On the James River, glimpsing bald eagles
Mike Ostrander pilots his six-person pontoon boat down a five-mile stretch of the James River, known as Jefferson’s Reach. Passengers first see osprey, and soon after Captain Mike points to eagle chicks’ heads peering over the edge of a nest.
“There are two great blue heron rookeries at one spot near Jones Neck. One I can see, and one not, as it’s on an island hidden by trees,” said Ostrander, who owns Discover the James, a river tour company.
“In September, as I ease into the main channel, we may catch a glimpse of a six-foot sturgeon jumping out of the water. Sometimes really close to the boat.“
“Like a torpedo,” his wife Lynda Richardson, a wildlife photographer, interjected. Then both of them talk about the comeback that sturgeon — along with bald eagles — have made in the area.
Richardson, now art director for Virginia Wildlife magazine, has taken photos of animals around the world — from lions in Botswana, to black-bellied whistling ducks in El Salvador.
A natural attraction
Richardson and Ostrander are passionate about their respective careers but agree, as she states on her website — “Everyone starts out as a novice.”
They might say the same thing about marriage, as theirs is the second marriage for both of them. That means they’re no longer neophytes.
“We’re more patient, understanding [now],” Mike said recently. “We have a deeper appreciation for what we have. We’re not worried about what we don’t have.”
To the casual listener, they embody traits — such as occasionally finishing one another’s sentences — that reflect the 15 years they’ve been married. Indeed, they have much in common.
With degrees in art, his from Old Dominion University and hers from the University of Mary Washington, they each discovered black-and-white photography on their own time.
Richardson started “stringing” (freelancing) for the Associated Press in the early 1980s, covering “everything from the legislature to sporting events, famous personalities to protests,” she said. “I used my weekend for nature and wildlife photography.”
Ostrander, who moved to Richmond in 1995 after what he called “a dead-end job” in Norfolk, said he “fell in love with” the James River. His day job was working for Richmond Camera, but he became a volunteer fishing instructor for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) in a program for instructing those who wanted to teach fishing.
“I was becoming a guide before I knew it,” he said. He taught fishing classes for parents and kids, and went wade fishing at Pony Pasture park on the James every chance he got.
“I enjoyed the bluegill fishing as well as the flathead catfishing, and got my start as a guide running flathead catfish trips from a raft.
“When I started fishing in the lower James, I began noticing bald eagles and other wildlife. Ann Skalski at DGIF used to say to me, ‘There’s more to fishing than just catching fish.’
“She was right. It’s all about where you are — the sunrise, the history, as well as the wildlife.”
Launching a business
One day when he was thinking out loud that he should give up everything else to start his own business, a friend challenged him by asking, “So what’s standing in your way?”
“I decided to go for it,” Ostrander said. “The name ‘James River Fishing School’ came to mind — and that was sort of a business plan in the name.”
He eventually became “Captain Mike,” running his raft, a small jon boat and his 24-foot pontoon boat Discovery Barge II. He named the latter after the 30-foot shallop, Discovery Barge, which was in the Susan Constant’s hull when the three 1607 ships of the English Virginia Company landed at Cape Henry.
Ostrander started his company in 2007, the year of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary. He offers bald eagle tours, fishing trips, and tours that explore Civil War history on the James.
Personally, he enjoys watching the changing seasons on the river. “In May, a population of summer migratory bald eagles from the south arrives and is gone by September. In mid-November, a population we call ‘winter migratory eagles’ arrives from the north and stays into February,” he noted.
He introduced a recent tour to 13-year-old female eagle, “Bandit,” named for the band around one of her legs. Ostrander explained she was banded by the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., before the organization released her into the wild as a three-month-old. She’s the only banded eagle on the James.
Many of the other resident eagles have names such as James, Virginia, Trey and Varina. Sometimes Ostrander can ease the boat near a tree on which “Bandit” is perched. A listener can tell that this captain — given the “River Hero Award” by the Friends of the James River Park in 2011 — never tires of life on the river.
“Eagles’ wings look different every time,” he said, “depending on the cloud cover, the sun under the wings.”
Sixteen years after starting Discover the James tours, his public tours are regularly booked, and the number of private-tour bookings is increasing. He does a few Civil War tours each year, and those fill up months in advance.
