Best North Carolina Bird Watching Destinations & Clubs

December 5, 2021 // 18 minute read

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North Carolina has an abundance of birdwatching destinations and locations for avid birders to visit. Whether you live in North Carolina or are planning a visit, I am sure you’ll find some great locations for birding in North Carolina here.

In this article, we will provide you with some of the best FREE birding locations to visit. I have also included paid birdwatching destinations as well as birdwatching clubs for local residents of North Carolina.

In addition to North Carolina resources, we have also provided burning destination articles for the neighboring states of North Carolina:  Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

I am confident that you will find a fantastic birdwatching destination in the Tar Heel state. So without further ado, let’s jump in…

Bird Watching Destinations In North Carolina: Free Destinations

North Carolina has a lot to be proud of as far as enticing birding destinations are concerned. This great state provides so many wonderful opportunities to see beautiful birds in their natural habitat and wildlife refuges, state parks and recreation areas, and the national forest thrown in for good measure. Visit this beautiful state immediately if you want to witness wild birds in stunning outdoor settings.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge – Free Bird Watching

One of the best reasons to visit the Pea Island is because it’s part of the barrier islands, which is one of the most exciting and exhilarating places to go birding. Why is that? 

Migrant birds land on this island in concentrated supply, and they really enjoy spending time in the mud flats and marshes as well as the sandy beach. It’s truly an amazing place to see so many different bird species – more than 350 – located in one concentrated area.

Location:

Pea Island Visitor Center
14500 NC Hwy. 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968

Phone: 252-987-2394

GPS: 35.7167° N, 75.4937° W

Hours Of Operation:

The wildlife refuge is open every day when daylight hours are still upon us. It opens a half an hour before sunrise and closes a half an hour after sunset.

The visitor center, on the other hand, opens at 9 AM and closes at 4 PM each day, as long as there are available volunteers to work at the center.

  • Brown Pelican
  • Black-Necked Stilt
  • Wilson’s Plover
  • Northern Gannet
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • American Avocet
  • Tundra Swan
  • American Oystercatcher
  • Piping Plover
  • American Black Duck
  • Black-Bellied Plover
  • American Kestrel

Hiking Trails:

Although Pea Island is an incredibly popular birding destination in North Carolina, it isn’t necessarily known for its hiking trails. There’s lots of camping, bird watching, and some hiking going on at the refuge, but there are only two wildlife trails at the refuge itself.

The names of trails located throughout the wildlife refuge are called:

  • Salt Flats Wildlife Trail – this is the longer trail of the two, although it isn’t very difficult to walk along and it isn’t too far as well. It extends for several miles, and if you’re up for the task you could walk a good 4 or 5 miles before the trail comes to an end. This may take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on your speed and the overall distance you choose to go.
  • North Pond Wildlife Trail – this trail is definitely shorter and it’s a lot easier to navigate because it’s very even and straightforward terrain. The total distance of the trail is 1.2 miles long, and if you’re walking quickly enough you could finish it within a half an hour.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge – Free Admittance

This refuge is made up of 50,180 acres of land around the North Carolina coast. In particular, during the winter thousands of birds migrate to this location because they like spending time on Lake Mattamuskeet, which is the largest natural lake in the entire state. Even better, birdwatchers will love this birding hotspot because there are hundreds of different bird species visiting all year long throughout every season.

Location:

85 Mattamuskeet Road
Swanquarter, NC 27885

Phone: 252-926-4021

GPS: 35°30′N 76°12′W

Hours Of Operation:

The refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

  • Bald Eagle
  • American Bittern
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • American Widgeon
  • Black-Crowned Night Heron
  • Blue-Winged Teal
  • Canvasback Duck
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Glossy Ibis
  • Golden Eagle

Hiking Trails:

There are a number of excellent hiking trails to travel upon as you take photographs of your favorite birds out in the wild or just view the natural wildlife in person. These trails are relatively short but adventurous nonetheless, and I truly believe that beginners, intermediates, and experts will all appreciate these trails.

Their names and other pertinent information include:

  • Tapping Hill Trail – this trail is fairly easy to travel along on foot along the Atlantic coastal plain. It’s 2.1 miles long and it should take you about an hour and 15 minutes to complete.
  • New Holland Trail – New Holland hiking trail is also on the Atlantic coastal plain and it’s 3.75 miles long. It should take around two hours to 2 ½ hours for you to finish from start to finish.
  • Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Contact Station – this is the longest trail, and it’s also one of the best for bird watching. There are lots of geese, ducks, and tundra swans along this path that leads directly to the ranger station. It’s 3.9 miles long, and it should take around two hours or 2 ½ hours to finish from beginning to end.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge – Free Admittance, No Entry Fee

This national wildlife refuge is located where Albemarle South and the Alligator River meet in North Carolina on the coast. The refuge is 152,000 acres long and it’s a beautiful habitat filled with wetlands, marshes, forests, and a gorgeous wildlife drive. There are hiking trails, great bird watching opportunities, and a boardwalk to walk along.

