North Carolina is composed of three physiographic regions: mountains, piedmont, and coastal plain. The latter includes the narrow barrier islands situated in the Atlantic Ocean just off the state’s eastern coast.
The coastal plain encompasses nearly half the land area in the state. It is a vast, mostly flat region that stretches from the coast westward to the Fall Line, up to 140 miles distant. At its highest point it does not exceed 500 feet above sea level.
The northern coastal plain is a low open area, much of which has been given over to farming. But there are many interesting natural features remaining, including sluggish tidewater rivers, bottomland hardwood forests, and the curious wooded swamps known as “pocosins” (from an Indian word meaning “swamp on a hill.”) In these low wet places the startlingly beautiful prothonotary warbler nests in spring, colonies of long-legged wading birds congregate in noisy profusion, and wood ducks swim in secluded freshwater ponds.
The southern coastal plain is in general more sandy than the north, and is distinguished by unusual depressions known as “Carolina bays.” These elliptical sites, whose origin is largely unknown, are sometimes filled with water and sometimes thickly vegetated with shrubby wetland plants. One major Carolina bay is Lake Mattamuskeet, a large shallow body of water rimmed by marshes and trees. A National Wildlife Refuge, it is the winter destination for up to 50,000 snow geese and many thousands of tundra swans, along with numerous other waterfowl of all sorts.
Inland in the southern coastal plain the original longleaf pines that greeted the first European settlers have mostly been destroyed, being replaced by homes, farms, or commercial pine plantations. Some pockets remain, however, and these provide crucial habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird with narrowly specific and hard-to-meet nesting requirements. Several such areas have been preserved in state parks and private sanctuaries.
The barrier islands, at varying distances offshore, extend for 320 miles in a south or southwesterly direction, roughly paralleling the coastline for almost its entire length. To the east is the warm Gulf Stream, which tempers the climate greatly. On their landward side the islands are separated from the mainland by shallow waters known as “sounds.” The entire complex is fluid, a constantly changing mix of eroding beaches, inlets, sandbars, marshes, and dunes.
Every summer storm causes some kind of change; major hurricanes can have devastating and long-lasting effects. Efforts to protect the beaches and the beachfront villages with artificial dunes, jetties, and groins have been less than successful and have themselves played a part in the natural processes of change.
One constant in this kaleidoscopic scene is the abundant birdlife to be found year-round on and around the islands. Of particular interest to most birders are the birds associated with coastal areas, from the tiny sanderlings that skirt the winter waves to the great brown pelicans that nest on the dunes in summer. Thousands of ducks and other waterfowl swim just offshore from fall through spring, shorebirds of many species forage on the beaches and mudflats during migrations, herons and egrets feed in the marshes, and gulls and terns wheel overhead. And because Cape Hatteras itself extends to within a few miles of the Gulf Stream, it is sometimes possible in spring to stand on solid land and watch the migration of seabirds, an opportunity not frequently available to birders.
There are, of course, far more than just “beach birds” to be found on the islands and along the coast. Fall hawk migration can be outstanding. Ospreys nest and so, increasingly, do bald eagles; songbirds touch down during migrations; huge flocks of swallows swarm into bayberry patches in fall on their way south, and small birds take refuge in protected thickets in winter. There are numerous state and national refuges, parks and private sanctuaries dotted throughout the coastal areas, both on the mainland and on the islands, so there is no lack of places for a birder to go to take in the entire spectacle of bird life here all year long.
The coastal plain enjoys a four-season southern climate, with emphasis on “southern.” Winters are generally mild; snow and ice are rare, especially in the southern counties, but do occur on occasion. Spring and fall can be prolonged and glorious, wonderful times to be outdoors. Summer is long, hot, and humid, with an insect population that is more attractive to birds than to their human observers. Visitors who may not be familiar with the area and its general weather conditions should prepare thoroughly and dress and properly for any day afield.
The piedmont of North Carolina is a gently rolling plateau broken by occasional low mountains. It stretches west from the Fall Line, where rivers plunge quickly into the lowlands of the coastal plain, to the massive Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the most heavily populated and physically changed of the state’s three geographical regions.
Much of the Piedmont has been farmed at some point in its history and because of this the original hardwood forests were essentially eliminated generations ago; only small remnants survive. Over the years cities and towns were built, rivers dammed, and roads and highways created. Everything was altered in some way.
Yet this is a green and leafy landscape still, with a full complement of bird and animal life. Some farms were converted to commercial pine plantations, but others, abandoned, have entered the natural cycle of succession, with weeds, brush, and sapling trees overtaking each other in turn, building new woodlands. The result is a varied patchwork of habitats, each harboring its own particular birds.
