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The Outer Banks:
A Bird Sanctuary

A Birding Guide to the Outer Banks

Whether you’re an avid birder or simply someone who enjoys Mother Nature in all of its splendor, birdwatching on the Outer Banks can be an exhilarating treat. The same factors that make the Outer Banks a sportsman’s dream are also the ones that make it an ideal place for birdwatching and conservation. As North Carolina is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a primary migratory route for birds spanning the eastern coastline of the United States, the Outer Banks has a front row seat to a remarkable display of migratory birds and waterfowl.

The impressively unique geography of the region also provides a rare opportunity to birders, as multiple ecosystems come together in a beautiful medley of habitats. Because of this, various bird sanctuaries have been set up along the Outer Banks to protect and enjoy hundreds of species of birds. While these areas are obviously going to be among the best places for birdwatching, there are also many other spots outside of the sanctuaries and nature preserves that are ideal for birding, as well. Here is a comprehensive list of the best places on the Outer Banks if you’re looking to embark on a birdwatching adventure.

Whether you’re an avid birder or simply someone who enjoys Mother Nature in all of its splendor, birdwatching on the Outer Banks can be an exhilarating treat. The same factors that make the Outer Banks a sportsman’s dream are also the ones that make it an ideal place for birdwatching and conservation. As North Carolina is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a primary migratory route for birds spanning the eastern coastline of the United States, the Outer Banks has a front row seat to a remarkable display of migratory birds and waterfowl.

The impressively unique geography of the region also provides a rare opportunity to birders, as multiple ecosystems come together in a beautiful medley of habitats. Because of this, various bird sanctuaries have been set up along the Outer Banks to protect and enjoy hundreds of species of birds. While these areas are obviously going to be among the best places for birdwatching, there are also many other spots outside of the sanctuaries and nature preserves that are ideal for birding, as well. Here is a comprehensive list of the best places on the Outer Banks if you’re looking to embark on a birdwatching adventure:

Best Places on the Outer Banks for Birdwatching

North Carolina Birding Trail

Because of North Carolina’s diversity of habitats and its position along the Atlantic Flyway, the state supports hundreds of species of native birds and makes for an ideal breeding and migratory pit stop for others, thus the North Carolina Birding Trail was born. Established in 2004 as an economic resource to promote nature-based tourism, the NC Birding Trail links together exceptional birding sites across the state.

Migratory waterfowl and other birds coming from the northwest follow the coastal route of the Atlantic Flyway, upon which the Outer Banks is situated. In conjunction with the multitude of different ecosystems which make up the OBX, five places on the Outer Banks have been named as notable observation points along the North Carolina Birding Trail. They are:

  • Jockey’s Ridge

    Jockey's Ridge

    Brids can be found in abundance year-round at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, home to the tallest living sand dune system on the east coast. Brown Pelicans, Osprey, Sandpipers, Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and more can be seen wading in the shallow waters of the Roanoke Sound bordering the park, skimming across the water in search of fish, nesting atop platforms in the sound, or foraging in the sand. While birds can be enjoyed at Jockey’s Ridge year-round, birding is especially good in late summer and fall, when large numbers of migrating songbirds travel south.

    Composed of a few different unique ecosystems - the dune system, the maritime forest, wetland area, grassy dunes, maritime thicket and the Roanoke Sound - Jockey’s Ridge provides birders a stunning opportunity to witness an array of species within an hour’s walk around the park.

  • Elizabethan Gardens

    This beautiful project of the Garden Club of North Carolina spans more than 10 acres of oak forest dotted with loblolly pine, southern magnolia and American holly in Manteo. More than 175 species of birds have been seen from the vantage point of the gardens, putting it on the North Carolina Birding Trail as one of the best places in the state for birdwatching.

    Spring and fall are the prime seasons to visit, when the gardens are filled with migrant songbirds. The pine and hardwood forest, maritime forest and beach habitats can be enjoyed all year, however, as visitors can explore the gardens and walk along the many trails.

