I know the beach is a popular summer destination for many folks in this area, especially the beaches of Brunswick County in the southeastern portion of North Carolina.
That’s where I spend a good amount of time walking the oceanfront at Ocean Isle and Sunset beaches. If you are interested in combining a walk on the beach with some casual birding, both of these islands have much to offer.
The best opportunities are at the inlets on the east ends of both islands. Shorebirds, terns, and gulls tend to congregate here especially during high tides. There are also roped-off sections that protect colonies of nesting birds that share the dunes, marshes, and flats.
The most numerous nesters are the least terns, feisty tiny terns that let you know they are aware of you long before you even get close to the enclosures.
Look also for Wilson’s plovers, an uncommon shorebird that resembles our local killdeer. Large shorebirds actually in the surf are likely willets, look for the bold black and white wing pattern when they fly.
The smaller sandpipers that chase the waves are probably sanderlings. If there is a lot of debris washed up, you may see ruddy turnstones methodically picking through it. Gaudy American oystercatchers occur too.
Flocks of larger birds at the inlets will include Forster’s terns, royal terns, Sandwich terns, brown pelicans and maybe some black skimmers.
If you have binoculars, check the legs of some of these birds for metal bands. If you are really lucky you may see a dark egret in the surf, especially at Sunset Beach. This will be a reddish egret, an uncommon visitor to our coast.
A major draw for visiting birders is the possibility of seeing a painted bunting, perhaps the most colorful North American bird. I think the best chance to see one is at Ocean Isle. Look and listen for them in the scrub growth just behind the dunes on the walk out to the east end.
If high tide coincides with early morning or evening, your birding and comfort will both be maximized, and please remember to respect the nesting birds and their chicks
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.
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