9 Must-See Hawks in Virginia: (+ Photos)

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Shenandoah National Park Hawks in Virginia

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Hawks in Virginia are diverse and abundant, with several species calling the state home. These majestic birds of prey can be seen soaring through the skies or perched on tree branches, hunting for small mammals and birds. Virginia’s varied habitats, such as forests, open fields, and wetlands, provide ideal hunting grounds and nesting sites for hawks.

Lists of Hawks in Virginia:

  1. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) – As the most common hawk species in Virginia, they are found throughout the state, including Shenandoah National Park.

  2. Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) – Commonly seen in wooded areas, look for them in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

  3. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) – Cooper’s Hawks are well distributed in Virginia, particularly in forested areas like George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

  4. Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) – Broad-winged Hawks are common during the migration season, usually seen in forested areas such as Sky Meadows State Park.

  5. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) – These hawks are often seen in forests during migration periods, locations like Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge are prime spotting areas.

  6. Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius) – Northern Harriers prefer open habitats such as marshes and grasslands. Prime locations include Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

  7. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – Ospreys are often found near water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay.

  8. Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) – Northern Goshawks prefer dense forests, they can be spotted in large woodland areas like Shenandoah National Park, although they are less common.

  9. Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) – Rough-legged Hawks are winter visitors in Virginia and can be seen in open fields and meadows during this time.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameButeo jamaicensis
Length 45–65 cm (18–26 in)
Wingspan110–141 cm (3 ft 7 in – 4 ft 8 in)
Weight690 to 1,600 g (1.5 to 3.5 lb)

The Red-Tailed Hawk is a bird of prey that is commonly found across North America. This adaptable raptor is known for its brick-red tail, which is most noticeable in adults from above or underneath. The diet of the Red-Tailed Hawk is very diverse, including small mammals like mice and squirrels, as well as birds and reptiles.

This hawk is often seen perched on poles or soaring in wide circles high above fields, forests, and highways. Its habitat is extremely varied, ranging from desert and scrublands to forests and tropical rainforests. Its call, a raspy, screaming kee-eeeee-arr, is often used in movies to represent any bird of prey.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk
Red Shouldered Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameButeo lineatus
Length15 to 23 in
Wingspan35 to 50 in
Weight1.21 lb- 1.5 lb

The Red-Shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus, prevalent in North America. It is characterized by its reddish-brown shoulder patches, from which it derives its name. Other distinctive features include its banded tail and translucent crescents near the wingtips that are visible during flight.

Red-Shouldered Hawks typically inhabit mixed woodlands, often near rivers and swamps, where they hunt for a variety of prey, including small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally other birds. Unlike some other hawk species, they are quite vocal, emitting a distinctive, repetitive whistle that often gives away their presence. These hawks build nests high in deciduous trees where they usually lay 2 to 4 eggs. The pairs are monogamous, often maintaining their bond for many years and defending their territories fiercely.

Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameAccipiter cooperii
Length35 to 46 cm (14 to 18 in) /Female: 42 to 50 cm (17 to 20 in)
Wingspan 62 to 99 cm (24 to 39 in)
WeightMale: 280 g (9.9 oz) in 48/ Female: 473 g (1.043 lb)

Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey in the Accipiter genus, native to the North American continent. It’s named after the American naturalist William Cooper, and distinguished by its slate-gray back, red-barred chest, and rounded tail with broad white terminal band. It is similar in appearance to the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk, but can be differentiated by its larger size and rounded tail.

Inhabiting various types of woodland and forests, Cooper’s Hawks are agile predators known for their skill at chasing birds through trees, their primary prey being small to medium-sized birds. They also feed on small mammals and, less commonly, reptiles. They’re noted for their explosive flight pattern, consisting of a few rapid wingbeats followed by a short glide. Cooper’s Hawks nest in trees, and both parents share duties of incubating the eggs and raising the young. Their call is a distinctive, repetitive ‘cak-cak-cak’, often heard during courtship or when disturbed.

Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk
Broad Winged Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameButeo platypterus
Length13 to 17 in
Wingspan29 to 39 in
Weight9.3 to 19.8 oz

The Broad-winged Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, belonging to the Buteo genus. It’s primarily found throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada, migrating long distances to Central and South America for the winter. The bird is named for its relatively broad wings, and it displays a characteristic white band on the tail, which is bordered by two darker bands.