  • Roanoke Island Marsh Game Land

    This little-known birding location can be found off the beaten path on Roanoke Island. Birders can enjoy a .3 mile walking loop that opens up to a panoramic view of a 40-acre waterfowl impoundment and black needlerush marsh. During the winter, an impressive array of waterfowl such as Tundra Swan, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail and American Wigeon can be spotted. During the warmer season, White Ibis and Osprey, among others, can be seen wading through the waterfowl impoundment, marsh and tidal creeks.

  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore - Bodie Island

    Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

    The Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is situated at the northern tip of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Nags Head, is an exciting place for birders to head to enjoy a year-round display of birds and waterfowl in a unique and beautiful atmosphere. Adjacent to the lighthouse is a wooden path which leads to a viewing platform overlooking the marsh and the dunes that lead to the ocean. This structure provides birders the chance to view waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds up close and personal, as well as far away across the wide-open marshland.

    A .25 mile-long trail departs from behind the visitor center and leads to a freshwater pond. Visitors can also take the .75-mile-long trail, the Bodie Island Dike Trail, located on the south side of the parking lot, to view the southern edge of the pond and adjacent wetlands. Along both of these walks, birders should watch for wading birds, Black-Necked Stilts, American Avocets, and multiple waterfowl species in winter.

    Just across NC 12 you will find Coquina Beach, one of the many beach accesses and stops along the highway that runs through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and an excellent place to explore the wild, untamed area in search for the multitude of birds who make their homes or migrate there.

  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

    Spanning more than 5,000 acres on the Outer Banks is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, one of the best birding locales in the state. Spring and fall migrations are the peak times for birding on the refuge, which is nestled between the Pamlico Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Featuring a visitor’s center, from which a trail leads through maritime forest and along a large freshwater impoundment, Pea Island also boasts habitats ranging from salt marshes, to maritime scrub-shrub, and then to beach and dune. A variety of shorebirds in the spring and fall, and an impressive collection of wintering waterfowl join a multitude of wading year-round birds to create an opportunistic experience for bird enthusiasts or anyone looking to delve into nature and enjoy what it has to offer.


Other Wildlife Refuges, Reserves and Parks

Aside from the locations on the NC Birding Trail, other parks and refuges along the Outer Banks offer exciting opportunities for birdwatching in some of the most wild, untouched areas of the region.

  • Currituck National Wildlife Refuge

    Located at the northern end of the Outer Banks, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge is positioned between Corolla and the NC/VA state line, and is accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicle. This sparsely inhabited area lends to the allure of the refuge and to the opportunity to witness wildlife undisturbed in their natural habitats. Comprising multiple ecosystems, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge is an exciting place for birders. Visitors will have the chance to find furtive marsh birds residing exclusively in the brackish marshes; an abundance of waterfowl species in the marshes and moist soil vegetation during their migrations; colonial nesting birds nesting on exposed soil that is close to the water; shorebirds residing, feeding and nesting on the beaches of both the sound and the ocean; songbirds playing in the maritime scrub-shrub; and ospreys and bald eagles nesting in the tops of the trees near the water.

  • Kitty Hawk Woods

    Kitty Hawk Woods

    Encompassing more than 1,870 acres of maritime deciduous forest, marsh and swamp, Kitty Hawk Woods is a hidden gem, and a treasure to all who love and celebrate the great outdoors. Situated in Kitty Hawk, between the main U.S. 158 Bypass and the Currituck Sound, Kitty Hawk Woods offers visitors ample outdoor activities in a wildlife-rich environment, providing birding enthusiasts an opportunity at a multi-faceted experience. Kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking and horseback riding are just a few ways to explore Kitty Hawk Woods in search of some of the beautiful birds that inhabit the area year-round.

  • Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

    Nags Head Woods

    Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is a welcomed natural retreat from the busy beach scene on the Outer Banks, providing birders and nature enthusiasts hundreds of miles of woodlands to explore. Protecting a remarkable range of unique habitats, including forested dunes, interdune ponds, marshes, and wetlands, the preserve acts as a home or stopover to more than 100 different species of birds and is an integral nesting location for more than 50 species, including green heron, wood duck, red-shouldered hawk, clapper rail, ruby-throated hummingbird, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler, and summer tanager.


Other Gems for Birders

The opportunities to find, view and enjoy birds on the Outer Banks are virtually endless. Here are a couple more ways to take advantage of the vast birding options for your next Outer Banks outdoor adventure.

  • Duck Town Boardwalk

    Duck, NC Boardwalk

    This 1.5 mile-long boardwalk that snakes along the shoreline of the Currituck Sound in Duck, bisects maritime deciduous forest, maritime evergreen forest, a willow swamp and marshland, providing a year-round support system for a multitude of birds, and a convenient, beautiful way for visitors and locals alike to view and enjoy them.

Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival

We’d be remiss not to mention the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival when talking about birdwatching on the Outer Banks. If this list isn’t already testament enough to the unprecedented chance of viewing a wide range and abundance of birds within one area, this festival is all the proof you need. Held in two different sessions, usually in fall and in winter, Wings Over Water attracts photographers and birders from all over the world to explore, experience and enjoy the rare and unique geography and wildlife of the Outer Banks.

No matter if you’re a serious bird enthusiast or just looking to casually enjoy the winged creatures of the Outer Banks in your own way, this list has you covered. Follow this guide or set off on your own Outer Banks birdwatching journey. With bird sanctuaries set up all over the area to advocate the conservation of various species and their natural habitats while promoting rehabilitation and survival, the odds of stumbling upon an unforgettable birding encounter are in your favor just about anywhere on the Outer Banks.

Birds of the Outer Banks

Hundreds of different species of birds either migrate to or inhabit year-round the coastal waters of the Outer Banks. Here is a brief list of some of the most common and also some of the most sought-after birds you will encounter here on the OBX.  

American Avocets (Lyndi Harris)

American Avocets

Most noted for their upturned bills, which they use to sweep through shallow waters in search of food, the American Avocet is a shorebird marked by white and black plumage. These birds can be spotted year-round on the Outer Banks and during the breeding season, Avocets can also be found with a cinnamon-colored hue to their heads and necks.

American Black Ducks

Resembling female Mallards, the American Black Duck is usually found mixed in with other waterfowl, but is distinguishable by the male’s yellow bills, the female’s olive-greenish bills, and their shy tendencies, which usually causes them to be the first to take flight when stirred. Hunting restrictions on the American Black Duck have helped to stabilize their numbers after they declined sharply in the mid-twentieth century.

American Kestrels

Don’t let this predator’s size fool you, it packs a hefty punch. As North America’s smallest falcon, the American Kestrel can be found on the Outer Banks primarily during the fall migration and winter months. It is one of the most colorful of all raptors, as the males are marked by blue heads with red backs and tails, and that same warm red adorns the wings, backs and tails of the females. Krestles can be found mostly feeding high up in a perch.

American Oystercatchers (Pam Geyer)

American Oystercatchers

As its name implies, this boldly patterned bird can be found primarily around ocean shores and salt marshes feeding on oysters, clams and mussels. Characterized by its brightly-colored bill, American Oystercatchers rarely travel too far inland and tend to roost on beaches and marshy islands near their feeding sites.

American Wigeons

A commonly-found duck, the American Wigeon, can be differentiated from other dabbling ducks mostly by its small bill and the male’s white forehead. Feeding primarily on aquatic plants, these birds inhabit the Outer Banks from October until April.

Black-Bellied Plovers

Found along the coast in the winter, as well as during the spring and fall migration, this is the largest Plover in North America, boasting a striking black and white breeding plumage and a beautiful grey and white color for the rest of the year. Displaying the typical “stop and go” behavior of Plovers, the Black-Bellied Plover can be found on grassy lawns and mudflats along the Outer Banks.

