Coastal Birds Of North & South Carolina (Identification Guide)

Birds of the Outer Banks

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One of my favorite things about visiting the coast in North and South Carolina is all the amazing birds you can see and the seashells you can collect.

Below are some of the birds I saw on a recent trip to Pea Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Sanderlings
Gull

In this identification guide, I’ve included information on some of the most common beach birds in NC and SC, including pictures and descriptions to help you identify them.

And before you head to the beach, check out my Ultimate Seashell Identification Guide. It will help you find and identify almost any shell you might find on our beautiful Carolina beaches.

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White Pelican

Brown Pelican Ocean Bird of the Outer Banks

The white pelican is a large bird found in coastal areas worldwide. They are known for their beautiful white plumage with black flight feathers. They eat fish, which they catch by dipping their bills into the water and scooping up their prey.

While they are not particularly vocal birds, white pelicans are known to make grunting and hissing noises when alarmed or excited.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler birds of the Outer Banks

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is a small songbird that is found throughout North America. The bird gets its name from the yellow patch of feathers on its rump, which is visible in flight.

This bird is adaptable and can be found in various habitats, including forests, woodlands, and even urban areas.

The warbler is an essential part of the ecosystem as it helps to control insect populations. They move to open woods and shrubby habitats in fall and winter, including coastal vegetation, parks, and residential areas. They are one of the birds you can see in the Outer Banks in the wintertime.

Yellow-shafted Flicker

Yellow Shafted Flicker Backyard Birds of North Carolina

The Yellow-shafted Flicker is a large woodpecker found in Eastern North America, including the Outer Banks. One of the most distinguishing features of this bird is the yellow color you will see on its wings when it flies.

Yellow-shafted Flickers are unique because they like to forage on the ground for insects, especially beetles and ants. They also eat berries and seeds and will even visit suet feeders in winter.

Eastern Willet

Eastern Willet SC Shore birds

The Eastern Willet is a large shorebird found along the coastlines of North and South America. This bird has a long, black bill and legs, and its body is gray-brown with white bars on the wings.

Willets are usually found in pairs or small groups, foraging along the shoreline for crabs, mollusks, and other small invertebrates. They will also sometimes probe in the mud for food.

During breeding, Eastern Willets can be found in marshes, bays, and other wetland habitats.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose Ocean birds of the Outer Banks

The Canada Goose is a large bird found in the northern United States, Alaska, and Greenland. They can be found in ponds, lakes, and sounds, including the sounds of North and South Carolina.

The Canada Goose can weigh up to 14 pounds and have a wingspan of up to six feet. They are primarily brown or gray, with a white belly and black legs.

Canada Geese are known for their honking calls, which they use to communicate. These birds are admired for their beauty and their loyalty to their mates. Even if winter is approaching and the other geese in the flock are flying south, they will often stay by the side of a sick or injured partner or chick.

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Osprey

Osprey Water birds of North Carolina

The osprey is a large bird of prey found in most parts of the world, usually near rivers, lakes, and the coast.

Also known as the fish hawk, the osprey specializes in catching fish, which comprise most of its diet.

To help it in this endeavor, the osprey has several adaptations, including sharp claws and talons, excellent eyesight, and a reversible outer toe that allows it to grasp prey with two toes in front and two in back.

The Osprey is one of the most successful hunters in the avian world.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret North Carolina Beach Birds

The Snowy Egret is a beautiful bird found in marshes, wetlands, and beaches throughout southern Canada, North America, and South America.

It gets its name from its white plumage, which is accented by black legs and yellow feet. One of the distinctive features of the Snowy Egret is its long, thin neck. Its bill is also quite long, and unlike other birds, the Snowy Egret can open and close its beak while hunting for food.

The Snowy Egret typically preys on small fish, crustaceans, and insects.

Gull

Seagull Ocean birds of South Carolina North Carolina and the Outer Banks

Many gull species exist, but the herring gull is the most common of the Atlantic gulls.

Gulls are known for their scavenging habits and will often be seen following fishing boats on the ocean hoping to steal a meal.

Their diet consists primarily of fish, but they will also eat crabs, mollusks, and other small marine creatures.

Great Egret

The Great Egret Shore Bird of South and North Carolina

The Great Egret is stunning with its long neck, sleek white feathers, and striking yellow eyes—no wonder this bird is often considered one of the most beautiful members of the heron family.

Great Egrets can be found in wetlands worldwide, using their long legs and sharp beaks to catch fish, amphibians, and reptiles. In addition to being excellent hunters, Great Egrets are also skilled at building nests.

In the Carolinas, you can find them in lakes, the sound, and shallow coastal waters.

White Ibis

White Ibis Water bird of North and South Carolina

The white ibis is a wading bird most commonly found in the southeastern United States coastal regions.

