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  • Writer's pictureKaren Hogan

Virginia NWR Trip August-September 2018

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Over Labor Day Weekend we visited 5 National Wildlife Refuges in the state of Virginia, including Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck, Occoquan Bay, Rappahannock, Back Bay and Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuges.

Karen and Teresa at Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp NWR September 2, 2018

Wednesday, August 29, 2018 Drive from Lexington to Chapel Hill.

Teresa drove down to Chapel Hill from Lexington, Kentucky, a 480 mile drive.


Thursday, August 30, 2018 Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge

We got up early so we could drive from Chapel Hill, NC to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge and have most of the afternoon to bird at this urban refuge just 18 miles south of Washington, DC along the Potomac River in the Occuquan Bay. In early 1960’s the Mason Neck peninsula was viewed by some as a perfect place to build homes and an airport. Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell, a local resident, recognized the value of the peninsula as a pristine natural area and a safe haven for the endangered Bald Eagles. Establish in 1969, Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 2,227 acres and the habitat at the refuge includes mature hardwood forest, freshwater marsh and nearly six miles of shoreline.

We hiked on all 3 trails, including the 3 mile Woodmarsh Trail and the Joseph V. Gartian Great Marsh Trail following the forested peninsula to an observation platform overlooking the Great Marsh.

We spent the night 20 minutes away in Woodbridge, VA to be ready for our visit to Occuquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge the next day.


Friday, August 31, 2018 Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge along with Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge and Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge, were reorganized in 1998 into the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The 3 refuges border the Occoquan Bay of the Potomac River. Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge has a hiking trail that is only accessible by boat. Established in 1979, Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge consists of 325 acres of woodland and freshwater tidal marsh.

Established in 1998, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge consist of 642 acres including grasslands, shrublands, wetlands, and wooded areas.

At the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge we hiked and spent time birding along 4 miles of trails at the refuge including the Dawson Beach Rd, Fox Road, Deephole Point Road and Easy Rd. We also hiked Lake Drive to the Painted Turtle Pond. We drove the 2 mile auto loop. We when got back to the shelter we met the local group just finishing a count of of many species including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and mammals. It was exciting to hear what folks had observed during the count and report some of the species we had observed while hiking the trails at this beautiful refuge. One of the count participants was the Occuquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge founder and he was happy to pose for a photo with us.

Teresa, Founder, Karen at Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge, August 31, 2018

Finishing up our visit to Occoquan National Wildlife Refuge around 1 pm we drove to Woodbridge to look for the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex headquarters office. We found the office in a shopping center but the office was closed possibly for lunch. We decided to get on the road and head to the Port Royal Unit, the most northern unit of the Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge as we had planned for 1.5 days of birding at the Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge. This would give us enough time to bird and hike at all the open units of this refuge. Established in 1996, Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge, consist of 9,030 acres and protects 20,000 acres wetland and upland habitat along the Rappahannock River and its major tributaries. The refuge units include Port Royal, Styer/Bishop, Toby’s Point, Mothershead, Peter, Wilna/Wright, Tayloe, Kennedy Tract, Franklin, Wellford, Island Farm, Hutchinson, Thomas and Laurel Grove and are located in Essex, King George, Caroline, Richmond, and Westmoreland counties. Habitat at the refuge includes fresh water tidal marsh, forest swamp, upland deciduous forest, mixed pine forest, and grassland habitats.

The Refuge brochure list 4 units open to the public for wildlife viewing including: Wilna, Hutchinson, Laurel Grove, and Port Royal Units. I called a few weeks before our trip and talked to the Refuge Manager, he said the Wellford and Tayloe Units were also open for hiking and would have a posted trail map in the parking lot of each unit.

The most northern unit of the Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge was the Port Royal Unit. We arrived at the Port Royal Unit around 3:30 pm. We hiked and spent time birding along the 2.5 mile trail at the Port Royal Unit and reported 30 species of birds on eBird. Just before dusk we visited Wilmont Landing/Toby's Point where we observed over 50 Common Nighthawks flying over a field.

