Science in the Park: Animals

The animals that live in and around the James River Park System present year-round opportunities for your observation and study. A wide variety of terrestrial habitats are woven throughout the park and still deliver surprises – such as coyote and, most recently, grey fox. Open your eyes and ready your cameras as you roam the park in search of its treasures … and share what you find with us!

Games Camera Rolling!

In the spring of 2014, we set out to catalog the biodiversity, or the number of different species, found within the James River Park System. Healthy and diverse habitats support healthy and diverse groups of plants and animals, but the animals in our park can be elusive and often go unseen. To catch them on video, we set out special “game cameras” that record a video when triggered remotely by motion or temperature.

Scientists use these cameras to track and monitor wildlife or to record how a species behaves, and our animal friends did not disappoint! For almost a year, we recorded hundreds, if not thousands, of videos that reveal the animals that call our park home — some common and others that may surprise you! You’ll find some of these videos on the animal pages below. Enjoy!

Park Animals

Some of the common animal species were recorded over and over again in hundreds of videos (think: raccoons), while other species were only recorded once or twice (think: mink). But our cameras are still out, so check back to see new videos, and, hopefully, we will add a new species every now and then. 

And, don’t miss the factsheets for each species:


Family: Cervidae • Herbivore / Prey • Native to Virginia

The white-tailed deer is a large ungulate found throughout the James River Park System. Subsisting on a variety of plants, the white-tailed deer lives in heavily forested areas with dense undergrowth for camouflage and food purposes.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Deer are everywhere in the Park. Fawns, does and bucks appear over and over at multiple locations day and night — in forests, open meadows, wetlands, trails and on islands.

An official estimate of the deer population is in development for 2016 to support the Park’s invasive species management plan — because, one thing we know for sure — they aren’t eating the invasives …

Family: Canidae • Predator / Omnivore • Non-native to Virginia

The coyote has been called the most adaptible animal on the planet. It is primarily a scavenger and can carve out a territory among patches of grassland, forest, and even man-made structures. This makes it easy for it to adapt to life in urban environments.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

This species eluded our game cameras for almost two years. In mid-September, 2015, on the south side of the river, coyote were captured in still photographs, and again, a month later, in pictures from along the North Bank Trial. Finally, in January 2016, our video cameras caught em!

Family: Canidae • Omnivore / Predator • Native to Virginia

The red fox is a cunning hunter that has adapted easily to human impact. Foxes are most active during the early morning hours and prefer small animals such as rodents, rabbits, and birds, but will also eat fruits and vegetables.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

This VERY secretive member of the Park community, the wide-ranging and elusive red fox, is rarely seen by Park users, but they are around.

They move along wildlife and human-made trails that crisscross the landscape, connecting river and island habitats with upland forests and surrounding neighborhoods.

Family: Canidae • Predator / Omnivore • Native to Virginia

The eastern gray fox, one of North America’s native dog species, is present in every county in Virginia, and, along with red fox and coyote, is the third dog species we have documented in the JRPS. A unique feature of this small mammal is its semi-retractable, strongly hooked front claws, which enable it to climb trees. They are usually out-competed in urban areas by the red fox, but the presence of coyotes pushes red foxes out. This opens up habitat for the gray fox to move into, as they can climb trees to escape coyotes or domesticated dogs running off-leash.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

A grey fox caught on camera in April 2017 is the first sighting of this species since the camera project began in 2014 (the time stamp on the video is incorrect). Videos from a second location confirm their presence on both sides of the river. To spot this fox, look up as well as down, as they may be sunning on a tree limb in the canopy.

Family: Mustelidae • Carnivore / Predator • Native to Virginia

Long thought to be absent in the James River Park System, American river otters were documented at several locations in the park in 2014. This playful and curious member of the weasel family lives in ‘holts’ or dens near the water and are crepuscular hunters, feeding on fish, amphibians, turtles and crustaceans.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

The otter was the reason we started documenting animals in the park. We heard they were there and wanted to prove it (and see what else was out there). We worked ALL SUMMER to catch one on video — at multiple locations — with multiple cameras.

Finally, in mid-August close to park headquarters at Reedy Creek, we recorded the first one. If you blinked at the beginning of the video, you would miss the half-second, overexposed flash of otter hopping up an island bank around 4:00 in the morning. It was our only documentation from this site, but reports this summer of otters in Forest Hill Park help to confirm their presence in this general area.

Family: Mustelidae • Predator / Carnivore • Native to Virginia

A member of the weasel family and cousin to the river otter, weasels, and badgers, the American mink is rarely seen within the James River Park System.

