Birds...the original aviators that inspired Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Outer Banks is a haven for nearly 400 species of birds and a sort of heaven for those who enjoy observing them.


Bird watching is enjoyable throughout the year, but it is especially good during the fall and winter. An exceptional birding area is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, located on the north end of Hatteras Island. It's a wintering ground for thousands of snow geese, Canada geese, tundra swans and 25 species of duck. Several shorebird nesting areas and wading bird rookeries are located on the refuge. Endangered and threatened species include: peregrine falcons and piping plovers. See them all on your next trip to the Outer Banks.

birders at pea island wildlife refuge


Another great spot to view birds is at the Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods Preserve. Towering oaks, hickories, and beech trees, some hundreds of years old, rise from the sand and create a canopy of trees more typical of the mountains of the eastern United States at the Nature Conservancy. Over 100 species of birds have been documented at Nags Head Woods and over 50 bird species nest there. Fifteen species of amphibians and 28 species of reptiles have been documented as well. The freshwater ponds are inhabited by seven species of fish and many reptiles and amphibians in addition to a great diversity of floating aquatic plant life, including the rare water violet.


Purple Martins make a spectacular return to the OBX every year at the William Umstead Bridge on the north end of Roanoke Island with numbers totaling over 100,000. The journey to the Outer Banks is a long one, originating in Brazil and the northern countries of South America. Although the migratory patterns were suspected, it was not until recently that satellite tracking showed conclusively this was happening and there is still a lot of research to do. Simply discovering the migratory patterns took years of investigation. What is still unclear, though, is whether the same birds return to the same nesting sites every year.

Purple Martin in The Outer Banks
(Photo by Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society)


Don't miss one of our biggest birding events, Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival. Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival is one of the premier wildlife festivals in the United States. It is comprised of dozens of birding, paddling, photography, art and natural history trips, tours and programs. Participants come from all over America and the world to enjoy the beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife. 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 lodging rates are lower. The December Wings Over Water Encore is the portion of Wings Over Water held later, often in colder weather. It was instituted especially for birders and photographers, hoping for a better possibility of seeing large flocks of migratory birds and waterfowl.

pea island wildlife refuge


Different bird species migrate seasonally throughout the OBX:

  • Spring 

Pea Island Wildlife Refuge Center is open 7 days a week and conducting volunteer-run bird walks along the refuge. While the marshes, forests, and shorelines are blooming with new sprouts, shorebirds begin to replace waterfowl. Neotropical songbirds begin returning from Central & South America and begin nesting in maritime shrubs. Black-bellied plovers, American avocet, Brown pelican are a few.

  • Summer

Pea Island Wildlife Refuge Center begins their summer canoe tours along North Pond Trail and other public learning programs about wildlife and habitats. Flowering plants along the dunes and draining marshes provide an area for pollinating insects and food for the many species of birds. Blue herons, great egrets and snowy egrets, American coot, black-necked stilt, and black skimmer are a few species to be seen during summer.

  • Fall

The refuge is still open 7 days a week and bird walks are volunteer-run with sights of ducks, swans, and geese. Many birds begin making their way south and stop for a rest at Pea Island. In the fall, Wings over Water Festival will host tours and programs along the coast. Also expect to see American kestrel, northern pintail, osprey, falcon, redhead ducks, and willets.

  • Winter

Pea Island Wildlife Refuge Center remains open through the winter season with volunteer-based bird walks. Visitors may walk along North Pond Trail, meander along the beaches and drive the length of the refuge on Highway 12. As the weather changes, December through February is perhaps the most anticipated time of the year for birding. Thousands of birds, including mallards, northern shovelers, and tundra swans make the OBX their home. American oystercatcher, American widgeon, canvasback duck, northern harrier hawk, and snow geese have made appearances also. 

Woman Bird Watching in Outer Banks