Sitting under a shelter at Henricus Historical Park, John Coe needed only his ears to know that a Carolina wren, a white-eyed vireo and a great crested flycatcher were all nearby. The veteran bird-watcher and naturalist for Chesterfield County often goes hiking to find birds. But staying in one place, as Coe did for about half an hour before hearing the songs and calls of these three birds, can pay off as well.
Sitting under a shelter at Henricus Historical Park, John Coe needed only his ears to know that a Carolina wren, a white-eyed vireo and a great crested flycatcher were all nearby.
The veteran bird-watcher and naturalist for Chesterfield County often goes hiking to find birds. But staying in one place, as Coe did for about half an hour before hearing the songs and calls of these three birds, can pay off as well.
"Go somewhere and sit. Birds come to you," he said. "You could sit here and get 20, 30 birds just by sitting quietly."
I was skeptical that enjoying the outdoors and seeing wildlife could be that easy. Then two cardinals came so close to our shelter that even I, a birding novice, could identify them. In that moment, I discovered that strenuous exercise was not always required to enjoy Richmond's parks and outdoor attractions.
So much of life takes place inside - school and work, chores, playing video games, surfing the Internet - that the simplest way to feel like you're on vacation is to do the opposite and get OUT.
In addition to low-impact bird-watching, couch potatoes can enjoy the outdoors through walking tours, visits to Henrico County's Three Lakes Park and Chesterfield's Citie of Henricus, or a camping trip to Pocahontas State Park.
Where you choose to go depends on what type of experience you're looking for.
Birding, as it's called, has been gaining popularity in recent years as a way to experience nature without harming it.
Coe, a dedicated member of the Richmond Audubon Society for the past 15 years, loved the outdoors long before bird-watching became his passion.
"It's a natural thing to want to learn more about, not only birds, but other critters you come across," he said.
There are about 300 species of birds that can be spotted in Virginia, Coe said. The best times of the year to look for birds are the fall and the spring, during migration.
It takes just a few supplies to get started: a guidebook, a pair of binoculars and some patience.
It also takes an eye for detail to identify birds by sight. With time and experience - and a few CDs - birders can learn to identify birds by their songs and calls, as Coe did at Henricus.
Jerry Uhlman, who wrote the Richmond Audubon Society's guide to birding in Richmond, recommends that first-time birders try it in the company of an experienced bird-watcher.
"Rather than struggling with a field guide, it's better to have someone with you," Uhlman said. "If you go with someone, you'll know what you're seeing."
The Audubon Society and some of the local birding stores hold field trips that anyone can attend to get started. If you can't wait for the next one, there are places to go where it's easy to find birds on your own, Uhlman said.
He recommends Dutch Gap, the conservation area that surrounds Henricus Historical Park, and the Reedy Creek area of Richmond's James River Park System. Both of these areas have varied habitats that make them desirable homes for a large number of birds.
"As long as there's cover and water, a mixture of brush and trees, you're going to find birds," Uhlman said.
In fact, the best place to start birding is in your own back yard, according to both Uhlman and Coe.
"It gets you enthusiastic," said Coe. "They're your resident birds, and they're there year-round. When you see a bird you don't know, it will encourage you to get a field guide."
Walking tours abound in Richmond, particularly those showcasing historic areas such as Monument Avenue, Church Hill, Forest Hill and the canal.
But to experience wildlife and plant life along with a history of life in Richmond, try the walking tours for Hollywood Cemetery and the Flood Wall.
Guides from the Valentine Richmond History Center lead the 1?-hour walks at Hollywood. This is the best way to experience the cemetery, as walking allows close looks at the gravestones, flowers and trees that make Hollywood beautiful.
Hollywood was created in 1850, and more than 70,000 people are buried there. The park-like cemetery, which now covers 135 acres, was named for its numerous holly trees.
E.L. Butterworth, the guide for my tour, called the cemetery an "outdoor museum," and he was right.
The monuments at Hollywood tell the stories of the people buried there and the time period during which they died. The symbols on the gravestones, such as urns, mirrors and marks of different fraternal orders, were popular during different eras.
Butterworth guided us to the graves of the famous - such as President James Monroe, writer Douglas Southall Freeman and oceanographer Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury - and the not-so-famous. And each one came with a story.
There are a lot of hills in Hollywood Cemetery, but Butterworth spared us from the worst of them. We also stopped to talk many times along the way, which made the walk even easier.
The Flood Wall
The Flood Wall walking tour, held monthly by the Old Dominion Railroad Museum, also involves hills, although they are less steep than those at Hollywood.
My two-hour tour, led by guide Dick Hogan, took my group along the southern portion of the Flood Wall, flanking the Mayo Bridge.
Hogan peppered our tour with railroad history, but also thoroughly explained the link between the James River and the city's history, and pointed out wildlife. We also learned how the Flood Wall works.
