Five Must-See Migrations

"There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds ... something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” So wrote Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder.

From birds and butterflies in flight to whales swimming, you can't help but be inspired by the natural phenomenon of migration. In spring, many animals are on the move, traveling to their summer homes and breeding grounds. Many will leave North America during the fall and head south to winter in warmer climates.  Celebrate these seasonal pageants via our list below of “Five Must-See Migrations” in Virginia.  

1. Shorebirds

The Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve and associated natural areas on the Eastern Shore offer a critical mosaic of habitats for migratory shorebirds. American oystercatchers nest on wild barrier island beaches. Red knots replenish their body weight before continuing their journeys to breeding grounds in the Arctic. Whimbrels also refuel for their epic flights to Canada and Alaska, stalking mainland mudflats and gorging on abundant fiddler crabs.


Late April through early June is prime time for spotting shorebirds. Just remember that, even in one of North America’s migration hotspots, birding is often part science and part luck. Fortunately, the scenery is always beautiful.

Try arriving after a weather front passes through and at mid-to-low tide, but first, plan your trip by checking out the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail's Eastern Shore Loop.


2. Whales 

Abundant food around the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay helps attract two of Virginia’s most majestic migratory animals. During the winter, humpback and fin whales feed along the Virginia coast as they head south to mate and calve in tropical waters. Humpbacks grow to 50 feet long, and their songs and spectacular leaps from the ocean thrill seafarers of all ages. Fin whales grow even longer; these powerful swimmers are the second-largest animal on Earth next to the blue whale.

From late December through mid March, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center offers whale-watching trips departing from Virginia Beach.


3. Songbirds

Neotropical migratory songbirds herald the arrival of spring in Virginia and across North America, raising young and spending their summers here. In the fall, massive flocks hurtle into the night skies as they depart for their winter homes in Mexico, Central America, South America or the Carribean.


The prothonotary warbler is a familiar warm-weather resident of blackwater rivers and forested wetlands. This bright-yellow songbird is unique among Eastern warblers in that it nests only in tree cavities, preferably near standing water. In Virginia, the prothonotary most commonly nests along tidal tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, and it is the signature songbird of Dragon Run.   

From wood warblers in the Allegheny Highlands to cerulean warblers at Fortune’s Cove, birding opportunities abound across the commonwealth. The Eastern Shore — especially the southern tip — provides some of the world’s most critical stopover habitat. Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge offers excellent viewing opportunities, and for a truly special treat, visit the bird-banding station at Kiptopeke State Park for close encounters of the feathery kind.

For viewing opportunities across the state, consult the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail.


4. Monarch Butterflies

The migration of the monarch butterfly spans four generations and up to 3,000 miles. Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate south to Mexico, where they spend the winter hibernating in oyamel fir trees. The spring generation must return northward to the milkweed flowers that feed the insect during its larval stage.


In Virginia, both monarchs and songbirds converge by the millions on the Eastern Shore’s southern tip in the fall, awaiting favorable weather before launching in waves across the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, one of the best spots in Virginia to experience both colorful migrations in all their glory is Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.


5. Raptors

The raptors — birds of prey — include eagles, hawks, kites, harriers, falcons, owls and osprey. While some North American raptors are year-round residents, many others depart en masse during the fall, heading for warmer climes. Broad-wing hawks, for example, gather by the thousands into swirling flocks called kettles as they ride thermals over the mountains.


Virginia hosts a number of popular sites from which to view the spectacle of raptor migration: Snicker's Gap, west of Leesburg; Rockfish Gap, north of Charlottesville; Harvey's Knob, north of Roanoke along the Blue Ridge Parkway; and Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore. Raptor migration in Virginia typically runs from late August into October, peaking by late September.