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Birdwatching During the Winter on the Outer Banks

Birdwatching During the Winter on the Outer Banks

Photo: OuterBanks.com

Although the Outer Banks of North Carolina is most often thought of as a summer vacation destination, plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation are also available throughout the winter months, when the surf’s too cold to comfortably catch a wave and the temps are too chilly to break out your beach blanket, wear a bathing suit and work on your tan.

Photo: Mark Buckler Photography

Whether the water in the sounds on the western side of the islands have frozen solid and you’re searching for an adventure to occupy your time while still enjoying the great outdoors, or you simply want to experience the unique natural areas of these barrier islands and witness the different types of wildlife that call it home during the off-season, birdwatching on the Outer Banks is a one-of-a-kind activity to partake in when the cold winter months prevent you from hitting the beach for some fun in the sun.

June, July and August may be the most popular times for vacationers to visit the Outer Banks, but if you’re lucky enough to take a trip to the easternmost portion of North Carolina in the winter, you’ll not only find very few tourists to share your space with—you’ll also discover an assortment of interesting species of waterfowl that are either here for the entire winter or just passing through on their way to warmer climates further to the south.

To plan the perfect week of wildlife-viewing during your stay, start by checking out the top three spots to birdwatch on the Outer Banks below.

Jennette’s Pier at Whalebone Junction

Photo: Pemley Photography

If you are staying in the central portion of the Outer Banks—think Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk—you won’t find a better place to birdwatch without having to venture too far out into the wilderness than Jennette’s Pier. Located at Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, this concrete fishing pier is an Outer Banks attraction that offers an excellent place to easily view area wildlife.

Photo: obxbound.com

Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from January through March, Jennette’s Pier extends 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, giving you an amazing place to scope out area shorebirds. Here you’ll spot species that range from loons, gulls and gannets to cormorants, razorbills and pelicans—all either taking dramatic dives into the ocean from sky above or leisurely floating along just beyond the breakers. While many birds can be seen from the shoreline, Jennette’s Pier allows birdwatchers to walk 1,000 feet past the surfline and experience an even better view of the wildlife that call the Nags Head area home each winter.

Bodie Island Lighthouse in South Nags Head

Photo: OuterBanks.com

Working your way further to the south, head to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in South Nags Head, where you’ll not only stumble upon one of the four landmark lighthouses that are so well-known along the barrier islands of the Outer Banks—but also an excellent birdwatching spot just beyond the black-and-white painted structure that lights the way for mariners at sea. Situated a few miles south of Jennette’s Pier on Highway 12, the Bodie Island Lighthouse grounds are part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and feature a large freshwater pond and marshy area that attracts a wide array of shorebirds throughout the fall and winter months.

Photo: Yahoo

A wooden walkway leads visitors from the lighthouse and attached keepers quarters to an elevated viewing area overlooking the shallow body of water that is nestled into the neighboring marshland. Here you’ll likely see such species as the Eurasian wigeon, American avocet and black-necked stilt, among many other wintering waterfowl wading in the water and soaring over the sea oats. Take a quick drive across Highway 12 from the Bodie Island Lighthouse to nearby Coquina Beach, a popular beach access where you’ll also have the chance to encounter other species of birds that winter on the Outer Banks, including scoters, loons and northern gannets, on the ocean side of the island.  

Oregon Inlet & Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: VBSF.net

If a picturesque and photo-worthy backdrop and a plethora of wildlife is what you seek during your Outer Banks birdwatching excursion, continue even further south to Oregon Inlet and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary extends for more than 10 miles from Oregon Inlet to the village of Rodanthe.

Separating the northern beaches of the Outer Banks from Hatteras Island, on the opposite side of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, Oregon Inlet is one of the only waterways along the barrier islands that allows ships to sail from the Roanoke, Albemarle and Pamlico sounds to the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. As such, this popular access point is frequently filled with both private and commercial fishing boats, as well as numerous species of wintering birds that can be spotted from the shoreline on both sides of the inlet and the large rock jetty on the northernmost tip of Hatteras Island.

