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Top VA Atlas Locations: The Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula

By Eric Wallace

An image of a prothonotary warbler in a maple tree

Prothonotary Warbler at Vawter Street Park in Richmond (Bob Schamerhorn)

For Virginia birders, the Northern Neck and Middle peninsulas offer diverse habitats ranging from fresh and saltwater marshes, to dense forests, grasslands, Chesapeake Bay beaches, and miles of rivers, including the Rappahannock, York, and Potomac. With sparse development and low population densities, visitors are treated to one of the widest arrays of avian wildlife the state has to offer.

Over the course of a weekend, you could see oystercatchers nesting on the beach, bald eagles soaring over the Chesapeake Bay, and the smallest tern in North America, the least tern. Venture into wooded freshwater swamps to spot the golden flash of a Prothonotary Warbler, one of only two warblers that nest in the holes of dead, standing trees. Further inland, a hike into the deep forest may yield a glimpse of the male summer tanager, the only fully red bird found in North America.

Meanwhile, the peninsulas are rich in history and culture. With beautifully renovated old buildings, great lodging and dining, and cultural attractions, cities and towns like Fredericksburg and Tappahannock make an excellent basecamp for birding adventures. For VABBA2 participants, the area is one of our least covered, and most in need of help.

Should you choose to pay a visit, here’s a list of some of our favorite spots to check out.

An image of an osprey in a tree

Osprey (Bob Schamerhorn)

Hughlett Point & Dameron Marsh Natural Area Preserves, Kilmarnock

About 10 miles apart as the crow flies, the natural areas are located on the Chesapeake Bay and offer visitors more than 500 combined acres of exploration.

“The preserves are great because you get salt marshes, undeveloped beaches and dunes, and coastal birds, all in one package,” says VABBA2 Region 5 coordinator, Ellison Orcutt. “They contain excellent examples of tidal and non-tidal wetlands, and upland forest habitats as well.”

In the winter, the preserves of Hughlett and Dameron are home to thousands of migratory waterfowl and songbirds. The Dameron Marsh is considered one of the most important areas along the Bay for marsh-bird communities. A visit to the beach is almost sure to yield views of bald eagles, osprey, and northern harriers. 

Bethel Beach Natural Area Preserve, Onemo

This 105-acre preserve is located on the Chesapeake Bay and features a narrow beach that wraps around an extensive salt marsh, providing access to a fascinating habitat that is typically hard-to-reach. Southern portions feature maritime landforms that can change with the season—winds and storms move low dunes, while tides create small islands, over-wash flats, and shallow channels.

Bethel is a nesting site for the least tern, and one of the few documented nesting sites in the state for northern harriers. For kayakers, a boat launch offers access to the marshes.


New Point Comfort Preserve, Port Haywood

Located just 10 miles south of Bethel Beach, the NPCP consists of 146 water-fronting acres on the Chesapeake Bay, and is protected by the Nature Conservancy. From the beach, you can spot some 200 species of birds throughout the year and catch views of the historic New Point Comfort Light House, which stands on a small island in the Bay. In addition to beaches, there are maritime forests and a salt marsh featuring a boardwalk and observation platform.

A key stopover-point along the Atlantic Flyway for neo-tropical songbirds, waterfowl, and more, spring and fall is a particularly colorful time to visit is New Point Comfort.

The Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1996 to help resuscitate Virginia’s then-endangered bald eagle population, unlike most

An image of a bobolink in a Juniper tree

Bobolink (Dick Rowe)

refuges, the RRVNWR consists of 17 unconnected parcels of land found throughout the Rappahannock River watershed. In total, the park covers more than 9,000 acres—including loblolly pine forests; hardwood and mixed forests; successional shrub and field habitats; coastal plain, pond, shore, and wet meadows; brackish and freshwater tidal marshes; and wooded swamps.

Five public units offer exemplary birding opportunities. Each has hiking trails and/or paved paths. Four of five have boat launches and support exploration via canoe and kayak.

We like the Hutchinson and Wilna units, located in Tappahannock and Warsaw respectively, which together contain the refuge’s grassland habitats.

“The Hutchinson unit offers tall structured grasslands that are a habitat of choice for northern bobwhite, dickcissels, bobolinks, and other grassland nesting birds,” says RRVNWR wildlife biologist Lauren Cruz. “Wilna encompasses our short stature grasslands, and supports many sparrows, including grasshopper sparrows during the breeding season, and indigo buntings during the spring and fall migration. There is also the Rappahannock River Valley

Dragon Run Swamp, Saluda

This remote 140-square-mile hardwood blackwater swamp begins in Essex County and is fed by runoff and spring waters. It flows through a 40-mile wilderness before spilling into the upper Piankatank River. The area is one of the most significant and pristine blackwater waterways in the state. Some 9,562 acres are classified as state forest, with more than 4,500 acres in a Nature Conservancy easement, and another 600 managed by the non-profit, Friends of Dragon Run.

A kayak trip can usher adventurous birders into one of the most remote riparian wildernesses in Virginia. To learn more about paddling routes, contact the Friends of Dragon Run.

Interested in learning more about birding in these areas, or helping out with the VABBA2 project? We’ll be holding a Northern Neck Workshop at the RRVNWR’s Wilna Unit on April 22 from 8 A.M. to 2 P.M. To learn more about this and other events, click HERE.

Otherwise, feel free to reach out to our Region 5 coordinator, Ellison Orcutt:

~ Eric Wallace, VABBA2 Communications

  • April 9, 2018