The mink dwells in forested areas near bodies of water and hunts fish, small rodents, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Catching a glimpse of this secretive Mustelid was one of the big surprises of the season. Can mink live here in the middle of our ‘Central Park’? Video on June 15 around 9am says ‘yes’.

Family: Procyonidae • Omnivore / Prey • Native to Virginia

The common raccoon is a one of the most populous mammals within the James River Park System. Raccoons live in wooded areas and climb trees to escape predators.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

These curious animals may be the most ubiquitous animal in the park.

They were caught on video at every camera location — over and over and over and over….. But they are always fun to watch.

Family: Didelphidae • Prey / Omnivore • Native to Virginia

Also known as a possum, the Virginia opossum is a white-haired, worm-tailed mammal commonly found within the James River Park System.

The opossum is a nocturnal omnivore, eating both plants and animals such as snakes, insects, other small mammals, and fruits.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Another resident of the park and its surrounding neighborhoods. Truth be told however, the opossum probably likes upland habitats with garbage cans as much as wet, riverine environments. We recorded them at two locations and not as often as you would expect.

Family: Leporidae • Herbivore / Prey • Native to Virginia

The Eastern cottontail is a small and fast reproducing prey item that probably appears on the dinner plate of most predators within the park system. It can sit perfectly still for 10-15 minutes at a time, but can reach speeds of 18mph when being chased by a predator.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

The cottontail didn’t show up on our game cameras until almost a year into the project.

It has been “caught” in several locations since, often in “edge” areas at a distance from the river. This species stays away from the deep woods.

Family: Castoridae • Prey / Herbivore • Native to Virginia

The American beaver is an intelligent animal, fairly common within the James River Park System. It is perhaps best known for constructing dams using tree branches and mud.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Evidence of beaver activity — gnaw marks and the spikes of chewed off tree trunks — are often found along the river banks within the James River Park. But this is an animal seldom seen, especially considering it’s rather large size.

Our first video documentation of Castor Canadensis was on August 15, 2014 — first, hopping up a bank, then, sliding back into the water three minutes later. This particular bank is located on a small island in the braided channels near Reedy Creek, and is heavily traveled by a variety of animals. Raccoon, muskrat, river otter, deer, heron, Canada geese, chipmunk, groundhog, and Red fox were all caught on video at this site. Wildlife corridor? Absolutely!

Family: Circetidae • Omnivore / Prey • Native to Virginia

The muskrat is a relative of the otter and beaver, and behaves in much the same way. These mostly aquatic rodents are most active at night, especially in the late evening and early morning hours.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Anecdotal information, sightings, and the occasional road kill tell us that this semi-aquatic rodent is a common player in the James River Park.

But videos from only one site captured this rat-like creature over four days in late August, early September.

Family: Sciuridae • Prey / Herbivorous / Insectivorous • Native to Virginia

The groundhog is a type of rodent known as a marmot and is actually a large ground squirrel. They are one of the few animals within the park that truly hibernates and their body temperature can drop as low as 5°C.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

First recorded in early July, Marmota monax may be one of the animals you have spotted in the Park.

They are relatively numerous and are often seen foraging along the park roads, trails, and other edge habitat in the early morning or late afternoon.

Family: Sciuridae • Herbivore / Insectivore / Prey • Native to Virginia   

Very common to the James River Park System, the Eastern grey squirrel is a populous rodent that easily adapts to urban and rural environments.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Squirrels are everywhere. Need we say more? (Just that we are presenting every species that we documented.)

Family: Sciuridae • Prey / Omnivore • Native to Virginia

The eastern chipmunk is a common sight in deciduous forests, parks, and backyards throughout Virginia. They are small, fast-moving, and easily recognized by the dark and light striping down their backs.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

Caught for a split second in only one video, this chipmunk moves fast.

Chipmunks are found throughout the Park System, in the woods, riparian areas and on the islands, like this one.

Family: Meleagridinae • Omnivorous / Prey • Native to Virginia

Wild turkeys are large and strikingly handsome birds, known for their intelligence and ability to elude the hunter. They are social birds and fly up into trees to roost in groups at night, but are rarely seen by the Park users. Keep an eye out in the early morning and you might see a flock foraging for food on the forest floor.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

One Tom turkey and a large group of hens were documented in the Park in late 2014. Occasionally a loner has continued to trip the game camera in that same area.

Family: Ardeidae • Predator / Piscivore / Carnivore • Native to Virginia 

Found near shore, in wetlands, or in the flowing rapids, the great blue heron is active during the day and preys primarily on fish, though they have been known to eat shrimp, crabs, insects, and rodents.

Recorded Activity in the James River Park

It is hard to tire of watching these large, charismatic birds. Especially when one has a large centrarchid in its beak.

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