Broad-winged Hawks inhabit deciduous forests and woodlands, where they primarily feed on small mammals, amphibians, insects, and occasionally birds. They are known for their distinctive soaring flight during migration, often traveling in large groups known as “kettles.” These hawks are monogamous and build nests high in trees where the female usually lays 1 to 3 eggs. Their call is a piercing, two-parted whistle, heard most frequently during the breeding season.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk
Sharp Shinned Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameAccipiter striatus
Length23 – 30 cm
Wingspan17 to 23 in
Weight82 – 120 g

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is the smallest member of the Accipiter genus found in North America. Noted for its slender body and short, rounded wings, this hawk is characterized by its blue-gray back and barred orange or reddish underparts. The name “sharp-shinned” refers to the bird’s thin, pencil-like lower leg.

Sharp-shinned Hawks inhabit forests and woodlands, where they exhibit agility and stealth in hunting small birds, their primary food source, although they occasionally consume rodents and insects. They’re known for their impressive flight pattern involving quick, successive wingbeats followed by short glides. When it comes to nesting, they favor coniferous trees and both parents participate in raising their young. Their call, often heard during courtship or territory disputes, is a high-pitched, repetitive ‘kik-kik-kik’.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameCircus hudsonius
Length41–52 cm (16–20 in)
Wingspan 97–122 cm (38–48 in)
WeightMale 10 to 26 ounces (280 to 730 g)
Female: 11 to 30 ounces (310 to 850 g)

The Northern Harrier is a bird of prey that belongs to the Circinae subfamily and stands out due to its distinctively owl-like facial disk, slender body, and long tail. This species exhibits a low and slow flying pattern when hunting, often skimming just above the ground of open fields and marshes. The males are predominantly gray, while the females and young are brown with streaks of white.

Northern Harriers primarily feed on small mammals and birds. Unique among hawks, these birds possess an owl-like trait of using auditory cues as well as visual ones to locate and catch prey. They’re also known for their polygynous breeding system, where a male may have up to five mates at once, each nesting in different locations within his territory.

Osprey

Osprey
Osprey 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NamePandion haliaetus
Length50–66 cm (19.5 – 26 in)
Wingspan127–180 cm (50 – 71 in)
Weight2 lb 0 oz – 4 lb 10 oz)

The Osprey, is a unique bird of prey found almost worldwide. It’s distinct for its diet, as it feeds almost exclusively on fish, diving feet-first to catch its prey in bodies of water. This bird is easily identifiable by its dark brown back, contrasting with its white underparts and head, and a distinctive dark eye-stripe that extends to the sides of the neck.

Ospreys are known for their incredible ability to hover in the air while locating fish below, before plunging into the water for the catch. Their nests, made of sticks and lined with softer material, are usually built in open surroundings for easy approach, often on top of trees, poles, or platforms specifically designed to encourage Osprey habitation.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameAccipiter gentilis
LengthMale: 46 to 61 cm (18 to 24 in) / Female: 58 to 69 cm (23 to 27 in)
Wingspan89 to 105 cm (35 to 41 in)/ Female: 108 to 127 cm (43 to 50 in)
Weight

The Northern Goshawk is a large bird of prey and the largest member of the Accipiter genus. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, it’s characterized by its slate-gray upperparts, finely barred underparts, and prominent white eyebrow stripe. The name “goshawk” originates from the Old English term for “goose hawk,” denoting the bird’s prowess at hunting large prey.

Northern Goshawks inhabit large, uninterrupted forests, where they are skilled hunters of a wide range of prey, including small mammals and medium to large birds. They are particularly agile fliers, often chasing prey through densely forested environments. These hawks are monogamous, with pairs often returning to the same nesting territory year after year. Their nests are built high in trees, and their breeding season is heralded by spectacular aerial displays and a loud, repetitive ‘kak-kak-kak’ call.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough legged Hawk
Rough legged Hawk 2
FeatureMeasurement
Scientific NameButeo lagopus
Length18–24 in
Wingspan47 to 60 in
Weight1.32 to 3.66 lb

The Rough-legged Hawk, also a member of the Buteo genus, is named for its feathered legs that are adapted to cold environments in its Arctic breeding grounds. Characterized by a wide variety of plumage, all individuals display a characteristic dark “wrist” patch on the underwing, and a white base to the tail. The light morphs are predominantly white and brown, while the dark morphs are more uniformly dark brown.

