Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Where have all the heron gone?

by Nick Kotula, JRA Guest Contributor

Every year the swallows return to Capistrano.  Every winter the monarch butterfly returns to Mexico.  When a new iPhone comes out all of our old iPhones don’t work as well as they used to.  And at the beginning of spring the herons return to their nesting spot by Pipeline Rapids in Richmond, Virginia on the James River.  This is just how the world works.  Or so I thought.

You may or may not remember my reporting on the heronry (herons + rookery = heronry) in 2012 and again in 2013.  I’m not the only one who expected the return of these fantastic birds.  The City of Richmond has flags proclaiming the “Heron Rookery” and the James River Park System has signage explaining their mating and nesting habits at Pipeline Rapids.  Perhaps we were all na├»ve, because this year the herons did not return.

An active heronry in early February 2012.

Nothing but empty nests in late March of 2015.
I first went to check on the heronry in early February.  It was cold, and it had been even colder so I wrote off the lack of feathered friends as a wintry fluke.  Wouldn’t you have liked to stay south this winter?  Come the beginning of March, I began to have my doubts.  This week I went to check up one more time, and only found one solitary heron.

One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.
When not in mating mode, the heron is a solitary and territorial creature.  After an hour spent on the rocks and the pipe at the rapids, I had to conclude that this was this singular heron’s territory, and there would be no nesting here this year.  The Richmond-Times Dispatch had written a piece earlier in the month about this, but I wanted proof and I refused to give up hope.  But a heronry is not a fast endeavor.  Courting is a complex process, even for herons.  Much like humans the heron males has to display his manly feathers, dance the man dance of his people, and lock bills with his intended.  The males then spend weeks collecting the stickiest sticks that they can find, building the perfect nest they can and then watching as their intended completely shows them how everything they did was wrong and does it themselves.  And don’t even get me started on the mating!

The point is this all takes time.  If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not likely to happen.  Much like the Purple Martins (whose murmurations inspired a festival at the 17th Street Market in Richmond), the herons have found somewhere else to nest in 2015, and we may never really know why.

He's certainly not telling.
So what does this mean?  Well, on a positive note:  A heron with little heron mouths to feed typically consume about 4 times their body weight in fish per day.  Despite their large size, your typical heron only weighs about 5-6 lbs due to their hollow bones.  So that’s about 20 lbs of fish per day.  Adult shad weight between 3 to 8 lbs, for our purposes we’ll average this out at 6lbs.  That means every heron that is not here means an extra 3 (and some change) shad per day.  (The shad run through Pipeline was thought to be one of the primary reasons for the heronry, but they are known to eat other fish and also amphibians and even rodents!)  Multiply that 3 fish by the 100 or so herons that were usually there and you end up with a lot less competition for a lot more fish for those humans who enjoy that kind of thing.  (This all assumes that the herons are not nesting further downstream and catching them before they ever make their way to Pipeline.)  If the run is good again this year, fishermen should take delight.

And a good year for osprey!
Personally though, it just makes me sad.  The return of the herons was like seeing good friends who abandoned you for warmer climes during an absolutely miserable winter.  They were a sign of spring more potent to me than daffodils or tax forms.  While I’m glad to see one hunter holding down the fort (so to speak) I really hope next year sees a return of my winged brethren, otherwise those flags are going to look pretty daft.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Top 10 Apps for River Users by the James River Association's RiverRats

Many of us go out on the river or into the woods to get away from technology, but these days most of us take our Smartphone with us. Below are JRA’s RiverRats favorite apps that make their trip safe, educational, and fun!

  •  3D Compass: This App places a lat long and map on all pictures that you take and serves as a compass. Mike Easingwood, RiverRat
  •  Fishings Spots: Use this to let others do the work for you & know where the fishing holes are! Isaac Nolte, RiverRat
  • Google Earth: This is a website and an App. It allows you to scope out an area before your trip or to track where you are and get coordinates while you are out. Lynn Wilson and Isaac Nolte, RiverRats
  •  Pocket Ranger, Official VA State Parks GuideUse this to learn more about where you’re headed if it’s a State Park. Isaac Nolte and James C. Shaver, Jr., RiverRats
  • Sibley Birds: This is a great App to take out with you to identify birds. Lynn Wilson, RiverRat. Another option if you are looking for a great beginner bird id app for free, try out Merlin Bird ID. Just answer a few questions about the bird you are trying to identify and this App will give you some possible matches. James C. Chaver, Jr., RiverRat
  • Simple Tides: Great for paddling parts of the tidal James River watershed. This app allows you to view the tide chart and weather for your chosen location. Isaac Nolte, RiverRat
  • VA Tree ID:  The app includes information on over 900 woody plants in Virginia and also uses GPS to narrow down possible species for where you are located. James C. Chaver Jr., RiverRat
  • VA DGIF Hunt Fish VA: Use this to hopefully figure out the rules and regulations before you reel one in! Isaac Nolte, RiverRat
  •  Water Reporter: If you live anywhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this App allows you to report good and bad things you may see. Pat Calvert, Upper James Riverkeeper
  • Weather Channel: Simple weather App that lets you view hourly forecasts and radar. Lynn Wilson, RiverRat
If you want to browse other Apps that fellow outdoorsmen recommend, check out these links:

