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Get Outdoors this Winter to See Virginia’s Abundance of Winter Birds

By Jessica Ruthenberg, DWR Watchable Wildlife Biologist

Are you looking for an outdoor activity to do this winter? Try bird watching! This may seem like a surprising winter activity, considering that many birds migrate south for the winter. However, while that is true for many species, in Virginia, we are lucky to provide the southern home to numerous migratory bird species that breed further north, including many arctic species, such as a wide diversity of ducks, geese, swans, seabirds, and some songbirds. Of course, we also have numerous species of birds that call Virginia home year-round. This makes winter a superb time of year to explore Virginia’s outdoors for these wintertime visitors and residents.

Some Common Winter Bird Visitors to Virginia…

These birds are just some of the many beautiful and interesting species you may discover while birding in Virginia this winter.

Hooded MerganserA photo of a hooded mersenger (a variety of duck)

These small diving ducks court one another by throwing their heads backward and croaking like a frog. Photo by Ellen and Tony/Fliker Creative Commons


An image of a bufflehead in the water; the male has a green-blue head with a white crown and the female is brown with a white cheek spot

The smallest diving duck in North America, nicknamed a “butterball,” breeds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Female on left, male on right. Photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren/Flickr Creative Commons

Snow Goose

An image of a blue goose which is a color mutation of the barnacled goose

Amongst flocks of these noisy white geese with pink bills, you may spot a goose that does not look like the others with a dark body and white head; this form is known as the “Blue Goose.” Seen here in foreground. Photo by Tom Benson

Tundra Swan

An image of a flock of tundra swans

This arctic breeder has a unique whistling call. Their black bill and black legs distinguish them from the non-native mute swan. Photo by Frank D. Lospalluto

Northern Gannet

An image of a large northern gannet

This large seabird plunge dives from the air like an arrow to catch fish underwater, swimming below the surface as deep as 72 feet. Photo by Juleo Mulero

Northern Shoveler

An image of a dabbling duck; the female is brown and the male is white with a black tail, brown wings and a green head; they can be distinguished from mallards with their distinctive spoon shaped bill

This dabbling duck has a unique spoon-shaped bill that helps it filter out tiny crustaceans and seeds from the water’s surface. Female in Foreground, male in background. Photo by K. Schneider


An image of a red-headed duck

Migrating to Virginia from the Great Plain states, these red-headed ducks are very social and often seen in large flocks called “rafts.” Photo by Robert Pruner

Harlequin Duck

An image of a diving duck; a coastal bird with vibrant red, black and white plumage

To spot these small yet striking diving ducks, you will need to head to Virginia’s coastline or head out on a pelagic boat trip. Photo by Rennett Stowe

Northern Pintail

An image of northern pintail

This elegant duck begins forming into pairs over the winter. Males will court females by preening their wings and stretching their necks up and tipping their bills down while giving a whistling call. Photo by Richard Toller

American Wigeon

An image of a male dabbling duck with a beige body and tan head; the bird has a white crown and green streak near it's eye making it easily recognizable

A dabbling duck with a short goose-like bill that allows them to eat more plants than any other dabbling duck. Males have a white forehead and striking green eye streak while females are drab with a dark smoky eye. Photo by Rick Leche Photography

American Coot

An image of an American Coot

Not a duck, these chicken-like water birds are more closely related to sandhill cranes and rails. They do not have webbed feet, but rather individually webbed toes. Photo by Chris Bowman

Common Loon

An image of a Pacific Loon

These yodeling winter visitors do not go ashore during their stay in Virginia; look for them swimming and diving underwater to catch fish. When ready for take-off, they require about 30 yards of water to run across to gain enough speed for lift-off. Photo by Rick Leche Photography

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

An image of a small beige songbird with a red crown; this is a Ruby crowned Kinglet

A tiny songbird that energetically, yet quietly forges through the lower branches of shrubs and trees.  The red crown patch that gives the bird its name is only found on the males, which they only show when they are excited. Photo by Fyn Kynd

Orange-crowned Warbler

An image of an olive green and yellow orange crowned warbler

Most likely to only be found in southeast Virginia in the winter, these olive-green warblers lack the vivid colors of the others in their family and are often found foraging low in shrubs. Photo by Rick Leche Photography

Dark-eyed Junco

An image of a small black bird with a white belly this is the Junco Sparrow

Although these attractive sparrows can be found year-round in Virginia’s highest elevations, they visit the rest of the Commonwealth only during the winter. Often observed feeding on dropped seed underneath bird feeders, you may see them in a variety of color variations, the most common being slate-grey. Photo by Flikr/Creative Commons Photo

Best Places to See Virginia’s Winter Birds

Virginia’s coastal areas (especially Southeast Virginia and the Eastern Shore) host the widest diversity of species, in the greatest numbers. If you are planning to bird in coastal Virginia this winter, consider adding to your birding fun by participating in the Winter Wildlife Festival Birding Challenge, occurring January 23 – 29.

Can’t make it out to the coast? A few scattered rivers, lakes and reservoirs throughout central Virginia also host some winter bird visitors. Explore the Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail sites listed below from now – early February to discover our visiting winter birds! Remember to dress in layers to stay warm (drab colors are best to blend in) and bring binoculars and/or a spotting scope, if you have them. Water birds may be off at a distance and difficult to observe without the help of some optics. Always check the visiting hours for each site before you head out.

Southeast Virginia

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

False Cape State Park

Princess Anne Wildlife Management Area

Boat trips at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

Pleasure House Point Natural Area

Cape Henry Lighthouse at Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story

Grandview Nature Preserve

Mariner’s Museum Park

Newport News Park

Colonial Parkway, a unit of Colonial National Historical Park

Historic Jamestown, a unit of Colonial National Historical Park

Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve

Hog Island Wildlife Management Area

Eastern Shore

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge

Kiptopeke State Park

Cape Charles Beach and Harbor

Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve

Willis Wharf

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Northern Virginia and Northern Neck

Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Pohick Bay Regional Park

Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary

C.M. Crockett Park

Lake Shenandoah

Lake Campbell at Massanetta Springs Conference Center

Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve

Central Virginia

The Rivanna Trail – Riverview Park

Lake Anna State Park

South Central and Southwest Virginia

John H. Kerr Dam & Reservoir

Dick Cross Wildlife Management Area

Clear Creek Lake

  • December 17, 2020