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Band of Birders: A Trip to Dutch Gap

Published on October 16, 2012 by

Ooh, jewelry!

It’s 7:30 on a chilly Saturday morning.  Most of the world is taking advantage of the weekend and sleeping in all nice and comfy under their warm blankets.  I, on the other hand, am heading down to a place called Dutch Gap to watch a group of LOONS catching birds and fitting them for bracelets.  Or is it anklets?  I’m not quite sure… either way, it’s a bunch of birds getting jewelry and acting none too happy about it.

So what is bird banding, and why do people do it?  Good question!  You hear all the time about how human activities are affecting the natural world, and this is a way to find out more about that.  Where are the birds?  What are they doing?  Where are they going?  How long do they live?  Since it’s really difficult to tell one bird from another, the only way that we have of distinguishing is by somehow marking the birds.  As part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program in cooperation with the US Department of the Interior, this group of volunteers heads out on a regular basis and sets up nets to safely catch the local flying fauna.  One of the places they do this is at Dutch Gap in Chesterfield County.

Does that mean I have a strange accent?

The Dutch Gap Conservation Area is 810 acres of woods and wetlands nestled against the James River, complete with it’s own heronry apparently.  (For those of you who are just joining us, a heronry is a rookery for Great Blue Herons.  It’s a word, despite what spellchecker says.  A rookery is where birds go to nest.)  It also hosts a protected lagoon that is perfect for kayaking around sunken tugboats.  Of course it is also immediately adjacent to a the coal-burning Dominion-Virginia Power Chesterfield Plant that was rated 36th in pollution in 2009.  (Hey, don’t take my word for it.)  So there’s that.  It wasn’t always that way though… (and to be fair, they do seem to be getting better)

Dutch Gap is and was immediately behind the Citie of Henricus, also known as Henricopolis, or just plaine olde Henrico.  The citie was built as an alternative to the swampy, mosquito infested colony of Jamestown and was cleverly named after the King’s son, Henry by Sir Thomas Dale.  The colony was built on a particularly bendy part of the James, and in order to save time in traveling the river Dale cut a ditch straight across.  He learned this technique when he was in Holland, so the cut was called Dale’s Dutch Gap.  During the Civil War the aggressors, I mean Union troops, started to expand the ditch to a canal utilizing help from the United States Colored Troops.

Speaking of colors…

Back to present day, and we have a demonstration of the process of banding birds!  Each bird is given a special bracelet with a number that is used only for that bird.  The number is recorded, the bird is weighed, and then the bird is released back into the wild to tell all of his or her friends and start a fashion trend.  As you can see, there were an awful lot of Northern Cardinals on this particular day.  I think they were all in town to vote for a new Pope.  Side note, most of the bands are made out of aluminum, but Cardinals have such strong beaks that they would just rip those right off so they get stainless steel.

As you can see, I can speak to the power of the Cardinal’s bite. She could have just flown away, but she just couldn’t let go!

If a pre-banded bird happens to be caught, the team records the information and can get a better idea of life-spans and how long they stick around in a particular habitat.  A bird that makes it beyond a year is doing well, and they have seen some that have been around for 4 years and more!

The Brown Thrasher, so named for their mad skateboard skillz.

It should go without saying that nothing they do to capture and band the birds hurt them in any way.  If the bird even appears to be upset or freaked out (beyond the normal, “Hey, I’m in a net!” kind of freaked out) they simply let them go on their way.  The health of the birds is more important than the data.  The jewelry also does not interfere with their flight, you won’t see any birds flying around in circles after being banded.  Unless they want to, of course.

I’m a Carolina Wren, and I approve this message.

I’d like to thank Chesterfield County, Julie Kacmarcik and the other volunteers who wake up early, chug Thermoses of coffee, and put ankle bracelets on tiny birds… for SCIENCE!  My visit was part of a Chesterfield County sponsored Demonstration Day, and I look forward to heading out again soon!  Next time, I will wear thicker socks and apparently stay until after everyone else leaves to see the good stuff!

All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.

