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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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!