By ANN GREEN
As the sweet warble of a painted bunting fills the air on Bear Island, Sam Bland focuses his binoculars from the clear blue sky to a nearby tree.
“Follow the V of the live oak to the painted bunting,” says Bland, a Hammocks Beach State Park ranger. “There are so many bunting males around here that they can be seen and heard singing from an exposed branch.”
Several field trip participants focus binoculars and scopes on the tree.
The bunting and American oystercatcher are among several birds that they spot on the sandy island.
“I found the trail fascinating,” says Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth. “I am not a long-time birder, but have grown to appreciate birds. It is fascinating to see the various species.”
The birding trail on Bear Island is featured in the new North Carolina Birding Trail — Coastal Plain Trail Guide. Filled with colorful photos, the guide includes 102 birding sites in 16 groupings across the North Carolina coastal plain — all areas east of interstate 95.
The birding trail is a partnership among North Carolina Sea Grant, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Audubon North Carolina, N.C. State Parks, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and N.C. Cooperative Extension.
“The birding trails and new guide promote the wide and sustainable use of our coastal resources and environment,” says Michael Voiland, North Carolina Sea Grant executive director.
As a driving trail, the N.C. Birding Trail (NCBT) is more than just lines on a map. It links great birding sites and ties birders with various communities, businesses and other local historical and education attractions.
Natives and Visitors
North Carolina has a rich bounty of birds. “Some 400 species of birds — hawks and herons, wood warblers and woodpeckers, sandpipers and sparrows — call our state home during some part of the year,” according to the Audubon North Carolina Web site.
Besides the state’s native species, many other birds make their way through North Carolina as they follow the East Coast flyway during the spring and fall migration.
Around 67 species of neotropical migrants nest in North Carolina, and many more pass through the state while migrating, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Migrants include the ruby-throated hummingbird, white-eyed vireo, summer tanager and hooded warbler.
“Birds are beautiful and accessible,” says Lena Gallitano, member of the NCBT steering committee. “Birds can be seen from our busy urban areas to our remote parks and refuges. An important aspect of birding is that it gets people out to enjoy the natural world.”
Along the coast, different bird species reside in a variety of habitats featured in the new birding trail guide. Mature hardwoods and river swamp habitats at the CSS Neuse State Historic Site provide good nesting areas for woodpeckers, flycatchers and vireos.
The marsh and estuary at the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge provide wintering habitat for thousands of ducks and summer nesting habitat for colonial waterbirds. Raptors can be seen hunting over the marsh, and songbirds along the fringe habitats and uplands. On rare occasions, elusive rails may be spotted in the marsh grasses.
And at Pettrigrew State Park in Washington and Tyrrell counties, the sweetgum forest is home to many breeding songbirds, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, Acadian flycatcher and indigo bunting. Also, a variety of woodpeckers are visible from a wooden overlook near Lake Phelps.
“The birding trail will help our region,” says Mary Ann Byers, a member of the town of Plymouth Council. Birders are low-impact as far as their effect on the environment, she adds. “They are quiet and eco-friendly and leave the region undisturbed. Also, they bring in money to the area.”
Out on the Atlantic Ocean, birders can view many pelagic or open sea birds — from black-capped petrels to white-tailed tropicbirds.
The cool Labrador Current collides with the warm Gulf Stream off the coast of Cape Hatteras to make this area one of the best for viewing seabirds of the Atlantic Ocean, according to the new birding guide.
“We routinely see 10 species of birds on a trip,” says Brian Patteson, who runs seabirding pelagic trips from Hatteras, including a trip at the 2007 Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival.
Through the years, Patteson has seen thousands of birds, from northern gannets in the winter to shearwaters in the summer during birding and fishing trips.
The most exciting time to see birds is on windy, rough days. “The birds come closer to the boat to eat the bait,” he adds.
Bird watching is one of the fastest-growing forms of outdoor recreation in the nation, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In North Carolina, bird watching is an important component of ecotourism, and the state is already a destination for many birders.