Are there any other RVA locations you’ve been HERON about? I’m always excited to demonstrate my CARDINAL knowledge.  If you liked this article, remember that one good TERN deserves another!  And… I’m done.  Leave a comment or email me at nick@photorva.com!

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Last Call for Butterflies

Published on October 11, 2012 by

So finish your nectar and other liquids…

If you really think about it, they are one of the strangest creatures on Earth.  They start out with hundreds of little feet on worm-like bodies (except for the inch worm, which is missing most of it’s legs in the middle) that eat either a strict vegetarian diet or eat other bugs, they then wrap themselves in silk for anywhere from 2 weeks to months, and emerge as these weird colorful 6 legged creatures that can only consume liquids through their strange proboscis drinking straws.  Fun facts:  The butterfly’s proboscis comes out in two pieces which the butterfly then has to zip together.  And those 6 legs are good for more than just landing on things.  Each leg has taste receptors on the feet.

Some assembly required.

If you have not been to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens’ Butterflies LIVE!, you have one weekend left to do so.  Each year the gardens grow and house a variety of different butterflies and moths.  They occupy the area of the main greenhouse portion of the gardens, and fly around you as you walk through and gawk at all the colors.  The last day for the butterfly exhibit is October 14.

Lewis Ginter, namesake of the gardens. Courtesy Wikimedia.

The gardens themselves are named after Lewis Ginter (originally Lewis Guenther), a business-man, Civil War Veteran (are you beginning to sense a theme here about famous Richmonders?), and philanthropist from in the late 1800’s.  Ginter is another person (we learned about Cutshaw last time) who was instrumental in shaping what we now know as Richmond.  His name graces the Northside neighborhood of Ginter Park and he commissioned the design and construction of The Jefferson Hotel.  More importantly to our story, he created an amusement park in what is now Lakeside, which is where the Botanical Gardens are located.

But where’s the lake?

Many people who have lived in Lakeside for quite some time have no idea where the lake is that they are supposed to be to the side of.  It is actually part of Belmont Golf Course, the first formal (suit, tie, nice shoes…) golf course in the Richmond area.

But how do I get there?

Lakeside is currently not served very well by the public transit system.  In it’s day Ginter had the trolley line extended.  You used to be able to hop on a trolley in town and ride to the end of the line and visit the zoo and cycling club that Ginter had built.  Today, it’s best to hop in your car and drive out Boulevard/Hermitage/Lakeside Avenue.  (Seriously, why does it feel like every street in the Richmond area has 3 names?)

It puts the lotion on it’s skin…

The gardens are open from 9 – 5 and the cost of admission is $11 for adults and $7 for children.  The gardens are constantly changing with the seasons, and will soon be lit up for the holidays!  If you enjoy your visit, you should also consider becoming a member!

Neither Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens nor any members of the lepidoptera family have paid for this blog!

Are there any other RVA locations you want to know more about? Leave a comment or email me at nick@photorva.com!

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Who You Gonna Call?: At the New Pump House

Published on September 28, 2012 by

Invisible man sleeping in your bed? I scoff.

You know what makes me feel good? Ghost bustin’. And you know what else makes me feel good? The James River Park System. When a friend from the Center for Paranormal Research & Investivation (CPRI, www.virginiaghosts.com) mentioned that he was headed out to the Byrd Park Pumphouse at night I donned my camera bag (no proton pack) and headed out.

First a bit of history… The Byrd Park Pump House, or the New Pump House (as it is formally known), was built in 1882 and designed by one of the creators of modern day Richmond: Colonel Wilfred E. Cutshaw. Cutshaw matriculated (ooh BIG word!) from VMI in 1858 and taught mathematics and artillery tactics at Hampton Military Academy until the south seceded. He entered the Confederate Army as an engineer under Stonewall Jackson. Throughout the course of the war he was captured, released, captured, released, wounded, was deemed unfit for battle, went back out to battle anyway, was wounded again, promoted, and lost his right leg. (It’s just a flesh wound!) To add insult to injury (SPOILER ALERT!) the South wound up losing and he went back to teaching.

Courtesy of VMI. Crazy, huh?

