A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

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Madison County Championship Rodeo

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A Bird’s-Eye View of North Carolina: A Photo Essay

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Birds have long played a role in helping humans understand the world around us. In ancient Rome, “augury” was the practice of interpreting omens from the observed behavior of birds. Bird patterns and movements were believed to aid humans in understanding “the will of the gods” before making personal decisions or determinations affecting the state.

Although there is no widespread practice of augury in the 21st century, we still have a lot to learn from birds. Knowledge of the numbers, species, and health of our avian neighbors is integral to understanding our past. And if we’re smart, birds can help guide us to a more sustainable future.

In the 1850s, the display of birds became an obsession in Victorian England. In both public institutions and private homes, mounted birds from all over the world could be seen in lifelike displays under glass domes. In 1884, the taxidermy craze officially arrived in North Carolina when the state Department of Agriculture commissioned an Englishman, Herbert H. Brimley, to prepare mounted waterfowl and fish for the North Carolina Exposition.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established, in part, to protect the migratory birds that overwinter on Hatteras Island — including thousands of redhead and pintail ducks. photograph by Eric Abernethy

That exhibit, and other taxidermy work and collections prepared by Brimley and his younger brother, Clement, would mark the beginning of one of America’s great museums: what is now the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Today, around 20,000 bird specimens in the museum’s research collection help tell the avian story of North Carolina.

Brimley was a first-rate naturalist who traveled extensively around the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He left us not only remarkable specimens, but also a trove of photographs. Brimley’s collections have provided benchmarks for planners and scholars to evaluate change over time. They can help us understand the effects of forestry practices, agricultural operations, urban development, and hunting. Most important, perhaps, the collections highlight the unique biological, topographical, and climate diversity found in our state.

Even birds from North Carolina’s past that are, sadly, now extinct have plenty to teach us. John Lawson, who lived in Bath in the early 1700s, wrote about our only parrot, the Carolina parakeet: “They are mischievous to Orchards. They are often taken alive, and will become familiar and tame in two days.”

If you’re a birder, there’s no better place in eastern America than the Old North State.

More than a century later, John James Audubon included this parrot in The Birds of America, writing, “[T]he Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them.” The last known Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

Clearly, our stewardship of this species, along with passenger pigeons, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and others, has been woefully inadequate. These birds, which will never take flight again, should be constant reminders of the vigilance required to maintain ecosystems for living things.

We are fortunate in North Carolina that once-imperiled species like the bald eagle have seen their numbers rebound in recent decades. At the same time, far too many birds — bobwhite quail, eastern whip-poor-wills, a variety of warblers, and numerous shorebirds — have declined in number for all-too-familiar reasons: habitat destruction and the continued indiscriminate use of pesticides. The National Audubon Society declared in 2019 that in the past 50 years, we have lost one in four birds in North America alone. Other organizations estimate the magnitude of avian decline even larger.

Early morning finds geese on the water and in the air at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. photograph by BILL SWINDAMAN/MOMENT OPEN/GETTY IMAGES

Still, few places in the temperate latitudes offer more opportunity to study and celebrate birds than North Carolina. Today, more than 450 species can be found within our borders, including the vast majority of birds found on the East Coast of North America. Many are permanent residents, while others use our state as their summer or winter home. Being about equidistant between Florida and Canada, North Carolina is also a seasonal pass-through zone for millions of birds heading to points north or south. In short, if you’re a birder, there’s no better place in eastern America than the Old North State.

I don’t know anyone who believes in augury as practiced by the ancient Romans. Nor am I aware of individuals who can interpret omens from the size and shape of bird flocks. I’m beginning to think, however, that the Romans may have been on to something. The birds around us, from the tropics to the Arctic Circle, continue to be our “canaries in the coal mine” as they alert us to changes in the air, on the water, and in myriad living ecosystems.

