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129. Pipeline Rapids, Richmond, Virginia

In Downtown Richmond, walk along a catwalk atop a water pipe to see one of the only urban Great Blue Heron rookeries in the country.

I hear the Great Blue Herons before I see them. An early-morning squawking announces their presence. They vie for space in nests perched in trees on islands in the middle of the James River, their gray-blue feathers backlit by the rising sun.

Their nesting site here on the Pipeline Rapids is one of the only urban rookeries in the country. The first herons showed up in 2003. The rookery started with one nest, then grew to four, and now numbers 40 or more.

The herons have the best feeding place on the 348-mile-long river. Shad and river herring arrive in spring to spawn, schooling at the beginning of the rapids. The site provides good pickings, and a great place for a rookery. The birds can almost fall out of their nests and go fishing.

Many birders and other outdoors enthusiasts make the unusual trek to see them, taking a catwalk atop a water pipe to the best viewing spot. It’s only a few blocks through downtown Richmond to the Virginia Capitol. But to stand here and watch the beauty of a river teeming with life, it feels like another world. 

129. Pipeline Rapids, Richmond, Virginia


The Pipeline Rapids is a rocky eighth-of-a-mile stretch of the James River in downtown Richmond. From north- or southbound I-95, merge onto the Downtown Expy. and exit onto Canal St. Turn left onto S. 10th St. and take the next left onto Byrd St. Drive two blocks, make a slight right at S. 12th St., and park in the lot for the Floodwall Observation Tower.

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At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
37°31’57.05″N 77°26’7.86″W


River, rocky and sandy shorelines.


Mostly flat. Not wheelchair-accessible.


Great Blue Herons: courting, building nests (late February through mid-March), feeding young (mid-April through mid-May), and fishing (most obvious during peak of herring and shad migration in mid-April, also in mid-May, when young herons form temporary feeding groups). Other birds: Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, Turkey and Black Vultures, Laughing, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Barn and Tree Swallows, Chimney Swift, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Carolina Chickadee.

When to go

Late February through mid-May.


Saturday morning guided tours offered by James River Park in coordination with Richmond Audubon Society.


City park. Open daylight hours. To view rookery, walk the dirt path that parallels the floodwall for the equivalent of one block to wooden steps and descend a short metal ladder that leads down to a catwalk. It is located beneath train tracks and sits atop a large pipe. Follow catwalk about 100 yards to a sandy island that’s level with the pipe. Slip under the railing and walk to the water’s edge. The treetop nests are straight ahead across a 200-foot-wide channel of the river.


Bring a spotting scope. Wear a light jacket because it’s breezier and cooler along the river’s edge than up near the parking lot.

For more info

James River Park
Great Blue Heron Rookery Project

Sites nearby

Belle Isle
Seven blocks west of Pipeline Rapids at Tredegar St. and S. 5th St. Access is by pedestrian footbridge. Gulls, warblers, Osprey, hawks, towhees, kingfishers, sparrows.

The Wetlands
About six miles west of Pipeline Rapids at the end of Landria Dr. Ducks, hawks, gulls, kingfishers, woodpeckers, warblers.

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Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas

Cheryl Lyn Dybas is an ecologist and science journalist and a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers. She often writes about birds and their habitats. Her work has appeared in such publications as Canadian Geographic, Ocean Geographic, Scientific American, and BBC Wildlife. She has been a featured speaker on science journalism and conservation biology, and serves on the committees of several international scientific societies.

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