My 12 Best Bird Watching Spots in North Carolina You Should Try

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North Carolina is a state found in the southeastern United States. There are many different habitats found in the state which attract birds. Knowing the best bird watching places is not easy, which is why I compiled this list for you. 

The best bird watching spots in North Carolina are those along the coast, such as on the peninsula at Fort Fisher, and also at the barrier islands of the outer banks, such as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. A good spot for high-elevation birds is along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

A table giving the most interesting birds you can see at each of my top 12 birding spots in North Carolina:

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife RefugeBald Eagle and Surf Scoter
Beaver Lake Bird SanctuaryWood Duck and Ring-necked Duck
Chimney Rock State ParkPeregrine Falcon and Common Raven
Lake Crabtree County ParkDouble-crested Cormorant and Brown-headed Nuthatch
Croatan National ForestRed-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow
Airlie GardensPainted Bunting and Pileated Woodpecker
Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve Bachman’s Sparrow and Red-shouldered Hawk
Fort Fisher State Recreation AreaBlack Skimmer and Piping Plover
Pea Island National Wildlife RefugeNorthern Gannet and Brown Pelican
Alligator River National Wildlife RefugeProthonotary Warbler and Osprey
Blue Ridge ParkwayNorthern Saw-whet Owl and Ruffed Grouse
Carolina Beach State ParkBlack Scoter and Royal Tern
Best Places to Bird Watch in North Carolina

Read on to discover more information about the best bird watching spots in North Carolina and the types of birds you are likely to see in each spot.

Best Bird Watching Spots in North Carolina
Best Bird Watching Spots in North Carolina

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in North Carolina

North Carolina provides excellent opportunities to bird watch since there is a diversity of good birding habitats.

1. Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is a 50,180-acre refuge on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula and has the largest freshwater lake in the state. The refuge is on the Atlantic flyway and so is excellent for migrating birds, including waterfowl. 

Waterfowl you can see here include species like the Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal. Other waterfowl to look out for include Long-tailed Ducks, Surf Scoters, Ruddy Ducks, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. 

Osprey and Bald Eagles do breed in the refuge. Several shorebird species can be seen in the marshy areas and where there are mud flats. Look for species like the Short-billed Dowitcher, Baird’s Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, and Pectoral Sandpiper, to name a few.

Several sparrows, warblers, and other passerine birds have been recorded at various times in the refuge.

For instance, you may see species like the Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Kentucky Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush. Summer Tanagers, Scarlet Tanagers, and Blue Grosbeaks have been seen in the area.

At least 300 bird species have been recorded at this refuge, and there is a checklist you can use for your trip.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

2. Beaver Lake Bird Sanctuary

This is an 8-acre region in Asheville that has a large species list. At least 230 species of birds have been recorded here. The area has a boardwalk to help birders access parts of the refuge.

The lake is good for waterfowl, especially in winter. You can find Ring-necked Ducks, Wood Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, American Black Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and Blue-winged Teal on the waters here.

You can also find passerines like Red-eyed Vireos, Palm Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and American Redstarts in the trees of the sanctuary. This area is a good spot for seeing migrating birds during spring and fall since it is a green area within a busy area.

Various raptors have been recorded in the area, including species like:

  • Bald Eagle,
  • Peregrine Falcon,
  • and Red-shouldered Hawks.

3. Chimney Rock State Park

This is south of Beaver Lake and has a 315-foot-high area.  This park is scenically beautiful and an excellent spot to bird watch. This is a good place to find Peregrine Falcons, which nest here. Common Ravens and Blue-headed Vireos also nest in the park.

Other birds to look out for at Chimney Rock State Park include:

  • Swainson’s Warblers,
  • American Redstarts,
  • Hooded Warblers,
  • and Scarlet Tanagers. 

4. Lake Crabtree County Park

Lake Crabtree is 520 acres in size and provides a good habitat for waterfowl, waders, and shorebirds. Osprey and Double-crested Cormorants are also seen near or over the water of the lake.

There are about 16 miles of trails traversing the park. These are useful for bird watchers who may want to explore the area as much as possible.

Birds you can find in summer here include Bald Eagles, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and Yellow-throated Warblers. You can find other birds like Brown-headed Nuthatches and Red-eyed Vireos. 

During spring, you are likely to encounter many more warblers. The record for the park is at 30 species of warbler, so you have a good chance of seeing something new during spring migration.

5. Croatan National Forest

This area is comprised of raised swampland and pine trees. The region is important in providing a habitat for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. Other species like Bachman’s Sparrow, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Barred Owl also occur in the refuge.

Prothonotary Warblers can be found in this area near water. You can find other species of birds, such as:

  • Worm-eating Warblers,
  • Prairie Warblers,
  • Pileated Woodpeckers,
  • and Red-headed Woodpeckers.

Interesting birds you can spot in the area include White Ibis, Mississippi Kites, American Kestrels, and Fish Crows. There is a nice photographic guide to some of the bird species that have been observed and recorded in the Croatan National Forest.

6. Airlie Gardens

Airlie Gardens is in New Hanover, and it is rich in birds, with 240 species recorded. The gardens have live oaks, Spanish moss, and several ponds. 

Species to watch out for on the ponds include Hooded Merganser, American Black Duck, Wood Duck, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser. There are also several wading birds you can see, such as:

  • Great Egret,
  • Black-crowned Night Heron,
  • Anhinga,
  • Yellow-crowned Night Heron,
  • and Tricolored Heron.

