If you’re one of those who think the beach is for the birds, well, you just might have a match in coastal Virginia. Protected stretches of seashore here shelter more than 300 migrating species, but in addition to this exceptional waterside action there are far more fowl to sight for the effort of a scenic stint farther inland.
Head roughly an hour west of the coast and reach the expansive Great Dismal Swamp, where thousands of undeveloped acres shelter warblers in spring and summer. Venture close to Washington D.C. and Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve on the Potomac River makes for an easy detour, where birding peaks during spring and fall migrations. Steer instead for central Virginian and join birders out in droves to spot raptors at the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch every fall, before continuing on to Shenandoah National Park where forested mountain ridges give way to expansive meadow habitats. The state’s highest peaks and a selection of bird species from more northerly climes can be found Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to the southwest. Watch for the likes of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, Northern Cardinal and Seaside Sparrow as you explore the best birding sites state-wide.
An annual hawk watch is held at this site near Lake Albemarle every fall, when Broad-winged, Cooper’s, Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned Hawks cruise past in numbers. Look also for Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, Merlins and an assortment of songbirds, swallows and common nighthawks.
Mount Rogers National Recreation Area:
Virginia’s highest peaks are located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest in the southwestern corner of the state, including Mount Rogers, which tops out at 5,729 feet. This elevation gain translates in birding terms to a concentration of birds from the north not often seen elsewhere in the state. Watch for the likes of Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers and Magnolia Warblers on a hike to the summit of this modest peak.
Shenandoah National Park:
This national park takes in forested mountains and the occasional meadow, and plays host to upwards of 200 bird species. Neotropicals use the Blue Ridge area both as a travel corridor and a nesting area, but watch also for Tufted Titmice, Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Owls, Downy Woodpeckers and the occasional Scarlet Tanager.
Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve:
A wetlands habitat on the west bank of the Potomac River, Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve offers good birding whether you approach by canoe or on foot along the “Haul Road”. In addition to an abundance of Red-winged Blackbirds, watch also for Pileated Woodpeckers, 35 warbler species, more than two dozen types of waterfowl and numerous wading birds. For birding close to the nation’s capital, this site is particularly hard to beat during spring and fall migration.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge:
This refuge at the south end of Assateague Island plays host to over 320 bird species during migration. In fall, watch for a significant number of shorebirds like the Piping Plover, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher and Yellowlegs. Gulls, waterfowl and wading birds are also in abundance, and you might see the occasional Kingfisher, Flicker or Bald Eagle.
Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge:
Relatively close to the busy Hampton Roads area, this 111,000 acre refuge offers bird watchers a surprisingly expansive stretch of wetlands, lakes, sphagnum bogs, canals and marsh. 40 miles of trail provide ready birding access, while Lake Drummond can be explored by small boat. Birding is at its best in spring, when 35 different types of warbler may be sighted. Keep an eye out also for black bear.