Scores of great blue herons that nest in the James River in downtown Richmond are missing. The popular birds are either late in arriving, experts say, or they have moved elsewhere.
“People have adopted (the herons) as one of the attractions” of the city, said Anne Wright, director of outreach for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center and a frequent river visitor. “If they have left, it would sure be a loss.”
The gawky yet beautiful birds — about 4 feet tall, with 6-foot wingspans — typically return from their winter homes to an island near Shockoe Slip in late January or early February.
There, they court and strut, push sticks into their big nests and raise ravenous chicks, to the delight of fans who gather on a small beach at Pipeline Rapids.
By now, some herons normally occupy dozens of nests, while others fly in and out of the colony, or rookery. This year, that’s not happening.
“The birds have moved somewhere else,” said Ralph White, retired manager of the city’s James River Park. If any herons nest here this year, it will probably be just a few, White predicted.
Mike Wilson, a bird expert with the Center for Conservation Biology, part of VCU and the College of William and Mary, watched the empty nests Tuesday morning in a light rain.
Just 10 herons flew by over about two hours. None were courting.
Winter weather may have held most of the herons back, Wilson said. (February was Richmond’s coldest in 36 years). He said the birds could return in a few weeks.
“There are birds around,” Wilson said. “Things just seem to be delayed.”
Some years, more than 70 pairs of herons nested in the colony. No one knows for sure, but the herons probably came from eastern Virginia or perhaps as far away as South Carolina. The easy-to-watch rookery has been a hit because herons usually nest in more secluded places.
Heron rookeries do break up, with most or all of the birds moving elsewhere for reasons that aren’t clearly understood, Wilson said. That could be happening here, he said.
Jim Alexander, an IT consultant and nature lover who watches the herons from his condo along the James, doesn’t buy the cold-weather delay. Alexander said he has seen the herons nest “with snow, outrageous winds and down-pouring rain.”
“I’m pretty sure (the colony) is abandoned for the season,” Alexander said. “I have hopes it’s not abandoned permanently.”
If the herons are gone, that would follow the loss of another popular natural attraction — the arrival of small birds called purple martins that roosted by the thousands in Shockoe Bottom trees in late summer before migrating to the tropics.
Those birds even inspired a purple martin festival in the Bottom. Then, two summers ago, it all ended, with only a few birds showing up.
Here’s a twist: People first started noticing the martins in 2007 — the same year people noticed the herons.
There was no heron festival, but flag-like signs in the city tout the rookery. An educational sign with photos hangs near a viewing spot on the river’s north bank. White used to lead heron tours around Valentine’s Day.
Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, said he spotted 40 to 50 heron colonies during flights Saturday, Sunday and Monday to look for eagle nests along the James, Rappahannock and Chickahominy rivers.
“They are in all stages right now” with some herons on eggs and some colonies slow to get started, Watts said. Colonies can develop at different speeds in different years, he said.
“I think it’s too early to make a prediction yet” about the fate of the Richmond colony, Watts said. “Over the next couple of weeks, the tale will be told.”
PHOTOS: Great Blue Heron Playing With His Food
A glimpse at a Great Blue Heron playing with a fish at Pipeline Rapids in the James River Park in downtown Richmond, April 9, 2014. Waste of good food? Not big enough? Heron rarely waste motion, preferring to stand vigilantly still most of the time.