Birding in North Carolina

The varied habitat of this southeastern state is home to some exceptional birds.
National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
11 10 4,879,672

One of the premier hiking trails in North Carolina is called the Mountains-to-Sea Trail—a fitting name, since that’s just what the Tarheel State geographically encompasses.

As the crow flies, it’s 500 miles from the barrier islands of the Outer Banks to the Appalachians Mountains near Tennessee. Over that span, elevation ranges from sea level to 6,684 feet at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Naturally, birding opportunities vary as much as the terrain. The state bird list includes a selection of petrels and shearwaters, species of the southeastern pinewoods, and breeding warblers usually associated with boreal forest. North Carolina also harbors two of the rarest species in the southeast: the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Wood Stork.

The state is bookended by two fine units of the National Park Service: Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a year-round birding hotspot, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which includes one of the highest diversities of breeding neotropical migrants of any area of the United States. In between, birders can comb parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges in a quest to tick off the state’s 470 species.

North Carolina Birding Hotspots


Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Barrier islands can be exciting places to bird, in part because migrants are often forced to follow a narrow strip of land, concentrating their numbers. A barrier island has sea on one side, with a sandy beach, while the other side may be a different habitat of marsh and mudflat. That can add up to lots of birds of many species.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge occupies Hatteras Island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and its habitats and geographic location have made it one of the top birding sites in the East. More than 350 species have been seen here, from migrant warblers to seabirds to the Peregrine Falcons that pass along the beach in fall.

Flocks of waterfowl (including Tundra Swan) feed in refuge wetlands from fall through spring, while those same ponds and impoundments host nesting wading birds of a dozen or more species in summer. Brown Pelican is present year round, and Northern Gannet dives into the Atlantic in winter. Nesting shorebirds include Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet. Shorebirds of more than 35 species are regularly found in refuge wetlands or along the miles of beach.

There’s a visitor center on the main island road four miles south of the bridge at Oregon Inlet, and several natural trails are located nearby, following the edges of impoundments. While waterbirds are the stars at Pea Island, in migration the shrubby vegetation along the dunes can be full of songbirds.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

The huge, striking Tundra Swan is the symbol of this 50,180-acre refuge near the North Carolina coast. Thousands of these birds winter here on Lake Mattamuskeet, the state’s largest natural lake. They can be seen from the Highway 94 causeway across the lake, where there’s an observation platform.

Attempts were made to drain Lake Mattamuskeet in the early 20th century, but—luckily for local wildlife—they failed. Today the shallow lake hosts tens of thousands of waterfowl in winter, as well as more than a dozen species of herons, egrets, ibises, and other wading birds. Osprey and Bald Eagle nest, the latter being common in winter. Shallow marshy areas host 15 or more species of shorebird in late summer.

Some refuge roads are open for birding on the south side of the lake, and non-refuge roads offer lake views on the north side.

The Wings over Water Wildlife Festival in October includes programs and tours of Mattamuskeet and nearby natural areas, and a special second session is held a few weeks later for birders and photographers when more waterfowl are present.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Located on the coast of North Carolina where the Alligator River meets Albemarle South, this 152,000-acre refuge was established in large part to preserve some of the remaining pocosin habitat—wetlands in deep organic soil—from the destruction that had befallen much of it. Alligator River is a great birding location, but it’s also famous for mammals: as the site of a recovery program for the critically endangered red wolf and as a stronghold of the black bear.

The refuge has a designated wildlife drive south of Highway 64, but it’s important to get a map from the website, the office in Manteo, or a kiosk to know the options for the route. Many roads crisscross the refuge, and they’re all good for birding, though caution should be used when they’re wet. Buffalo City Road is one favored birding route. The Creef Cut hiking trail allows viewing of a marsh and a managed wetland. The Sandy Ridge hiking trail passes through wet forest, in part over a boardwalk. The refuge offers regular guided tours in an open-air tram, a good way to learn about its unique environment.

One sought-after bird here is the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker; it’s not common, but might be found in pine forests. Another rare bird is Swainson’s Warbler, which prefers swampy areas with cane. Much easier to see is the beautiful Prothonotary Warbler, another swamp resident.

Tundra Swan and dabbling ducks winter on refuges wetlands, and Osprey and Bald Eagle nests in the area. Notable breeding birds include Brown-headed Nuthatch (found in pines), Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

This park is located on a thin oceanside peninsula called a barrier spit, about 20 miles south of Wilmington. Its lengthy bird list comes about in part from the shorebirds and seabirds that can be observed on the beach and in a marshy inlet of the Cape Fear River called The Basin. It is also a place to see great numbers of birds migrating in fall as they funnel along the coast.

Most birding here takes place from fall through spring, since summer is a time of swimmers, sunbathers, and off-road drivers. However, nesting birds here or nearby include Osprey, Clapper Rail, American Oystercatcher, Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, Willet, several terns including Least, Black Skimmer, Seaside Sparrow, and Painted Bunting. Protected areas are set aside for beach-nesting species. Shorebirds of all kinds are common throughout the year on the beach and in The Basin.

In winter, scanning the Atlantic might turn up scoters, mergansers, Red-throated Loon, or Northern Gannet. Purple Sandpiper is sometimes seen in winter on rocky beach areas. A walk along the 1.1-mile basin trail leads across a marsh that’s good for wading birds, and ends at an observation deck. More than 200 species have been seen on this path.

Airlie Gardens

This garden on the east side of Wilmington is known for formal plantings, huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and fancy weddings, but it’s also a very appealing place to watch birds. If the birding is slow it’s a beautiful place to walk.

