RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's one of the Richmond area's best kept secrets -- the great blue heron rookery in the James River in downtown and right now is the best time to visit.
Come on down to the Pipeline Rapids and see something you can only see in a few places in the world. These majestic birds going through an elaborate courtship ritual.
"This is a unique experience for anyone in any setting, and lo and behold, this one is in an urban setting," said James River Park manager Ralph White. "You don't see birds like this in urban settings, they're usually afraid of people."
This island is close to people, but we can't get there easily. So the birds tolerate our prying eyes as they pair off and mate.
The draw for the herons is the cleanliness of the river and the plentiful fish. It wasn't always this way. But the fish are back, and they are bringing the birds with them. And right now, love is in the air.
"There's this very interesting quintessentially male behavior where the bird, or the male flies away, picks up a stick, about as thick as a pencil and maybe this long, and ceremoniously brings it back to the female and puts it in the nest and she looks at him, fluffs here feathers, reaches over, picks it up, and puts it where it's supposed to go…and the poor males never learn it and they always do it over and over and over again," White said.
If you visit, you'll see 40 pairs of herons carefully building their nests and laying their eggs. The island's trees don't have leaves yet-giving a perfect view for birdwatchers.
Those eggs will hatch in April and then you'll be able to see the parents feeding their children. They grow up fast though and by later in the spring, when the leaves come out, these teenage herons will fly on their own to the river's edge.
"The parents abandon them at this point, in their teenage years, babies are kind of walking around and being cool, and waiting to be fed, the parents don't feed them, and so they begin to learn as they work in groups fishing along the shoreline," White said.
By the end of June or early July, the groups break up and the herons spread out across the state for the summer. But they'll likely be back next year, enjoying their prime downtown real estate.
White had advice on a few items you don't want to forget. "Most important thing is bring a pair of binoculars or a good strong telephoto lens on your camera," he said.
There is a small parking area with a three hour limit that is easily accessible from south 12th and Byrd streets. Follow the signs to the Pipeline Rapids Walkway, and enjoy this hidden treasure right here in our capital city.