Black-Necked Stilts

A stunning black and white shorebird with very long, thin pink legs, the Black-Necked Stilt can be found along the edges of shallow water on the Outer Banks between April and the end of October.

Black Skimmers

The unique bill of the Black Skimmer is what sets it apart from all other American birds. Its large, knife-thin bill is red and black, and the lower mandible is longer than the upper, which it uses to skim the water to catch small fish and crustaceans. These birds, with their white bellies and black backs, can be seen flying low above the water looking for food.

Brown Pelicans

The Brown Pelican can be seen gliding above the surf alone or in a squadron, rising and falling with the motion of the waves. These large water birds are characterized by a big, dark body, oversized bill, and throat pouch, which it uses to scoop up small fish and crustaceans after plunge-diving into the water from high up to first stun them on impact.

Canada Geese (Pam Geyer)

Canada Geese

These big waterbirds can be found flying high in the sky in large V-formations and are marked by their black heads, long black necks, large brown bodies, and most notably, their trademark white chinstrap. They feed by grazing in fields or on large lawns and by dabbling in the waters of lakes, ponds and sounds. Thousands of these “honkers” migrate through the Outer Banks each year but can often be found here year-round as well.

Canvasbacks

These large diving ducks usually winter on the bays and sounds of the Outer Banks and can be distinguished from other ducks by their long, sloping profile. The males have a rusty red-colored head, white body, and a black chest and tail.

Common Loons

Typically coming to shore only to nest, these diving waterbirds are solid gray on their backs and heads with white bottoms during the winter, and in the summer can be seen displaying intricate black and white patterns on their backs with solid black heads. These birds are stealthy divers and can be found on the calm waters of the Outer Banks mostly during their winter migration.

Eurasian Wigeons

Usually found in a flock of American Wigeons but in rare instances are the Eurasian Wigeons, which are designated by a rusty red-colored head. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot one of these uncommon visitors to the Outer Banks from October to late March, and they are usually found in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.  

Great Blue Herons

This large, pale blue-grey Heron can be found wading through shallow waters with long, deliberate steps or standing motionless scanning for prey. Don’t let their delicate movements fool you, however, as they are lightning-quick when snatching up fish and small animals, such as gophers. When these majestic creatures take flight, their beautiful wingspan, tucked-in neck and feet trailing straight behind them is quite the sight to see. Found year-round on the Outer Banks, the Great Blue Heron becomes scarce only during the breeding season.

Great Egret (Pam Geyer)

Great Egrets

Distinguishable from other Herons and Egrets by their large, white bodies, yellow bill and black legs and feet, Great Egrets hunt in a classic Heron fashion and also display an impressive wingspan. These elegant birds were hunted nearly to extinction for their beautiful white plumes in the nineteenth century which is what initiated some of the first conservation laws to protect birds. Today they are the most normally occurring white wading bird on the Outer Banks.

Horned Grebes

This small waterbird is an impressive sight, with its pale-yellow “horns,” or patches of feathers behind its eyes, that it can raise and lower at will. These beautiful birds are mostly known for their black-and-white winter plumage but display striking red-and-black feathers during breeding season.

Least Terns

The smallest of the American Terns, the Least Tern, is actually an endangered species, as it nests on sandy beaches along the coastline in many developed and heavy-recreational areas.

This little gray bird can be spotted with a black-tipped yellow beak and a white eyestripe during breeding season, and for the rest of the year it has a black eyestripe and a black bill.

Mallards (Lyndi Harris)

Mallards

These common “dabbling ducks,” which means they feed by tipping forward in the water to graze on underwater plants, are quite possibly the most familiar duck. The male’s trademark iridescent green heads, gray flanks and black tail curls are easily spotted among a flock of resting ducks. The females are mottled brown with orange and black bills.  

