Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Ducks along the Indian River

Bufflehead duck - (c) Rogard Ross
With the recent snow and ice melting along the Indian River, I went out for walk in these days leading up to Christmas.  I soon spotted iconic Bufflehead diving ducks all along the river.  These beautiful little ducks seem perfectly designed for a snowy winter day, their black and white markings providing excellent camouflage along snowy banks. Here and there you see them in groups of two or three, or just one alone.  Every few minutes they'll disappear as they dive deep hunting the river bottom for crustaceans and mollusks.

In the days when Captain John Smith explored the waters around Hampton Roads, he found a rich natural world.  The river bottoms were lush with underwater grasses and teeming with creatures that feed these diving ducks.  Four centuries of development have taken their toll - first intensive agriculture and then, in the past century, rapid urban and suburban development.  Sediment runoff and over-fertilization have turned the once deep, crystal clear waters into shallow and muddy channels.  The underwater grasses and oysters have suffered greatly from choking sediment and algae, disease, and over-harvesting.

Yet, life in the rivers hangs on.  Every fall, hundreds of thousands of birds migrate along the Atlantic Flyway from their nesting grounds in the northern US and Canada to points south.  Most will stop in and around the Chesapeake Bay to feed and refuel and tens of thousands of birds will stay to spend the winter. Mallards have proven very adaptable and done well in a suburban world.  On a recent canoe trip on the Indian River, their count quickly topped 100.  The Bufflehead diving duck, while not as common as mallards, are still a frequent sight on the rivers around Hampton Roads.

What can you do to help preserve and improve the environment around us?  One of the greatest problems for our waters today is over-fertilization: too much nitrogen and phosphorous is entering the water causing algae growth that clouds the water and blocks sunlight. The simplest thing most all us can do is reducing the amount of fertilizer used on lawns.  After that, extra steps we can take include: reducing the size of our lawns, replacing grass with native ground cover plants and installing rain gardens to capture rain run-off slowing erosion.  You can also support efforts like those of the Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  Most of all, get out there and enjoy the rivers.  One pair of nice sites I've discovered close to the Elizabeth is at Great Bridge Lock Park and across the river Bells Mill Park.  Happy Holidays.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Autumn on the Indian River

Cordgrass in the upper Indian River.
- (c) Rogard Ross
Went canoeing on Indian River a few days ago and was pleasantly surprised by the natural diversity of the area. A tributary of the Elizabeth River, this estuary is in the City of Chesapeake just outside of Norfolk. Starting at the Indian River Road Bridge, we paddled south a couple of miles to the upper tidal reach of the waterway. The river is bordered on both sides by a mature suburb first established at the start of the 20th century. The early part of the trip included lots of backyards some bordered by native Black Needle Rush grasses and the occasional stand of phragmites. Gulls, including Herring Gulls, congregated around the piers while Cormorants and several Great Blue Herons patrolled.

Soon we came to the first large stand of Cordgrass near the mouth of a small side stream and then the upper third of the estuary is filled with vibrant Cordgrass, and with it hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds. As the waterway narrowed into an undulated path through these tall grasses, dozens of Mallards appeared around nearly every curve. We also spied several Kingfishers, more Great Blue Herons, Cardinals, and Chickadees. Overhead we spotted a Red-tailed Hawk and at least one Osprey that hadn't gone south yet. As the river narrowed and the homes closed in, Phragmites again dominated the final stretch and on a large lawn we discovered a flock of Canadian Geese.

Reversing course, we headed home before the sun set, again passing the whole aviary of birds finding sustenance and home along this small jewel of a river.

Monday, November 8, 2010

History of the Indian River Area

The Indian River is a small tidal estuary river flowing into the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. Located in the City of Chesapeake, it is wedged between Norfolk to the north and west and Virginia Beach to the east. Native people have lived in the general area for 10,000 years. By the time the Jamestown colonist arrived only a small tribe remained in the area, aptly named Chesepiooc or Chesapeake, numbering perhaps 350; by a census in 1669, none remained. For the next two and a half centuries, the area along Indian River was rural, home to planters, farmers and watermen working the Elizabeth River. 

Providence Road, which skirts just south of the Indian River estuary was established by the early 1800's and can be seen on a map from 1822.   The longer bridge and road over the Indian River exists by 1887 and was known as the Princess Anne Shell Road connecting Norfolk and Princess Anne Courthouse - the county seat of what will someday become the city of Virginia Beach. It was a "Shell Road" because it was paved with leftover oyster shells from the then abundant oyster houses that lined the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The area was obviously rural with small farms stretching away from the Norfolk and the then independent town of Berkeley. In the memoirs of Al Philips who moved to a farm in the area as a boy 1909, the Shell Road "consisted of a foundation of great quantities of oyster shells and its surface was very rough like coarse corduroy. Shell Road extended from the Norfolk County Line, past the Shumadine farm, our farm, and eastward across Providence Road at Thompson's Corner, all the way to Kempsville Road. The daily wagon traffic over many years had ground the shells fine."

Development started to pick up in the second decade of the 1900's. By this time the pollution of the Eastern Branch was wiping out the oyster industry and the last of the oyster houses closed. The main road was soon repaved in gravel and renamed Indian River Road. The Norfolk Highlands School - which continues today as the Norfolk Highlands Primary School - was established in 1913 along with the grid outline of streets that now graces this early suburb of Norfolk.

Development continued through the 20th century as Indian River Road morphed into a 6 lane thoroughfare busy with shopping centers and businesses serving both the local community and commuters on their way to the factories and shipyards along the Elizabeth River. The neighborhood has a diversity of housing, from century old architecture to recent in-fill, from affordable apartment complexes to pricey waterfront properties. The population has proven to be quite stable over the past several censuses as the community matured.

In recent years the community has lost a few of its businesses to the growth of the nearby malls. The 2007 shutdown of the Ford manufacturing plant a few miles down the road has also impacted business - from lunch spots to the league play at the bowling alley. But now the old Ford property has been sold to Jacoby Development, which plans to turn it into the "Virginia Renaissance Center" - a mixed-use industrial project with an emphasis on alternative energy products and technology.

© Rogard Ross 2010

-Chesapeake Indian History
- Historical Maps of Virginia
- Alison Phillips' Farm Life Memoirs 1910-1935
- Staff and Community Promote 85 Years of Learning Excellence at Norfolk Highlands
- In Ford's wake along Indian River Road
- Ford razes buildings at plant before finalizing sale

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I'm just moving into the Indian River neighborhood of Chesapeake, Virginia and decided to start this blog to share my discoveries about the area. My goals include discussing the character of the area, the latest news, and things to do. Its stuff I'm interested in and perhaps others would be too. Feedback from whomever comes across this page is very welcome.