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Herons return to island near Shockoe Slip

Herons return to island near Shockoe Slip

Big birds breed on an island in the James near Shockoe Slip

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of winter stops them.

Mail carriers? No — Richmond’s great blue herons.

Dozens of the gawky yet elegant birds have returned to their nests on a James River island within walking distance of Shockoe Slip.

“The whole cycle is starting again, for sure,” said Mike Wilson, a biologist with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.

The birds fly in each winter to their rookery, or breeding colony, on the island. The herons are claiming their spots now, and they will either fix up old nests or build new ones, Wilson said.

About two dozen pairs were in the colony Sunday afternoon. Some courted, some worked on their nests, and others just stood in the trees.

The gray-and-blue herons are about 4 feet tall, with 6-foot wingspans.

Visitors can spot the herons from the Pipeline Rapids footbridge, between 12 th and 14th streets. Binoculars help.

The herons and their big nests of sticks are easy to see in winter and early spring because the trees holding the nests are leafless.

The best viewing will probably begin in two or three weeks, after more herons arrive by the scores. You can see the birds well into summer.

Like bald eagles, herons breed in winter. That means the hatching of the herons’ hungry chicks will coincide with the spring eruption of food such as frogs and migrating fish.

The herons probably spend their months away from Richmond spread out across eastern Virginia or North Carolina.

The colony was a first for the city when bird watchers came across it in 2007. There were only about two dozen nests then.

Jim Alexander, who watches the herons from his condo along the James, said a couple of birds showed up in late December but that courting began just this past weekend.

During courtship, the birds flash their elegant plumes, and males fly in with sticks for the females to add to their nests.

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