Northern Gannets

A bird that spends most of its life at sea, the Northern Gannet is an exciting bird to find, as it breeds in only a few large colonies along the Northern Atlantic and can be spotted on the Outer Banks. These large white birds with black wingtips can be seen diving into the ocean in groups of a hundred or more. It is a remarkable sight, as these plunge divers sometimes start from heights of up to 130 feet above the water!  

Northern Harriers

Up close, this long, slender hawk has an owlish face, which helps it to hear mice and voles beneath the ground cover, but when seen from far away, it’s v-shaped wingspan and long tail are distinctive characteristics of this beautiful raptor. Males are gray and white while females are brown, but all Northern Harriers have a white rump patch which is evident in flight, as they glide over salt marshes in search of amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and birds.

Northern Pintails (Lyndi Harris)

Northern Pintails

A common duck, usually found in large flocks on the Outer Banks, is the Northern Pintail, a medium-sized “puddle” duck with a long, thin neck. Their long “pin” tail, especially long in males, makes for a distinctive characteristic and the males are marked strikingly with a dark reddish-brown head with a white stripe coming up along the side from their chest.

Osprey (Lyndi Harris)

Ospreys

Unlike any other North American raptor, the Osprey feeds on live fish and is the only raptor that plunges into the water. A common sight on the Outer Banks, these large birds with white bellies and black beaks, can be seen patrolling the waters, standing on their high stick-nest perches, or diving for fish, feet outstretched and bright yellow eyes fixed on their prey. From far away, Ospreys can also be characterized by their almost “crooked-winged” flight.

Peregrine Falcon (Lyndi Harris)

Peregrine Falcons

Feeding almost exclusively on smaller birds, the Peregrine Falcon is the largest falcon over most of the continent and catches its prey in mid-air with swift dives called stoops. Mostly blue-grey with striped underbellies and dark heads with thick sideburns, these raptors are commonly found on the Outer Banks during the fall migration, but can also be seen during the winter as well.

Piping Plovers

Considered to be endangered or threatened because their habitats coincide with heavy traffic areas on sandy beaches, these birds are another protected species on the Outer Banks. They run in short spurts and can be distinguished by their small size, pale tan backs, white underbellies and one band around their chest, usually black or brown in color.

Redheads

These medium-sized diving ducks feature stunning markings as the males exhibit a brilliant cinnamon-colored head contrasting its black and gray body. Redheads feed on aquatic vegetation and can be found here on the Outer Banks in “rafts” of thousands of birds.

Surf Scoters

This velvety black sea duck is sometimes referred to as a “skunk-headed coot,” because of its audaciously-patterned black-and-white head and bright-colored bill that appears to be orange at a distance. These birds have no white in their sleek black bodies except for on the face and head, making them a uniquely beautiful sight to see.

Semipalmated Plovers

Common on the Outer Banks during migration and fairly common during the winter, the Semipalmated Plover is a small, dark shorebird adorned with one single band across its chest. Like other plovers, they prefer to feed in the typical run-stop-run fashion in low, mudflat-type areas and are the most common plover seen in most areas.

Semipalmated Sandpipers (Pam Geyer)

Semipalmated Sandpiper

This small shorebird breeds in the Arctic and winters along the coasts of South America, but can be found on the Outer Banks during migration, especially during the months of May, August and September. Like other sandpipers, this “peep” has a short neck and moderately long bill, and is gray brown in color along its back with a white underbelly.

Snow Geese

Found on the Outer Banks primarily in the winter months during their migration to the Gulf of Mexico, the Snow Goose is a medium-sized goose with a white body and black wingtips, but can sometimes be spotted in its “dark phase,” when they are referred to as a Blue Goose, displaying white heads with dark bodies. These geese rarely travel in flocks of less than a couple of dozen and can often be seen in flocks of several hundred thousand, making for an impressive display, especially during takeoff.