Wildlife Wonderlands: Exploring Virginia’s National Wildlife Refuges

by Johnny Molloy | Posted: Oct 8, 2016

Comments: 4 Comments

Did you know that Virginia is home to 14 national wildlife refuges? For you and me that means a lot of places to see wildlife, from birds to beetles, from otters to ponies, in preserved habitats, places to get back to nature on nature’s terms.

Exactly what are national wildlife refuges? They are set aside federally held parcels of land managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They are “dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.” The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) also helps “ensure a healthy environment for people by protecting such ecosystem services as clean air and water.”

In other words, they manage specific lands and waters for the benefit of wildlife and people. Furthermore, the refuges are also charged with managing wildlife-oriented recreation for visitors in national wildlife refuges.

All 14 of Virginia’s national wildlife refuges are in the eastern third of the state, with four on the Eastern Shore alone.

What to know before you go: Wildlife refuges are strict about their hours and visitation, which change seasonally. Also, check ahead for hunting dates. During those times some refuges close for non-hunting visitors. Finally, don’t be scared to call ahead for seasonal advice as what wildlife to observe and best times for observation. Be apprised a few refuges are closed to visitation entirely or only allow visitation only under supervision of refuge staff.

 

ELIZABETH HARTWELL MASON NECK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

mason neck

Nearest Town: Colchester

GPS Coordinates: 38.6483, -77.16651

About The Refuge:

This refuge is situated near the D.C. suburbs on a peninsula jutting into the Potomac River. The location is fitting since it was established specifically help protect the bald eagle, symbol of our country. The refuge also contains the Great Marsh, a large freshwater wetland rich in biodiversity.

About The Wildlife:

Bald eagles were the reason the refuge was established – and the first American refuge established specifically for bald eagles — and to this day bald eagles are first on the wildlife list. They nest here and can be seen year-round. Secondly, blue herons call this refuge home. In spring and summer up to 500 heron nests may be established in the 2,200-acre refuge. The forests are also home to deer and migrating waterfowl.

What You Can Do There: Birding is the main activity here. Visitors seek out the big ones – eagles and herons. Three trails are located on the refuge. The first, High Point Trail, is a paved path paralleling the main park road and is used primarily by recreating walkers, hikers, bicyclers and runners. The other two paths are wildlife oriented and with observation platforms. The 3 mile Wood Marsh Trail is for hikers only and traverses and mix of woods and wetlands to end at the Great Marsh. The all-access Great Marsh Trail extends ¾ mile and also ends at the Great Marsh.

 

FEATHERSTONE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Woodbridge

GPS Coordinates: 38.61551, -77.25129

About The Refuge:

This D.C. area refuge protects a parcel of Occoquan Bay shoreline, an arm of the lower, tidal Potomac River. Seemingly small at 325 acres, the refuge is part of an attempt by U.S. Fish & Wildlife to establish a contiguous wetland along the lower Potomac River.

About The Wildlife:

This refuge is very important to the American black duck, a species in decline. Farm Creek, within the refuge, provides critical habitat for them. They are found year-round here. Downy woodpeckers call the forests of the refuge home, while the extensive freshwater wetlands are significant for smaller shorebirds like the least bittern.

What You Can Do There: Interestingly, currently the only way to visit the refuge is by boat. To that end, the FWS has established a non-motorized boat landing at the south end of Farm Creek. Here, you can land your craft and walk a half-mile trail through the refuge, ending at another segment of Farm Creek. Launch your canoe or kayak at nearby Leesylvania State Park.

 

RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER VALLEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Warsaw

GPS Coordinates: 37.98182, -76.84038

About The Refuge:

This refuge along the lower Rappahannock River is scattered into multiple units currently covering over 8,000 acres. Just as it has multiple units, it has multiple habitats ranging from tidal marsh to piney woods. The refuge aspires to harbor over 20,000 acres managed, partnering with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy.

About The Wildlife:

Bald eagles are the refuge’s showcase specie, and, in fact, the refuge hosts Virginia’s largest number of wintering bald eagles, as well as its most numerous breeding pairs of bald eagles. The river corridor is important for other avians, from osprey to scarlet tanagers. American black ducks use the refuge for migration and wintering.

What You Can Do There: Winter eagle photography attracts visitors. Four units of the refuge are open to wildlife viewing year-round — Wilna, Hutchinson, Laurel Grove, and Port Royal. The Wilna Area has a pond where canoes and kayaks can be launched. A network of short trails head along Wilna Pond as well as inland, complete with a wildlife blind and an observation platform. The Hutchinson unit offers 2.7 miles of roads for windshield visitors, and a network of interpretive trails totaling 1.5 miles, even a hand launch for canoes and kayaks on Mount Landing Creek. Since this refuge is spread out, it pays to call the refuge to help you with the best places and times to view wildlife.

 

CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Assateague Island Pony Watching from the Assateague Channel

Nearest Town: Chincoteague

GPS Coordinates: 37.88977, -75.34492

About The Refuge:

Chincoteague NWR is one of the most visited refuges in the entire country, much of it due to the wild ponies here and the refuge’s access to Assateague Island National Seashore. The 14,000 acres is important for migratory birds but also for nesting and shorebirds such as the piping plover.

