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Posted In: Birding, James River

Shad, herons and the circle of life at the Pipeline

Chris Johnson

April 15, 2014 1:08pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Johnson has been a longtime friend of RichmondOutside.com. We’ve featured his photos here since we revamped and re-launched back in the fall. A local physician and Collegiate School grad, he spends a lot of time outdoors photographing Richmond’s natural beauty. The other day he went back to the Pipeline to check out the heron activity and came back with this report. This is the second in an occasional series from Johnson.

I went back down to the Pipeline a few days ago not knowing what to expect. The weather was warm and sunny, and I was hopeful to have some good light to capture more heron photos.

A heron flies from its perch at the Pipeline. Credit: Chris Johnson

A heron flies from its perch at the Pipeline. Credit: Chris Johnson

As expected, the river was even higher than the week before, and the water was moving pretty fast. I didn’t know what this would mean for the herons in terms of fishing. The overall activity level was still high — very similar to last week — with lots of herons flying to and from the nests and down to the water.

There’s a little spot on the north bank of the Pipeline where I’ve had good luck watching and photographing the herons catch fish. When I initially showed up, there weren’t any herons in this particular area, but within 5 or 10 minutes three of them staked out their territory.

I guess I’ve never paid much attention to the river in great detail this time of year, but the number of fish I could see with my naked eye (as well as through a telephoto lens) was unreal. It was hard to tell exactly what kind of fish I was seeing, but they all seemed to have the shape of shad. I must have watched two dozen go right by a heron sitting on a rock on the bank of the river. At times he seemed oblivious to the fish, and at other times he seemed to be eyeing in on them and acted like he was going to make some moves to catch a few.

Despite sitting and watching the same heron for close to an hour, he never really made a move and ended up flying off. At one point I literally saw fish bump into his legs once he moved down into the water. I couldn’t believe he didn’t go after them! Either the herons are really picky when it comes to eating, really blind, or eat so well that they don’t need to catch fish every opportunity they can.

Fishing, heron-style. Credit: Chris Johnson

Fishing, heron-style. Credit: Chris Johnson

One of the herons a little farther back did end up catching a shad, which he gulped down whole in about 15 seconds. Unfortunately he was behind some reeds, so I wasn’t able to get any great shots of him.

One interesting behavior I’ve noticed the past two times I’ve been on the Pipeline is similar to a story I read online by Phil Riggan: I’ve seen heron catch a fish, drop it back into the water, poke at it with their beaks, put it back in their mouths, drop it back, poke more and continue this cycle for several minutes. Each time I’ve seen it, the heron never actually eats the fish. I don’t know enough about their eating behavior to know how this is beneficial and not just totally mean-spirited.

As before, I saw lots of foot traffic, which is great for a weekday downtown. I ran into three other photographers, three joggers, two fishermen and probably half-dozen folks taking a stroll on their lunch break.

A heron with a shad at the Pipeline. Credit: Chris Johnson

A heron with a shad at the Pipeline. Credit: Chris Johnson


About Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson is a Richmond native and local physician who spends much of his free time photographing the area's natural beauty. Find him on Instagram at @vintage_RVA


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