Birds that do well around human habitations thrive in the heavily-populated piedmont, with crows and blue jays, house sparrows and house finches, downy woodpeckers, robins, chickadees, starlings, and many others all widespread here. The pinewoods offer such things as pine warblers and brown-headed nuthatches, the edges of farm fields harbor breeding indigo buntings and field sparrows, and grasslands host meadowlarks and bobwhite quail. Warblers stream through the woods on migrations, and some stay to nest. Waterfowl come to large man-made lakes in winter and shorebirds stop at their edges on migration. At Lake Jordan, in the Triangle area, bald eagles congregate in summer and visitors may enjoy the largest concentrations of our national birds to be found in the eastern United States. Deciduous trees in leafy suburban backyards may offer nesting sites for such colorful birds as orchard orioles or summer tanagers. Wherever you are in the Piedmont, wherever you look, you will find birds taking advantage of whatever habitat is available.
If you’re a piedmont birder you have in many ways the best of all worlds. Not only is there a great variety of avian life near home, but this area’s central location makes it fairly easy to travel to other North Carolina birding destinations. The Atlantic Coast with its birding delights is only a few hours’ drive east, whereas the same time spent journeying west will bring you to the mountain ranges and their northern specialties. Either way you are not far removed from everything this state offers — and that’s plenty.
The mountains known in their entirety as the Southern Appalachians are composed of several chains and cross-ranges covering all or most of 19 different counties in western North Carolina. On the eastern edge is the Blue Ridge, which rises abruptly from the Piedmont plateau; and to the west are the Unakas, Unicois, and Great Smokies. Crossing them at intervals are the Black Mountains, Craggies, Newfounds, Black Balsams, and Nantahalas. They include 82 peaks more than 5,000 feet in elevation,43 of which rise above 6,000 feet. Mt. Mitchell, at 6,684 feet, is the highest point east of the Mississippi. Joining them together at an average elevation of 2,000 to 2,500 feet are fruitful mountain valleys, home to much of the area’s human population.
These mountains are old, perhaps the oldest in the world. They were once tall and rugged, scientists believe, much like the Rocky Mountains are today, but over millions of years they have become heavily eroded and weathered, covered for the most part with lush vegetation. Second-growth deciduous woodlands in which oaks are prominent dominate the lower slopes, but there are moist cove hardwood forests, hemlock groves, rejuvenating cutover areas, and rhododendron thickets as well. As elevation rises the flora more common to northern latitudes takes over. Above 4,500 feet are found isolated sections of Fraser fir and red spruce, remnants of the last Ice Age when the boreal forests were forced to retreat southward. Because of the altitude these forests remained despite the general warming of the earth.
In recent years these spruce-fir stands have been decimated by a combination of insect pests and airborne pollutants, and in the hardest-hit areas the unique birdlife previously found has greatly diminished. Much still remains, however, and the high peaks of the southern Appalachians continue to be a magnet for birds of northern affinities, many of which reach the southern limit of their breeding ranges here.
Spring is the best time to bird in the mountains. That is when neotropical migrants pour in, with many remaining to breed. More than 20 warbler species nest here, from the yellow-throated warbler, a southern species found in the mountain valleys, to the northern-oriented Canada warbler, nesting at 4,000 feet and above. Other high-elevation specialties include veeries, red-breasted nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, winter wrens, brown creepers, alder flycatchers, northern saw-whet owls, northern ravens, and black-capped chickadees. Birders come from all over the south to see and hear these species and many others on territory in May and June.
Lucky visitors may also encounter summering pine siskins at high elevation sites or meet up with erratic bands of red crossbills that reside here year-round (although their movements are not predictable and finding them can be a challenge).
Peregrine falcons, historic nesters in these mountains but absent for many years as the species declined in the third quarter of the 20th century, were reintroduced to several sites and are now breeding in at least six different locations in North Carolina’s mountains. Nesting begins in early spring and the birds are most likely to be seen during May and June, when parent birds are bringing food to growing young or are supervising the early flights of their new fledglings.
Juncos are common in the mountains and those that breed here are known to be a separate subspecies, called the Carolina junco, which migrates altitudinally, retreating to the valleys in winter and returning uphill to spend the summer. They are among the easiest birds to see on a visit to this area.
Fall migration, although not as spectacular here as it is along the coast, is nevertheless quite rewarding, and a few species such as Tennessee, magnolia, and bay-breasted warblers, which are scarce in spring, are abundant for a few weeks at this season. Hawk flights, too, can be impressive when viewed from the mountain overlooks.
Winter birding is quite good at the lower elevations in this region, where the season is cold but not in general as icy and confining as it can be in the northern states. On the higher mountains, however, it can be bitter and dangerous. Birds usually retreat downslope to escape the worst weather. Only a few intrepid ravens may remain at the highest points.
Although the mountains are not a regular destination for waterfowl, a few of the larger man-made lakes in the area do attract migrant and wintering ducks during years when flights of these species are heavy.
Much of the terrain has been protected as national forests, state parklands, and private sanctuaries, and of course in the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The entire area is a well-known vacation spot and an increasingly popular place to live, work, and retire. Birds are certainly among its major attractions.