Location:

Visitor Center
100 Conservation Way
Manteo, NC 27954

Phone: 252-473-1131

GPS: 35.7928° N, 75.8766° W

Hours Of Operation:

The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 AM until 4 PM. It’s also open on Sunday from noon until 4 PM.

The wildlife refuge is open all year round, from dusk until dawn.

  • Swainson’s Warbler
  • Black-Throated Green Warbler
  • Worm-Eating Warbler
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Barred Owl
  • Green-Winged Teal
  • Northern Pintail
  • Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
  • Short-Eared Owl
  • Wood Duck

Hiking Trails:

Hikers and bird watchers will definitely enjoy spending time in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Although there aren’t too many trails along the way, there are three very distinct and somewhat long trails for you to walk along. You can take wildlife photography, snap pictures of the birds, or enjoy a leisurely stroll with friends and family.

The names of the hiking trails are as follows:

  • Sawyer Lake and Milltail Creek – this nature trail will definitely take some time for you to traverse since it’s relatively long at 7.9 miles in total distance. If you can manage to walk 2 miles an hour, which is fairly doable, then you should be able to finish this trail in just under four hours. But feel free to take your time, enjoy being out in nature, and remember to look at all the beautiful birds and wildlife while here.
  • Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail – this trail is definitely much shorter than the one I previously mentioned. The total distance is only 1.3 miles long, and it should take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes for you to complete from beginning to end.
  • Milltail Creek – by far the longest trail of the bunch, this is an easy to navigate trail with a boardwalk, which makes it even easier to walk along the distinctive path. The total trail is 10.6 miles long, and a good chunk of it is a boardwalk for you to walk along. On average, it will take about 5 to 5 ½ hours for you to finish this trail all the way through.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area – Free Entrance, Paid Parking

For bird watching enthusiasts, visiting Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is a bright idea, especially if you’re in the vicinity of Wilmington, NC because it’s just 20 miles south of here. Even better, there are a wide array of bird species like seabirds and shorebirds to observe on the beach, and they also enjoy the Cape Fear River marshy inlet, which is also a great birding setting.

Location:

1000 Loggerhead Rd.
Kure Beach, NC 28449

Phone: 910-458-5798

GPS: 33°57′15″N 77°55′47″W 

Hours Of Operation:

Park Hours

  • November to February – 8 AM to 6 PM
  • March – 8 AM to 7 PM
  • April to May – 8 AM to 8 PM
  • June to August – 8 AM to 9 PM
  • September – 8 AM to 8 PM
  • October – 8 AM to 7 PM

They close and lock the gate at closing time, so make sure you exit the park beforehand. The park is also closed on Christmas Day.

  • Black Skimmer
  • Clapper Rail
  • Osprey
  • Least Tern
  • Painted Buntings
  • Northern Gannet
  • Red-Throated Loon
  • Wilson’s Plover
  • Seaside Sparrow
  • Willet
  • Piping Plover
  • American Oystercatcher

Hiking Trails:

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area truly has some amazing hiking trails for you to traverse upon. They vary tremendously in length from easy to moderate in difficulty, and there is a nice boardwalk bridge along many of the trails.

The names of the trails in question are:

  • Fort Fisher Historic Site – this easy trail is relatively short because it’s only 0.6 miles long and the terrain isn’t difficult to travel along. In truth, it should take an average person walking at a moderate speed to complete the trail within 15 minutes.
  • Fort Fisher to Bald Head Island Beach Walk – this is by far the most difficult trail out of all of them, and it’s moderately difficult because the terrain gets rough at certain points as you walk toward the beach. Even more important, this is a long 17.6-mile trail, which will take every day hikers around seven hours and five minutes to complete.
  • Basin Trail a.k.a. Hermit Trail – this is a nice and easy trail to walk along because it isn’t too long but it certainly isn’t too short either. The total distance is 2.2 miles in length, which should take the average person around 55 minutes to an hour to finish.

Croatan National Forest – Free Admittance, Free Parking, Some Activities Require Fees

This area is filled with raised swamps and pine woods, which makes it the perfect place to see some of your favorite Southern birds in their natural habitat. This region is filled with a wide array of different birds positioned throughout the forest. Hikers and bird watchers are definitely in for a treat whenever they visit Croatan National Forest because there is so much to see and do and it’s a birders paradise.

Location:

141 East Fisher Ave.
New Bern, NC 28560

Phone: 252-638-5628

GPS: 34.9144° N, 77.0564° W

Hours Of Operation:

The forest itself is open 24 hours a day and it’s open all year round, even on holidays. The district office is only open on Monday to Friday from 8 AM to 4:30 PM.

