Three Trails for Winter Bird-Watching North Pond Wildlife Trail • Jordan Dam Loop • Photo Blind Trail [caption id="attachment_162413" align="alignright" width="300"] Tundra swans are one of the many species of
A flock of white tundra swans paddles in the shallows of North Pond, located in Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks. Every now and then, one tips its body forward and reaches its long neck underwater to snip off an aquatic plant with its black beak. The refuge — situated along the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south avian thoroughfare — was established in 1938 to provide habitat for these and other migrating birds. Bordering the pond is the North Pond Wildlife Trail, a 0.6-mile wheelchair-accessible hiking trail that extends from the refuge’s visitor center on NC Highway 12 to the other side of the narrow barrier island. Along the trail, mounted binocular spotting scopes on viewing platforms allow for close-up views of the tens of thousands of birds that, at various times throughout the year, call the refuge home. — Rebecca Woltz
Begins at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
14500 NC Highway 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968
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Spend a day exploring Jordan Lake while you search for our nation’s most recognizable bird: the bald eagle. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot them, since the lake is home to one of the largest breeding populations of bald eagles in North Carolina. In warmer months, nearly 60 of these majestic birds of prey make the lake their home, but winter is a particularly good time to see the birds because during breeding season, which lasts from December through June, they’re especially active and bare trees offer no camouflage. Eagles can be seen all over the park — be sure to look up at tall trees, where they like to perch and nest, and remember that they might not necessarily have a distinctive white head, since juveniles are usually completely dark brown — but often congregate near the high dam at the southern end of the lake, which provides beautiful, wide-open vistas of the lake and the Haw River downstream. It’s the perfect place to bird-watch. In the early morning, park at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitor’s Center in Moncure, where there’s a picnic area, an overlook, and restrooms, and walk over to the dam gate, where the easy 1.5-mile Jordan Dam Loop begins. The wide, mostly asphalt and gravel trail crosses over the dam before it loops around in the natural area on the other side. On top of the dam, quiet visitors can scope out eagles feeding on both Jordan Lake and the Haw River downstream — if they’re patient. — Katie Schanze
With its long, spindly legs, ivory feathers, pointed beak, and graceful neck, the great egret is an emblem of coastal North Carolina’s wetlands, and it’s one of the more than 240 bird species — including snow geese, Canada geese, Northern pintails, great blue herons, and several species of ducks — that fill the sky around Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County, living here as part-time or permanent residents. The most famous of the lake’s birds — the tundra swans — sweep in blizzard-like from November through March. Like Pea Island, Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is a prime wintering spot on the Atlantic Flyway for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl, plus raptors like bald eagles, owls, and peregrine falcons. Take a short hike on the Photo Blind Trail, a .5-mile out-and-back path that follows along a narrow canal. The natural-surface trail, which is lined with tall grasses, leads to a photography blind, where the view opens up, offering a stunning view of the lake, and new feathered friends. — K.S.
Across the walking bridge from the Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center
85 Mattamuskeet Road, Swanquarter, NC 27885