About The Wildlife:

The wild ponies are undoubtedly the star of the show and can be seen year-round. The Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel — rarely seen in more civilized environments — is another attraction seen on drives through the refuge. Migratory waterfowl fill the refuge in late fall, with some wintering here.

What You Can Do There: Visitors love to visit the Assateague Lighthouse, accessible by ¼-mile trail. The Swan Cove Trail leads a half-mile to the beach where shorebirds will be found. Pedal your bicycle on gated Service Road in search of wild ponies. Use the Marsh Trail to view waterfowl in late fall or head to the observation platform on the other side of the Snow Goose Pool.

 

PRESQUILE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Richmond

GPS Coordinates: 37.36649, -77.25775

About The Refuge:

Located on a big island on a bend of the James River, the 1,329-acre harbor for special flora and fauna was established in 1953, primarily for migrating waterfowl.

About The Wildlife:

The American black duck uses the refuge for migratory stopovers and wintering, too. The refuge is an important duck migration study area for biologists. Beyond waterfowl, monarch butterflies feed here in fall on their migratory journey to South America. The refuge’s habitat is ideal for the Prothonotary Warbler, a songbird whose numbers are growing in the refuge. Eagle, herons and osprey utilize the refuge and it adjacent waters.

What You Can Do There: Since it is an island, the refuge is only accessible by boat, and then by pre-arranged permit 72 hours in advance. However, the FWS hosts wildlife staff led tours, providing the aquatic transportation. Additional refuge provided boat accesses are provided in the fall. Once on the island, you can trek three miles of trails for photography and wildlife observation.

 

WALLOPS ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Assawoman

GPS Coordinates: 37.87558, -75.45195

About The Refuge:

This refuge consists of two units, one of which is next to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. An ongoing agreement between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NASA has allowed the two units to be managed for wildlife.

About The Wildlife:

Brackish tidal wetlands and coastline form the bulk of this refuge, along with a strange and rare habitat known as sea level fen, where fresh groundwater discharges just above sea level. The preserve is an important stopover for migratory birds, but birds of prey are more prominent, such as great horned owls, Northern harriers and eagles.

What You Can Do There: Unfortunately, the refuge is closed to visitation due to the proximity of the adjacent NASA facility.

 

BACK BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Nearest Town: Virginia Beach

GPS Coordinates: 36.68821, -75.92294

About The Refuge:

Back Bay NWR harbors almost 10,000 acres of Atlantic Ocean barrier island, including the oceanfront and the bay behind it as well as islands in Back Bay. Protected habitats include dunes, fresh and salt marshes.

About The Wildlife:

The refuge was established to provide a migratory stopover for birds on the Atlantic Flyway, most notably snow geese, Canada geese and tundra swans, as well American black ducks. Their populations top out in December and January, a good time to visit the refuge. Loggerhead turtles are an important protected specie, too.

What You Can Do There: View wildlife via some of the eight miles of trails.

Additionally, paddlers can launch canoes or kayaks to explore the tidal shallows and Back Bay from Horn Point launch. Bicyclers can pedal East Dike and West Dike. Take the Blue Goose Tram, offering a guided tour through the refuge into adjacent False Cape State Park. Call ahead for times and fees for the tram.

 

JAMES RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Garysville

GPS Coordinates: 37.26848, -77.13125

About The Refuge:

This is a small refuge of just over 4,000 acres, on the lower James River below Richmond. Habitats range from the James River itself to riverine floodplain forests rising to hardwood forests and pine uplands. Of special note is importance for sea going fish that spawn in rivers such as the James.

About The Wildlife:

Important for bald eagles — both nesting and migrating — the preserve is also vital habitat for the night-feeding Chuck-wills widow, which nests on the floor of pine forests. In the river there will be the aforementioned river spawning sea-going fish such as Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass and alewife.

What You Can Do There: Unfortunately, visitation is very limited. You can tour the refuge during infrequent refuge sponsored events or by permit, which require at least 72 hours advance notice.

 

PLUM TREE ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Newport News

GPS Coordinates: 37.13594, -76.33478

About The Refuge:

This 3,500-acre wildlife overlooks Chesapeake Bay, east of Newport News. Formerly a bombing range, the preserve is a key stopover point on the Atlantic Flyway. The wide variety of habitat hosts an equally wide variety of land and water-based wildlife. The refuge’s undisturbed beaches are very critical for flora and fauna.

About The Wildlife:

The diamondback terrapin heads to shore to lay its eggs. Continuing on the shoreline, the seaside sparrow spends the summers here. The Northeastern beach Tiger Beetle utilizes the undisturbed beaches to forage. Shorebirds follow the tides in and out, looking for a meal.

What You Can Do There: Unfortunately, this refuge is closed to the public, primarily from concern over undisturbed munitions, given its history as a bombing range.

 

EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge

Nearest Town: Kiptopeke

GPS Coordinates: 37.12908, -75.96201

About The Refuge:

Being located at the southerly tip of the Delmarva Peninsula creates a must stop migratory place not only for waterfowl, but also migrating butterflies and raptors.