Some beautiful birds you can find breeding here include the Painted Bunting, Northern Parula, and Pileated Woodpecker. Many migrating birds also stop over during the spring and fall migration.

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Southern Regional Wild Bird Food

7. Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve 

Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve is 915 acres in size and is comprised of longleaf pine, beach dunes, and grassy areas.

It provides good habitat for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Red-headed Woodpecker, and other birds. You can find Bachman’s Sparrows and Brown-headed nuthatches in the reserve.

Several species breed in the refuge, including Louisiana Waterthrushes, Ovenbirds, Northern Bobwhites, and Red-shouldered Hawks. There are trails you can hike while bird watching here, and there is bird banding that occurs between April and November. 

8. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

This recreation area is on a barrier spit (a type of oceanic peninsula). There is a marshy area here called The Basin. The Fort Fisher area is a good spot to find shorebirds and oceanic birds. Since this region is on the coast, it is a good place to see birds during migration.

Birds that nest in the area include the following species: American Oystercatcher, Clapper Rail, Piping Plover, Black Skimmer, and Least Tern. In winter, you can see some interesting species in the waters, such as:

  • Hooded Mergansers,
  • Red-throated Loons,
  • Surf Scoters,
  • and White-winged Scoters. 

Raptors observed in the area include Cooper’s Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Red-tailed Hawks. You can use a bird species checklist for the area when you plan your trip here.

9. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is on Hatteras Island, which is one of the barrier islands on the North Carolina Outer Banks. There is a visitor center and trails that are accessible and can be used by bird watchers to explore the refuge. 

This refuge is very rich in birdlife, with at least 370 species recorded. There are wetlands, oceans, coastal shorelines, dunes, and shrubby vegetation, providing habitat for an assortment of bird species.

Shorebirds can be found in the area and include species such as the Willet, Piping Plover, Wilson’s Plover, and Black-necked Stilt. Other species found in the refuge include Tundra Swans and Canada Geese, which can be found in winter.

You can find other waterfowl like:

  • Buffleheads,
  • American Black Ducks,
  • Ruddy Ducks,
  • Wood Ducks,
  • Hooded Mergansers,
  • and Ring-necked Ducks.

The refuge also attracts songbirds like Palm Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, American Redstarts, Baltimore Orioles, Blackpoll Warblers, and many more species. The refuge is in a good position as a resting place for birds migrating along the eastern coast of North America.

Oceanic species, such as Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Greater Shearwater, have been recorded from this refuge.

10. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge is 152,000 acres in size and includes what is called pocosin wetland, a type of wetland found on peat and organic soil. There are drives you can take through the refuge. 

The best trail suggestions for birders include Buffalo City Road and the Sandy Ridge Hiking Trail. The hiking trail has a boardwalk that allows you to walk through a forested section.

Both Bald Eagles and Osprey breed in the refuge. You can also find Prothonotary Warblers, which are birds that like to be near water.

TOP TIP: Wild birds have a varied diet. Find out what they eat and how much food they need in this article. Can domestic birds survive in the wild? Find out the facts in this article.

11. Blue Ridge Parkway

This is a 469-mile scenic highway that takes you through the Appalachian Mountains. Taking this highway is a good way to see high-elevation birds. There are several overlooks and recreation spots along the highway where you can pull over to birdwatch.

Areas near Mount Mitchell and Balsam Gap can be good for Ruffed Grouse, Peregrine Falcons, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. You can also look out for Northern Saw-whet Owls and Common Ravens.

Birds such as Red Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found in these higher-elevation areas. You can also find warblers like:

  • Black-throated Green Warbler,
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler,
  • Blackburnian Warbler,
  • and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

12. Carolina Beach State Park

This park is located just south of Wilmington and has a beach, ocean, and woodlands. It is a good choice for birding because of these different habitats. A total of 253 bird species have been recorded in this state park. There is an ebird checklist for this birding hotspot.

You can see waterfowl species like the Black Scoter, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Merganser, Wood Duck, and American Black Duck.

Shorebirds to spot here include Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and Willet. Gulls and terns are commonly found in the area and include species like the Royal Tern and Laughing Gull.

The area is good for sparrows, such as the Nelson’s Sparrows and Seaside Sparrows. At least 30 species of warbler have been recorded in the woods, making this a terrific birding site during migration. You can also find Red-shouldered Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. 

Best Time to Bird Watch in North Carolina

There is no bad time of year in North Carolina for bird watching. Which seasons to choose to bird watch here really depends on what birds you want to add to your life list.

Best Time to Bird Watch in North Carolina

The North Carolina State Bird

Northern Cardinal - State Bird of North Carolina
Northern Cardinal – State Bird of North Carolina

The Northern Cardinal was chosen as the state bird of North Carolina. This bird is easy to identify, highly vocal, and bold. Both males and females have black on the face surrounding the conical beak. They also both have a crest on the head. 

The females are brown with tinges of red in the feathers. The males are bright red and conspicuous in woodlands and gardens. The birds are common in gardens and will come to seed feeders.

Bird Watching Laws in North Carolina

Native wild birds are protected by state and federal law. This does not include exotic birds, starlings, pigeons, and house sparrows.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


North Carolina has much to offer the bird watcher in that it has barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean, coastline, grasslands, inland wetlands, forests, and swamplands. The state has a record of over 480 bird species making it one of the best places for bird watchers in the United States.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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