Monday, February 23, 2015

James River Association Calls for Swift Action on Heels of Proposed Consent Order against CSX

February 23, 2015

Today the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality proposed its consent order against CSX Transportation, Inc. for the April 30, 2014 train derailment and oil spill in Lynchburg, VA. The James River Association is pleased that this action will bring resolution to the enforcement case and hold CSX accountable for the pollution discharged to the James River. However, this action does nothing to prevent a future accident. Numerous key actions that could help prevent future derailments and oil spills remain unresolved at this point, specifically the National Transportation Safety Board study of the cause of the crash, the federal regulations on crude oil transport by rail and the Governor’s Rail Safety Taskforce. 

As the recent events in West Virginia show, waterways across the nation, including the James River, remain at risk. In a report issued by the US Department of Transportation, the federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if accidents occur in densely populated areas.  (The full US Department of Transportation Report is available here.) While the impacts of the Lynchburg train derailment fortunately were not severe, this report underscores the potential for future accidents and the much greater impacts to the environment and human life that could result.

“The James River continues to be at risk every day. Our state and federal government must take action before another derailment endangers our communities and our vital natural resources,” said Pat Calvert, Upper James Riverkeeper. “It is crucial that Governor McAuliffe’s Rail Safety Task Force issue recommendations improving safety on Virginia’s crude by rail lines. Additionally, we call on the White House to quickly complete their review of the new federal rail safety recommendations so that they may be rapidly implemented. The time for swift action is now.

Ryan Corrigan
Director of Marketing and Membership
(804) 788-8811, ext. 207 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

James River Association Responds to West Virginia Bakken Crude Oil Train Derailment  and Explosion on Kanawha River

February 17, 2015

Yesterday afternoon another freight train carrying over 100 cars of Bakken crude oil on its way to Yorktown, VA derailed in Fayette County, West Virginia, resulting in 25 derailed tank cars – 14 of these cars exploded and one spilled into the Kanawha River. The accident prompted an evacuation of a mile and a half radius around the derailment, and two water treatment plants were immediately closed to assess impacts to drinking water. The incident is similar to the Bakken crude oil train explosion and oil spill that occurred on the James River in Lynchburg on April 30, 2014, when 17 cars derailed and one ruptured spilling its contents into the river.

“This dangerous event could have happened on the James River again,” said Pat Calvert, Upper James Riverkeeper. “This is the same rail line that runs along hundreds of miles of the James River and through many population centers in Virginia. This is an alarming reminder that our river and communities continue to be at risk every day without stronger safety requirements for Bakken crude oil transport.”

Both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the U.S. Department of Transportation are considering new safety measures to address the risks posed to communities and the environment from the 4,000% increase in crude oil transport by railroads over the last five years. According to the rail carrier, CSX, both incidents involved the newer CPC 1232 train cars and not the older DOT 111 model that has been much of the focus of safety concerns.

“The James River Association believes that this incident further highlights the need for swift action by Governor McAuliffe’s Rail Safety Taskforce to issue recommendations improving safety on Virginia’s crude by rail lines,” said Adrienne Kotula, Policy Specialist for the James River Association. “Increased inspections of the lines carrying this highly volatile material are vital to the safety of Virginians and the James River – a key drinking water supply for millions.”

“We also urge the McAuliffe administration and Virginia’s congressional representatives to call on the White House to quickly complete their review of the new federal rail safety regulations so they may be rapidly implemented, Kotula continued. “We believe that immediate implementation of the strictest tank car standards proposed (Tank Car Option 1 in the proposed regulations) is the most prudent option given this recent incident and the similar derailment that occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia.”

Adrienne Kotula, Policy Specialist
James River Association
804-788-8811, ext. 206

Friday, February 13, 2015

Our River at Risk: Why Should I Be Concerned?

by Shawn Ralston, Program Director

In our last blog we spoke of the three incidents that occurred within the last year that serve as emphatic illustrations of the risks associated with toxic chemicals being transported and stored in the James River watershed.  But if we look back into history to 1976, the James River Association was formed by a group of concerned citizens living along the Lower James who witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of irresponsible disposal of Kepone that shut down fishing on the James River from 1975 to 1988. While the James River has resiliently rebounded from conservation efforts, recent events remind us that there are still significant risks that threaten the health of the river and the drinking supply for many.

The events that occurred in January 2014 in West Virginia are perhaps the most illustrative of how a toxic spill can personally affect us.  The spill was first noticed by residents who began smelling something different in the air.  Meanwhile, West Virginia American Water – the source of drinking water for 300,000 people including the capital city – had not picked up the chemical in their routine screening since it was not one that they routinely tested for. 

Shortly after the odor was reported, drinking water was deemed unsafe and residents were advised not to drink, bathe or cook with the water.  Area businesses and restaurants were forced to close and residents stood in long lines to purchase bottled water over the course of the next 5 days before water was ultimately declared safe to use.  

A year after the incident, many residents still will only allow their families to drink bottled water as the event from last year has diminished their confidence in the water flowing from their kitchen sink.  In order to protect the James River and the citizens who drink from it, the storage of toxic chemicals must be properly managed. Our River is at Risk.      

Stay tuned to learn more about the threats to the James River watershed and the specific goals of the “Our River at Risk” campaign. To take part in the campaign, please join our Action Network.

Friday, February 6, 2015

An Introduction to “Our River at Risk”

The James River on fire after the
April 30th train derailment.
In the fall of 2014, the James River Association launched a new campaign entitled “Our River at Risk.” This is the first in a series of blogs that will help educate our readers on the various aspects of the campaign and its goals.

On April 30, 2014, a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia. Three rail cars fell in to the James River. One caught fire and completely lost its contents, either by burning up or spilling into the river. 

On February 2, 2014 a stormwater pipe burst sending 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina.

On January 9, 2014 a chemical storage tank in Charleston, West Virginia leaked 10,000 gallons of a chemical into the Elk River shutting down access to drinking water for the capital city and nine surrounding counties.

These incidents served as a wake-up call for the James River Association – they are emphatic illustrations of the risks associated with toxic chemicals being transported and stored in the James River watershed.

We have learned from these events and want to take immediate action to protect public safety, the environment, the economy that the river supports and its recreational value.  Our safety requirements and procedures need to be up to date to address current threats and to prevent a crippling event from happening in the future. Now is the time to begin the conversation on how to protect our waterways and our citizens from the threats posed by the storage and transport of hazardous materials. “Our River at Risk” campaign is designed to achieve all of these goals.

Stay tuned to learn more about the threats to the James River watershed and the specific goals of the “Our River at Risk” campaign. To take part in the campaign, please join our Action Network.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Adopt a Duck Blind

By Craig Metcalfe, Lower James RiverRat, James City County

As a JRA RiverRat out on my Powhatan Creek and James River patrols, I have seen
numerous abandoned duck blinds. It has always bothered me that material from these blinds ends up in our waterways.  During the first Saturday in June, I support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s annual Clean the Bay Day, and along with other boaters, I help by collecting debris from the creek and river. A majority of the debris we collect is from duck blinds that are in disrepair. 

For years, I have been trying to find a way to track and report abandoned blinds. The problem is large enough in Virginia that in 2013, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law which stipulates that “those licensing stationary blinds in the public waters shall remove the blind when the licenses expire or when they no longer intend to use them, whichever occurs first.” This is step a in the right direction, but doesn’t address the issue of old unlicensed or abandoned blinds.

This fall I made contact with Sergeant Randy Hickman at the VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). After a brainstorming session, we proposed and settled on the following reporting system:
  • Find out of date or unlicensed blinds
  • Identify the body of water
  • Note the GPS coordinates
  • Take a picture of the blind
  • Record the date and time

Finally I sent the information to Sergeant Hickman, who ran a check on who owned the blinds.  Out of the five Powhatan Creek blinds reported, three were abandoned. The other two had renewed for the 2015 season and posted their licenses by November 1st, as required by law.

Knowing that we now have a process in place, I met with Jamie Brunkow, Lower James Riverkeeper.  We came to the conclusion that with the support from VA DGIF,  fellow Rats could follow the same process simply by including duck blind information in their patrol logs.

Now the interesting part, Jamie and I thought about removing the abandoned blinds, however, that would be very time consuming and a hassle to take the debris to a dump site.  We came up with the idea to reuse the abandoned blinds by posting a sign, created by the JRA RiverRats, giving information on how to “adopt” the blind.  This is a wonderful incentive to duck hunters looking for a place to hunt as they would only need to fix-up existing blinds, saving both time and money. The adoption and maintenance of existing blinds would cut down on the number of new blinds and prevent the risks of debris to boaters and improve the viewshed.

RiverRats looking for an Action Project may take part in the “Adpot a Blind” project by following Craig’s lead. Get more information from Jamie Brunkow, Lower James Riverkeeper (, or if you’re interested in becoming a RiverRat signup for one of JRA’s upcoming trainings.