Sea and surf, sand and sea oats – there are precious few places left on Earth like North Carolina’s Bogue Banks. A thin, 21-mile stretch of barrier island protecting the mainland from the powerful Atlantic Ocean, Bogue Banks is a mosaic of gin-clear waters, emerald green cord grass and some of the most-celebrated beaches in the world. Rich in natural beauty and opportunity for outdoor recreation and leisure, the island is a cherished destination for adventure seekers, family vacationers, anglers and artists. Bird watchers and nature lovers know it for the incredible diversity and abundant flora and fauna that inhabit this spectacular stretch of coastline, where the land truly meets the sea.
It would be easily understandable for visiting birders to spend most of their time soaking in the sun on the back deck of their vacation rental and ticking off abundant backyard species like brown thrasher, common yellowthroat, yellow-rumped warbler, American robin, brown pelican and eastern bluebird, but birders tend to be an adventuresome lot and here that trait is rewarded.
The quest begins at Shackleford Banks. Just a short ferry ride from the coastal towns of Harker’s Island, Beaufort and Morehead City, the island’s pristine coastal habitat is home to several highly sought-after waterbirds and represents a critical nesting area for several endangered species. Accessible only by boat, birders who wish to visit the island may do so by one of several ferry services or private charters.
During spring and autumn, Shackleford Banks expansive soundside tidal flats are an important stopover for migrating shorebirds, including red knots, whimbrels and dunlin. The isolated beaches are breeding territory for flocks of least terns and solitary nesters such as Wilson’s and piping plovers and American oystercatchers. Shackleford’s interior holds remnants of the ancient maritime forest that once flourished throughout the southern coastline. Today, the twisted live oaks, sassafras and yaupon holly give shelter and sustenance to a host of migrating songbirds, including indigo bunting, veery, American redstart and gray catbird. Shackleford Banks is also home to a herd of wild “Banker” ponies, said to be descended from the equine survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon.
Back across Beaufort Inlet, Bogue Banks, hosts its own avian treasure trove. Unlike the isolated outpost of Shackleford Banks, the seaside towns on Bogue Banks provide visiting birders with plenty of food and lodging opportunities. The birding can be excellent throughout the year, but is especially so during spring and fall migration, starting from the ramparts at historic Fort Macon State Park, at the east end of the island in Atlantic Beach. Impossibly colorful painted buntings can often be found on the grounds of the park during the summer breeding season, along with black-crowned night herons, laughing gulls, willets and northern harriers (during the fall and winter months).
At the other end of Bogue Banks, in the town of Emerald Isle, lie the quiet trails winding through maritime forest at Emerald Isle Woods Park. There are prime lookout points atop the highest elevation on the island to observe the vast saltwater marshes and oyster reefs of Bogue Sound, where wading birds like white ibises, tri-colored herons, snowy egrets and American oystercatchers abound. The sound’s watery maze of tidal creeks is a perfect place to explore in a kayak and birders who do so increase their odds of seeing secretive species like clapper rail and seaside sparrow.
Especially keen bird watchers will be interested in taking the short trip to the mainland for a chance to see two very elusive species amid the picturesque longleaf pine savannah found in Croatan National Forest in New Bern. The well-maintained hiking paths at Patsy Pond Nature Trail are home to both the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and Bachman’s sparrow. Both species are especially vocal and active during the morning hours, so plan on an early start if you hope to add them to your list.
People have been coming to Bogue Banks for generations to enjoy the uniquely beautiful combination of sea and sound. The birds have been doing the same thing for eons. For those fortunate observers who find comfort in nature, there is much to see and experience here – enjoy the quest.