About The Wildlife:

This refuge is migration centered, as avians on the Atlantic Flyway are funneled down the peninsula. Raptors, waterfowl, and songbirds are represented on the refuge’s bird list that exceeds 400 species! Wading birds find their place here, too, as well as shore birds. Land based critters from deer to rabbits may be observed.

What You Can Do There: This refuge is big on interpretive education. Check their website for the latest programs, or stop at the fine visitor center (check seasonal hours) and enjoy the displays and get informed as to activities and programs. Self-starters can use the big boat ramp to engage in water-based recreation while landlubbers will enjoy the short Butterfly Trail. The path leaves from the visitor center. The Wildlife Trail combines wildlife viewing with local history as you end up atop a World War II bunker with stellar views. The paved Southern Tip Hike & Bike Trail traces the former Cape Charles Railroad line. Interpretive information, multiple habitats and good views make this adventure a winner.

 

FISHERMAN ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Kiptopeke

GPS Coordinates: 37.09569, -75.9606

About The Refuge:

This island refuge, located just below the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is a critical birding area. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge touches the 2,000-acre isle, one of only 17 places in the United States declared to be a “wetland of international importance”. The refuge is only open to the public through wildlife staff guided tours.

About The Wildlife:

Protected wildlife here is varied. Shorebirds call this round island home, and use the beaches for nesting. Diamondback terrapins also lay their eggs on the beach here. The island is on the raptor migration route, so you can view hawks, eagles and osprey in season.

What You Can Do There: FWS offers Saturday guided tours of the island from October through mid-March. They lead you on a four-mile trail through the multiple ecosystems found here. The three-hour tour starts at adjacent Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. Reservations must be made in advance. Contact the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR at 757-331-2760, extension 123 for details.

 

NANSEMOND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Driver

GPS Coordinates: 36.82141, -76.54448

About The Refuge:

This small, under 500 acre refuge on the Nansemond River, a tidal tributary of the James, is bisected by an access road to a naval radio transmitting facility.

About The Wildlife:

The refuge is important for migratory waterfowl such as mallards and black ducks.

What You Can Do There: Unfortunately, the refuge is closed to visitation.

 

GREAT DISMAL SWAMP NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Lake Drummond inside the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Suffolk

Nearest Town: Suffolk

GPS Coordinates: 36.6181, -76.56184

About The Refuge:

At over 100,000 acres, this is the largest wildlife refuge in Virginia (the lesser part is in North Carolina). The refuge harbors multiple plant communities within its bounds, much of it wetlands. Though the ecosystem has been altered from past uses, the FWS continues to restore the Great Dismal Swamp to its previous condition.

About The Wildlife:

Everything from bears to butterflies call this massive refuge home, expanding the wildlife viewing possibilities. Songbirds inhabit much of the preserve. In late fall incredible numbers of American robins and blackbirds descend on the Great Dismal Swamp. However, birding is best from April through June, coinciding with the spring migration.

What You Can Do There: Visitors hike, bicycle and boat their way to view wildlife and fish. Two ramps serve small boat visitors who want to motor or paddle to Lake Drummond, the largest natural freshwater lake in Virginia. Hikers and bicyclers follow former logging roads that once criss-crossed the refuge. The Washington Ditch, an unpaved track popular with bicyclers, leads 4.5 miles one-way to an overlook of Lake Drummond. Jericho Ditch, also unpaved, is popular with birders. The West Ditch Boardwalk Trail takes an elevated path through a wetland.

 

OCCOQUAN BAY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Nearest Town: Woodbridge

GPS Coordinates: 38.64466, -77.23477

About The Refuge:

This is another metro D.C. area refuge. Its proximity to the urban area makes it important wildlife habitat and important for the nearby citizenry to learn about wildlife. Located where the Occoquan River meets the Potomac River, the 640-acre location of marshes and meadows is heavily managed for maximizing wildlife.

About The Wildlife:

Osprey are most commonly seen, as they hunt the adjacent waters. Visitors might see river otters, common on the refuge but more active at night. American woodcocks inhabit shrubby meadows. Songbirds are plentiful in the meadows, especially when migrating north through the refuge in May. Migrating monarch butterflies can be found here in September.

What You Can Do There: A two-mile loop drive can be undertaken by auto wildlife watchers as well as bicyclists. Four miles of gated roads are open for hikers only, including tracks paralleling Occoquan Bay. Painted Turtle Pond is a popular spot, accessed via Lake Drive. A photo blind on Occoquan Bay is another desirable destination.

 

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4 Comments

Hope Wright says:

I’m so happy that I chose to move to Virginia last year for nature and kayaking! So beautiful.

John Parker says:

We explore Virginia’s National Wildlife in this post. I am excited to go Virginia & see Wildlife of Virginia.

Bailey Black says:

Love this guide! It’s incredible all that Virginia has to offer. I just wrote a blog post on a “bucket list” for fall in Virginia. Check it out below!
http://bybailey.weebly.com/blog