He eventually returned to Richmond (he had participated in the Battle of Petersburg and was captured at Sailor’s Creek) where he served as City Engineer from 1873 until his death in 1907. He was responsible for planting trees along Richmond streets, constructing (not designing) what we now call Old City Hall (I have a whole rant about this, I’ll get into at another time), the Confederate Soldier Monument on Libby Hill, and numerous other structures in Richmond including the New Pump House. Cutshaw was both revolutionary and controversial for taking what would normally be a utilitarian and rather ugly structure and creating a Gothic Revival mini-castle complete with an upstairs ballroom. The Pump House was popular in its day. One could get dressed up in full Victorian regalia, climb aboard a flat bottomed boat, and take a leisurely trip to up the canal to the Pump House for an evening of dancing.

Back when going to a ballroom didn’t involve McDonald’s.

The building was replaced in 1924 and was replaced with a building that would do nothing except pump water. (BORING!) The machinery remained inside the old building until it was sold at the beginning of World War II for scrap. The historic building was slated for destruction in the 1950s, but those plans were quashed and ownership of the facility and the land it rests on eventually became part of the James River Park System. It is now being restored by a cadre of volunteers to (allegedly) be used as the HQ for the park.

The machinery is gone, but the water still comes in.

And… we’re back. The Pump House exterior is largely well preserved but the inside now stands in something between shambles and ruin. (James River Outdoor Coalition and Friends of the James River Park could use your help!) The building is not usually open for the public, and I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT TRY AND GET INTO THE PUMP HOUSE AT NIGHT WITHOUT AN INVITATION! Seriously, it’s locked and it’s illegal. Don’t do it.

Again, B&W makes everything scarier.

After an initial inspection, the lights were cut off and the crew went about setting up recording devices, infrared sensors, EMF detectors, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I’m not insanely familiar with. Regardless of how you feel about such matters (personally, I Want to Believe) being in a large room with the constant sound of running water and absolutely no light is a bit… creepy. While I didn’t catch any evidence of ghosts, ghouls, vampires, or Stay Puft Marshmallow Men I was able to capture some awesome images of the inside of one of Richmond’s neglected but historic buildings.

The night is dark and full of terrors. And the moon.

PS: Some of you may recall the strange affair of Robert Bess and the Pump House, a mystery never fully explained. (Cue the music.) My thoughts? Personally, I do not see how Tesla coils and a Dalek… I mean parabot have anything to do with legitimate science. (Though it does have a cool dragon on the side!) This video pretty much sums up my feelings. As I understand it, Bess is not in the best of health and has been unemployed for some time. While I wish him the best, I still can’t support his containment efforts. Everyone knows that a real trap is much smaller and is thrown underneath a ghost right before you cross the streams.

I have pretty lights too!

Are there any other RVA HAUNTS you want to know more about? Leave a comment or email me at nick@photorva.com! And remember, if someone asks you if you’re a God the answer is YES! I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts.

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Huguenot Flatwater

Published on September 18, 2012 by

It’s starting to get cooler in Richmond. Chlorophyll is just starting to disappear as the pigment of choice for our photosynthesizing friends. Students have returned to school. Our roads are once again filled with fixed gear bicycles, skinny jeans, and horn-rimmed glasses. Pumpkin flavored everything is making it’s way onto the market. It’s that time of the year when the 23.4° axial tilt sends us into a period of less light. Fall is almost upon us. There’s still time for some river fun.

Aquatic life still abounds in the James River.

We turn our attention to Huguenot Flatwater. First, let’s break down the name, starting with the easy part. It’s called Flatwater because, well, the water is flat. The large granite boulders that so dominate Pony Pasture on down are not nearly as prevalent at Huguenot, making for a much easier paddle. Huguenot is a little more complicated though.

Huguenot refers to members of the Protestant Church of France, followers of John Calvin (not the one with the stuffed tiger) and political leader Besançon Hugues. The Huguenots landed in Richmond in 1700 and established a colony in what is now Manakin-Sabot. Their descendants apparently still hold meetings as part of the Huguenot Society.

The place is just infested with wild Labradors!