Below, you’ll find 16 species, plus a supporting cast of plumed characters, that I have selected as “defining birds” of our state. These birds can all be found in North Carolina by those willing to travel. They represent different categories — migratory waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, neotropical songbirds, woodpeckers, and game birds — and different regions of our state, from mountains to coast. All of them have much to tell us about the health of North Carolina ecosystems, and the world beyond our borders.

 

Defining birds

The must-see list of North Carolina’s winged residents

 

To carry their weight of 10 to 20 pounds, tundra swans have wingspans of approximately five and a half feet. photograph by Jared Lloyd

Tundra Swan

If you’ve ever driven through northeastern North Carolina during the winter, you may have seen a string, or a “V,” of large, long-necked birds silhouetted against the sky. Chances are you’re looking at one of North America’s most spectacular birds: the tundra swan. They raise their young and spend their summers near the Arctic Circle on the coastlines of northern Canada and Alaska. Then, during the course of their long lives — averaging 10 years or more — they make an annual pilgrimage of some 3,500 miles to North Carolina, relaxing and fattening up during the winter months for their return trip to the Arctic. To carry their weight of 10 to 20 pounds, these swans have wingspans of approximately five and a half feet. The 75,000 swans stopping over in North Carolina make up the vast majority of wintering tundra swans on the East Coast. Best of all, they can be seen alongside snow geese, a variety of ducks, and even sandhill cranes.

Where to see them: Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.

When: Mid-November to mid-March.

 

Black skimmers do not feed by sight, but by touch. photograph by Jared Lloyd

Black Skimmer

“Bird stewards” organized by Audubon NC post signs — adorned with art by local fifth graders — to help protect black skimmers and other shorebirds nesting on busy Wrightsville Beach. photograph by Tom Earnhardt

During summer months at Cape Lookout, I have often seen “tuxedoed” black-and-white birds with long, toucan-like orange-and-black bills. They skim the surface of Barden Inlet, with their longer lower mandibles slicing through the water. When they make contact with prey, their heads bend down as their shorter upper mandibles slam shut. Unlike terns, with which they are often confused, black skimmers do not feed by sight, but by touch. Because of this, skimmers frequently feed in the early morning and late evening — or at night — when waters are calm. Like terns and oystercatchers, skimmers nest on sandy beaches, but they’ve lost much of their habitat to development and storms. At present, there are thought to be fewer than 325 breeding pairs in North Carolina each summer. Although some winter over from Cape Lookout south, many fly south for the winter.

Where to see them: Cape Lookout, Hammocks Beach State Park, and the south end of Wrightsville Beach.

When: Nesting season is late April through June. Large migratory flocks can also be seen near inlets from late August into October.

 

With a normal cruising speed of 25 miles an hour and dives of 50 miles an hour, ruby-throats are blazingly fast. photograph by Tom Earnhardt

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

The ruby-throated hummingbird is our most diminutive summer visitor: Adult birds tip the scales at one-tenth to two-tenths of an ounce. Although other species of “vagrant” hummingbirds are found from time to time in North Carolina, the ruby-throat is our only breeding hummingbird. Starting at lower elevations in late March or early April, hummers can be seen until late September across our state. With a normal cruising speed of 25 miles an hour and dives of 50 miles an hour, ruby-throats are blazingly fast. Their wing beats average between 50 and 60 beats per second (bps) and can reach as high as 200 bps during courtship. With a lifespan of three to five years, many of these miraculous creatures will fly across the Gulf of Mexico multiple times during their lives, traveling between their Tar Heel nesting home and their wintering grounds in Central America.

Where to see them: They are drawn to hummingbird feeders statewide, as well as deep-throated wildflowers like cardinal flower and coral honeysuckle.

When:: Late March through early October.