  • Red-Shouldered Hawk
  • Worm-Eating Warbler
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Brown-Headed Nuthatch
  • Red-Cockaded Woodpecker
  • Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
  • Barred Owl
  • Black-Throated Green Warbler
  • Bachman’s Sparrow
  • Prothonotary Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Wild Turkey

Hiking Trails:

This stunning forest destination is filled with a wide range of challenging and fun-filled hiking trails. They are perfect for beginner or expert hikers, because they have something for everyone.

The names of the many hiking trails scattered throughout the forest include:

  • Island Creek Forest Walk Trail – easy difficulty, 2.8 miles long, one hour and 10 minutes to complete
  • Neusiok Trail Southern Half – easy difficulty, 12.9 miles, five hours and 15 minutes to complete
  • Neusiok Trail Northern Half – moderate difficulty, 22.6 miles, nine hours and 20 minutes to complete
  • Weetock Trail – easy difficulty, 18.7 miles, seven hours and 45 minutes to complete
  • Patsy Pond Yellow Trail – easy difficulty, 2.6 miles, one hour and five minutes to complete
  • Patsy Pond Blue Trail – easy difficulty, 1.6 miles, 40 minutes to complete
  • Patsy Pond Green Trail – easy difficulty, 0.9 miles, 20 minutes to complete
  • Cedar Point Inner Loop – easy difficulty, 0.7 miles, 20 minutes to complete
  • Wright Trail – moderate difficulty, 7.7 miles, three hours to complete
  • Jones Trail – moderate difficulty, 8.5 miles, three hours to complete
  • Piranha Pit Loop Trail – moderate difficulty, 4 miles, one hour and 45 minutes to complete
  • Forster, Wright Trail and Hope Road Loop – easy difficulty, 5.7 miles, two hours and 20 minutes to complete
  • Neusiok Trail: Beach Section – easy difficulty, 3.3 miles, one hour and 25 minutes to complete
  • Neusiok Trail – moderate difficulty, 20.6 miles, 8 ½ hours to complete
  • Patsy Pond Nature Trail Loop – easy difficulty, 2.9 miles, one hour and 10 minutes to complete
  • Cedar Point Tideland Trail – easy difficulty, 1.4 miles, 35 minutes to complete

Bird Watching Destinations In North Carolina: Paid Destinations

Airlie Gardens – Paid Admittance

This beautiful garden is located on the east side of Wilmington. It happens to be one of the most beautiful places that people go to get married, and it’s also a wonderful place to go if you’re looking to watch birds. There is a fee to enter the gardens, so this isn’t a free bird watching destination, but the small entrance fee is definitely worth it to see more than 210 species of local birds.

Location:

300 Airlie Rd.
Wilmington, NC 28403

Phone: 910-798-7700

GPS: 34.2183° N, 77.8302° W

Hours Of Operation:

The garden is open each day from 9 AM to 5 PM, and they stop letting in new visitors at 4:30 PM.

Closings are as follows: every Monday in January and February, July 30, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Entrance Fees:

  • General Admission – $9
  • New Hanover Resident (ID Required) – $5
  • Military (ID Required) – $5
  • Children Age 4 Through 12 – $3
  • Individual Yearly Membership – $40 a year
  • Family Yearly Membership – $75 per year
  • Black-Crowned Night-Heron
  • White Ibis
  • Osprey
  • Black Skimmer
  • Painted Bunting
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Red-Headed Woodpecker
  • Northern Parula
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Anhinga

Hiking Trails:

Although Airlie Gardens doesn’t have official hiking trails per se, they do have a morning bird hike that starts at 8 AM on scheduled days. Visit their website and check the calendar to find out the next time they have a scheduled bird hike that you can attend. You also have to purchase your tickets in advance online, so remember to reserve your tickets ahead of time.

North Carolina Birdwatching Clubs

Birdwatching in North Carolina is always a treat because there are so many wonderful and amazing locations to visit with plentiful amounts of stunning looking birds. Even more important, there are bird watching clubs and groups dedicated to this wonderful hobby and activity. If you would like to connect with other like-minded birders in the wonderful state of North Carolina, I suggest you join one of the clubs mentioned below to connect with people just like you.

Piedmont Bird Club

This fantastic bird club has a long and storied history because it was originally established in 1938, which means it’s nearing the hundred-year mark; an amazing accomplishment. The main focus of this club is on birds, including birding, conservation, and they take a general interest in nature too. They have regular meetings and birding trips and they even provide community outreach activities for education and contribution to members of the public.

