The Outer Banks Birdwatching Guide

There’s far more than just sun and sand in the Outer Banks. This lush coastal region is home to hundreds of different species, many of which can be viewed in their natural habitat throughout the year.

Birds, in particular, are abundant along the Outer Banks, which makes our scenic shoreline a popular destination for enthusiasts of every level.

Whether you’re an avid birder or you’re just curious about what the North Carolina coast has to offer, enjoy this quick guide to birdwatching in the Outer Banks.

What is birdwatching?

Photo Credit: Gareth Christopher via Flickr CC2.0

While the name of the activity seems intuitive, many are surprised to learn that birdwatching entails much more than simply scouting birds.

Birdwatching, in its proper execution, is a precise form of wildlife observation. Birdwatchers, either with or without binoculars, seek and enjoy the natural sights and sounds of various species of birds. ‘Birders’, as they are called, often keep detailed notes on their observations and take pictures to document their finds.

This tedious hobby requires a keen eye, sharp ears, and, most importantly, patience.

Where can I birdwatch in the Outer Banks?

Birdwatching enthusiasts are often pleased to learn that the Outer Banks offers a cornucopia of birdwatching opportunities. The North Carolina Birding Trail, in particular, makes OBX an enticing destination for watchers interested in saltwater varietals.

The NC Birding Trail is a key stop along the Atlantic Flyway bird migration route, which tracks the migratory pattern of birds along the east coast. The full route spans as far south as the Caribbean and as far north as Canada, with the Outer Banks situated nicely in the center. This convenient location and ample feeding grounds make OBX a prime spot for viewing an impressive display of migratory birds and waterfowl. In fact, many of the locations that are a favorite among birds have been set aside as nature preserves to ensure that the birds always have a safe place to stay along the coast during their journey.

The Outer Banks features eight different spots along the trail, which gives interested vacationers plenty of opportunities to view indigenous species. Popular OBX birdwatching destinations include:

  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
  • Roanoke Island Marsh Game Land
  • The Elizabethan Gardens
  • Jockey’s Ridge State Park
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore – Bodie Island
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore – Hatteras Island
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore – Ocracoke Island
  • Seabirding Pelagic Trips

What’s the best time of year for birdwatching?

One of the most appealing aspects of the Outer Banks as a birdwatching destination, besides the scenic surroundings, is the variety of bird and waterfowl species that visit the area throughout the year. There’s really not a bad season to visit for birdwatching! Rather, the species that you can find will vary greatly depending on when you choose to visit.

Surprisingly to some, fall and winter are the most popular seasons to birdwatch along the Outer Banks, mostly because of the non-native migratory species that come to visit the warmer climate. Popular guest species include plovers, various geese and duck varieties, ibises, warbler varieties, and even the rare golden eagle.

What birds you can find in the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks attract an eclectic variety of birds and waterfowl throughout the year. In fact, over 400 varieties of birds alone have been identified in OBX.

A few prevalent species include American avocets, American black ducks, American kestrels, American wigeons, black-bellied stilts, brown pelicans, Canada geese, common loons, great blue herons, great egrets, mallards, Northern pintails, ospreys, Peregrine falcons, red heads, and surf scoters—to name a few.

Photo Credit: Hal Trachtenberg via Flickr CC2.0

Certain species are more abundant in specific areas along the coast. For example, hummingbirds are bountiful in the lush Elizabethan Gardens, which offer plenty of rich flora for the birds to feed.

Photo Credit: Becky Matsubara via Flickr CC2.0

If you’re interested in a specific species, call your location of interest ahead of time to inquire about local varieties and what’s currently in the area.

What should I bring birdwatching?

Birdwatching is an easy hobby to pack for! Here are a few essentials that you’ll want to make the most of your experience:

  • Binoculars
  • Field guide
  • Spotting scope
  • Notebook
  • Camera
  • Smartphone & apps
  • Backpack

What should I wear birdwatching?

What you wear during your birdwatching adventure will vary greatly depending on the time of year. Naturally, the winter will require long sleeves, long pants, and a weather-appropriate jacket or vest. The summer months will allow shorter sleeves and shorter pants. Regardless of the season, wearing a hat can help with bird spotting and potential sunburn on sunny days and sunglasses are always a handy accessory. Closed toe shoes are typically recommended as you’ll likely be trekking over uneasy, natural terrain. The most important thing about picking your wardrobe is to be comfortable. You will likely be walking outside for quite some time, so comfort is key!

Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival

Avid birdwatching enthusiasts should definitely pencil in the Wings over Wildlife Festival. This annual event takes place in the fall each year and brings together bird watchers from across the nation for a one-of-a-kind event that takes place over several days. The festival is both educational and entertaining in nature and includes events like guided local tours, group field trips, informational programs, live shows, and various art exhibits. There’s truly no better east coast event for devoted birding fans! The dates for 2019 are October 15th – 20th, with a shorter encore session December 6th – 8th.

It’s not hard to see why the Outer Banks is a top destination for birdwatching. Be sure a trip to OBX is on your birdwatching bucket list!

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