North Carolina’s Coastal Plain Bird Migration

North Carolina’s Coastal Plain Bird Migration

Suz Suz October 31, 2022 0 Comments Latest News, Visit NC

Every year, thousands of birds migrate to North Carolina’s coastal plain area for part of the winter. With their arrival brings breathtaking displays of flight as they descend on the waterways for refuge. With their honking and quacking comes the excitement of birders and nature enthusiasts across the state. If you are a bird enthusiast North Carolina is a must-see. North Carolina is home to more than 475 wild bird species – thanks in part to the state’s diverse habitats that range from the high mountain peaks to coastal marshes.

Some of the best birding activities are found along North Carolina’s Coastal Plain which is also one of the most important bird migratory routes in the country. 

Why is the Coastal Plain Region so Important for Bird Migration? 

North Carolina’s coastal plain region makes up about 45% of the state’s total land area. Confined on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Fall Line, a zone where the soft rocks of the Coastal Plain meet the hard crystalline rocks of the Piedmont. 

The coastal plain region is critical to birds for many reasons. Its geographical location along the Atlantic Flyway offers breeding and wintering grounds for a variety of  species. Migrating birds depend on nesting grounds, migratory stopover places, and wintering locations in the coastal region of NC. 

According to the Nature Conservancy, during September and October, widespread northwest winds and moderate weather bring a number of songbirds to the region. If the weather is right, you can see more than 100 different species of birds! Many of these birds will reside on the Outer Banks gobbling up insects as they prepare for a long flight to their wintering grounds further south. 

North Carolina’s Coastal Plain Bird Migration | Tundra Swans in flight
Tundra Swans in flight

Memorable Migrating Birds That Call North Carolina Home 

Tundra Swan  

Referred to as the “whistling swan” by Meriwether Lewis due to the characteristic rhythmic flapping sound coming from their wings in flight. These majestic creatures with their distinctive straight-necked posture nest in the arctic tundra of North America. In the winter months they make their annual pilgrimage to North Carolina where they spend the winter relaxing and fattening up for their return journey to the tundra. Round trip for these birds is around 3,500 miles. The Tundra swan has a wing span of approximately 5 and a half feet. This wing spread helps support up to a 20lb swan.The wintering Tundra Swan makes up most of the 75,000 swans stopping over in North Carolina. Often they can be seen with snow grease, a variety of ducks and sandhill cranes. 


This small duck with its oversized looking head can be found wintering in Swanquarter’s National Wildlife Refuge. Don’t take your eyes off this little guy because in a blink of an eye they vanish into the water in search of food. Be patient as they spend most of their time foraging underwater. The males have striking colourful heads with a large white patch behind the eye surrounded by glossy purple and green feathers. During the summer months these ducks can be found in central Canada.

The American Oystercatcher

The American Oystercatcher is hard to miss with its red lined yellow eyes, long red-orange bill, and tall chicken-like legs. Starting in August, they begin to gather in flocks that can be found around the coast. Their diet consists almost exclusively of shellfish. They are the only birds in their environment with the ability to open clams and oysters. 


These sandpipers are the most numerous shorebirds wintering on the North Carolina coast. Dunlins spend their summers breeding in the Arctic tundra. Along their journey to North Carolina they stop over around the Hudson and James Bays. This is where they moult out of their vibrant breeding plumage and black bellies to their brown-grey winter plumage which blends in with their winter environment. 

Northern Pintail

Northern pintails get their name from their distinctive long pointed tail. Their slender build and narrow wings with long tail feathers give the duck a regal appearance, especially the males with their rich brown head and white chest. They are one of the first migratory birds to arrive in North Carolina. Wildlife refuges such as Alligator River, Pea Island and Mattamuskeet are good locations to see them, sometimes in large feeding flocks. Pintails are dabbling ducks – not divers, submerging only their head and neck when foraging. Their diet consists mainly of grains such as wild rice and subaquatic vegetation in fall and winter, and lots of invertebrates during the breeding season. 

Red Knot 

This small shorebird is a master of long-distance aviation. With a wingspan of only 20” some red knots fly more than 9,300 miles from south to north every spring and then repeat the trip every fall. This worldly species lives on all continents except Antarctica. Red Knots in the eastern US have declined in recent decades due in part to unsustainable harvest of horseshoe crab eggs.   

Coastal Plain Wildlife Refuges Near Bath

The Coastal Plain area of North Carolina has 11 National Wildlife Refuges. These refuges provide a habitat for migrating birds. Within an hour drive of Bath are 3 wildlife refuges that are worth checking out.  

  • Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is made up of vast acres of natural wetlands. During the winter months more than a hundred thousand ducks, geese and swans congregate to feed, rest and gain energy for their next journey. If you visit, be prepared for a bear sighting too. Pocosin supports one of the densest populations of black bear ever reported.  
  • Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest natural freshwater lake in North Carolina, Lake Mattamuskeet. The lake covers 40,000 acres which provide forage and sanctuary for wildlife. The refuge also includes swamp forests, upland forests and marshes. A great number of waterfowl call this area home in the winter. You will also find a number of breeding songbirds. Black bears, bobcats and other wildlife live in this habitat. 
  • Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge protects an expansive coastal brackish marsh on the Pamlico Sound. Its combination of open marsh and forested wetlands provides habitat for thousands of migratory waterfowl during the winter months.The bufflehead, northern pintail and black duck all make this area their temporary home during the winter. Alligators, bald eagles, black bears and marsh birds reside here as well.

If you are planning a trip this winter to witness first hand the impressive sounds and sights of the Tundra Swans ascending upon Pocosin Lake or being amazed at how nimble the little bufflehead is as it disappears in the marsh at Swanquarter, plan on staying at the Inn. We are conveniently located within an hour of 3 breathtaking wildlife areas. Our comfortable beds and yummy breakfasts will be just what you need as you depart on your birding adventure. 


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