 

Once common along our southern barrier islands, painted buntings are becoming rarer. photograph by Jared Lloyd

Painted Bunting

In late May of 1973, I saw what I was certain was a canary just north of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on Core Banks. In a cluster of yaupon and live oak, I watched several chartreuse-orange-purple-green birds disappear into the vegetation. Later, at a grocery store on Harkers Island, a woman assured me that I had seen painted buntings. To this day, I find that the radiant colors of painted buntings are almost beyond description. Such birds seem more fitting for the Amazon or the jungles of Borneo. With all due respect to sparrows, warblers, wrens, and finches, painted buntings have no competition as North Carolina’s most colorful summer resident. Once common along our southern barrier islands, painted buntings are becoming rarer. Their numbers have declined because of habitat destruction and illegal capture for the caged-bird trade in their wintering grounds of Central America and Mexico or Florida and the northern Caribbean.

Where to see them: Maritime forests and thickets on Bald Head Island, Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site, and Fort Macon and Hammocks Beach state parks.

When: Late April through October with best viewing early in the season.

 

Prothonotary warblers are unmistakable with their yellow bodies and blue-gray wings. photograph by Jared Lloyd

Prothonotary Warbler

I know some people who gauge the arrival of spring not by the blooming of wildflowers, but by the arrival of North Carolina’s magnificent “swamp canary,” the prothonotary warbler. The bird is the same color as the yellow-orange robes worn by papal notaries — known as prothonotaries. These summer visitors are unmistakable with their yellow bodies and blue-gray wings. You can see them in the Coastal Plain along cypress-lined rivers and in bottomland forests. The best way to view them is from a kayak or canoe during the last two weeks of April and the first week of May, before the dense foliage of summer makes them far more difficult to locate and observe. These neotropical songbirds build their nests in natural cavities from three to 30 feet above water. After raising two broods, most will fly across the Gulf of Mexico to winter in Central America and parts of Venezuela and Colombia.

Where to see them: Coastal Plain wetlands and rivers, including islands of the lower Roanoke River, along the Black River, and in Tar River wetlands.

When: April through September (more easily seen in late April and early May).

 

With a featherless head, elegant black and white feathers, and a five-foot wingspan, the wood stork is a grand addition to this state’s roster of nesting birds. photograph by Tom Earnhardt

Wood Stork

The wood stork is North America’s only breeding stork. Having long nested in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, this true stork is a frequent summer visitor near the southernmost Tar Heel beaches. But it wasn’t until 15 years ago that wood storks established a significant breeding colony in North Carolina: Whether because of climate change or habitat destruction to the south, there is now a large colony — more than 100 nesting pairs — just east of Lumberton in the Lumber River drainage. Several smaller colonies have been established nearby. Having visited our wood stork colony on several occasions, I can say without hesitation that it is one of the grandest avian spectacles I have witnessed in this state. More than a dozen active wood stork nests can often be seen in the same cypress tree along with the nests of great egrets and anhingas. With a featherless head, elegant black and white feathers, and a five-foot wingspan, the wood stork is a grand addition to this state’s roster of nesting birds.

Where to see them: Warwick Mill Bay, east of Lumberton (protected by Audubon, North Carolina State Parks, and The Conservation Fund).

When: May and June offer best viewing of active adults and chicks.

 

Northern bobwhites were once common from the mountains to the coast. photograph by STADEN/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Northern Bobwhite

I was born in North Carolina at the end of World War II. From the 1950s through the ’70s, quail hunting in North Carolina was still an annual ritual shared by many fathers and sons. I grew up listening to stories of the glory days of quail hunting, when my hometown of Thomasville was considered a mecca for visiting hunters. As a teenager, it was not unusual to walk in a field, thicket, or pasture edge and flush a covey of quail — 15 to 30 birds, and sometimes more. Bobwhites were common from the mountains to the coast. Almost everyone in North Carolina could identify the whistle of the quail, bob-white, in the spring and summer. No bird defined the Tar Heel landscape and its rural roots more than the northern bobwhite. Over the past three decades, the bobwhite’s dramatic decline in numbers — attributed primarily to habitat loss — has been frustrating to hunters and non-hunters alike.

Where to see them: Sandhills region, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and eastern North Carolina farms where habitat is maintained along field and ditch edges.