Pull into the parking area for the recently renovated Pea Island Lifesaving Station and trek out along one of several sandy pathways that lead to the ocean beaches on the edge of the island or the cozy cove that is tucked away just south of the inlet, forming a small beach and perfect private viewing area. When you embark on a birdwatching adventure at Oregon Inlet in the winter, you’ll likely spot such species as American white pelicans and American oystercatchers, as well as purple sandpipers, a variety of ducks and, occasionally, one of the rarest species to visit the Outer Banks: the great cormorant. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of birdwatching at Oregon Inlet and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge this particular winter is the chance to witness the snowy owl—an elusive yet highly sought-after species that has already been spotted along the barrier islands of the Outer Banks by wildlife enthusiasts at none other than Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge several times this season!


Richard Etheridge & the Pea Island Life-Saving Station: Part 1

Photo: Bowman Murray Architects
Photo: Pinterest

When most visitors to the Outer Banks hear the words “Pea Island,” images of a windswept wildlife refuge that stretches from sea to sound on the northern tip of Hatteras Island often come to mind first. But for those familiar with the storied past of the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, such words don’t just conjure thoughts of a location known for exceptional shelling spots and opportunities to see a wide array of wildlife in their natural habitats—the area is synonymous with one of the most important groups of people in Outer Banks history: the surfmen of the life-saving station at Pea Island.  

Decades before thousands of vacationers venturing to the Outer Banks for a week of rest and relaxation began spending time on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge during their stay, this narrow sliver of sand just south of Oregon Inlet served as the location of the U.S. Life-Saving Service’s Station 17. Founded in 1871, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was tasked with ensuring the safe passage of sailors aboard vessels that made their way up and down the shipping lines along the Eastern Seaboard. The shifting shoals off the Outer Banks of North Carolina proved extremely treacherous for even the most experienced of sailors to navigate, resulting in so many dozens of shipwrecks over the years that the region was subsequently dubbed “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Photo: Pinterest

For Station 17, architect J. Lake Parkinson designed a boathouse-type structure to be erected on the sandbar overlooking the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean. Featuring rustic wood walls, dormers to allow light to splash onto second floor, and a crow’s nest that offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, the life-saving station became home to a crew of seven surfmen led by the now-infamous Richard Etheridge. Although it was one of seven life-saving stations to be constructed along the North Carolina coast during this time period, Station 17 was unique in that it was the only station in the country manned by an all-black crew. Born a slave in January 1842, Etheridge enlisted in the Union army in August 1863, shortly after the North invaded the Outer Banks—and with considerable Civil War experience under his belt, he joined the U.S. Life-Saving Service upon his return home from the war.  

Photo: Pinterest

Continuously faced with the grave and imminent danger posed by strong currents, rough seas and frequent storms off the North Carolina coast, the surfmen at Station 17 had their work cut out for them each day they reported for duty. Though Etheridge was, at one time, one of only eight African-Americans serving in the entire U.S. Life-Saving Service, his sharp skills and superior leadership abilities quickly led to his promotion, and he soon became the first black keeper to serve in the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Etheridge and his all-black crew on Pea Island earned a reputation for operating “one of the tautest [life-saving stations] on the Carolina coast,” and made headlines when they rescued nine crew members off the E.S. Newman, a three-masted schooner that had veered 100 miles off course in a storm on Oct. 11, 1896. Etheridge and his fellow surfmen fought massive waves, pouring rain and blowing wind for hours on end as they repeatedly ventured into the ocean and back to the shore 10 times to save every sailor from the E.S. Newman—an effort for which the Station 17 crew was posthumously awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal on the mission’s 100 anniversary in 1996.

Photo: Hatteras Realty

The Pea Island life-saving station, its crew and, most notably, its leader, keeper Richard Etheridge, played a pivotal role in the history of both the Outer Banks and the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which would later evolve into the modern-day United States Coast Guard. After 20 years of service at Station 17, Etheridge fell ill at the age of 58 and passed away in January 1900. The life-saving services provided by the station continued to be operated by an all-black crew until the end of World War II, and the station was officially decommissioned in 1947. Shortly after the turn of the 21st century, William Charles Bowser—one of the last living surfmen to serve at the station—passed away in June 2006, at the age of 91. In March 2010, Herbert Collins—the surfman who had secured the locks on Station 17 on the day it officially closed—also passed away.

