From the Black Mountains' soaring 6,500' foot peaks to the salt marshes of the coast, the Carolinas are home to hundreds of coveted bird species. One of the premier Eastern birding destinations, a trip to the Carolinas could easily bag a visiting birder a dozen lifers or more. Feel free to email [email protected] for more information.
Bachman's Sparrow: This pine specialist inhabits Longleaf Pine forests in the Sandhills and the Coastal Plain. Look for them in the Oxpen Lakes area of Carolina Sandhills NWR in Chesterfield County, SC, Santee NWR, or Weymouth Woods in Moore County, NC. They sing in April and May, which is the best time to observe this otherwise secretive species.
Bachman's Sparrow- Photo by Jo Beam
Red-cockaded Woodpecker: This counterpart to the Bachman's Sparrow also inhabits Longleaf Pine stands, and can be found at many of the same locations. They tend to be more conspicuous than the Sparrows. Declines in recent decades have landed them on the Endangered Species list. Besides the locations above, which tend to be good for both Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Bachman's Sparrows, check out Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in Tyrrell County for an interesting side trip when visiting the Outer Banks.
Brown-headed Nuthatch: Coveted by northern birders, this tiny tree-climber is quite common throughout lower elevation areas in the Carolinas. They do prefer forests with some pine component, but aren't as picky as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker or Bachman's Sparrow. Above 2,000 feet, especially in the North Carolina Blue Ridge, don't expect to come across this species. Otherwise, watching feeders that have at least some pines nearby is an easy way to see this charismatic bird.
Black Rail: This secretive, mouse-like rail is found in fresh, grassy fields (see here for an example), and is common nowhere in it's limited range. This bird has perhaps declined the most of any single bird in the US in the past century, declining steeply in much of its range in the past 10-20 years (source). They can be found relatively reliably at Bear Island WMA, calling mainly in early mornings and near dusk in late May through early August. They can also be found (though with less reliability) on Bull Island (SC) and Fort Fisher SRA (in New Hanover County). Listen for this bird's charismatic "kee-kee-doo!" call if you are searching for one.
Swainson's Warbler: Another secretive species, this large, mainly terrestrial warbler is often found in reedy thickets at lower elevations, but can also be found in wetter rhododendron thickets at higher elevations. Like many other warblers, this species has entered a decline as it loses its seemingly "unattractive" habitat and wintering grounds. This species is often heard more than it is seen, singing a loud song reminiscent of a Louisiana Waterthrush but with a more complex ending (Ew, ew steppedinpoo!). In the lowcountry, the best spot to find them is the Edisto Nature Trail near Jacksonboro, but are also reported frequently from areas of the Francis Marion National Forest. In spring migration (late April), they can sometimes be found at Huntington Beach State Park. Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick has a lot of reports around the same time as Huntington. Holly Shelter Game Land (Pender, NC), Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center (Johnston, NC), Pisgah National Forest (near the Center for Wildlife Education)(Transylvania, NC) are all prime spots for breeding warblers. The author has personally seen and heard one at Chimney Rock State Park (Rutherford, NC). While unusual for the area, there is also currently (June 2015) a supposed pair of breeding Swainson's at Pee Dee NWR in Anson Co, NC.
Swallow-tailed Kite:Endangered in the state of South Carolina, this unmistakable bird is often a major target for any birders visiting the low country. It has only been recorded to have bred once in North Carolina, in the summer of 2013 in Bladen County. They are rare in North Carolina, and any sightings should be documented and reported to the Carolinabirds Listserv. In South Carolina, especially in Charleston and Colleton Counties, they are not overly rare. In the mid-late spring and throughout most of the summer, they are easy to find at Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Charleston county, where they can be seen soaring over the rice fields, especially in the mornings. They can also be seen in most of the Francis Marion NF, James Island County Park, Edisto Nature Trail, Bear Island Wildlife Management Area, Santee Coastal Reserve, and many other parks throughout much of coastal or near coastal SC.
Painted Bunting: Arguably the US's most beautiful bird, the Painted Bunting is one of the most sought after birds in the nation. Though they are currently listed as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN, they are relatively common on the coast. They are reported very heavily in the Santee Bluff Unit, Huntington Beach SP, Dewees Island, Fort Moultrie, Caw Caw Interpretive Center, Kiawah Island and Camp St. Christopher areas in SC. They are much less common in NC, but can still be found at places like Bald Head Island, Holden Beach (Marsh 3), Fort Fisher SRA (Basin Trail), and Airlie Gardens. Any Painted north of Wilmington, NC is fairly rare and should probably be reported. Listen for their cheery, finch-like song throughout spring and summer. They will also come to feeders filled with white millet, but only if the habitat is right (Painteds need heavy brush for shelter and nesting). The feeders at Huntington Beach SP and Botany Bay Plantation WMA are reliable for this species.
Purple Gallinule: Very uncommon-rare in the Carolinas, Purple Gallinules can be found reliably in very few spots. They can be found fairly reliably at Donnelley Wildlife Management Area and Savannah NWR, both in SC. Anywhere else, Purples are rare and should be reported.
Wilson's Plover: Endangered in the state of South Carolina, this charming little shorebird is uncommon and local in most of the Carolinas. They are most often found in sandy dunes during the spring, summer, and early fall, when they are breeding. They breed throughout our coast, stopping near Hatteras, NC. To find Wilson's Plovers, check out the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal, South Topsail Beach, Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area, Fort Fisher SRA (NC). In SC, look at Huntington Beach SP (North Beach), Bull Island, Dewees Island, Sullivan's Island, Lighthouse Inlet Reserve (N. Folly Island), Folly Beach County Park (nest near parking lot), or Kiawah Island (east beach or Beachwalker Park). When observing, take care not to get too close to any nesting birds, and keep an eye out for flagged off areas.