When: Viewing opportunities year-round, but the regulated hunting season for quail runs from late November through February.

 

Bald eagles have a seven-foot wingspan and a lifespan of 20 years. photograph by HEATHER SCHAEFGEN-RUSSELL

Bald Eagle

Since 1782, the bald eagle has been our national bird. Yet by the mid-1960s, it was almost extinct in the lower 48 states, with fewer than 500 nesting pairs remaining. Although an avid outdoorsman, I went many years without seeing a single bald eagle in North Carolina or neighboring states. By the early 1980s, there were no nesting eagles in North Carolina. It seems almost inconceivable that this symbol of strength and freedom was almost lost to illegal hunting and the indiscriminate use of pesticides, including DDT. Fortunately, the bald eagle is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement. You can now see them soaring over lakes and larger rivers statewide. With its seven-foot wingspan and a lifespan of 20 years, it is a defining symbol of effective management, legislation, and messaging. Still, the bald eagle’s near demise should be a cautionary tale for future generations.

Where to see them: Found on large reservoirs statewide; hot spots include Jordan, Harris, and Badin lakes, the lower Roanoke River, and Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

When: Year-round.

 

The great egret is one of our largest wading birds, standing three feet tall with jet black legs and a yellow-orange bill.  photograph by Derek Diluzio

Great Egret

The great egret (aka the common egret) is a symbol of survival. Its white feathers made it synonymous with beauty and elegance, but also a target for plume hunters in the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, conservationists rallied to protect it and other migratory birds from the feather trade. Today, the great egret is the emblem of the National Audubon Society, and a defining bird of North Carolina’s eastern wetlands. It is one of our largest wading birds, standing three feet tall with jet black legs and a yellow-orange bill. In North Carolina, the great egret is partially migratory, meaning that we have both a resident and migratory population of these stately creatures. Almost extirpated from this region a century ago, they are now the embodiment of enlightened conservation practices.

Where to see them: Large concentrations of nesting great egrets can be seen (from a distance) along the coast, especially in the lower Cape Fear region. They also feed in brackish and freshwater marshes and creeks across most coastal counties.

When: Year-round in the coastal region and sometimes in the Piedmont in the post-breeding season of late summer.

 

The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species. photograph by Todd Pusser

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) appears to be rather ordinary. It is not as large as the pileated or as beautiful as the red-headed woodpecker, but no bird in the pine forests of North Carolina is more valuable. It is one of the few woodpeckers that excavates its nest cavity in old, living longleaf pine trees, and occasionally in loblolly or other pines. It is a keystone species, in that numerous other creatures — frogs, lizards, bluebirds, and even wood ducks — depend on the holes excavated by the RCW. One of the great conservation battles of the 20th century occurred at Fort Bragg, when conservationists and the U.S. Army appeared to be at odds over protecting RCWs in the 1990s yet found mutually beneficial solutions. For now, the RCW is still on the federal Endangered Species List, but its numbers are increasing on military installations and in older longleaf pine habitats in North Carolina and the Southeast. The future of the longleaf pine and the red-cockaded woodpecker are forever intertwined.

Where to see them: Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, Carvers Creek State Park, and Holly Shelter Game Land.

When: Year-round, but more accessible for viewing during nesting season in late April and May.

 

The barred owl is one of the most common owl species in North Carolina. photograph by Mark Buckler

The Owls of North Carolina

Eastern Screech Owl photograph by Neil Jernigan

Few sounds at night are more distinctive than the vocalizations of North Carolina’s owls. These night hunters are found across the state, ranging in size from the imposing great horned owl to the tiny northern saw-whet owl found only in our high mountains. They also include the beautiful barn owl, the small eastern screech owl, and the barred owl, one of our most common. These raptors are given far too little credit for controlling rodent populations. Most have densely packed retinal rods for night vision, heads capable of “swiveling” to look backward, and special wing feathers that move almost soundlessly through the air.

