Just south of I-64 in central Virginia is the Rockfish Valley Trail, where you can see ducks, sparrows, kingfishers, and woodpeckers. And at the nearby Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch, thousands of Broad-winged and other hawks fly past each fall.
Nestled between the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley, the scenic 15-mile-long Rockfish Valley and the surrounding Blue Ridge and Ragged Mountains offer year-round birding opportunities to see more than 220 species.
A great birding day starts at the Rockfish Valley Trail, where 179 species have been reported. I especially enjoy looking for Lincoln’s Sparrows and many of the area’s 36 species of warbler.
During the autumn, I often pack a lunch and drive about 20 miles from the trail to Rockfish Gap and spend the afternoon watching raptors at the hawk watch behind the Afton Inn. Hawk watchers tally as many as 18,000 birds of prey each year. The headliners are Broad-winged Hawks, whose numbers peak during the third week of September. In 2008, I saw more than 3,000 Broad-wings in a 30-minute period.
I can take one of two routes to Rockfish Gap: along the Blue Ridge Parkway looking for Cerulean and other warblers, or up the valley on Rt. 151, where I watch for Green Herons (summer), and migrating Osprey, waterfowl, and other birds. — Marshall Faintich
Marshall Faintich is the official photographer and senior birding editor for the Rockfish Valley Trail and the author of A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Wintergreen.
Mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, pastures, vineyards, the Rockfish River, and many small creeks, lakes, and ponds.
Elevations range from 630 feet in the valley to 3,850 feet on the mountains. All but the mountain trails are mostly level.
Rockfish Valley Trail: Wood Duck, Eastern Bluebird, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Meadowlark, Black-crowned Night-Heron (spring and fall), Blue-headed, White-eyed, and Yellow-throated Vireos, Lincoln’s Sparrow (September through May), Pileated, Red-bellied, and other woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (October through April). Rockfish Gap: 18 species of diurnal raptor, including Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey, and Bald Eagle. Blue Ridge Parkway: Cerulean and other warblers. Rarities: Golden Eagle, American Golden-Plover.
When to go
Spring and fall for the most variety.
Free monthly birdwalks on the first Saturday of the month spring through fall on the Rockfish Valley Trail. Wintergreen Nature Foundation has a bird exhibit and occasionally offers birding events for a small fee.
Rockfish Valley Foundation operates trail. Hawk watch is on the property of a private inn. All sites are open to the public without fees. Public access at Wintergreen Resort limited to trails, lake, ponds, nature preserve, and overlooks. Blue Ridge Parkway closed part of winter.
Ragged Mountain Natural Area
East of Rockfish Valley on I-64 and just southwest of Charlottesville. Migratory songbirds in fall and nesting warblers in summer.
Ivy Creek Natural Area
Six miles north of Charlottesville. A popular birding site with seven miles of walking trails. It lists 187 species, including hawks, owls, shorebirds, warblers, thrushes, and grosbeaks.