fish was this … when you fry up little fish like that, whole, their eyes pop out and enter into the mix. Everyone ate just about every bit, including 30 fish eyeballs. No one complained.
After a brief stop in Beaufort, we headed off towards the Alligator River and the Albemarle Sound, where the second of the two memorable waves hit us. With following seas and opposite current, the waves started to build about half way across this massive Sound. Gabe did a fine job at the helm, and the one wave that hit us, I happened to get a shot off the camera. The last one my trusty Canon G-9 may have ever taken.
Day five was wet. It started out at 4:3-5:00am with mosquitos hitting everyone. The winds died down, and the mosquitos worked their way to our boat. It was tough, so we started off about 5am, underway and making way. We saw storms working all around us. For days, we danced with tropical storm Beryl, but today, her rains caught up with us. Nothing but rain from about 6:30am, in a tributary on the northside of the Albemarle Sound, all the way into Virginia and into Smithfield Station, VA. At 3pm we arrived in Smithfield, soaking wet. Everyone grabbed a hotel room, a hot shower and a wonderful meal. At 11:30, with warm beds in a hotel room, we decided to leave the boat, as that is where we were hanging out all evening … somehow could not break away from her. It was a good time, no doubt.
Day six we left Smithfield, VA. It didn’t take too long to get into familiar territory, but it was very interesting seeing how wide the James River is in Newport News and Surry. It was my first trip up the James River from the mouth towards Jordan Point. We stopped a couple of miles short of our destination to toast the trip, the crew and the boat. We toasted to future opportunities on the James River, and toasted to a fine journey’s end. The toast was right at the 808-mile marker on the trip. By the time we entered the safe harbor of Jordan Point we reached 812 miles, but more importantly, a bald eagle flew over the boat as we reached our destination. We began with a sturgeon leaping and ended with an eagle flyover. Good stuff.
The Photo's Stories: Top right: Calm seas and a rising sun. That is how every morning started out. This looks like it was taken somewhere in South Carolina, perhaps in the Waccamaw River.
Middle right: Capt. Chuck Fredericson at the helm during the calmest of seas. Beautiful evening that was.
Lower left. The wave that hit us in Albemarle Sound. It was to be the last photo my trusty Canon G-9 would take on the trip. Gabe at the helm, and he did a materful job during the crossing of the Sound. We just hit this one brute of a wave.
This cam, run by The Center for Conservation Biology, is for research, but also for the public to view life in and directly around a bald eagle’s nest. Right now, the two eaglets are close to fledging (flying off the nest for the first time) and has everyone on the edge of their own nest rails, a buzz in the Eagle Cam viewers world.
If you have not spent time on the Eagle Cam, you should. Click here to link to the Eagle Cam. The moderated chat runs during the following hours: 8-10am, 12-1pm & 6-8pm. The video stream is up all the time.
When I first visited the online Eagle Cam in early February I watched a little bit here and there, marveling at the two parent eagles, Virginia & James. Nestorations (love that word), then the egg laying, then 35 days of incubation and finally the hatching. By the time the first egg hatched I was online chatting with the moderators and other chatters, learning something new about bald eagles every time.
Then came the drama of the two parents inability to find fish to feed their very young eaglets during a long, spring flood on the river. Not only was the river muddy and high, but the canal had very little flow due to some construction. This double whammy caused the parents to both leave the nest at times in search of food. Enough ‘fishless’ time went by that nearly everyone who watched the Eagle Cam, viewed it with high concern for the welfare of the eaglets. As it turned out, at the last hour, the parents were able to sustain their clutch. Talk about drama …. that visual of the youngest eaglet, named R-2 (for Richmond-2nd Eaglet) to hatch lying on its side on the base of the nest, nearly starved, when the Dad eagle flew in with a fish. Thinking the worst, to see that slight movement of R-2’s head in anticipation of a meal, was real emotional drama … wow.