The birding probably won’t be slow, though. More than 210 species have been seen here, attracted by 67 acres of gardens and ten acres of freshwater ponds, and the location on the inlet Bradley Creek, less than two miles from the Atlantic Ocean shore.

Several species of ducks, including the beautiful Hooded Merganser, can be common here from fall through spring. Anhinga is present from spring through fall, and Osprey is here year round. A dozen species of wading birds can be seen, including Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and White Ibis. One loop of the 1.2 miles of trails leads to an overlook on Bradley Creek, where various waterbirds including gulls and terns add to a day’s list. Black Skimmer might be seen in summer.

Nesting birds include Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Parula, and the colorful Painted Bunting. Airlie Gardens’ coastal location and mature trees make it excellent for migrant songbirds in spring and fall.

Croatan National Forest

This large area of pinewoods and pocosins (raised swamps on deep organic soil) is home to several typically southern species such as Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow, as well as the regional population of Black-throated Green Warbler.

One popular route for these birds starts on Highway 24, 8.5 miles west of where it leaves Highway 70 west of Morehead City. Go north 3.2 miles on Nine Mile Road, then west 5.3 miles on Millis Road, then south 3.7 miles on Forest Road 123 and Pringle Road back to Highway 24. Another good route to explore is Catfish Lake Road, which runs west of Highway 70 about 10 miles south of New Bern.

You may see Wild Turkey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Worm-eating Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, and Prairie Warbler.

Lake Crabtree County Park

Near Raleigh and Durham, this lakeside county park is a popular birding location nearly year round. Mid-summer is the slowest time, but even then shorebirds may be making their way southward.

The 520-acre lake attracts a very good variety of waterfowl from fall through spring. Double-crested Cormorant and Bald Eagle are seen year-round, and Osprey is present except in winter. Terns are seen in migration, and a long list of shorebirds has been compiled along the lakeshore in spring and fall.

The 215-acre park has more than 16 miles of hiking trails, including a six-mile path that circles the lake. The woods are excellent in migration, with more than 30 species of warblers recorded.

Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve

In between the Army’s Fort Bragg and the golf-crazy town of Pinehurst, this 915-acre tract protects a sample of the longleaf pine forest that once blanketed much of the southeastern United States. It’s part of the Sandhills region, an area of ancient beach dunes where sandy soil favors pine growth. The woods here are open and park-like, with a grassy understory.

The environment alone would be reason enough to visit Weymouth Woods, but it is also a great birding spot. The notable birds are that trio of southern pine specialists: Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Bachman’s Sparrow.

Other nesting birds here include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Summer Tanager.

Several trails wind through the preserve, totaling more than four miles of paths. Regular nature programs are carried out by staff, including bird banding from April to November.

Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary/Chimney Rock State Park

Asheville birders treasure the Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary, just a couple of miles north of downtown. The area is managed by the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, which led an effort to stop commercial development of the site in the 1980s.

Though only ten acres, it boasts a bird list of more than 200 species. Its combination of habitats means that it attracts a nice variety of birds year round. The lake hosts waterfowl in winter, even occasional rarities such as White-winged Scoter and Long-tailed Duck. Great Blue Heron is present year-round, Green Heron breeds, and Osprey is seen in spring and fall. One specialty of the area is Brown-headed Nuthatch, somewhat unusual in this region.

Beaver Lake is at its best in spring and fall migration when, as a small oasis in the city, it provides a resting and feeding place for tired traveling birds. A path with a boardwalk provides access to the sanctuary, and local birders lead regular guided walks on Saturdays.

Twenty miles southeast of the city is another Asheville birders’ favorite. Chimney Rock State Park is noted for its 315-foot-high spire, rising above a valley where Lake Lure lies. Peregrine Falcon nests here, and other breeding birds include Blue-headed Vireo, Common Raven, Worm-eating Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.

Blue Ridge Parkway/Mount Mitchell

Birders with an urge to visit the North Woods can, as an alternative, take a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Operated by the National Park Service, this scenic route winds 469 miles through the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. The highest point on the roadway is 6,047 feet near Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina, but a side road off the parkway accesses Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The birds in the high elevations of the parkway are more like those of Canada than of the American South, with species found nesting nowhere else in North Carolina. A great many overlooks, picnic sites, and recreation areas are scattered along the parkway, making it easy to stop here and there, looking and listening for birds on a late spring or summer drive.

Heading north from Asheville and stopping at sites such as Craggy Gardens, Balsam Gap, Mount Mitchell, and Linville Falls can bring sightings of Ruffed Grouse, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Peregrine Falcon (reintroduced in the area), Blue-headed Vireo, Common Raven, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.

Warblers are a special attraction for Blue Ridge Parkway birders. Notable species of the high elevations include Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

Birding Trail

North Carolina Birding Trail

Natural features divide North Carolina neatly into thirds, with mountains in the west, the coastal plain in the east, and the Piedmont Plateau in between. There are three sections of birding trails: Coastal, Piedmont, and Mountain. Travel this trio of trails for a cross section of some of the best birding on the continent. The coastal plain features the long sweep of the Outer Banks, where the Wright brothers made their first flight and where huge flocks of migratory shorebirds still gather in spring and fall. Waterfowl also abound, and wintering flocks of tundra swans provide a spectacle for winter trips. In the upper coastal plain and the Piedmont’s tranquil pine forests, there are parties of brown-headed nuthatches chattering and clambering about the branches like little wind-up toys. Scarlet tanagers and rose-red summer tanagers sing from the woods, while indigo buntings and yellow-breasted chats add spots of color in the brushy edges. The western peaks have a Canadian flavor, with dark-eyed juncos and Blackburnian warblers singing from the spruces, a world away from the coast’s subtropical feeling. —Kenn Kaufman

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