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Cameras record the often hidden lives of wildlife

March 10, 2015

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James River Park is a great place to play, picnic and hang out.

And that’s just for the animals.

Unbeknownst to visitors to the mostly wooded, roughly 600-acre park, creatures big and small enjoy a largely hidden life nearby.

“It’s mind-boggling how many different animals live in or move through that park,” said Virginia Commonwealth University biologist Anne Wright.

Wright knows. As producer of the Science in the Park website, she leads an effort to document the park’s wild denizens using hidden video cameras and footage taken by parkgoers. The project began last spring.

Creatures caught on video, often at night, include river otters with youngsters, a beaver chowing down, a muskrat with furlike hair highlights, a deer with fawns — even some rarely glimpsed mink.

“This is telling everybody: Hey, the park looks like nobody’s there, but that’s probably because you’re running and screaming and jumping around. …It’s hard to see animals,” Wright said.

The Science in the Park website is a section within the Friends of James River Park site. The science site is an effort of VCU, the Friends group and the city park, among others.

Launched in 2013, Science in the Park delves into the park’s geology, plants and other natural attractions. To document the park’s wildlife, Wright worked with volunteers and some paid helpers funded through a corporate grant. They lashed six cameras to trees in hard-to-spot places near footprints, animal trails and slick spots where otters had slid into water.

One inspiration for the project, Wright said, was a report from paddler Scott Anderson that he was seeing otters — sleek and playful animals spotted in the James before, but not often.

Anderson said by phone that he saw otters three or four times this past summer while he was paddling around sunrise between the Huguenot Bridge and Pony Pasture Rapids in South Richmond.

Once, Anderson and a friend paddled alongside an otter family — “probably three adults and maybe two babies” — then followed the animals when they hopped up on land.

“We were checking them out, and they were checking us out. It was real cool, because they weren’t scared. They were just like, ’What are these people doing up here?’”

Anderson worked with Wright to put a camera near the site, and the otters were captured on video.

The park is a system of mostly wild lands in and along the James. It is the region’s biggest attraction, drawing each year more than 1 million walkers, paddlers, swimmers and others.

Wright, outreach director for VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, has been visiting the James in Richmond for 40 years.

She said she was shocked to find “an absolute wildlife corridor” on an island near Reedy Creek in South Richmond. A camera recorded otters, a ground hog, a muskrat, raccoons, deer, a beaver, a red fox and a chipmunk.

Probably the biggest surprise of the project was the finding of mink, a member of the weasel family that can spray like a skunk and purr like a cat. Mink showed up at Pipeline Rapids near Shockoe Slip and near Reedy Creek.

Wright didn’t want to be specific about the places animals were found, for fear that people might disturb them.

To see wildlife, she said, “you kind of have to become a nature lover. Get a pair of binoculars.”

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Wright said she wants to recruit local “eyes and ears” to report wildlife sightings.

Three nature walks will groom people for that effort. The first will be held May 16 from 9 a.m. to noon, starting with a talk at the park’s headquarters at Reedy Creek. Local naturalist Paul Bedell will lead the program.

As Wright checked some of the wildlife videos in her darkened VCU office, it was clear she adored her subjects. “There he is, that little goober,” she said while viewing a groundhog waddling to the river. Watching a fawn, she said, “What a cutie, going after Mom.”

The project shows the health of the James and the value of the park as a wildlife habitat, Wright said.

Should park visitors worry about sharing space with animals?

“I would say you would be extremely lucky if you came across any one of these animals, except for a great blue heron or a Canada goose,” Wright said. “Be glad. Whip your camera out.”

The wildlife project will continue, Wright said, as long as it continues to be interesting.

“I haven’t caught coyote, which I think we do have in the park,” she said. “I still think there are some things to find out.”

She added, “It would be cool to get a bear. …If deer can move around, so can bear.”

We can only hope.

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