Huguenot Flatwater is almost directly next to the Huguenot Bridge, which is currently being replaced. For one day, the bridge was closed to traffic and open to foot traffic. The new bridge is currently suffering from the same fate that most of the bridges in the Richmond area are experiencing, closings and delays due to constructions. Yay!

Canada Geese. There are ALWAYS Canada Geese.

Going upriver from Huguenot Flatwater will bring you to Bosher Dam. (Bosher Dam it! That was fun.) Bosher Dam replaced a previous dam that was designed on the site to catch fish as they swam upriver. Unlike a lot of dams Bosher is a weir dam. This means that when viewed from upstream it is somewhat difficult to see and has caused several injuries and fatalities. Approaching it from downstream is somewhat safer, but I still would not get too close. Surprisingly, the new dam (which was designed as part of the Kanawha Canal system) was not really any better for letting fish through. You can now see a fish ladder on the north bank that is designed to encourage breeding shad and other fish to it so that they can continue their journey to the upper-James.

Personally, I think it’s time to get rid of the dam thing.

Even in late summer you will still be treated to the varied wildlife of the James River. As we paddled upstream I saw an osprey circle, fold up his wings, and dive about 10 feet away from me. We also saw a bald eagle circling above. None of my shots of these guys panned out. (It’s hard shooting from a kayak and trying not to get swept downstream!)

I was able to catch this flying creature though.

As the autumnal winds begin to put a chill in the Richmond air and as the first leaves begin to fall, I will remind myself that summer will return. Until then, I’ll be having a pumpkin latte.

Life’s hard sometimes. Gosh, my leg looks hairy.

Are there other late summer explorations in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about? Leave a comment or email me at s: nick@photorva.com! Or send a tweet to me @PhotoRVA. I’m always up for exploring our area!

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Happy Birkenhead Day!

Published on September 13, 2012 by

I don’t have any photos for this, but I wanted to help bring back this colonial holiday.  It’s America’s Guy Fawkes Day, except without the creepy (read cool)  masks, super-hero, and cool rhyme.

Read more about the first attempt of indentured servants to become quickly un-indentured (couldn’t they have just taken their teeth out?) on Encyclopedia Virginia.

This is going to be bigger than Leap Day!

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From Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek: Getting the Last Few Drops of Summer

Published on September 5, 2012 by

Get ready to ride the pony!

Summer is quickly coming to a close, and as Ned Stark would remind you that means winter is coming.  So, let’s take a minute and squeeze every last drop out of summer that we possibly can! And what better way to milk the waning summer in Outside Magazine’s BEST RIVER TOWN than to get out on the James?!

Our trip begins at Pony Pasture Rapids, perhaps the biggest jewel in the James River Park System.  Why is it called Pony Pasture?  That is a great question, and I do not have an answer for you.  Try as I might, I cannot find a single resource explaining how the various different access points to the river were named.  Presumably, there were, at some point, ponies that were pastured in this area.  Who pastured them?  Could you ride them?  Were they nice ponies?  The world may never know.  I can report with 99.99% accuracy that there are currently no ponies at Pony Pasture.  There is, however, a place to put in your kayak or canoe.  (Or tube, or pool toy, or pretty much anything that floats presumably.)  The ramp itself was paid for entirely with money from recycling aluminum.  Now if the river-goers would follow this model and collect their PBR cans maybe we could fix some of our roads!

Paid for entirely by recycling aluminum. I’ve been giving the stuff away!

Be forewarned though, the adventure we are about to embark upon goes through some rapids.  They are normally right around Class II, and the trip is recommended for experienced paddlers.  You will be going through the following rapids in order: Pony Pasture, Powhite Ledges, Choo Choo, Cooper’s Riffle, and Mitchell’s Gut.  A great map can be found here.  (Though still no explanation of those rapid names.)

Pony Pasture itself is a wonderful place to come and hang out on the rocks, have a picnic, or just take a quick dip while the warm weather still allows it.  The area provides a variety of swimming options, from calm shallow pools, to faster moving water.  It’s really the perfect place to bring your kids/dogs/self and just have a relaxing day.  The parking area fits about 80 cars and it does tend to get crowded on weekends, so get there early.

On to the river!

