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The natural areas along the James River provide a sanctuary for a wide variety of wildlife species. Bald eagles, otters, and osprey and even a heron rookery are unexpected treats in an urban environment. The river has sturgeon over 6 feet long and blue catfish that weigh over 50 pounds.
The best viewing for aquatic birds is along the Flood Wall during April and May. Migrating spring warblers are best viewed from the 42nd St. entrance. Stand on the bridge across the railroad tracks and you’ll truly have a bird’s-eye view of the birds.
In the summer, the rocks are abundant with ducks, geese and Great Blue Herons. A heron rookery has hatched downtown across from the Pipeline/ Trestle Trail, accessible from the end of S. 12th St (read about it in the RTD). In the winter, watch bufflehead ducks frolic in the frigid river. Learn about guided walks and other events from our friends at Richmond Audubon Society.
Fish catching, fish watching, fish stocking ... you can participate in all of it. Look for fish nests at the mouth of Reedy Creek. Mating garfish can be found at the eastern end of Belle Isle. Or have your kids put Yellow Perch and Fathead Minnows into the Quarry Pond on Belle Isle on the last Saturday in June every year. To get a fish’s eye view of the world, a trip to Maymont’s Nature and Visitor Center will get you eye level with the array of fish that swim in the James in Richmond. Interested anglers may want to visit Things to Do, Go Fish!
Spring and summer are the times to look for snakes, turtles and lizards. They are plentiful. River Cooters bask on the rocks and Brown Watersnakes are common along the shoreline in late spring and summer. Listen to the Peepers and Chorus Frogs sing at the Wetlands in early spring or hear the toads sing during the warm rains of summer. Lizards bask on the stone steps around Park Headquarters in the summer. Riverside Drive near the Pony Pasture is closed to automobiles on rainy nights in late winter for the protection of mating Spotted Salamanders.
These bottom dwellers hatch and live under water for most of their lives -- 6 months to 2 years. They come out of the water, shed their skins and become winged adults that breathe air. These live only a few days or weeks, long enough to mate and lay eggs in the water. At night, the small water-dwelling nymphs and larvae feed on algae (and on each other) on top of submerged rocks. During the day, they hide from fish under rocks. That’s why fish feed best at dawn and dusk.
Mammals are shy. It’s easier to see the signs of many of the mammals common to the park than to see the animal itself. Look for paw prints in the mud, stumps cut by beavers, den holes for woodchucks and foxes. Muskrats are sometimes seen swimming in the shallow channels between islands. Beavers swim at night and deer can sometimes be seen in the early morning.
There are two basic habitats in the James River Park: low, next to the river, and higher, away from the river. These can be subdivided into sunny, open areas or shady, forest areas. You might see the distinctive green fruit of Paw-Paw trees and you’ll definitely come upon poison ivy, so stay clear of that. Leaves of three; let them be.
The snapping turtle may well be the largest turtle species in the Richmond area and the most dangerous. Females usually leave their watery habitat to lay their eggs. Large ones, like this one, can potentially inflict considerable damage to fingers or toes if threatened. Bottom line: look but don’t touch.
James River Search & Find
Check out the Richmond Times Dispatch interactive feature, See, Hear and Name the Animals. Pull out those virtual binoculars!