Walking along the top of the Flood Wall provided the best view of the Richmond skyline I've seen on foot. And it was thrilling to see great blue herons and hawks along the way.
The walk goes through some fairly bug-filled areas, so bring along some insect spray. Regardless of the biting flies, I was able to gain a new appreciation for the James River and its role in Richmond's history.
The 1611 Citie of Henricus
The James River was also instrumental in the creation of the Citie of Henricus, the second settlement in the Virginia Colony.
In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale traveled upriver from Jamestown to find a site for a settlement run by the London Company. He chose this Chesterfield County site because it was high on the bluffs, which provided security from a river attack and made it a healthier place than the swamps at Jamestown.
The citie became the home of the first hospital in the New World. Pocahontas was baptized here, and John Rolfe successfully introduced tobacco to Virginia here as well.
Henricus survived only until 1622, when the Indians of the Powhatan Confederation attacked British settlements along the river. In the meantime, it was a successful colony, and settlers there were the first in the country to own private land.
Today, the Citie of Henricus is being re-created as a living history museum. While the entire site won't be finished until 2007, there are already several buildings and gardens where costumed interpreters go about their daily chores.
"It's a very visitor-friendly, active site," said Walter K. Heyer, executive director of the Henricus Foundation, which runs the park. "We provide a very hands-on, interactive experience."
Visitors to Henricus can help make dugout canoes, weave, cook, gather eggs from the park's resident chickens and help in the herb garden. They can also help build the park's structures, by applying wattle and daub to the walls.
A visit to Henricus is as much about nature as it is about history, as the site is tucked into the Dutch Gap Conservation Area. The citie itself is home to huge trees and singing birds, and the bluffs provide a beautiful view of the James.
"Every time you turn a corner, there's something new and exciting," said Heyer.
Three Lakes Park
The James River doesn't reach Three Lakes Park and Nature Center in Henrico County, but water is a significant part of this lovely area.
The three lakes here were created when I-95 was built, when the area was mined for materials with which to build the road. Now the lakes are home to tur- tles, fish and other wildlife, and there's a nature center that features one of the largest outdoor aquariums in the state.
"We try to highlight the unique reptiles, fish and amphibians of Virginia," said site manager Tom Thorp. "We try to educate about the unique animals right around here that may need, or do need, our protection."
The nature center is home to lots of snakes and turtles, as well as frogs, newts and crayfish. The 50,000-gallon aquarium, which can be viewed from inside the center or from the deck outside, is filled with the six types of fish that live in the lakes.
The nature center's exhibits are geared for kids, but adults can learn from them as well. For example, the bird display includes an audio portion, where you can listen to bird calls and the noises of other animals that live in the area.
There's also a garden near the nature center that's used primarily for the center's programs. Created by assistant site manager Bekky Monroe, the garden is home to many insects and can be easily accessed by those who are physically impaired.
Outside, each of the park's lakes has a walking trail around its circumference. Two of the three lakes are stocked with catfish, and fishing is allowed here.
Don't be surprised to see deer, beavers, otters, minks, turkeys or foxes while walking the trails. The lakes and surrounding wetlands are an attractive home for many animals.
"The length of time you spend here depends on your interest in the area," Thorp said. "You could spend all day, or half an hour."
Pocahontas State Park
With 7,691 acres, Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County is the largest of all the Richmond-area parks.
The park's two lakes, a pond, three dams, camping and picnic areas, a museum, 58 miles of trails and a killer water-park area ensure that every visitor will find something to do here.
Canoes, paddleboats and rowboats are available to rent, or visitors can bring their own watercraft.
"We try to cater to everybody," said assistant park manager Dan Quesenberry.
The park was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. That legacy is preserved at the C.C.C. Museum, which is housed in one of the building built by the corps.
The most popular thing to do here is hit the trails, Quesenberry said. Bikes are allowed on all of the trails, and horses are allowed on most of them. Or visitors just use good, old-fashioned shoe leather to enjoy the park.
But don't plan to see everything in one day. It takes three days to see all of the trails, Quesenberry said.
While it's easy enough to spend the day at Pocahontas, taking the time to camp here will make the experience complete. Both tents and recreational vehicles are allowed at the sites, and campers get free admission to the pool.
The pool area reopened in 2003 after a year of renovations, and the designers have created a water park where several small pools used to be.
There are still traditional swimming pools, but they've been joined by two water slides, a "wet deck" with fountains of water spraying everywhere, and a jungle gym that also spouts water.
The pools' deck has also been expanded, so people who don't want to get wet have plenty of places to sit. There are some benches, but for comfort, Quesenberry recommends that visitors bring their own lounge chairs.
As fascinating as the 58 miles of trails sound, I'm going to stick to lounging by the pools. Comfort and the outdoors are an unbeatable vacation combination.