Where to see them: Owls can be found from the Outer Banks to our highest mountains. Some species, like the great horned owl and eastern screech owl, live in every county.

When: Year-round.

 

The chestnut-sided warbler, weighing half an ounce or less, represents resilience. photograph by LARRY KELLER

Chestnut-Sided Warbler

The chestnut-sided warbler is an important representative of the neotropical migrants that spend fall and winter in Central and South America. More than three dozen warbler species are found, in season, across our state. So why is the chestnut-sided warbler a defining bird? This tiny, delicate creature, weighing half an ounce or less, represents resilience. Whereas some other small birds face starkly declining numbers, this one is holding its own in a changing world.

Where to see them: Thickets, young forests, and overgrown fields in our mountains above 3,000 feet.

When: Spring through September.

 

Red-breasted nuthatches are incredible climbers, able to clamber straight up tree trunks, or straight down. photograph by LITITZ PA/MOMENT/GETTY IMAGES

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

North Carolina’s boreal forests (higher than 5,000 feet) of spruce and fir hold a number of species not usually found at lower elevations — including the red-breasted nuthatch. These acrobats in the treetops are incredible climbers, able to clamber straight up tree trunks, or straight down. Unlike other nuthatches, “red-breasteds” migrate from their nesting areas during some autumns and winters, perhaps in search of better food supplies at lower elevations.

Where to see them: Mountain conifer forests (like Mount Mitchell); in the Piedmont in fall and winter.

When: June through September in the mountains.

 

The northern cardinal is North Carolina’s state bird. photograph by HEATHER SCHAEFGEN-RUSSELL

Northern Cardinal

I must admit that the cardinal didn’t used to excite me. It’s common statewide, and while, yes, it’s our state bird, it was also the choice of six other states. A decade ago, while escorting a group of naturalists from eight countries across North Carolina, I saw the northern cardinal through fresh eyes. Over and over, our visitors referred to the cardinal as “one of the most beautiful birds” they had ever seen. They loved its song, its vibrant color, its crest, and its curiosity. Now, like our General Assembly in 1943, I celebrate this ordinary yet extraordinary Tar Heel bird.

Where to see them: Forest edges and backyards statewide.

When: Year-round.

 

Ravens are part of the group known collectively as “corvids,” thought to be our smartest birds. photograph by MILAN KRASULA/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS

Common Raven

The common raven inhabits but is not common in our mountains, having been almost eliminated from the eastern U.S. Ravens are part of the group known collectively as “corvids,” thought to be our smartest birds. You know many of them — crows, jays, and magpies — but the raven is special. Often traveling in pairs, ravens are “stunt flyers” and have been seen doing barrel rolls and even flying upside down. And just when you think they’re difficult to approach, one will appear on your picnic table and steal your hot dogs. No Tar Heel bird has more swagger!

Where to see them: High, rocky areas along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Piedmont.

When: Year-round.

 

The eastern bluebird is a “cavity nester.” photograph by Neil Jernigan

Eastern Bluebird

In the first half of the 20th century, the bluebird was common in North Carolina. By the mid-1970s, its numbers had plummeted. Many factors contributed to the decline, including diminishing habitat and pesticide use. Bluebirds also faced competition for food and nesting sites from introduced sparrows and starlings. This iridescent blue creature is a “cavity nester”; fortunately, bluebirds thrive when given nesting options. No organization has done more to increase their numbers than the Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group in Warrenton, which has built almost 400,000 bluebird boxes since 1989.

Where to see them: Statewide, except on the Outer Banks and highest peaks.

When: Year-round, especially from early March through May.

This story was published on Apr 26, 2021

Tom Earnhardt

Earnhardt devotes his life to acquainting himself with North Carolina’s natural abundance so that he may introduce this wild world to us. In addition to working as an attorney, photographer, and producer and writer of the PBS series Exploring North Carolina, he is the author of three books, including Crossroads of the Natural World.