As the last days of summer give way to the beauty of autumn, the skies fill with thousands upon thousands of waterfowl making their winter migration to the sounds and estuaries surrounding the Outer Banks. It is a cycle that’s as old as time, and as snow geese spread their wings to break their descent into the water and hundreds of blue petes raft in the waters of the Currituck Sound, the air is filled with the beautiful cacophony of their calls.
The Outer Banks has always been known as a place of autumn abundance. During the 19th and into the mid-20th century, it was considered the premier East Coast destination for hunting migratory waterfowl. The hunting remains excellent and duck blinds still dot the sounds, but these days more and more people “hunt” our spectacular water fowl using binoculars and a camera.
Every season offers birdwatchers something special on the Outer Banks, but by far the fall season may be the most spectacular. It is not possible to list every bird that calls Eastern North Carolina their home during the fall and winter months. For those who want this information, Mackay Island on Knotts Island and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras island, have excellent online resources.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is located at the north end of Hatteras Island and the choices for bird watching vary between very good and excellent. One of the best places to start is the Visitor’s Center, located about 3-1/2 to 4 miles south of Oregon Inlet. There are two impoundment ponds on the premises, remnants of the heyday of hunting on the Outer Banks, and the trail that loops around them offers an astonishing variety of wildlife.
If Pea Island is the best known Outer Banks location for bird sighting, a wonderful Manteo site is probably the least well known. Roanoke Island Marsh Game Land is about a third of a mile past the Wanchese turnoff. Heading toward Wanchese there is a small parking area on the left with a very short loop trail overlooking the Roanoke Sound marsh. This is a great area to view migrating birds in their seasonal habitat. As an aside note, Wanchese is a wonderful little fishing village that’s worth exploring.
An honorable mention for Roanoke Island birding goes out to the Elizabethan Gardens, located on the way out of town. Not a lot of waterfowl there, but almost every other species of bird imaginable is on the premise and sections of the gardens are always in bloom.
When the Town of Duck built their boardwalk, it was immediately known as one of the most beautiful sound side walks on the Outer Banks. With almost a mile of elevated walkways over the waters of the sound and viewing platforms along the way, it is also a fantastic place to check out the local bird populations.
Currituck County bills itself as the “Sportsman’s Paradise”, and during the heyday of the hunt club era it was definitely the place to go. Within this county, there are two sites on the Outer Banks worth checking out.
At the north end of the Town of Duck, just across from the Sanderling Inn, there is a soundfront parking lot. On the south end of the path, there is a dirt path that once was the dirt road leading to Corolla. The trail is wide, very easy to walk and has two observation platforms that have panoramic views overlooking the Currituck Sound. This is a great location for birding on the northern beachesHeading north, almost to the four-wheel drive area of Carova, there is a very sharp bend in the road towards the right that has a small parking lot. At this location, there is a boardwalk that offers a spectacular trek through a maritime forest and ends at a viewing platform with a great overview of the northern part of the Currituck Sound. From this private location, it’s most likely that birders will be in for a memorable experience.
With so many private places to wander on the Outer Banks, there are bound to be lots of great bird watching locations that I’m not mentioning. If you’re an avid birder, I’d just say to keep your binoculars and camera within reach. You never know when the perfect birding opportunity takes flight.