When birders discuss North Carolina, the first region that usually comes to mind is the Outer Banks. This chain of barrier islands, over 100 miles long, includes the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and several other protected areas. Many more National Wildlife Refuge tracts such as Mattamuskeet, Alligator River, Pocosin, Cedar Island, and others protect large nearby areas. Due to all this protection, the banks have escaped the rampant development that has degraded much of the coastline further south. They host the annual Wings Over Water festival and attract birders from all over the US, and for good reason. The Outer Banks are a magnet for migrating birds, ranging from northern species such as Harlequin Duck to southern ones such as Roseate Spoonbill, and from western wanderers like Cinnamon Teal to Eurasian vagrants like Ruff.
The southern NC coast has less of a national reputation than the Outer Banks, but might actually have a greater variety. Areas like Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, Fort Fisher, and Fort Macon State Park attract many migrants and rarities. Christmas Bird Counts in Wilmington and Southport occasionally rank among the highest species totals in the US outside of Texas and Florida.
Forest-clad Mountains ©Peg Abbott Naturalist Journeys
The banks and adjacent areas like Mattamuskeet are famous for their diversity and sheer numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls and other migrants that must be seen to be believed. The banks are also the staging area for year-round pelagic trips that combine tropical species (Masked Booby) with arctic (Dovekie) and even Antarctic (South Polar Skua). These trips are virtually the only proven method of observing certain species in North America, including Bermuda Petrel, Fea’s Petrel, Herald Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel, and White-faced and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel, and so attract participants from all across the country. On the inland side of the coastal plain, the Sandhills region contains the northernmost breeding colonies of the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Mississippi Kites also reach their northernmost breeding limits in coastal North Carolina, while Henslow’s Sparrows reach their southernmost.
Black Bear Ursus americanus ©Peg Abbott Naturalist Journeys
The other area of North Carolina most frequented by birders and other wildlife enthusiasts is the mountainous western end of the state. The Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains are best known for their scenery; however, they are also the location of some spectacular migrations of landbirds and raptors as well as being home to some of North Americas larger mammals such as Black Bear. Hawk-watchers are becoming increasingly common along the Blue Ridge Parkway in spring and fall. Many warblers and flycatchers that are rarely seen elsewhere in the state migrate regularly through the mountains.
Blue-Headed Vireo Vireo solitaries ©Peg Abbott Naturalist Journeys
These mountains represent the southernmost extent of breeding range for many species east of the Mississippi, including Northern Saw-whet Owl, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, & Black-capped Chickadee.
Between these two famous ends lies the relatively unexciting and more heavily developed Piedmont, which has few resident species that cannot be found elsewhere. However, for both economic and strategic reasons, the Piedmont is home to the vast majority of North Carolina’s birders, and so gets a disproportionate amount of attention. Thanks to all this attention, the central part of the state has had more than its share of exciting rarities discovered. Recent vagrants to this area have included Green-breasted Mango, Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Smith’s Longspur, Harris’ Sparrow, WhiteWagtail, Western Grebe, White Pelican and Long-billed Murrelet.
Calliope Hummingbird Selasphorus calliope ©Greg Smith Naturalist Journeys
The abundance of feeders brings in a surprising number and variety of wintering hummingbirds, mostly Rufous, but Anna’s, Calliope, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned have also been recorded. The region is pocked with artificial lakes, originally created by damming rivers for recreation and drinking water, but now home to breeding Bald Eagles and many migrating shorebirds and wintering waterfowl, and even the occasional jaeger. Following the hurricanes that drift through North Carolina almost annually, these same lakes often host pelagic species such as Bridled and Sooty Terns and on rare occasions even tubenoses and tropicbirds.
Looking-glass Mountain ©Peg Abbott Naturalist Journeys
The Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras is generally the best spot in the western North Atlantic day in and day out for seeing a variety of pelagic seabirds, including a Gulf Stream specialty, the Black-capped Petrel. The Black-capped Petrel is a striking member of the genus Pterodroma, which nests in the West Indies, but regularly disperses northward into the blue waters of the Gulf Stream to feed. It can be seen off Hatteras year-round, but it is most common from May to October. During that time period, birders on pelagic trips here can expect to see 8 to 12 species of pelagic seabirds, including birds which breed in the Southern Ocean, the Eastern Atlantic, the Bahamas & West Indies, and the Arctic tundra. Both the Gulf Stream and deep water are within 20 to 30 miles of Cape Hatteras, so a day offshore is mostly is mostly spent in productive waters. A number of species have been added to the North Amaerican list as a result of organized bird watching trips in recent years. These include Bermuda Petrel, Cape Verde Shearwater, and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel. During the spring and summer, trips are available almost weekly aboard Brian Patteson’s boat, the Stormy Petrel, and trips are also available on several winter weekends as well.
Major Source: Fatbirder
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Photo Source: Naturalist Journeys