Bird watching in Virginia is a treasure trove, especially if you are interested in spotting hawks. There are nature reserves spread across the entire state with different habitats attracting different hawk species.
Hawks generally stay away from suburban and urban areas because it is more difficult for them to hunt in such places. So, spotting them requires stepping into their natural habitat, away from the disruptions of man.
The many conservation areas in Virginia are the ideal place for hawk spotting. Most of these reserves are easily accessible making them a great place for beginner bird watchers.
Below is a list of the best bird watching spots in Virginia and which hawk species you might see there.
- 1 Hawks in Virginia: Our Top 8 Locations
- 1.1 1. Shenandoah National Park
- 1.2 2. Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge
- 1.3 3. Highland County
- 1.4 4. Kiptopeke State Park
- 1.5 5. Huntley Meadows Park
- 1.6 6. Greensprings Nature Trail
- 1.7 7. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
- 1.8 8. Dutch Gap Conservation Area
Hawks in Virginia: Our Top 8 Locations
1. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is by far the best place to go bird watching in Virginia. The park is famous for its annual fall hawk watch held at Rockfish Gap.
Over the years, up to 18 different hawk species have been seen during the fall hawk watch. The most commonly spotted species are listed below.
Shenandoah National Park is great for birds that prefer higher elevations. It is located in the Blue Ridge Range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
There are three main types of ecosystems within the park; wetlands, forests and rock outcrops. Most of the land is forested, 95% of the area has trees.
So many different kinds of hawks make their home in Shenandoah because the landscape is a great hunting ground. There is plenty of prey near the trees but hawks with a more specialized diet can also get their fill of amphibians in the wetlands.
Location & Accessibility
Despite the high elevation, this nature park is still easily accessible by car. There are four official entrance stations with the Skyline Drive running along the park’s entire length.
Skyline Drive is the main artery of the park with most facilities located near it. This is also where most of the trails start.
Rockfish Gap, where the annual hawk watch takes place, is the Southern Entrance. The nearest town is Waynesboro.
Best Place for Spotting: Broad-Winged Hawk
Large groups of Broad-Winged Hawks are seen ‘kettling’ over Shenandoah National Park from September to November during their annual migration to South America. When kettling, birds glide on thermal lifts to preserve their energy during the long haul south.
You can identify Broad-Winged Hawks by the black and white bands on their tail and possibly on their chest, too. Another key characteristic is that their wings end in a point. Broad-Winged Hawks are small compared to other raptors but have they relatively large brown heads and bodies.
2. Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge
The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a key route for migratory birds. Millions of birds pass over this marshy landscape every fall.
This migration route sees countless songbirds making their way back to warmer climates. Songbirds are the main prey of accipiter hawks and so thousands of them follow the same route south.
The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge is located at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Naturally this is a very wet and marshy landscape.
Next to the waters are plenty of trees and shrubs which are the ideal resting place for birds. The combination of the vegetation and marshland also make it an ideal hunting ground for birds with varying diets.
The many varieties of hawks in this area is quite unique. Most hawk species are solitary creatures so it is mainly during their migration that you will see large numbers within a smaller area.
Location & Accessibility
The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge is located near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – Tunnel. The visitor’s center, the best place to start your visit, is easily accessible from Route 13.
Best Place for Spotting: Swainson’s Hawk
Swainson’s Hawks are rare birds but you can occasionally spot them during their migration in the fall. The best time for finding Swainson’s Hawks in the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge is mid-October to early November.
These raptors are buteos meaning they belong to the larger sized hawks. They have short tails and long broad wings that they hold in a shallow v-shape during flight.
There are many variations in coloring but the signature feature is the contrast of dark underwings with a white lining and light bellies with darker brown or gray chests. Females and males have different head coloring with the females being brown and the males gray.
For a complete list of bird species found in the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge open this pdf created by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
3. Highland County
Highland county is not a nature reserve but a sparsely populated county. It has been dubbed the Little Switzerland of Virginia for its many hills and colder climate.
If you enjoy bird watching but are less keen on long hikes then this is the ideal area for you. The wide open valleys and roads going straight through forested areas let you spot birds without ever leaving your car.
Highland County lies in the Allegheny Highlands, one of the most remote regions in Virginia. There is a clear difference in vegetation between the lower altitude valleys and the high altitude area which offers an interesting mix of birds.