Photo: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Although the life-saving station at Pea Island sat empty for decades and was left to deteriorate in the harsh conditions that characterize the desolate sandbar on the edge of the earth, the structure underwent an extension renovation in 2008. Stay tuned for our next story, which will highlight the renovations performed on this life-saving station that has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

History of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton may be the most famous lighthouse along the coast of North Carolina, but another black-and-white-striped brick structure—the Bodie Island Lighthouse in South Nags Head—is another popular Outer Banks landmark that attracts droves of tourists to the barrier island beaches all year long. Located fewer than four miles north of Oregon Inlet, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is situated on the western edge of Bodie Island, on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Although the present-day tower that still serves as a functioning navigational aid was constructed in 1872, two previous versions of the Bodie Island Lighthouse were built on the same site during the middle of the 19th century.

The Bodie Island Light Station, South Nags Head

In 1837, the United States government sent Lieutenant Napoleon L. Coste to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to search for potential places to build a new lighthouse that would aid mariners attempting to navigate the shallow shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. According to the National Park Service, ships heading south toward Cape Point from northeastern North Carolina were in need of a beacon of light that could alert them to their position and let them know they would soon be nearing the treacherous waters where the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current converge. To assist these mariners by providing them with plenty of time to alter their positions as they came closer to Cape Point, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of the Bodie Island Lighthouse that same year.

View West
View of the Roanoke Sound from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse

Despite the approval of a lighthouse on the southern end of Nags Head in the late 1830s, a series of complications during the process of purchasing the land delayed the construction until 1847. Work commenced on the site soon after, but because the project’s primary manager had no prior experience in the construction of a lighthouse, the finished product—a lighthouse that stood on an unsupported brick foundation—proved to be a total failure. Just two years after construction was complete, the 54-foot-tall tower began to lean to one side. Although several expensive repairs were performed in an attempt to fix the structural issues and save the structure, the first Bodie Island Lighthouse was deemed ineffective and ultimately demolished in 1859.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

Armed with the knowledge of the proper way to build a lighthouse upon the sandy shoreline of the Outer Banks, the government promptly funded the $25,000 construction of the second rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse at a nearby site. This lighthouse was significantly sturdier than its predecessor; however, it also fell victim to an unfortunate fate just a few years after construction of the 80-foot-tall tower was complete. Because Confederate troops who were retreating from the Outer Banks during the Civil War feared enemy Union forces would use the structure as an observation post, Confederates blew up the lighthouse in 1861.

For the Bodie Island Lighthouse, the third time proved to be the charm. Fifteen acres of land was eventuallypurchased from John B. Etheridge 1.5 miles to the north of the locations where the previous lighthouses once stood, and construction on the present-day structure began on June 13, 1871. A seven-foot-deep pit was dug into the sand on the site in South Nags Head, and a wood grillage foundation was then laid at the bottom of the hole. Large chunks of granite and grouted blocks of rock were piled on top of the grillage to raise the foundation an extra five feet from the ground. The tower of the lighthouse was then set on top of the foundation and built to a total height of 156 feet. Outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens from France, the third rendition of the Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lit on October 1, 1872, casting a beam of light that can be seen for more than 18 miles.

Lighthouse Snow
The Bodie Island Lighthouse in a snowstorm, January 2016

For more than a century, the lighthouse has served as a successful navigational aid for mariners sailing the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and its light pattern—characterized by 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on and then 22.5 seconds off—has become well-known by both locals and tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks for decades. After years remaining closed to the public, extensive renovation efforts were performed between 2009 and 2012, and the tower officially opened for climbing in the spring of 2013.

Lighthouse Renovations
The Bodie Island Lighthouse undergoes extensive renovations from 2009-2012

Guided tours are now offered at Bodie Island Lighthouse from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, allowing visitors to climb 214 steps to the top of the structure, where they will be treated to incredible 360-degree views of Coquina Beach, the Atlantic Ocean, Roanoke Sound, Oregon Inlet, Nags Head and the neighborhood town of Manteo.

Lighthouse View East
The view of the Atlantic Ocean and Coquina Beach from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse
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