Like a bridge over not-so-troubled waters…

One of the most impressive things that you will see on the trip, is the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge.  This giant concrete bridge was constructed in 1919 to replace the smaller steel bridge that used to exist.  All traffic from CSX travelling south crosses over this bridge.  If you look closely, you will also notice that there are trees and grass growing on the bridge, confirming (as always) Jurassic Park and that life  finds a way.

Now that’s a green bridge!

As we keep rolling down the river, you will start to hit some rapids.  I find that it is best to just grit your teeth, paddle furiously, and in the end just go wherever it is that the water is taking you.

The trip back upstream was a lot more difficult.

Honestly, the trip was probably just one notch over my comfort level, but it was nice to push it.  It was definitely a lot of fun and a great way to spend a late afternoon.

I egret nothing!

Taking pictures from a kayak can be a tricky thing.  Numerous times I found myself slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) drifting down the James while I had my eye glued to the little eye piece trying to get the perfect shot.  It’s really easy to lose yourself inside a camera.  Occasionally, move the camera away from your face and remind yourself to paddle.

I would like to thank this heron for his emotional support.

The trip came to an end for me at the Reedy Creek entrance/exit.  Reedy Creek is helpfully marked by a giant white sign, so it is impossible to miss.  If you are super adventurous, have the experience to handle Class III and IV rapids, and have enough daylight left you can continue on to the 17th Street take out. (Oooh!  I know how that one got it’s name!)  This would take you through First Break, Approach Rapids, Hollywood, Vepco Levee, Second Break (creative!), Southside, and my favorite: Pipeline.

They are either going for the big rapids, or they are going back upriver.

It’s nice to be back in RVA after a brief hiatus.  I’m looking forward to continuing to explore and share with you.

Are there other late summer explorations in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about?   Leave a comment or email me at s: nick@photorva.com!  Or send a tweet to me @PhotoRVA.  I’m always up for exploring our area, even when it makes me question my mortality!  (I’m being a bit dramatic.)

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Go Squirrels!

Published on September 3, 2012 by


Well, we lost.  But at least we did it spectacularly.

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Paw Paw Season has Arrived!

Published on August 21, 2012 by

I just wanted to throw a link out there to a nice article by my friends at Richmond Outside.  Prior to reading, I had no idea what a Paw Paw was, let alone that they are growing along the banks of the James!  You can read the article here: http://richmondoutside.com/2012/08/20/paw-paw-season-has-arrived/  We found a ton of them on the North Bank trail.  If you can find a ripe one (should give a bit, like a peach) I highly recommend you taste it.  (I never thought I would be telling someone to taste something they found along the banks of the James.)  Bananango (banana-mango) is completely accurate!  It also reminds me of the This American Life episode Road Trip.  Paw paw for Jesus!

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Duck It!: The Big Brothers Big Sisters 23rd Annual Duck Race

Published on August 14, 2012 by

We have Great Blue Herons that visit Downtown yearly to teach us about the birds and the… well… the birds.  We have royal murmerations of Purple Martins that make RVA a stop-over on the trip from Canada to Brazil.  We also have another winged visitor that arrives to the banks of the James every year.  We’re talking about ducks, dude.  Little, yellow, different ducks.

Some are larger than others… more cowduck!

Every year Big Brothers Big Sisters gathers a large group of people, hoists a large dumpster over the James River with a crane, dumps the contents of said container into the river, and celebrates!

Well, I never!

I am referring here to the 23rd Annual Duck Race.  The first duck to cross the finish line (they are contained to avoid any errant ducks making it out to the Bay) wins it’s owner a fabulous prize!  This year it was a Nissan Versa from Priority Nissan.  This was the first year the race was held at it’s new home in Rockett’s Landing.  Many people braved the rain to await the dropping of the ducks.  I found myself a comfy little pier about 30 feet above river level and anxiously awaited as other onlookers joined me and freaked me out by almost dropping to their watery demise through the not-so-well-kept pier.  (I’m talking to YOU guy who was taking pictures right next to me!)  The crowd started counting down…

Splash down!