The valleys are mostly farmland and open pastures while the higher altitudes are dominated by hardwood forests. Highland County used to have a significant proportion of shrubland too, but this is gradually being replaced by either farms or forestry.
The type of hawks nesting in this area are the raptors with a diet of mainly mammals. The forested areas and farmlands are great for hunting all sorts of rodents.
Location & Accessibility
Highland County lies on the border between West Virginia and Ohio. For the best routes visit the Highland County section of the Birding in Ohio website.
Best Place for Spotting: Rough-Legged Hawk
Rough-Legged Hawks’ natural habitat is in the coldest climates like tundras and the Arctic. That is why you will only spot these buteos in Highland County during cold winters.
These raptors have long wings and long tails but relatively short legs and beaks for their size. There are both light and dark morphs making them more difficult to identify. Light morphs have pale underwings with dark tips while the dark morphs are overall dark with the exception of paler trailing edges.
4. Kiptopeke State Park
Kiptopeke State Park is part of the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge. It is the site of an annual hawk watch organized by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Conservatory.
The annual birdwatch is held in the fall, during the main migration season. During the 2019 watch participators spotted up to 136 different bird species with a total count of over 30,000 birds.
Located by the Chesapeake Bay, this is where freshwater meets the ocean. The area is an interesting combination of sandy beaches and pine forest but mostly shrub-scrub.
The different types of landscapes is what brings together so many bird species. From wetlands to forests, there is enough prey and shelter to attract all kinds of hawks.
Osprey are a unique type of hawk with a diet consisting of mainly fish. The shallow waters leading up to the bay are an ideal hunting ground.
Location & Accessibility
Most of the Kiptopeke State Park trails are flat, making this area a great birding opportunity for people of all fitness levels. Many of the trails are wheelchair-accessible, as well.
The park is easily reached via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The hawk watch gathering point is about 200 yards from the shore.
Best Place for Spotting: Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawks are very rarely seen because they seclude themselves in forests. Kiptopeke State Park is a great migratory route for them because they can hide out in the pine trees and then go hunting for songbirds near the shrubs.
Their most noticeable characteristic is a dark head with a white stripe over their orange/red eyes. The rest of their body is gray; dark gray outer body feathers and a paler gray barred pattern on their underbody.
5. Huntley Meadows Park
Huntley Meadows Park is home to over 200 species of birds. This is a wetlands area with plenty of woodlands, making it the ideal habitat for many hawk species.
Beginner bird watchers are highly encouraged to visit Huntley Meadows Park. It hosts a guided bird watching walk every Monday morning at 07:00 am, year-round.
Most of Huntley Meadows Park is wetlands. There are three main bodies of water within the park; Little Hunting Creek, Barnyard Run and Dogue Creek.
As the name of the park suggests, a majority of the landscape is a meadow. However, besides the wildflower and tall grass meadows there are also areas with secondary forest.
Being a wetlands area, it is especially popular among raptors that eat amphibians. The Red-shouldered Hawk likes this habitat because it is still near forested areas where it can supplement its diet with rodents.
Location & Accessibility
Huntley Meadows Park is located in Fairfax County, near the town of Alexandria. There are three main entrances to the park but birdwatchers are recommended to start at the Visitor Center on 3701 Lockheed Boulevard, Alexandria.
The Fairfax County Park Authority and Huntley Meadows Park community have started a major wetland restoration project completed in 2014. At the same time, the installed features that support wildlife and bird watching including wheelchair-accessible boardwalks over the wetlands.
Best Place for Spotting: Osprey
Look for Osprey near the water as their diet consists mostly of fish. They hover over shallow waters before diving down and clawing into their prey.
Ospreys are a unique large raptor but with very long slender bodies, wings and feet. You can recognize them flying overhead from the kinked m-shape their wings make.
This is one of the most recognizable hawks thanks to the brown feathers above and white feathers below. Their heads are white with a characteristic brown stripe through the eyes.
6. Greensprings Nature Trail
The Greensprings Nature Trail is a gorgeous wetlands and forested area that is easily accessible by foot, bicycle or even rollerblades. It encompasses a 3.5 mile long trail including both a wooded boardwalk and interpretative trails.
Like many of the other Virginia hawk watching spots on this list, this area is a wonderful combination of wetlands and forested area. Not only does this attract raptors but it is home to over 200 different bird species.
