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Migratory waterfowl are not the only winter visitors to the Outer Banks. Located along the Atlantic Flyway, the barrier islands are a wildlife lover’s paradise. This time of the year is fantastic for spotting our feathered friends. With a pair of binoculars, you easily spot over 40 species of our feathered friends.
My husband and I based our December trip from South Nags Head. The location is convenient to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Northern Beaches, and the mainland. And the winter weather is often in the 50’s—great for walks along the beach and chasing wildlife.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
We started our adventure driving south on the Outer Banks Scenic Byway to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge exudes natural beauty, stretching 13 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pamlico Sound. It has walking trails, duck blinds, and observation towers for wildlife viewing.
The salt marshes are steps away from the road in some places. We pulled over numerous times to watch snow geese feed on the grasses. Tundra Swans and White Pelicans floated onto the scene. I particularly enjoyed watching the Redhead Ducks diving for their meal.
We also saw Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and White Ibis near the Salt Flats Wildlife Trail.
Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center, filled with educational displays and information. Mary, a four-year volunteer at the center, happily pointed out birds she had seen recently in the refuge. She encouraged us to use the scopes to observe the hundreds of birds in North Pond.
Duck Boardwalk Trip at The Outer Banks
There are fourteen small towns across the two islands. The town of Duck is perhaps the most charming with its beaches, fine dining, and shops. Be sure to stop at Duck’s Cottage Coffee and Books for a warm hot chocolate and a selection of books from local authors.
The boardwalk meanders about 1 mile along the Currituck Sound. Tiny shops and restaurants along the path beckon you to stay awhile. We spotted Bufflehead Ducks, Great Blue Herons, and Canada Geese between window shopping and walking.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is located on the mainland, a short twenty-minute drive from South Nags Head. The refuge provides habitat for endangered species such as red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and American alligators.
The refuge fields are flooded in the winter providing a winter birding habitat. We heard Tundra Swans honking while Northern Pintail Ducks paddled around. Owls, eagles, and hawks also call this refuge home.
Our goal, though, was to see black bears. The refuge and surrounding area are home to the largest concentration of black bears. You can even see them in the winter due to the abundance of food. And sure enough, we saw two black bears grazing in the field.
Cape Hatteras is known for its shipwrecks from treacherous Atlantic ocean waters and shifting sand. Two black and white striped lighthouses, built in the late 1870s, still guide ships today. While the lighthouses are closed for climbing in the winter, they are still a must-see getaway for nature lovers.
The Bodie Island Lighthouse, with its horizontal stripes, houses a museum and a wooden nature trail. The trail leads you to a two-story observation deck overlooking the sound where we could see Pied-billed Grebes and other ducks in the distance. The nearby brush also was home to wintering songbirds like Yellow-rumped Warblers.
The Cape Hatteras Light is located further south near the town of Buxton. The lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. We explored the Buxton Woods Nature Trail, located 1/8 mile from the lighthouse. This maritime forest feels like the original untamed Outer Banks.
Look closely, and you may see raccoons, river otters, and red-tail foxes here.
Ocean Birding on a Trip to The Outer Banks
The piers in the Outer Banks are fantastic for watching Brown Pelicans glide along the water surface, scooping up their meal. Bonner Bridge Pier and Jennette’s Pier are two of the best for ocean birding.
We observed Black Scoters and Northern Gannets floating on the ocean waves. Red-throated Loons dove below the water’s surface. At Bonner Bridge Pier, hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants gathered on the bridge pylons.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers came to the Outer Banks to experiment with flight. They relied on the wind for lift and the sand for soft landings. They also gathered inspiration from birds. The brothers based the wing-warping design of their gliders on flapping wings.
The first successful flight occurred on December 17, 1903. However, the Wright Brothers required four years of experimentation to achieve their goal. The Visitors Center and Museum highlight their fascinating history, hard work, and quest for learning.
The small galleries featuring local artists are also an Outer Banks treasure. We enjoyed chatting with the second-generation gallery owner, Melanie Smith, at Seaside Art Gallery.
She graciously showed us the nine rooms filled with award-winning wildlife art. In addition, the Bird Store is a fun stop for carved decoys, nature-themed tiles, and seashore art.
Book This Trip to The Outer Banks
The Outer Banks is famous for its wind. So even though the winter temperatures are mild, it is advisable to pack layers. It would help if you also were prepared to get a little muddy at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
You can warm up with a bowl of Chowder at the Outer Banks Brewing Station. Or sit by the fireplace with a craft beer at Swells’a Brewing.
Find insider tips on more fun things to do, hotel and VRBO accommodations and local restaurant recommendations for your trip to the Outer Banks through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.
The best way to stay warm and prepared for any adventure is with a jacket, vest or another layer from SCOTTeVEST. Each piece has over eight discreet pockets to keep all your travel essentials handy and safe. Check out their selection here.
For the ultimate seasonal flight deals and car rental options, visit CheapOair.
Read more about the Outer Banks and other exciting destinations in our articles below:
Author bio: When not mentoring scientists, speaking at conferences or sunning herself at the beach, published author and photographer Julie D. Suman can be found traveling the world and capturing those moments through her lens. Follow her on Instagram @seebyjuliedee. (www.seebyjuliedee.com)