Virginia, James, R-1 (first eaglet hatched) and R-2 are incredible to watch, but the best part of the Eagle Cam is the people on it. Chatters and moderators typing away with loads of great information and friendly talk. Everyone shares wonderful images, links, facts and videos along the way. My hat is off for the kindness of the moderators who bind us all on this journey together. The way they kept their hopes verbally up during the tensest moments of the visual journey. The incredible knowledge base they share about the lives and natural history of bald eagles. I have learned so much from them. Thank You, Richmond Eagle Cam moderators and the Center for Conservation Biology for something much needed in the Richmond area to bind so many to life along the James River. Long live the Richmond Eagle Cam (Virginia, James, R-1 and R-2 too!). -- Capt. Mike
The Photo's Story: No, this is not Virginia & James, but it's another of my favorite pair, Baba & Pops. Just don't have any images of the Eagle Cam pair, and I had to have an eagle photo, didn't I? -- Photo by Lynda Richardson
April 4, 2012. Dr. Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), spoke one of the greatest quotes about the James River bald eagles, summing the efforts of many great organizations. To quote Dr. Watts ... "No other place on the continent illustrates the recovery of the bald eagle population from DDT lows better than the James River."
And now, after months of preparation and coordination, “The Bald Eagles of the James River Exhibition” is set to open this Friday. The traveling exhibit of bald eagle images by 15 photographers is sponsored by Discover the James and will initially open at:
Richmond Camera Gallery
April 6, 2012. 5-8pm
The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) will receive $40 from each image sold. The CCB has been instrumental in the comeback of bald eagles on the James River. Everyone involved in this project believes it is vitally important to support the CCB and their conservation efforts. For more information on the CCB, click here. All Gallery Wrapped Images are available for sale, with a $295 price.
The opening is bound to be a good time, with lots of wonderful images of the James River's eagles. I hope you find time to make it. --Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories: Top Left: This is an image of the finest bald eagle on the James River, Bandit. This bird has been the star of the River for a few years now and she continues to dazzle. As her story is unfolds, it will soon be time to share her incredible history. --Photo by Bob Schamerhorn
Bottom Right: This is, I believe one of the oldest pairs of eagles in Jefferson's Reach. They have been there for as long as I can remember. Baba & Pops have had at least one chick the last few years. Their nest is easily seen on the Bald Eagle Tour, and it's always a pleasure to see how quickly their chicks grow. --Photo by Lynda Richardson
January 18, 2012. One of the best things about working on the river is truly the people I meet. I have met outstanding folks from all over the Commonwealth, and really, all over the U.S.A. What is easy to see is that there are scores of people who care deeply for the James River and preserving its heritage. Caring individuals from all parts, and folks from organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The James River Association, the Center for Conservation & Biology at William & Mary, Friends of the James River Park and the list goes on ... assure that the future of the James River is looking good. To learn more about the organizations, click the names to link to their website.
Getting back to my favorite part of working the river ... the people ... that is what I love most. You never know when a guest who steps onto the Discovery Barge II will knock your socks off with something they say, or have done, or in this case photograph. Otis Sowell recently stepped onto my boat for his first Eagle Tour and I hope it won't be his last. In early January 2012, he took a series of images of the Duke ... Bandit's new mate. Something about them hit me deep, especially the one to the left. These images knocked my socks off, they are some of the most wonderful images of a bald eagle on the James River.
A little about Otis ... he is a native of Charlottesville and currently lives in Fluvanna County, VA. Fascinated with nature, and especially birds, Otis states, "My favorite bird is the American Robin because it signals the arrival of spring and warm weather." A story he shared was from his childhood. When he was five or six years old, Otis asked his dad how to catch a robin so he could keep it as a pet. His father said, "All you have to do is sprinkle salt on it's tail and it won't fly away." Otis tried to sprinkle salt on a robin's tail just about all day when he realized he was not fast enough and could not get close enough ... no matter how hard he tried. His father kept at him stating, "Keep trying son", who was probably getting the biggest kick out of his son and the robins that day.