It has a long, curved beak that it uses to scavenge for food in the mud and shallow water. The white ibis gets its name from its plumage, which is snow-white except for its black wingtips.

Oystercatchers

Oystercatchers Myrtle Beach Bird

Oystercatchers are found on coasts and mudflats worldwide, including North and South Carolina beaches.

They use their long bills to pry open oysters and other shells to get at the food inside. Oystercatchers are also known to eat crabs, worms, and small fish.

These shorebirds usually mate for life and lay their eggs in a shallow depression on the ground. Both parents help to incubate the eggs and care for the young chicks.

Oystercatchers play an important role in their ecosystem by helping keep populations of oysters and other shellfish in check.

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern Birds of Outer Banks

Several types of terns are found in North and South Carolina, but one of the most common varieties is the Forster’s Tern.

This beautiful bird has a glossy black head and white body. It’s an excellent fisherman and can be seen diving into the water to catch its prey.

The Forster’s Tern is found near coastal areas and inland lakes and rivers. They often nest around the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina.

The Forster’s tern is a social bird and can often be seen flying in large flocks.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper shore bird of south carolina

The Spotted Sandpiper is a shorebird found in North and South Carolina.

This small bird has a white belly and a brown back and is known for its distinctive spotted plumage.

The Spotted Sandpiper is also known for its unique mating ritual, in which the male performs a series of displays to attract a mate. Once the female has been won over, the pair will mate for life.

Sanderling

Sanderling NC beach bird

The sanderling is a small, sprightly bird that can be found running along the shores of North and South Carolina.

These little birds are well-adapted to life on the beach, using their long, thin beaks to pick up sand fleas and other small creatures.

Although they are common birds, sanderlings are not without their charms. Their energetic antics and cheerful calls always seem to bring a smile to the face of those lucky enough to see them.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer Ocean birds of the Outer Banks

The Black Skimmer is a beautiful ocean bird found on the beaches of North and South Carolina.

It has a black back and wings, a white belly, and a long black and red beak.

They get their name from their unique hunting style – instead of using their beaks to peck at prey like most birds, they skim the surface of the water with their beaks open, scooping up small fish and crustaceans.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover SC Beach Birds

The piping plover is a small bird that lives on the ocean beaches of North America. They can be found along the East Coast from New Brunswick to South Carolina in the summer.

These birds are well-camouflaged, with light-colored plumage that helps them blend in with their sandy beach habitat.

They are also excellent swimmers and can often be seen running along the shoreline in search of food. In addition to their ocean habitat, piping plovers can also be found in brackish water and on inland lakes.

Red Knot

Red Knot South Carolina Beach Birds

The red knot is a small shorebird that breeds in the Arctic tundra.

Every year, it undertakes an epic journey of 10,000 miles to winter in the southern tip of South America. It stops to rest and feed on several beaches, including North and South Carolina.

It mainly eats horseshoe crab eggs which help them double their weight and prepare for the arduous journey back to their Artic breeding grounds.

In recent years the population of Red Knots has declined sharply, partly due to the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs. As a result, this once-common bird is threatened with extinction.

American Avocet

American Avocet Water birds of North Carolina

The American Avocet is a beautiful bird often seen on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

These birds are easily recognizable by their striking black and white plumage and long, upturned bills.

The American Avocet is an excellent swimmer and can often be seen swimming in the ocean or ponds and lakes. Their nesting habits are interesting, as they often build their nests on top of floating mats of vegetation.

I hope you enjoyed this guide to identifying North and South Carolina beach birds.

Next time you’re at the coast, keep your eyes peeled for these feathered friends. And if you’re unsure which bird you’re looking at, feel free to reference this guide.

Or get our printable identification guide featuring the most common coastal birds in North and South Carolina to take to the beach with you.

Until next time, happy birding!

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Hi! I'm Kristen

I love finding fun spots in the Carolinas to visit like quaint towns, country stores, and fantastic food. I can't wait to share it with you!

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18 Responses

  1. This is a great guide to help determine what type of birds one sees when in North or South Carolina. Thank you for sharing.

  2. We love bird identification. A few months ago we visited South Carolina and loved hiking the area. There were many birds we did not know. On our next trip we will be going to North Carolina and I have this tabbed to refer back to it.

  3. We love birdwatching. And this is a fabulous identification guide to all the coastal birds of North and South Carolina. Such a variety!

  4. The osprey and snowy egret are absolutely beautiful coastal birds of North and south Carolina! I don’t care much for geese and they can be kind of aggressive, but they are beautiful from a distance

    1. I agree about the osprey and snowy egret. We see them a lot at a lake we visit frequently. They’re so pretty.

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