North Carolina's Must-See Bird Migrations

Author: Kaytee Smith

International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is celebrated on the second Saturday in May every year. Coordinated by Environment for the Americas, it celebrates and brings attention to one of the most important and spectacular events in the Americas - bird migration. IMBD is celebrated in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean at protected areas, refuges, parks, museums, schools, zoos, and more. More than 600 events and programs are hosted annually to introduce the public to migratory birds and ways to conserve them. 

Every year, thousands of birds migrate through North Carolina putting on awe-inspiring displays and sparking the excitement of birders and nature enthusiasts across the state. North Carolina is a must-visit destination state when it comes to feathered fauna, with over 460 species being documented to-date with over half that number found breeding here. Here is our list of some must-see bird migrations across the state!

1. Tundra Swans

Tundra Swan

You can't help but notice the Tundra Swan with its white plumage and long, slender neck. Known for its exquisite features and courting rituals, which have made it revered throughout history by people like the Navajo, Ancient Greeks and even Meriwether Lewis, who called them “whistling swans” because of their unique calls. Tundra Swans breed in the Arctic Coastal Plain in Canada then migrate during the winter to the West and East coasts of the United States, where they live in wetlands and salt marshes. During their migration, the swans and other birds seek refuge in... refuges!  Arriving waterfowl find ideal conditions to overwinter on 10 national wildlife refuges throughout North Carolina’s northern coastal plain and barrier islands. According to Bird Watcher's Digest, bird watchers can easily find more than 20 species of ducks as well as thousands of tundra swans and snow geese during a typical moderate winter. 

Where can you spot this magical migration?


2. Fall Coastal Migration

Northern Gannet

Many birders get excited about North Carolina’s coastal birds. Whether it is a pelagic trip out to experience seabirds or to view waterfowl and waterbirds during the colder months, there is much to see. The Outer Banks of North Carolina may be best known for sand dunes and waves, but they are also the site of an incredible fall bird migration. According to the Nature Conservancy, during September and October, prevailing northwest winds and generally clear weather bring a number of songbirds to the region. If the weather is right you can see more than 100 different species of birds! Many of these hangout on the Outer Banks gorging on insects in preparation for a long flight to wintering grounds in the Caribbean and northern South America.

What will you see? Warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers, orioles, vireos 


3. Springtime Mountain Songbird Migration

Canada Warbler

Many songbirds fly to the North Carolina mountains during April and May enroute to their breeding territories in the northern United States and Canada.  It is possible to see as many as 25 species of wood warblers on a single day during the peak of spring migration along with many other species such as vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, and others. The heavily forested mountains provide a key resting and feeding refuge for these migrants. 

What will you see? scarlet tanager, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, cerulean warblers 


4. Fall Hawk Watch

Red-tailed Hawk

The western part of North Carolina is a popular viewing area for hawk migrations due to the rocky outcroppings and mountain ridgelines that provide optimal wind currents for the hawks to ride as they head south for the winter. Hundreds or even thousands of raptors will soar over Grandfather Mountain in September as the birds of prey make their annual southward migrations. Throughout the month, visitors can join trained staff and volunteers at Linville Peak as Grandfather Mountain participates in the official Hawk Watch through the Hawk Migration Association of North America

What will you see? Bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, merlins and vultures. 

Learn more about birding in North Carolina: