DTJ Update #1

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 06/17/2013 - 12:19

June 17, 2013.  It's been an amazing spring on the James River.  Plenty of activity.  All the eaglets have fledged in Jefferson's Reach.  As of today, I believe there are at least six new eagles flying around Jefferson's Reach.  There are still two of the five pair of resident bald eagles that could still have additional eaglets that have not come out to the river's edge yet. Bandit, unfortunately does not have any offspring again.  At eight years of age, she has had four breeding seasons with no success ... 

Maybe next year.

There are great blue heron adults and young of the year at the river's edge ... hunting for fish.  I'm also starting to notice a few new territorial heron on the river. There will never be a heron like Chuck, but it sure would be great to find another one or two to learn from.  Osprey contiue to increase.  There are at least four new opsrey nests in the between Hatcher Island and Presquile Island.  

Seeing a few red fox, white-tailed deer and owls lately too.  They are always welcome to see.  Finding new kingfisher holes along the banks, and the miner bees returned about three weeks ago .... also found along the bluffs on the river ... by the thousands.  

Also continue to meet and see plenty of great people on the river.  Most are just viewed from the boat and are in all types of different vessels.  Big boats, little boats. Kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards.  Even a few homemade canoe/sailing vessels.    

Lastly, I have to say one of my favorite moments was to see the first eaglet in Jefferson's Reach fledge.  She flew from the nest on June 3, 2013 and her name is Lanie. The river is magical.  --Capt. Mike 

Photo Credit:  Lanie, the first fledged eaglet of Jefferson's Reach, by Alan Polishuk.

Late Winter: James River Bald Eagle Report

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 02/12/2013 - 12:33

February 2013

Since December, the James River's resident bald eagles have been busy preparing their nests for their breeding season. Observing eight pair of resident bald eagles over the last four years has given me a general knowledge of their their annual life cycle, and a base to grow and learn from them.  Five of these resident pair live in an area known as Jefferson’s Reach.
A "pair of resident eagles" means a male and a female eagle have bonded and created a territory large enough to offer the basic needs of a pair. This includes trees big enough to build a nest and hunting grounds to include the river and land. A resident pair of eagles will remain in their territory 365 days a year, until death or until one or both are replaced by other eagles. One territory … one pair of bald eagles … and very protective of their space, which originally took fighting with other eagles to create and define boundaires. 
In the resident eagle world, winter time means its breeding season. By now, early February, they are done constructing and repairing their nests, the process is often called "nestoration" the bald eagle community. Both male and female are active in nest building but the male does most of the gathering of branches. They often construct their nests in pine trees, but oaks and sycamores are also used. They generally build in the upper section of large, sturdy trees, most often around the trunk but occasionally on the outer branches. Nest materials such as branches sticks are put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle until the nest is formed. Grasses and pine needles are placed in the bottom to create a soft bottom, where a bowl, is built to help the eagles incubate their eggs. The typical width of an eagles nest is about six feet.
Who knows where they get all of that wood, but open fields, and sticks floating in the river can certainly act as eagle lumber yards. I once saw an eagle perched on the large branch of a dead tree. It started to flap its wings but kept its talons grasped on the branch and all the folks on the boat and i wondered what in the world it was doing? Moments later, we heard a loud, "SNAP" as the branch broke and the eagle flew away with it, straigh to the nest. 
The only way to verify an eagle pair has an egg (or eggs) is to see one incubating it's clutch on the nest. Most of the nests are not visible from the river, so relying on the number of eagles you see can give you an idea if they are on eggs or not.  When observing a territory, and only one eagle is present for a number of days in a row, it’s a safe bet the mate is sitting on eggs. As of early February, just a couple territories had one bird visible at any one time, meaning they probably have laid eggs. A few territories had both eagles visible, off the nest, meaning they had yet to lay eggs.
Over the last three years, four out of the five pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach have hatched eggs and fledged young eagles.  Only one territory has not had a successful breeding season … Bandit (female) has not hatched an egg yet. My hope remains very high that Bandit and her new mate, the Duke, will hatch their a clutch of eggs.  Long story short, Bandit is an eight-year-old bald eagle and has not yet been successful in breeding and last year she did something unusual, she changed mates. Two years ago she was close, but a pair of intruding eagles came in and crushed her eggs in late February. These intruders were probably in the process of trying to take over Bandit’s territory.  
I remain hopeful 2013 will be the year for Bandit & the Duke, although they still have not laid eggs.  I’ll post on my Facebook page with updates on Bandit.  Here’s hoping for a successful year Bandit!
Photo Credits ...  Top right:  Always on guard for intruders, this pair of eagles is sitting on the nest. Both male and female are present and looking downriver towards something in particular, perhaps another eagle. --Photo by Judy Self.
Middle left: Bandit snatches a gizzard shad from the river. This photo was taken on Febrary 3, 2013 and her mate was perched on a tree nearby. With both male and female visable, they have yet to lay eggs. --Photo by Martin Evans

Bottom right:  Moments after Bandit snagged the fish from the river, she flew to one of her favorite perches, landed and began to eat. With the fish clamped against the wood with her powerful talons, using her sharp beak, she ripped the shad piece by peice, eating the entire fish. --Photo by Martin Evans



September, 2012

The James River offers up its secrets at odd times, but to discover one, you have to be out there. At any moment of any month, an event can happen that becomes so special it can change someone's life. Spending time on the tidal James during the month of September can be absolutely extraordinary ... even life changing … for the month of September has become ‘Sturgeon Watching’ season. 

You don’t need to be in a boat, but you do need a clear view of the river from the shoreline. And if you are really lucky, sometimes, for real excitement, go out onto a bridge in downtown Richmond … really.

This story started with a phone call.  I was on the tidal James about 16 miles downriver of Richmond, near the Varina-Enon Bridge when I received a call from Chris Hull. Chris, a former president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, excitedly screamed, “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 then thought, “Why not!”  Could they be reaching their historic breeding grounds at the fall line of the James River in downtown Richmond? Had they been and no one had seen them until now? A fall line is the area where a river turns from free flowing to tidal (where the oceanic tide effects a river). On the James, the fall line is located in downtown Richmond at a point 240 miles downstream from it’s headwaters in Iron Gate, VA, and 100 miles upstream from the Chesapeake Bay.

The next evening, my wife, Lynda and I took a ride down to the Mayo Bridge about five in the evening, roughly the same time 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 crystal clear 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 our 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 excited at the thought of seeing a sturgeon. We met and talked for a while, enjoying the evening sun, beautiful river, and 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 and surprised. I saw something unexpected … a six-foot, prehistoric fish in the fall line of the James River directly below me and I yelled, “STURGEON!” Everyone on the bridge reeled to the side and peered over to share in the historic return of the Atlantic sturgeon to Richmond. 

Ralph, Cricket, Lynda, the cameraman and I all watched as the sturgeon swam upriver, turned and swam downriver back under the bridge and out of our sight. Two seconds later, anothe sturgeon swam out of the darkness of the bridge and into the light of the shallow clear water. In that short sequence a special memory was burned into my peabrain that will last a lifetime. Wow.

Lynda snapped images from her camera and captured a wonderful picture 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 as we kept a look out for more sturgeon over the next hour. I had to ask Ralph why he has such a curious, huge, unfliching smile on his face and his answer was one I will remember forever. 

With that curious smile continuing on his face, Ralph recalled and shared a memory 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 you hire me, I pledge wo work until sturgeon return 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 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, as 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.

--Capt. Mike


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.

--Capt. Mike

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.

The Future of the James Looks Bright

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 05/22/2012 - 10:10


May 22, 2012. Another spring season on the river, gone. And the upcoming summer season, just around the corner. For this river guide, the month of May becomes a good time to take a breath, reflect on the spring and prepare for the sunny, hot summer. As I think about the 2012 year thus far, I can’t help but think the future is looking bright for the James River.
Why do I think this? An exciting new opportunity is coming to the upper, tidal James. The James River Association has purchased a new 40’ pontoon boat and it is coming to the area very soon. With a 35-passenger capacity, this vessel is going to offer larger groups a chance to come out and experience the incomparable James River. This opportunity (and boat) is huge!  
Another exciting addition to the James this spring has been the new Richmond Eagle Cam, enlightening people around the world to the story of the bald eagle on the James River. The Eagle Cam is focused on two mature, resident bald eagles, named Virginia & James, who have called the City of Richmond home for more than ten years. Virginia laid two eggs in the nest, the first on Feb. 8 and the second on Feb. 11. Together, they share the responsibilities of eagle parenthood.

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