Where To See Virginia’s Coolest Birds

Photo: Courtesy Andrew Rapp

Virginia is a birder’s paradise. Here’s how to take advantage.

Andrew Rapp spent much of his childhood teasing his dad about birding. “My dad was a birdwatcher, and my family made so much fun of him,” the Charlottesville, Va., local laughs. “We thought it was the nerdiest thing to do.” 

Then one day, about 12 years ago, Rapp and his dad were on a trip to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. In what can only be described as a total dad move, Rapp’s father bet him a hot fudge sundae that he couldn’t spot 30 different birds.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]“I was all for that,” Rapp says. Then, near the end of the day, right as they were approaching 30, Rapp spotted a bird he’d seen in a hotel brochure’s glossy photos—one he was sure couldn’t possibly exist. 

“It was an American oystercatcher, which is a beautiful bird with this long orange beak,” Rapp says. It’s big, and it has bright yellow eyes and a gorgeous swirl of white plumage that arcs over its shoulders. OK, Rapp remembers thinking. Maybe birding can be cool. 

Fast-forward to today, and Rapp is somewhat of a birding prodigy. He’s worked at a number of state ornithological societies over the years, and even founded his own group, the Blue Ridge Young Birders’ Club, in 2012. He’s also worked as a field researcher, studying birds at various sites throughout Virginia, and graduated from William & Mary with degrees in environmental science and wildlife biology. All that to say: As far as birding goes, he’s got the state pretty much wired. 

Here are Rapp’s tips for taking advantage of all the amazing birdwatching that Virginia has to offer. 

Why Virginia Is a Birding Goldmine

“Virginia is an exceptional place for beginners, advanced birders, and really any level of birdwatcher because there’s so much diversity in the habitats here,” Rapp explains. From the eastern beaches, to wetlands in the coastal plain, to rocky outcroppings and deep forest in the Appalachians, there’s a different ecosystem practically everywhere you look. 

Get bored of one ecosystem? No problem. “You can travel for an hour or two and immediately have a totally different habitat with different birds,” Rapp says. 

Virginia is also positioned along migration routes, giving birders a front-row seat to a revolving door of international avian visitors. During his 12 years as a birder, Rapp has seen a number of rare birds in the state, from a white-cheeked pintail carried to Virginia from the Bahamas on a hurricane wind, to an albatross off the Virginian coast. 

Photo: Courtesy Andrew Rapp

The Best Places To Go Birding in Virginia

Looking to add some new sightings to your list? Here are Rapp’s top picks (in no particular order) of the best places to go birding in Virginia.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Located on Virginia’s northernmost coast, Chincoteague is one of Rapp’s favorite places to bird, and not just because it’s where he got his start. Over 300 bird species have been spotted here, from bald eagles and falcons to herons and egrets. “It’s changed over the years with pine bark beetles destroying a lot of the maritime forest,” Rapp says, “but it’s still an incredible place to visit.”

Shenandoah National Park

Aside from providing a vast array of hiking trails and stunning mountain overlooks, western Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park stands at a major crossroads for migratory paths. Breeding warblers, tanagers, and a wide variety of songbirds all pass through in the summer. “Shenandoah is a great place to see these migrating species funneling along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive,” Rapp says, “it’s an incredible spectacle.”

Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

When Rapp first visited Mount Rogers, he couldn’t believe he was still in Virginia. “You have really high-elevation spruce-fir forests with really specialized breeding birds, and you also have beautiful vistas along the mountains,” he says. “It just takes your breath away.” A number of rare species, including the northern saw-whet owl, winter wren, and yellow-bellied sapsucker have all been spotted here.

Dutch Gap Conservation Area

Just south of Richmond, right along the James River, Dutch Gap is a magnet for waterfowl come winter. The variety of species, Rapp says, accessible observation platforms, and large size of the birds means they’re easy to identify and observe, making Dutch Gap a perfect spot for new birders.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Located in Virginia Beach, Back Bay is a perfect place to get a closer look at some of the biggest species of birds in the state, including tundra swans, snow geese, and a variety of ducks, all of which come to rest in the refuge during the winter, Rapp says. And just across the dunes, you’ll find a wide variety of coastal birds patrolling the Atlantic shore.

The Starter’s Birding Kit 

New to birding? No worries: There are just a few essentials you’ll need to get started.

“The two most important things are having a nice pair of binoculars and a nice field book,” Rapp says. Today, there are plenty of great electronic field guides in addition to paper books. As for the binos? Rapp recommends a pair that are 8x42 optical zoom, which, he says, allow you “to get close enough to see the bird, but not so close that you lose it.” 

Finally, there’s the iconic birding app, eBird, which is essentially a Pokédex for birds. It lets birders both contribute to the scientific record by recording their sightings, and see what other cool species have been spotted near them. It’s a great resource for sharpening your skills, and an amazing way to get plugged into the local birding community near you.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.