There’s no better place to take a walk on the wild side than in Virginia. Not only have more than 2,200 species of wildlife – the largest diversity of species east of the Mississippi River – been recorded here, but the extensive Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail makes it easy for visitors to spot many of the birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies and other wildlife found in the Commonwealth.
Although many states have developed similar driving trails with loops linking wildlife-viewing sites, Virginia is the first and only state with a statewide trail system.
The loops also offer opportunities for hiking, biking, boating and other outdoor recreation; exploring caves and natural attractions; and visiting historic and cultural sites-all of which are also good wildlife viewing spots – making the drives appealing even if you aren’t a diehard birder or wildlife watcher. In addition, the loops encompass other attractions from scenic byways and local wineries to natural history museums, botanical gardens and historic buildings.
Program Offers Guides from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries mapped out the trail with the help of several collaborators, opening up the first of the three phases in 2002. The trail system includes a mind-boggling 665 sites on 65 different loops in three regions-Coastal, Mountain and Piedmont. Each loop is designed to be driven in a long weekend or two-to three-day excursion, although several loops can be combined for longer trips.
You can call (866) VABIRDS (822-4737) to request any of the three Discover Our Wild Sides: Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail guides. These illustrated, spiral-bound guidebooks are available at no charge, just for the asking. The Coastal area book includes 18 driving loops located in the region east of I-95. The Mountain area book features 34 western Virginia loops in the geographic region west of U.S. Route 29. The Piedmont area book, the newest in the series, covers 13 loops in the central part of the state.
You also can view the guides and download information on specific loops (including updates on sites and directions) from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ website at www.dgif.virginia.gov. Click on “Wildlife” to access trail information. However, keep in mind that the guides cannot be ordered through the website, only via the toll-free number.
Other handy contacts when planning your trip include the Virginia Tourism Corporation at (800) 321-3244 (www.Virginia.org) for information on area campgrounds and attractions and the Virginia Department of Transportation at (804) 786-2801 (www.virginiadot.org) for highway travel and road conditions.
The reference guides provide detailed information about each loop from driving directions and maps to descriptions of the sites, including contact information, website, operating hours and fees (if any), and what you can expect to see. A listing of area chambers of commerce and tourism offices tells where you can obtain information on campgrounds, restaurants and other services along each loop. There’s even a wildlife-viewing diary at the back of each guide to record your sightings.
To get the most out of your trip, bring your binoculars or spotting scope, a camera with telephoto lens and your favorite bird or wildlife identification guide. Dress for the weather, making sure you have appropriate footwear, as some sites require a short hike, pedal or paddle to reach. Check the guide for information. It’s also a good idea to have a Virginia state road map in your RV to double check directions if necessary.
To get you started, here are a few suggestions for loops, though don’t limit yourself as each region has so much more to offer for watch able wildlife sites, as well as recreation, history and culture.
The Coast Area of the trail system, which opened in October 2002, was the first to be developed. The Plantation Loop, which follows the James River southeast of Richmond, offers a wide range of activities. This trail includes designated places to view American bald eagles, waterfowl, and migrant and nesting songbirds, as well as a fish hatchery, Civil War fort, and several elegantly restored historic plantations.
Combine this with the Richmond Loop, which includes the 80-acre Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and Three Lakes Park with its nature center, aquarium and nature trails that meander through a number of different ecosystems.
Or take the Northern Neck Loop that runs along a point of land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. On this loop you’ll travel to the birthplaces of several historically prominent men, including George Washington, James Madison and Robert E. Lee. The route also includes the Land’s End Wildlife Management Area, which has one of the largest breeding populations of bald eagles in the continental United States.
If you are traveling along the scenic Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, you’ll be able to access sites designated as part of the Skyline Drive Loop. Expect to see a number of different songbirds, as well as white-tailed deer, red foxes and even the occasional black bear. Beagle Gap is a good place to watch the fall hawk migration.
Spend a few days following the Peaks of Otter Loop in west-central Virginia, which includes several natural areas and historic sites.
One of the more popular scenic attractions along this route is the Natural Bridge of Virginia, an impressive 215-foot high limestone arch which, along with the caverns located nearby, is open seasonally for guided tours. Watch the hawk migration at Harvey’s Knob or explore the Peaks of Otter Recreation Area where you can hunt for an endemic salamander-only found here-or visit the Johnson Farm, a living history farm, and Polly Wood’s Ordinary-the first lodging (circa 1830) for travelers in the area.
This loop can be combined with the nearby Blue Ridge Highlands Loop with its 600-million-year-old Devil’s Den cave formation, scenic state parks and Confederate Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s childhood home.
The Piedmont area of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail opened in September 2004.
You have many choices for routes, depending on what you hope to see, though a good option is the Staunton River Loop in south central Virginia. It has a little bit of everything from the MacCallum More Museum and Gardens (with a Native American artifacts collection, art galleries, themed gardens and arboretum) to a historic plantation, a Civil War battlefield and several boat launch areas providing access to spectacular scenery and marsh birds and waterfowl.
If you are interested in history, choose the Battle for Virginia Loop centered around the Fredericksburg area, which mixes wildlife watching with stops at the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Spotsylvania Courthouse Civil War battlefields, or the Monticello Loop, which follows the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and includes Monticello, the impressive mountaintop home and gardens of our third president.
One thing for sure, if you’ve got birds on the brain, Virginia is the place to be and there are so many songs to be heard.