As mentioned, the Greensprings Nature Trail is a combination of wetlands and forest. Its main body of water is the Powhatan Creek featuring a beaver pond.
Although there are no vehicles allowed inside this protected area, it is still relatively close to the suburbs. As a result, you find not only the water-loving hawk species like Osprey but also the more common species that are more accustomed to humans.
Location & Accessibility
Greensprings Nature Trail starts directly behind Jamestown High School in Williamsburg. It is easily accessible from the John Tyler Highway making it a popular outing for those living in Richmond.
There is a space to park your car near the head of the trail but the rest of the trail must be walked or cycled. The entire trail is flat and mostly gravel-based with exception of the wooded boardwalk over the beaver pond.
Best Place for Spotting: Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawks are one of the most common hawk species in the US, often found in forests and even backyards with lots of trees. They are a classic example of accipiters so you can expect to see them wherever songbirds are plentiful. When on the trail, look for them near shrubs with songbird feed.
They are about the same size as crows with broad rounded wings and a very long tail that is also rounded. Cooper’s hawks have an ashy blue-gray top. The underbodies are white with gray bars at the tail end and reddish bars on the chest.
7. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
The Great Dismal Swamp is another coastal area with rich biodiversity and many bird species. You can find a full list of the species found in the refuge in this pdf set up by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Like the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge, the Great Dismal Swamp is an important migration route for all kinds of birds, including raptors. This is why you are able to spot several hawk species that usually keep to different habitats during the spring migration.
At the very center of this wildlife refuge lies Lake Drummond, Virginia’s largest natural lake. It is surrounded by 112,000 acres of wetlands forest protected under the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Most of the area is covered with contiguous forest with red maple being the most common tree. This makes it home to many different both large and small.
The smaller mammals like squirrels, mice, rats and vole are important prey for raptors. Osprey and hawks that prefer amphibians as their meals are often seen near Lake Drummond and the marshes near Lateral West and South One.
Location & Accessibility
The Great Dismal Swamp is situated on the border of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. However, most of the main entrance ways are on the wildlife refuge’s western side near Suffolk, Virginia.
There are many different trails to choose from varying in distance. Some of these trails also feature boardwalks.
Best Place for Spotting: Red-Shouldered Hawk
During your walk through the Great Dismal Swamp, listen for their characteristic call. You will most likely spot a Red-Shouldered Hawk perching nearby Lake Drummond, on the lookout for prey.
Red-Shouldered Hawk can be seen throughout the year in the US as they generally do not migrate further than the southern states. They prefer decidious trees that are near bodies of shallow water, usually swamps.
These are neither considerably large nor small hawks. Their wings are broad and rounded with a proportionate tail. Adults have a reddish-brown chest which gradually transitions into black and white bars on the top.
8. Dutch Gap Conservation Area
The Dutch Gap Conservation Area is a diverse landscape featuring the James River, marshes, wetlands, a lagoon and woodlands. It is near the town of Richmond making it a great place to go on a daytrip.
Bird watchers flock to the southern parts of this 800-acre conservation area. This is where you find a 4.5 mile trail looping around the lagoon rich with all kinds of birds.
The Dutch Gap Conservation Area is great for bird watchers because of the biodiversity and varying landscape. As always, you are likely to see Osprey near the water.
You are also likely to spot the Red-Shouldered Hawk and Red-Tailed Hawk. These hawk species are less afraid of humans and so more commonly found near urban and suburban areas.
Location & accessibility
Dutch Gap Conservation Area is located in the town of Chester near Richmond, Virginia. Access to the park is free and it is open year-round.
Most sections of the trail are wheelchair-accessible although you will find a few ramps. The trailhead starts at the visitor center behind the Henricus Historical Park.
Best Place for Spotting: Red-Tailed Hawk
Unlike most other hawk types, the Red-Tailed Hawk does not shy away from wide open landscapes. This is why they do not feel out of place in the sparse vegetation of the Dutch Gap Conservation lagoon.
Red-Tailed Hawks are buteos but their shape is easily distinguishable from others in the family. They have shorter but broad rounded wings and a short rounded tail.
There are three main morphs of Red-Tailed hawks. the most common type has a dark brown breast but with streaks into a paler lower body and a dark red tail. The dark morphs are fully dark brown with an orangey-red tail. Another variation has a reddish brown breast with a darker brown belly.