Winter Birdwatching in the OBX

Birdwatching in the OBX

You may be pining away for the arrival of spring, but did you know that winter has some pretty amazing things to offer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina? The beaches, sunrises, sunsets, attractions and quaint maritime towns can fill your days with coastal pleasure in and of themselves. However, if you're a nature lover or an avid birdwatcher, you most definitely want to read up on the Outer Banks winter bird migration, as well as the local birds that reside here year round. Our lovely chain of barrier islands is not only home to dozens of different native shorebirds, but also thousands of migrating birds who make a rest stop on the Outer Banks every year.

Here are some of the winter birdwatching highlights during the off-season months on the OBX. Bird lover or not, you'll find it quite intriguing to read about what our feathered friends are up to this time of year. We'll also include birdwatching hot spots, birder favorites and what feathered fowl you find year round.

Birder's Paradise Found at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

OBX BirdingOne of the treasured gems on the NC Birding Trail is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Slated as one of the top birding locations in the state and arguably on the East Coast, Pea Island spans more than 5,000 acres and is home to about 400 different types of migratory birds.

Pea Island is maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and is one of North Carolina's largest managed waterfowl impoundments. Birders can find numerous trails that wind and snake through the refuge, salt marshes, beaches and maritime forests offering a bird's eye view (pardon the pun) of the local and migratory bird species, their habitat, and other area wildlife.

Winter in the Outer Banks offers a unique draw when it comes to migratory birds. Snow geese grace Pea Island with their presence in droves during their migrations toward the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months. They can be seen flying in perfect formation, and you can't miss their noisy flights overhead. Snow geese are white, heavy-bodied, long-necked waterfowl. Tundra swan can also be seen during the winter as they rest from their migration south. These large white birds have a black bill and can often be heard calling in flight. It's a sight to behold to watch both the snow geese and tundra swans cover the saltwater ponds and marshes of the refuge, their white feathers covered with sandy mud.

Birdwatching on the OBX

Canadian geese also make regular appearances at the refuge, as well as the incredibly rare and spectacularly beautiful white pelicans, who make a brief appearance during February or March. The list of species that call the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge home is virtually endless, but some other notable residents include piping plovers, horned grebes, black-necked stilts, and American avocets. If your interest is piqued, you can follow this link to read more about the local and migratory birds found on Pea Island. You can also read more about birding on the Outer Banks here.

A small visitors center is open daily at the Pea Island Refuge usually from 9a.m. to 4-p.m. but is dependent upon staffing. Parking area facilities also include restrooms and a refuge map. Because of the limited public parking at the refuge, the public often parks on the road shoulders, within the NC Highway 12 right-of-way. However, many places along the road shoulders have soft sand, and vehicles tend to get stuck. Also, traffic moves at high speeds, so motorist should use great care, especially when exiting and entering their vehicles. Because the refuge itself literally spans 13 miles, from the Herbert C Bonner Bridge to the outskirts of Rodanthe, birders can find endless terrain to explore and boundless birdwatching opportunities.

We could go on and on about Pea Island, but we'll finish up with one more point of interest. Why is it called Pea Island, you ask? For many years, Pea Island wintered 80% of the entire population of greater snow geese each year. One of the things that attracted them to Pea Island was the Dune Peas, legumes that grow in abundance on the refuge and produces beans/peas that were full of energy to help the birds get through the winter and prepare to migrate in the spring. So for these geese, the refuge was literally the "Pea Island!" The large acreages of farmlands in Currituck, Hyde and Tyrrell Counties provide winter food for most of these geese today, but some of them still come to Pea Island. Now you know!

Other Favorite Birdwatching Locations on the Outer Banks

You certainly aren't limited to these locations, but they are some of the locally loved and visitor approved favorites for birdwatching on the Outer Banks. Visit one or visit them all if you can!

The North Carolina Birding Trail Sites

In 2003, birders from across the state began to pool their knowledge base of the best local and regional trails, and developed the North Carolina Birding Trail. Today, the comprehensive network of trails spans from the mountains to the coast, and a number of the North Carolina Birding Trail's most beloved sites are located right here on the Outer Banks.

Bodie Island Lighthouse Outer Banks

In total, there are five sites on the OBX that are recognized as significant portions of the birding trail and considered some of the best spots in North Carolina for birders to flock.

Flock To These OBX Birding Hot Spots

Birdwatching Events on the Outer Banks

Migratory Birds on the Outer BanksThe Wings Over Water Festival (WOW) is one of the premier wildlife festivals in the U.S. Over 100 birding, paddling, photography, art and natural history trips, tours and programs offer something to interest everyone. Festival-goers come from all over the world to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the amazing wildlife found right here on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

WOW takes place over a large five-county northeastern North Carolina area, which includes six National Wildlife Refuges: Alligator River, Pea Island, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island and Currituck National Wildlife Refuges.

The main body of the festival is held in late fall, when the potential for mild weather exists and when there is less traffic and lower OBX vacation rental rates. This year's Wings Over Water Festival takes place from October 18-23, 2016.

Wings Over Water also offers encore festival trip dates especially designed to provide better possibilities of seeing larger flocks of migratory birds and waterfowl. WOW Encore-A Winter Weekend dates are December 9-11, 2016. Mark your calendars!

Are you an avid birder? Have you been birdwatching on the OBX? We'd love to hear from you. Our comment section is open 24/7.