Piping Plover: Federally listed as Near Threatened, the Piping Plover has been experiencing declines throughout it's range, but has recently (since 1999) been increasing. These birds can be found in almost the exact same areas as Wilson's Plovers can, except they are absent in spring and summer in South Carolina. Make an effort to look for any bands and report any Pipings that you see. In North Carolina, the Outer Banks and the Core Banks represent the southernmost extension of the Atlantic population's regular breeding range. On Hatteras Island in particular, the breeding population has declined heavily as a result of using off road vehicles during nesting season. Much of the local (human) population is opposed to legislation that would ban beach riding during the nesting season as an effort to protect the Piping Plover and other beach nesting birds such as the Least Tern, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, and Wilson's Plover.
Piping Plover- Photo by Jo Beam
Prothonotary Warbler: This stunningly golden warbler can be found in bottomland Cypress-Tupelo Swamps. The Francis Beidler Audubon Sanctuary in Dorchester County, SC, is, without a doubt, one of the best spots in the Carolinas for Prothonotaries, where they are banded each year by researchers. They are also possible throughout the Francis Marion NF, Caw Caw Interpretive Center, Congaree NP, and Lake Conestee Nature Park and Landsford Canal SP in the Piedmont. In North Carolina, Prothonotary Warblers can be easily seen at Pee Dee NWR, especially along Wildlife Drive (Anson, NC) even the Charlotte City Greenways provide habitat for the Prothonotary Warblers. Lower McAlpine Greenway off Johnston Road is a favorite spot for urban birders looking to observe this species occupying nest boxes at close range.
Fea's, Bermuda, Black-capped, and Trindade Petrels: All of these seafaring birds are above a Code 2 on the American Birding Association Checklist, making a sighting a rare one. However these petrels are spotted annually off the coast of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, primarily in Dare County. To see one of these species you will most likely need the accompaniment of a well seasoned sea birder or pelagic trip leader; Brian Patteson leads excellent pelagics off of Cape Hatteras. Trinidade Petrels breed off the coast of Brazil in the South Atlantic on Trindade Island, but also in the Pacific ocean. Fea's Petrel is restricted to Madeira and the Canaries in the North Atlantic as far as breeding territory, and the Bermuda Petrel, thought to be extinct for hundreds of years and was rediscovered in 1951. Currently an aggressive program to enhance nesting habitat is ensuring the continued survival of this endangered species. You can also see some other excellent pelagic species while searching for these birds, including Great, Cory's, Manx, Sooty, and Audubon's Shearwaters, Band-rumped, Leach's, and Wilson's Storm-Petrels, and in the summer months, a Masked Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird, or a Bridled or Sooty Tern may appear!
Cerulean Warbler: This woodland dwelling species has received much press recently due to habitat destruction on both it's wintering grounds in Northern South America and it's breeding grounds in Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, as a result of mountaintop removal mining and "sun coffee" monoculture production, respectively. A 545 acre preserve has been dedicated in Colombia for the preservation of this species' wintering habitat. In North Carolina there are a few reliable breeding spots in the Blue Ridge. On the Parkway in particular, Lewis Fork Overlook (Milepost 270.2), on the border between Wilkes and Ashe on the Continental Divide is a reliable spot with several pairs, and Craven Gap (Milepost 377.4) north of Asheville near the Folk Art Center is one of the best spots in the state to find this bird. Chimney Rock State Park in Rutherford County has a few pairs, as does Stecoah Gap off NC 143 in Graham County. Surprisingly, Cerulean Warblers also breed along the Roanoke River in the northeastern Coastal Plain, but they are not as reliable or accessible here. That is not to say a May paddle along the Lower Roanoke could not yield the high buzzy song of a Cerulean. Apart from breeding areas, the species is an uncommon to rare transient during migration and should not be expected.
Golden-winged Warbler: This more northerly breeder is an inhabitant of shrubby habitats throughout the Midwest, parts of the northeast and Appalachia. They have strongly declined in the last century as agricultural practices, especially in Appalachia, have changed, and this Appalachian population has been the hardest hit. In North Carolina, they can still be found at several high elevation sites. Max Patch Mountain on the Tennessee border in Madison County, Stecoah Gap in Graham County, Big Yellow Mountain in Avery County, Roan Mountain in Mitchell County, Elk Knob in Watauga County, and The Peak in Ashe County are reliable spots to find this striking warbler.
Least Flycatcher: This northern Empidonax species is right at home in the northern hardwood and Spruce-Fir forests of high elevation North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Black Balsam area, Mt. Mitchell in Yancey County, and Elk Knob in Watauga County are good places to look for this species, which is fairly common in the right habitat. As with all Empidonax, the best way to distinguish this species from it's similar congeners is voice: a harsh "che-bek" that is readily identified. Alder Flycatchers often occupy similar habitat, and thus to get a correct identification visit in late May or June when these late migrants established territories and begin to call.
Alder Flycatcher: Less common than the similar Least Flycatcher, the Alder Flycatcher is a truly boreal species which only breeds in the highest elevations in North Carolina, usually above 6,000 feet. Select parts of the Great Smoky Mountains NP and Avery County may be good for this species, although Black Balsam off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County, at Milepost 420 is reliable, as is Mt. Mitchell State Park in Yancey. Like the other Empidonax, it is best distinguished (especially from the Willow) by its "harsh, ripping" fee-bee-o song.