I had 5 ducks in this race, and despite constant coaching and blatant cheating (fowl play!) none of my ducks made the cut.  I took them home and offered them a stern scolding as we sat down to review the game footage.  They say they will do better next year, we shall see.  Whether I won or not, all the proceeds went to a great cause and I hope Big Brothers Big Sisters raised everything they had expected, and more to help children realize their potential.

Get IN there, ducks! You’re not even trying!

Are there other charities or events in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about?   Leave a comment or email me at my new address: nick@photorva.com!  Or TWEET me @PhotoRVA.  I’m always up for exploring our area, even when it QUACKS me up!


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Title of Post Withheld for Comedic Value

Published on August 10, 2012 by

Every year they return.  They come by the thousands, and completely alter Richmond.  They change traffic patterns.  They stay up until all hours of the night making noise and annoying the locals.  They occupy prime real estate in the city.  They generally make a mess and have a certain smell about them.

I am referring, of course…  to the Purple Martins!  (Only slightly smellier than VCU students!)

They gather…

Richmond has the distinction of being a convenient layover for the largest swallow in all of North America.  These birds travel from as far north as Canada (eh?) as far south as Brazil.  Richmond is a nice place to stop on that journey and catch some local bugs at the James.

Getting closer…

This happens with such regularity, that the City of Richmond has done what the City of Richmond does for just about everything that happens with some regularity (watermelons are in season, let’s go stand in the middle of Carytown on the hottest day of the year!): created a festival!  If you happened to be in Shockoe Bottom last Saturday (August 4th) then you got to experience purple gelato, purple martinis, purple creole, purple kabobs, purple etouffee, you get the idea… everything was PURPLE!

Even closer…

So, why have a festival by the Farmer’s Market?  Well, as it turns out the Purple Martins have taken a particular liking to this area, especially the stand of Bartlett Pear trees.  Every evening around dusk from now until around the end of August.  Why do they enjoy these particular trees is anyone’s guess, but (as of last count) all ~19,500 of them seem to enjoy these close quarters!

The new owners of U-Krops should seriously consider sponsoring these guys.

One of the things that I love about birds is the plethora (triple word score!) of bird specific terms.  In learning about the Great Blue Herons of Pipeline Rapids for the James River Association, I learned that a grouping of herons is a siege.  A flock of crows is a murder, and swans come in wedges, but I could not find anything specifically relating to Purple Martins.  SO, I am going to make my own!  A group of swallows (which, as mentioned earlier, Purple Martins are) is called a flight.  Since these particular swallows are purple, and purple is a color of royalty, I recommend that we call a group of Purple Martins a royal flight!  Or, when they come together in such huge numbers as this and get all smoke monster from Lost I think they should be called a royal murmuration!  Go forth and use these terms!

Finally they have circled enough and head into the trees.

Or have they? Something spooked them and they hit the abort button.

Hawks and Peregrine Falcons (the fastest members of the animal kingdom live right here in Richmond!) take advantage of the royal murmuration and swoop in for a free dinner.  The swallows are ready for this and take back to the air, circling more.  By slowly descending and then suddenly (they are fast) taking to the trees they are able to keep an eye out for predators and then confuse them at the last minute until they reach the safety of the branches.  Still, a family outing may involve explaining to little Timmy the birds and the… well… the birds.  There will be blood (maybe).

If one in the hand is worth two in the bush, how much are two in a tree worth?

If you have not done so, I highly recommend heading down to the 17th Street Farmers Market and seeing this awesome sight.  As the light grows dim and they start taking  to the trees at high speeds, photography becomes a difficult business.  It’s difficult to properly convey the feeling and noise (and smell) of almost 20,000 birds swooping above your head and turning the trees into a living, breathing mass of Progne subis.  To learn more about the birds, check out The Purple Martin Conservation Association website.  (Side note, they are based out of my family’s hometown of Erie, PA!  I’ll have to stop by the next time I go  up for my pepperoni ball fix!  Drooool…)


Is there anything in RVA YOU want to see and learn more about?   Leave a comment or email me at my new address: nick@photorva.com!  Or TWEET me @PhotoRVA.  I’m always up for exploring our area, even when it requires an umbrella and a car wash after!


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