His bald eagle tours run March through December. He takes a break in January and February, as that’s the eagles’ nesting time. “He likes to give them some privacy to do their thing,” Richardson said with a wink.
When asked which of his tours is her favorite, Richardson replied, “Every tour is different. Mike customizes it to the particular day, the people on the tour, and what’s happening on the river at any given time. He’s an eagle specialist without having a degree in it.”
Capturing wildlife on camera
Richardson herself is a wildlife specialist and photographer, without a degree in either.
It took her four years of freelancing and building her portfolio to break into national magazines and organizations such as Smithsonian, National Wildlife and International Wildlife magazines, the Nature Conservancy and the National Geographic Society.
She traveled to Africa, Central and South America, Cuba and throughout the United States on assignments, shooting everything from archaeology, news, sports and university life, to her specialty — endangered species, environmental issues, nature and wildlife.
Like Ostrander, Richardson has been an instructor and speaker as well. In part that’s because freelance photography has become an especially difficult livelihood in the past decade.
“My long-time editors were retiring, and new editors came on, bringing their own stable of photographers,” she explained. “I took a job teaching commercial photography and digital arts at the Chesterfield Technical Center, which still allowed time for freelancing during the summers. It was fun, as I love teaching, but my real love was working with, or for, magazines.”
Then she became aware of an opening at DGIF for the position of art director of Virginia Wildlife, the agency’s award-winning monthly magazine.
“I had done a lot of shooting for Virginia Wildlife and had helped the agency in other ways — running their photography contest and writing the photo-tips column, both of which I started. So it was a perfect fit.”
Does she miss the exotic travels? “Yeah — big time! — but my body might not be up to carrying all of that heavy photographic stuff the way I did years ago,” she said. “I’ll have to travel on my vacation time.”
Her most unusual travel memories include the good and the bad. The former covers watching mosquito larvae hatch in her photo blind while she waited for black-bellied whistling ducks during a shoot in El Salvador. The latter, from experiencing excruciating itching as diatomic crab larvae burrowed into her legs while she was standing thigh-high in a Honduran mangrove swamp.
“Every trip was an adventure,” she said. “Crawling so close to an African elephant that I could touch if I wanted to is memorable — but my guide said the animal thought we were warthogs and wouldn’t hurt us. I was personally insulted that it would think I was a warthog!
“You have to learn to look for some things — like cobras, which will crawl through the moisture under your tent at night in search of toads,” she added.
Cobra patrol was routine in her visit to Ruaha Park in southern Botswana. But she said her most unusual travel memory is from that same trip, walking (downwind so the animals couldn’t catch her scent) up to a pride of lions enjoying their fresh kill.
“If you’ve never heard a lion roar in the wild….It vibrates your ribs.”
The lions weren’t roaring at her — they didn’t know she was there — but at hyenas, which had come to share in the feast.
Unfortunately, Richardson turned out to be too close to the lion — his face bloody from the kill — to get any good images, because the camera lens she had on was a 500mm Canon telephoto.
“And the hyenas didn’t do me any favors by driving the lions away from the carcass. I walked slowly back to the vehicle while keeping an eye on the lion.”
Ostrander jokes that his idea of exotic travel is “southwest Virginia.” They’ll be headed there to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this month.
“The South Holston River in Tennessee, just over the Virginia line, is neat,” Richardson said. “I’m planning some underwater photography there.”
It’s no surprise they met in person over a fishing line, after Ostrander had called her about judging a photography contest for him at Richmond Camera. In the course of the conversation, he asked if she’d like to go fishing that Friday afternoon.
She’d fished for everything else, but never for catfish. He took several rods out to the middle of the James River in Pony Pasture and gave one a throw for her. When he handed her the line, he looked at his watch and told her to expect a bite in about 10 seconds. “And I had a bite at exactly that moment!” Richardson exclaimed.
Fifteen years later, they might not be sharing a fishing line, but they do enjoy sharing the images from photos they take on trips together.
Art comes back into play. “Beautiful dawns on the river,” Ostrander said, musing over scenes like those pictured on his website. “The James River is my palette.”
Learn more about Ostrander’s tours at http://www.discoverthejames.com or by calling (804) 938-2350.
See some of Richardson’s work at http://www.lyndarichardson.com.