Rough-legged Hawks are known for their unique hovering flight behavior when hunting for small mammals, which make up a significant portion of their diet. During the breeding season, these hawks are found in the tundra of the Arctic, where they nest on cliffs or bluffs. In winter, they migrate to southern Canada and the northern United States, becoming one of the few raptors that can adjust well to the cold weather conditions.

Where to Spot Hawks in Virginia 

The most diverse range of hawks in Virginia can be spotted at Shenandoah National Park. Its mix of deciduous forests, wetlands, and open spaces provides an ideal environment for many hawk species.

Here are some additional exceptional places for hawk-spotting in Virginia:

  1. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, this refuge is a common stopover for migratory hawks like the Cooper’s Hawk during the fall.

  2. First Landing State Park: Nestled in Virginia Beach, this park offers excellent views of Red-shouldered Hawks, especially during the breeding season in spring.

  3. George Washington and Jefferson National Forests: In these extensive forest areas, you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Goshawk, particularly during the fall migration.

  4. Highland County: Known as “Virginia’s Switzerland,” this high-altitude area is a great place to spot Broad-winged Hawks, especially during the spring and fall migrations.

  5. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge: In Suffolk, this refuge is a popular site for viewing Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers year-round.

Virginia’s diverse habitats and unique geography make it an ideal place to observe an array of hawk species. From the coastal plains to the Appalachian Mountains, each region offers a different birding experience, ensuring that no two visits are the same.

Not only can you discover a wide range of hawks in Virginia, but the birding adventure continues beyond the state borders. From the majestic hawks of West Virginia soaring over the Appalachian range, to the hawks of Maryland that frequent the Chesapeake Bay area. Heading south, the hawks of North Carolina inhabit diverse ecosystems from the coastal areas to the Great Smoky Mountains. In the east, the hawks of Kentucky grace the skies over the rolling hills and dense forests. And if you travel north, you’ll encounter the hawks of Washington D.C., making their homes in both urban and parkland areas.

Facts about Hawks in Virginia 

  1. Raptor Migration Along the Blue Ridge Mountains: Every fall, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia provide a stage for the southern migration of hawks. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a fantastic place to witness this spectacle.

  2. Red-shouldered Hawks’ Preference for Wetlands: Red-shouldered Hawks are prevalent in the wetland areas of Virginia. Their loud, distinctive call often gives away their presence.

  3. Cooper’s Hawks’ Adaptation to Urban Areas: Originally woodland birds, Cooper’s Hawks have successfully adapted to urban and suburban environments in Virginia. They can often be seen hunting near bird feeders.

  4. Broad-winged Hawk Migration: The Broad-winged Hawk, a smaller Buteo, can be seen in large numbers during their fall migration through Virginia, offering a magnificent spectacle for bird watchers.

  5. Raptor Rehabilitation at the Wildlife Center of Virginia: This center plays a crucial role in rehabilitating injured, orphaned, and ill hawks, contributing to the conservation efforts for these magnificent birds.

FAQs About Hawks in Virginia 

What is the most common hawk in Virginia?

The most common hawk in Virginia is the Red-tailed Hawk (buteo hawks family). Found throughout the state, this bird thrives in a variety of habitats, from forests and open countryside to urban areas. They are known for their reddish-brown tail.

What is the biggest hawk in Virginia?

The Northern Goshawk, though rare, is the largest hawk seen in Virginia. These secretive birds prefer mature, continuous forests, and their presence can indicate a healthy ecosystem.

What is the smallest hawk in Virginia?

The smallest hawk in Virginia is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Despite their small size, these hawks are agile hunters often spotted near bird feeders, where they hunt smaller birds.

When is the breeding season for hawks in Virginia?

Hawks in Virginia typically start breeding in early spring, around late March to early April. This season can extend until July, depending on the species and weather conditions.

What do hawks eat in Virginia?

Hawks in Virginia consume a variety of prey, including small mammals, birds, ground squirrels and reptiles. The exact diet depends on the species – Red-tailed Hawks often feed on rodents, while Sharp-shinned Hawks primarily eat other birds, scouting them out from tall trees.

Are Hawks protected in Virginia?

Yes, common hawks and other birds of prey like the bald eagle, fish hawk, peregrine falcons and owl like the easten screech owl are protected in Virginia under both state law and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to harm, kill, trap, or possess hawks without the appropriate permits.

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