Headed to our hotel in Warsaw, Virginia we realized we were both hungry for a yummy non-fast food meal, Teresa checked yelp and found a burger joint across the Rappahannock River in Tappahannock, NN BURGER Restaurant, so good!


Saturday, September 1, 2018 Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge

Up early we crossed the Rappahannock River and arrived by 7 am at the Hutchinson Unit of the Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge. We spent over 4 hours hiking the trails and reported 39 species of birds including 100 Bobolink. We spent time birding at the Wellford Unit, Tayloe Unit and Wilna/Wright's Unit and the Laurel Grove Unit. At the Wilna/Wright's Unit we saw large flocks of Bobolinks flying over the fields and reported 150 Bobolinks on our eBird checklist.

Our original plan had been to spend the night in Hopewell, Virginia and bird at James River National Wildlife Refuge on September 2nd but I had not made arrangements to get a permit to bird at the James River National Wildlife Refuge. We checked the map and decided to checkout the shorebirds along the Virginia beach at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Leaving the Laurel Grove Unit of Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge at 7:30pm we headed to Norfolk, VA to the small hotel I had found online. We were late getting to the hotel and had to make arrangements with the hotel manager to get into our room after 10pm.


Sunday, September 2, 2018 Back Bay and Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

We stayed in Norfolk overnight and arrived at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge by 7am Sunday morning. The refuge was already busy with visitors on this Labor Day weekend.

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a vital part of the Atlantic Flyway, was established in 1938 to provide habitat for feeding and resting migratory birds. The refuge originally had 4,589-acres but in the 1980s US Fish and Wildlife worked to increase the refuge to 9250 acres. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge habitats include a thin strip of barrier island coastline, beach, dunes, woodlands, agricultural fields, emergent freshwater marshes and marshes on the islands within the waters of Back Bay. Thousands of Tundra Swans, Snow Geese, Canada Geese and ducks visit the refuge during the fall/winter migration, peaking during December and January. The refuge also provides habitat for threatened and endangered species including loggerhead sea turtle and piping plovers.

We meet Rob and Andrew, local birders who helped us find the Baird’s Sandpiper on the beach of the Refuge. We hiked 2.5 miles at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge including part of the east levee. We will need to return to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to hike more of the 8 miles of scenic trails including the west levee that was closed during our visit.

Andrew suggested a local hotspot Princess Anne WMA--Whitehurst Tract and we headed over for a couple hours of birding.

Arriving at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge at 5pm we still have a couple of hours of daylight to bird. We drove the Railroad Ditch, West Ditch and Interior Ditch to Lake Drummond. The 3,100 acre Lake Drummond is the largest natural lake in Virginia and was formed about 4,000 years ago after a fire burned away several feet of peat soil. The very pure water of Lake Drummond is dark and murky, stained from the peat soils, as the water perks through the peat. On this day the wind was up and the dark water of the lake was broken with waves and white caps.


Monday, September 3, 2018 Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1974, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 112,000 acres, located southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

The Refuge is largest intact swamp at 112,000 acres that once covered more than 1 million acres. We hiked the Dismal Town Boardwalk Trail for a couple of hours and reported 11 species of birds on eBird.

We drove the 7 miles along the Railroad Ditch, West Ditch and Interior Ditch to Lake Drummond. Along the Railroad Ditch we stopped at the area behind the Headquarters building where we saw several feeding flocks including 6 species of Warblers. We also stopped to hike a couple of trails right off the West Ditch. It was amazing the Lake Drummond was calm today with a smooth glassy top. It appeared we were at a totally different lake than that what we had visited the night before. During our 4 hrs of driving and hiking along the ditches to Lake Drummond we reported 22 species of birds.

Karen and Teresa at Lake Drummond, Great Dismal Swamp NWR, September 3, 2018


Visited 5 refuges in Virginia

Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge 8/30/18

Occuquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge 8/30/18

Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge 9/1/18

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge 9/2/18

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge 9/2/18, 9/3/18




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