2012-04-25 / Family

Wildlife refuge in the James to offer special access

By Rich Griset

Cyrus Brame, site manager for Presquile Island, steers a boat to Presquile Island. 
Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer/ June 2011 Cyrus Brame, site manager for Presquile Island, steers a boat to Presquile Island. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer/ June 2011 Presquile National Wildlife Refuge has its fair share of rare animals, but two weeks ago the island saw one of its rarest visitors yet: humans.

Created in 1953, the island refuge’s primary function is to help preserve the natural habitat of the area. The refuge in the James River isn’t regularly open to the public.

“We don’t want to open it up like a park,” said Cyrus Brame, wildlife refuge specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The purpose of the refuge is to serve as a sanctuary for migrating birds.”

Bald eagles, waterfowl, prothonotary warblers and osprey are just some of the visiting animals that call Presquile home. Earlier this month, 17 volunteers hopped aboard a pontoon boat and crossed the James to get to the island. The volunteers engaged in activities like weed whacking, painting and digging.

“You never know what you’re going to do when you come out here,” said Darcy Davies who lives near Chester. Davies came with her 16-year-old son Brian, and tries to get back to the island every chance she can. “I like the volunteer work, I like being outside, and Cyrus is great.”

Bon Air resident Len Ziegler worked to stake and support trees that volunteers planted in 2006.

“I helped plant some of these trees,” Ziegler said. “Volunteering is my mission in life. It’s what I do.”

The island wasn’t always so secluded, and originally wasn’t even an island. Before the 1930s, the area was a peninsula. Native Americans used the wildlife-rich land for untold generations. The peninsula was owned in the 1600s by colonist William Randolph, whose descendants include Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Robert E. Lee. Union troops used the peninsula as a key observation point during the Civil War.

To make a quicker journey up and down the river, in the 1930s a section of land known as the Turkey Island Cut was taken out. This saved ships from having to go six miles out of their way around the end of the peninsula. Later, Dr. A.D. Williams owned a dairy farm on the premises. When he died in 1952, he turned the land over to the government.

One of the island’s more recent endeavors has been to use the Turkey Island Cut as part of an effort to rehabilitate the endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Two years ago, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Center teamed up with the James River Association, Luck Stone Corp. and Vulcan Materials Co. to create an artificial sturgeon spawning reef. Now the Rice Center is monitoring the population at the cut, and at another artificial reef in the James.

Work is now under way at Presquile National Wildlife Refuge to renovate an old building for use as a discovery center for visitors. While the refuge isn’t regularly open to the public, there are a handful of public days coming up with limited availability, including one on April 27 and three trips in May. The April 27 event will be a pontoon boat tour around Shirley Plantation and the refuge with an optional nature hike.

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