In the 1970's when Otis lived in Houston, TX with his wife, Wanda, he began to get serious about photography. Returning to his hometown in Charlottesville in 1980, he began photographing weddings, groups and portraits. He found photographing nature was his true love, and began 'focusing' on all things wild, but 'discovered' wild bird photography gave him the most satisfaction. At the advice of a good friend, "Just use your imagination", Otis took his photography another step further and began exploring deeper and creating images that satisfied his soul. The three images you see in this blog satisfy my soul. Thank you Otis!
To see more of Otis Sowell's work, go to www.OtisSowellPhotography.com
To see his series of Eagle images, click here.
The Photo's Story: Above Left, Middle Right, and Bottom Left: These images are wonderful. They are of an eagle that took the place of another bird in Bandit's life. The Duke became Bandit's new mate at some point in September of 2011. After Hurricane Irene took out the third of Bandit & Smokey's nest something happened and this bird worked it's way into the lives of Bandit & Smokey. Eventually Bandit chose the Duke over Smokey. The last time I saw Smokey was after a magnificent aerial chase and talon locking session between the two former mates ... then Bandit flew downriver towards the 295 Bridge, into the Eastern sunrise. -- All Photos by Otis Sowell
January 1, 2012. Today is the beginning of the New Year, 2012. I have to say a long morning on the James River, watching bald eagles is a pretty good start. One thing comes to mind after today’s journey on the river. The sheer difference in numbers of eagles this year versus last year in Jefferson’s Reach.
Here is an example of the difference …
Above, Left: Just after Virginia captured that fish, above, an immature bird flew into the area. It would be easy to say it was just a migratory bird, and it may have been. But the way the two mature eagles were acting (Virginia & James), this immature bird could have been one of their chicks from three years ago. Looking at this immature bird, you can see how the head seems to be starting to lighten up as the body is darkening, which is indicative of a bird in the three year, perhaps four year range. Bald Eagles take four to five years to become fully mature with the white head & tail, with dark brown body and wings. --Photo by Lynda Richardson
Now back to his photography of a particular bird. About two years ago, my wife took a photo of Bandit, the finest bald eagle on the James River. She captured a close, sharp image of the bird’s band, and we were able to get three numbers off the bird’s band. It took more than a year for someone else to start capturing images of the band where numbers were readable … and Dave was that guy. He took the band photography to a new level and was able to read seven of the eight total numbers off Bandit’s band.
The image to the right is one of a series of images taken by Dave that gave us clues to many of the numbers from the band. The key mistake we both made was thinking the number that looks like an obvious '6' in this shot was a '6'. Once we realized it was an '8' (from another photo), that gave us the last number that was needed to find out all about Banidt. And we found out a bunch.
It is with great pleasure that to highlight Dave Parrish’s work on my website. To see more of Dave’s wildlife photography, go to http://daveparrish.zenfolio.com/p1071367295.
The Photos Stories? Top Right: This was a "Photo of the Month" winner for Dave in one of Discover The James' newsletters. It is such a dramatic image that tells a story of a hunting osprey. Here it is flying with a fresh cuaght gizzard shad, probably shifting the catch to a head first position in order to maintain a flight pattern into a tree to begin to eat the head off. --Photo by Dave Parrish
Middle Left: Another great shot. Here an immagure bald eagle tries to grab a shad from the river, but upon close review of the photo, you can see it missed. They get their prey most of the time, but not always. I love the patterns of an immature eagle. No wonder they are the subject of so many artists. --Photo by Dave Parrish
Bottom Right: This is the image that really got the ball rolling for me in the search for Bandit's band numbers. For about a year, I had three numbers 6-2-9. Then Dave started to dial into the band and begin gathering the data needed to find out all about this wonderful bird. Bandit has an incredible story that is worthy of another post on the site ... coming soon. Thanks Dave, Lynda Richardson and Steve Baranoff (the photographers who ended up gathering all the numbers via their photos). --Photo by Dave Parrish