West Virginians take pride in our state’s rich natural resources and many of us enjoy them by hiking, paddling, climbing, and mountain biking our way through untamed pathways in the hills and hollers. But one of the country’s fastest-growing hobbies takes a calmer approach to outdoor enjoyment. Bird watching, also known as birding, is a gateway to connect with nature that requires little gear and less adrenaline than typical adventure sports.
As a child, I used my grandma’s point-and-shoot camera to take photos of birds that came to the suet feeder that hung outside my bedroom window. I did a 4-H project based on a tiny picture book filled with a few dozen bird species. I even counted hawks in the fields on my family’s farm. In short, I thought birds were cool, but I had yet to develop an avian obsession.
It wasn’t until I connected with a group of birders in college that I became hooked. I remember thinking, Wait, there are more types of birds than in my childhood picture book? And are they really that colorful? You can see those birds here in West Virginia? All of a sudden, a tree along the trail wasn’t just a tree. Now, each tree appeared as a home or stopover for hundreds of birds. Some species spent the entire summer nesting and raising their young among the security of the branches, others stopped by to take a break on their thousand-mile migratory journeys. Waterways were no longer just a place to kayak. They became a place to discover wintering ducks and elusive migrating shorebirds who had come south from as far as the Arctic. No matter where I was, the skies were now open to anything and everything, especially the spectacle of majestic birds of prey.
Mountain State Birding
There are more than 100 bird species that breed in West Virginia, and in total, more than 300 species have been seen throughout the state. That’s a decent percentage of the roughly 800 species that regularly occur in the continental United States. The total list in West Virginia includes birds that migrate through the state between their summer and winter grounds, birds who spend only the winter here, and rare sightings of birds that aren’t usually seen here.
Going birding is easy. It could happen anywhere, anytime. Fishing in Bluestone Lake? Bald eagles are numerous there and in many of the state’s major waterways thanks in part to the Endangered Species Act, which spurred a remarkable comeback from near-extinction a few decades ago. Hiking in Dolly Sods? Like the flora, the species seen here in the summer are akin to species in Canada’s boreal region. Crossing the Ohio River after a trip, smiling as you see the “Welcome to West Virginia” sign? If you’re lucky, you just might catch a pair of peregrine falcons resting on top of the bridge after a nice meal of fresh pigeon.
Identifying Bird Species
With birding, the more you learn, the more you’ll want to know. It beings with the thrill of successfully identifying a bird—especially a species that you haven’t seen before. Common birds with a unique appearance, such as the great blue heron, can be easy to ID. Some are a little harder, like the rose-breasted grosbeak—the bird featured on some of our license plates. The male’s black, white, and red plumage is simple enough to notice, but females are a bold contrast of brown and white markings that are similar to several other species. Knowing to look for white markings on the wings, streaking on the breast, and a very large bill is enough to confirm the species ID.
After noticing and identifying a grosbeak outside your door for the first time, you’ll likely start to wonder more. Where did it come from? Has it been here all along? Where is it going? What is it eating? Is that it calling? Oh look, there’s another one! Did it make that noise to call to the second grosbeak? If I put bird seed out, will they eat it?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have that string of questions every time you see a bird. And that’s just the start. You may have looked the grosbeak up online to see what species it was, but now, you want a field guide near your window for the next time an unknown bird appears. When you purchase a field guide, you suddenly realize that birds of every color and size could be right outside your door. You may start keeping a list of birds you have seen. You may begin noting bird species you want to see. When you start learning about the habitats of different bird species, you’ll discover that you can see even more bird species if you visit different environments, even within West Virginia.
That’s what I love most about birding—it has taken me to what feels like every corner of our beautiful state. I keep track of every bird species I see and try to see as many species in West Virginia as I can. Many species can be spotted virtually everywhere in our state, whereas others only occur in specific places. When I hike, I listen for bird songs and watch for movement in the trees—a level of awareness that has given me the gift of seeing nature in a much more intimate way. With constant discovery, my understanding of the balance of nature and the impact of humankind deepens, and that is a powerful thing to experience.
But birding doesn’t have to be an intense, all-encompassing activity. It can be whatever you want it to be. If you’re already outside doing what you love to do, then birding can be as simple as keeping an eye out for a bird or two while you’re out in your kayak or on the rocks. Identifying birds isn’t even necessary to enjoy them. The US Fish and Wildlife Service did a survey and found that 45 million people in the United States watch birds. One potential reason that birding is soaring in popularity—pun intended—for people of all ages is because you can personalize it to your liking.
If you want to get into birding, getting a pair of binoculars and a field guide is a good start. There is a growing community of bird watchers in West Virginia, and a quick search on Google or Facebook can help you find them. There are several clubs around the state that lead regular bird walks and events, and there are birding festivals throughout West Virginia. The Mountaineer Audubon Society has resources on its website to learn more about getting started in birding.
There are many free public birding events in West Virginia throughout the year. Two seasonal events are fantastic fall birding experiences. One is a hawk watch at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Monroe County. Hawk watches are monitoring stations for hawk, eagle, falcon, and osprey migration along the birds’ eastern routes to their wintering grounds, which can be as far away as South America. The observatory’s unique position on the mountainside allows you to watch hundreds or thousands of raptors at eye level as they pass by. September is the best time to see large numbers of these birds, specifically hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks. October and November have decreasing total numbers of birds, but better chances of seeing rarer species, such as Golden Eagles. Last year, the site tallied more than 6,000 raptors seen throughout the fall. To enjoy the hawk watch, which occurs daily through November, all you have to do is show up. It’s a mile hike from the parking lot. Bring warm clothes and a snack, and enjoy the experience.
Another top fall birding activity is bird banding at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory located within Dolly Sods in Grant County. Bird banding is the process of catching birds in nets, placing a tiny identification band on their leg, and releasing them. Scientists can then track these banded birds to study a myriad of things, including migration routes, population changes, and behavior. Visiting a bird banding station will allow you to view many species of birds up close as they go through the banding process. The observatory is the oldest continuous bird banding station in North America. Since it was founded in 1958, nearly 275,000 birds have been banded. Banding takes place daily at the station until the beginning of October. Like the hawk watch, all you have to do is show up to experience it.
Whether you start keeping a list of bird species that you’ve seen, participate in a birding activity, or just keep an eye out for interesting birds as you explore, I hope you notice the remarkable birds that are in West Virginia. Before you know it, you may become hooked on birding just like me.
Mollee Brown is an avid birder, explorer, and West Virginia native. She owns Nighthawk Advertising Solutions, a marketing company serving birding and ecotourism businesses.