Past and Future Events

  • Piedmont Young Birders September Walk on Bicentennial Greenway – this fun filled event took place on September 19, 2020. The Young Birders in this club walked along Bicentennial Gateway on a windy and cool morning. Melanie Buckingham, Stella Wear, Tom Wear, and Lynn Allison led the walk. They were lucky enough to see Red-Shouldered Hawks, American Crows, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, and other exciting bird species.
  • Dan River Game Land Field Trip – this field trip was held on September 20, 2021 in Rockingham County. Marty Wall and 16 other members got together to visit this exciting local birding hotspot. On the trip, they saw many different attractive bird species including the Eastern Wood-Pewee, Carolina Wren, Savannah Sparrow, Magnolia Warbler, Gray Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Downy Woodpecker, and more.
  • October Big Day 2020 – this incredible birding event took place all around the globe and it was actually the biggest birding event in history. There were more than 30,000 participants around the world and they viewed 7097 different bird species on the same day. This is the single biggest reported bird species sighting in a single day and they even broke the world record. What an amazing accomplishment!

Membership Fees

  • Individual Membership – $15
  • Family Membership – $20
  • Full-Time Student Membership – Free

To join or renew your membership, please visit here for the individual or family membership sign up and visit here to sign up using the student form.

Carolina Bird Club

The Carolina Bird Club is much more than your average birdwatching organization. Their goal is to promote the study of birds, observing birds, and enjoying birds in their natural habitat. They provide opportunities for birders to connect with one another, share information, and share experiences together in the birding community. They support wildlife protection, bird conservation, and respect natural resources and natural habitats.

Past and future Events

  • CBC Outer Banks Trip – this trip is going to take place between December 4-5 in 2021. This is an exciting early winter birding site in North Carolina, and on the trip, you’ll visit a number of different national wildlife reservations including Alligator River NWR and Mattamuskeet NWR. The field trip costs $45 and you must register in advance.
  • Lifebird Costa Rica – this once-in-a-lifetime birding trip was truly amazing and the participants had a blast in 2019. The birding club combined their strengths with LifeBird Tours LLC, where they spent 10 days in beautiful Costa Rica in the Pacific lowlands, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and La Selva Biological Station, amongst other wonderful locations. Participants saw a plethora of gorgeous birds including White-Lored Gnatcatchers, Stripe-Headed Sparrows, Turquoise-Browed Motmot and other exotic birds.
  • Fall 2021 Meeting in Havelock, NC – all members of the community are welcome to show up to the fall meetings held between September 23-25th in 2021. This is a general meeting, so anyone can attend even if you aren’t a member of the Carolina Bird Club but you’re interested in learning more about the organization.

Membership Fees

  • Individual Membership – $30
  • Family Membership – $35
  • Student Membership – $15
  • Patron Membership – $50 
  • Nonprofit Membership – $30
  • Business Membership – $35
  • Lifetime Membership – $500
  • Lifetime Installment Membership – $125 for four annual payments

To pay by mail, you’ll need to fill out the two-page membership brochure and mail it to the following address with your check payable to:

Carolina Bird Club

9 Quincy Pl.

Pinehurst, NC 28374

Or to make things easier, you can visit their website here and fill out the online form and pay your dues on the web at the same time.

Cape Fear Audubon

This organization is precisely where you need to belong if you’re looking to go on birding field trips, participate in conservation activities, and get an education on all things birding, the natural habitat, and more. Plus, it’s the perfect place to become a member if you’re looking to connect with like-minded birders in the Cape Fear area of North Carolina.

Past and Future Events

Cape Fear Audubon makes it a point to go on regular walks and outings in the local community as often as possible. Although their website doesn’t share specific information about current or future walks, they mention that their committee plans, coordinates, and leads bird walks for other members. They even coordinate with local businesses like Wilmington Water Tours for even more exciting outings.

The walks are typically held in coastal areas in the following counties:

  • Brunswick
  • New Hanover
  • Onslow
  • Pender

Membership Fees

  • Individual Membership – $10
  • Family Membership – $15

To join the club, you can fill out the online form here and follow the prompts to join and pay your dues. Or, you can write a check payable to Cape Fear Audubon Society in the correct amount and print out this PDF form and mail it in.

Their mailing address is as follows:

Cape Fear Audubon Society

PO Box 414

Wilmington, NC 28402

North Carolina Birding Destinations & Clubs – Final Thoughts

North Carolina provides so many great birding locations it was hard to select the best support in this article. And, if you have visited a location that you feel should be included in this article, please feel free to contact us with the details. We would be more than happy to include them! Our goal is to provide our readers with the absolute best birdwatching resources.

When you visit North Carolina, or if you live in North Carolina and are looking for new birding destinations, be sure to check out the locations referenced in this article. I am confident that you have a great time watching North Carolina local birds in their natural habitat!

Happy birding.

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