There are six different species of falcons that can be found in the state of Virginia. These falcons are the American Kestrel, the Crested Caracara, the Merlin, the Gyrfalcon, the Peregrine Falcon and the Prairie Falcon.
Whilst all of these birds visit the state, there are only two species that nest there year-round. These are the American Kestrel and the Peregrine Falcon. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has a falcon monitoring and management programme to help protect the raptors in the state.
Virginia has a sub-tropical climate, giving the state hot and humid summers and occasional snowy winters. There are 38 state parks in the state of Virginia and there are 19 National Park sites. The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge is the most popular spot for watching falcons in the state.
The most commonly seen falcons in this refuge are Merlins and Peregrine Falcons. Now that we’ve talked about the state of Virginia and what falcons can be found there, let’s look at these birds in more detail.
What Falcons can be seen in Virginia?
Table of Contents
1. American Kestrel
Insects, some small rodents / birds
American Kestrels are known for being the smallest falcon across North America. Rusty brown feathers cover the bird’s back whilst it’s head is a slate blue colour and it’s belly is covered in white feather. Whilst recently these falcons have started nesting closer to human and urban areas, they still tend to nest in densely packed forests in high up trees.
These birds are very territorial, especially during the mating season. They will fight off other birds that get too close to their territory and will advertise that their territory has been marked by doing a series of swooping dives through the surrounding areas.
In Virginia, American Kestrels tend to be found in the rural countryside of the state. Because of this, the Virginia Society of Ornithology has been placing kestrel boxes throughout the countryside in an attempt to help the population that has been declining in the state. If you drive through the countryside and see some of these boxes, then you have a high chance of spotting one of these birds.
American kestrels are most active during the mating season which occurs in the spring. The specific months range from march to august. Males hunt for the females during the mating season so they are out hunting for a longer period of time than usual. They also hunt during the middle of the day so this is your best time to get ready and go bird watching.
2. Crested Caracara
The Crested Caracara is known for its heavy bill and black feathers. They are a medium sized bird that prefer to stay in open country. They like to use the open ground to run for a short while before taking flight. During the mating season these birds become quite territorial.
Breeding pairs will usually stay together for several years but outside of the mating season, these falcons will remain completely solitary. They will also return to their nests year after year, if they are not able to use their specific nest, they will make a new one in the same territory.
The Crested Caracara is quite rare to find in Virginia, however, recently there have been more and more reports of Crested Caracaras being spotted on Virginia Beach. This makes sense as these birds prefer open land and they will make their nests on cliffs or rock edges where available. This looks like it may be a new hotspot for Crested Caracara enthusiasts, so I suggest you take a trip there.
These birds have a long mating season, and this is the best time to try and spot one as it is when they are most active. The mating season can last from January to September. They increase their hunting and territorial activity during these months as well, particularly the first six months. From January to June is your greatest chance of seeing a Crested Caracara.
Up to 10 years
Merlins are small falcons with a body covered in streaky feathers. In recent years, Merlins have been observed nesting closer to urban areas, despite usually preferring the open country. During the mating season, these falcons find nests that have been abandoned rather than building their own. They only mate with one other bird during this season, however, they will often find a different mate from year to year.
In Virginia, Merlins are most likely to be found in the northern areas of the state. Particularly over open grasslands and in small forests. Whilst these birds are frequent visitors of Virginia, they do not nest here so you are very unlikely to spot a Merlin’s nest.
You are most likely to see one of these falcons during the winter months. In this time, they migrate south to avoid the cold winter months in the north. October is the prime month for spotting Merlins as this is when they usually begin their migration south, so you have a good chance of seeing them arriving in the state.
Up to 14 years
Mostly small birds
The Gyrfalcon is large falcon covered with streaky grey feathers. They are one of the rarer falcons to be seen across north America, usually residing further north in arctic climates. These birds will build nests up to 5000ft in height, usually on cliffsides if they are available. Females are bigger than the males and a breeding pair of Gyrfalcons will mate for life.
As well as this, they will often spend all of the year together as a pair, not just during the mating season. The male will court a female by performing a series of aerial swoops and dives through the air. These falcons will defend their territory from other falcons by issuing a series of sharp vocal calls when other falcons approach.
It is very rare to see a Gyrfalcon in Virginia, but if you do see one it is very likely going to be to the north of the state. The first ever recorded instance of a Gyrfalcon in Virginia is called Hudson and now resides in the Wildlife Centre of Virginia, where he is well taken care of.
The only time you will ever have a chance of seeing a Gyrfalcon in Virginia is during the winter months. They migrate further south during this time to avoid the harsh winter months of Canada. Migration occurs over several months, but December is when the highest amounts of Gyrfalcons migrate, so this is your best chance to spot one in Virginia.
5. Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is known as the fastest bird in the world. They will fly high and then dive to catch their prey, they are able to reach speeds of up to 200mph. These falcons have a white feathered belly and dark grey backs. Males will prepare several nesting sites in preparation for the mating season and when they have courted a female, the female will choose the site for them to raise their eggs.
Peregrine Falcons are the most common falcon that is found in Virginia. They are commonly found making their nests in the Virginia Mountains. The most common mountain range they are seen nesting in is in Shenandoah National Park. This has now become a popular destination for avid bird watchers, and I recommend this park if you want to see one of these falcons.
Peregrine Falcons, like most other falcons, are most active during their mating season. The males can be seen preparing a variety of nests, ready for the female’s choice. The mating season lasts from February to July, the most active month being march. This is your best time to go falcon watching.
6. Prairie Falcons
Prairie Falcons, as the name suggests, are most commonly found in prairie lands. These birds are covered in brown feathers and are medium in size. Breeding pairs of these falcons will visit various locations together before deciding on the best place to build their nests. These birds will roost close to one another during the breeding season and often vocalise back and forth during the courting stage.
The first recorded Prairie Falcon to be seen in Virginia was only recently in 2017. It was spotted to the north of Old Town Alexandria. They have also recently been spotted in Shenandoah National Park, their population is slowly increasing in population in the state. The national park is the best place to try and spot a Prairie Falcon and if you’re unlucky and don’t see one, you have a good chance of spotting a different type of falcon.
These falcons will migrate further south in the states during the winter months and this is the time when there will be the highest concentration of these birds in Virginia. However, this is not a large-scale migration and only lasts for November and December, these two months are your best time to go falcon watching.
We are avid bird-watchers who recently retired, allowing us more time to travel the world. Fortunately, we have managed to visit numerous countries around Europe, Asia, and America. Watching and photographing birds has been a passion for many years and we are making the most of the extra time on our hands!