This post was updated June 23, 2014.
Virginia is an amazing place for nature lovers. For some, rare birds and shy wildlife are literally right outside their back door. For others, a quick five minute drive to a park offers the reward of the cardinal’s song or playful squirrels scampering about. Ultimately, you have to decide how serious you are about wildlife watching and either enjoy what’s naturally abundant and evident in Virginia or make it a mission to seek out the treasures that are well hidden.
Let’s seek out the treasure – America’s treasure.
The bald eagle is the symbol of our nation and unique to North America. In recent years the bald eagle has surged off of the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Species and has grown boldly in population to an estimated 9,789 breeding pairs. That being said, one does not often see a bald eagle. This American treasure hides well, but there are a few river hot spots that are known for bald eagle action.
1. Caledon State Park in King George on the Potomac River is known for its old growth forest. It’s also the summer home to the one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the East Coast. To protect the giant predator, access to the river and marshes is very limited. Rather, join along for eagle sightseeing excursions.
Sundays from 9 to 11:15 a.m.: Kayak with the Eagles. $19 solo or $25 tandem. Reservations required. Call 540-663-3861.
Select Dates at either 10 or 11 a.m.: Eagle Tours. $3/person or $8/family. Reservations required. Call 540-663-3861.
2. Also along the Potomac River is the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Lorton. The sole purpose of the refuge is to protect bald eagle nesting, feeding and roosting habitats along the river. A rookery of great blue herons offers additional interest with more than 1200 nests.
Day use only with four miles of established nature trails. Download the Bird Checklist.
3. An additional state park located on the Potomac River and a great eagle spotting site is Westmoreland in Montross. In addition to the eagles, Westmoreland is known for ancient shark teeth that can be found along the river.
4. Mason Neck State Park in Lorton (not to be confused with the refuge), also lies against the Potomac River.
5. Hop aboard a Rappahannock River Cruise departing from Reedville to cruise along 100′ cliffs that protect eagle nests. The cruise includes a stop to tour, taste and enjoy lunch at Ingleside Winery.
6. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach encompasses more than 9,000 acres. More than 300 bird species call Back Bay home, with 10,000 snow geese and other waterfowl visiting at peak migration (December-January). Expect to find osprey and bald eagles here. Sign up for the tram to enjoy an interpretive tour of the refuge and False Cape State Park.
Day use only. $2-$5 fee required April 1 through October 31 for hikers, bikers or vehicles. No pets. Download the brochure.
7. The very exclusive Presquile National Wildlife Refuge is actually a 1,329-acre island in the James River south of Richmond. Like others mentioned here, it’s primary purpose is to act as a refuge for migrating fowl. Due to the nature of the refuge, visitors may not simply “stop by,” but must make a request for permit in advance or attend an event. Three miles of trails and boardwalks are available, as are canoe/kayak launch sites for the water trails.
Available by advance permit or during refuge-sponsored events. Call 804-829-9020.
8. If you like a little history with your eagle watching, try the History & Nature Pontoon Boat Tours of the James River from Henricus Historical Park in Chester. It’s a 45-minute tour narrating 17th century to modern day history and exploring the habitats of the bald eagles. Select Weekends at 1 p.m. $25/person. Reservations strongly suggested. Call 804-318-8728. < This tour will not be offered in 2014.
9. Discover the James is a tour company focused on revealing the old James River environments that are still visible today … if you look and listen hard enough. Sign up for one of Capt. Ostrander’s five-mile bald eagle tours to experience the bald eagle habitats of the James River like you didn’t know you could.
Two-hour tour available select dates or request a private tour. Rates from $45. Reservations required. Call 804-938-2350.
Share your bald eagle hot spots with a comment below!