In 2001, there were around 1.3 million birders in North Carolina, according to a Fish & Wildlife report. Nearly 20 percent of these were nonresidents. Birders across the U.S. spent more than $32 billion in retail sales, the agency says.
“Birders provide a steady economic stimulus to a wide range of businesses such as sporting goods stores, hotels and restaurants in geographic areas that commonly rely on seasonal tourism,” says Brian Efland, North Carolina Sea Grant marine conservation and enterprise development specialist.
All ages are taking to the hobby — from school children who view birds in their backyards to avid birders who trek all over the country to see different species.
“Birding is not just for little old ladies in tennis shoes anymore — it is one of the fastest-growing segments of the nature-based tourism industry,” says Gallitano, who co-leads Birder Friendly workshops designed to stimulate business opportunities.
She says another plus is that birding doesn’t require expensive equipment.
“All you need is a nice pair of binoculars, a field guide and the interest to get outside and explore the natural world,” Gallitano adds.
To encourage birding businesses, NCBT offers birder-friendly training for businesses and community groups. The Golden Leaf Foundation provided financial support for the training.
A recent workshop in Fayetteville covered a variety of topics — from birding history and practices to hospitality and etiquette.
“We are seeing a lot of businesses expanding to include bird-related activities,” says Stacy Tomas of N.C. Cooperative Extension and a workshop co-leader. “We are planning on offering these workshops across the state, as the birding trail moves westward.”
Birding Business Soars
Workshop participant Jackie Hough is co-founder of the Raft Swamp Farms in Hoke County. The organic farm incubator is part of the Piedmont region of the NCBT.
“My husband and I are both birders,” Hough says. “The farm consists of 150 acres of upland fields, woods and wetlands. It is a great place to bird. We see eastern meadowlarks, indigo buntings, bobwhite quail and a variety of hawks and woodpeckers, as well as neotropical migrants.”
Several workshops also have been conducted along the coast.
To expand his coastal kayak business, Dennis Chadwick attended a training session. He is putting together a package for birders.
“I discovered that in order for me to expand my birding tour business I had to work with other local businesses,” says Chadwick, owner of Core Sound Kayaks on Harkers Island. He points out that birders come to the area to add species to their life lists, as well as to spend quality time visiting interesting shops, eating quiet meals and spending the night in a quality bed & breakfast or motel.
From the workshop, Chadwick also learned that he can increase his income by offering birding trips in the off season.
“The cooler months in Carteret County are off season for many businesses, but not for the birds,” he adds.
Retail businesses catering to birders also are sprouting up in North Carolina.
Five years ago, Skip Morgan opened Outer Banks Birdwatchers in Nags Head. The store has a variety of birding products — from bird houses and feeders to binoculars and scopes. They have a large selection of birding books and an area in the backyard where visitors can feed birds.
“We have a good clientele,” Morgan says. “Since the Outer Banks is a destination for a number of birders, we get a lot of backyard birding enthusiasts in here who do not have bird stores in their areas.”
Next door, the First Colony Inn holds birding weekends during the fall. Two guides take the birders to different areas.
Gallitano says the increased interest in birding should help with conservation efforts. “We believe when communities see that natural resources are bringing economic benefits to their region, they will become more engaged in conservation,” she adds.
“With businesses and communities working together, the N.C. Birding Trail can be a tool to bring conservation and economic opportunities together in our state.”
To order a copy of The North Carolina Birding Trail – Coastal Plain Trail Guide, go online to: wwvv.ncbirdingtrail.org. For wholesale orders, call 866/945-3746 or visit the N.C. Wildlife Resources Wild Store in Raleigh.
‘Birds in Schoolyard’ Program
As a high school science teacher, Randy Senzig wanted to reconnect his students to the outdoors.
Through the Kenan Fellows Program at North Carolina State University, Senzig developed “The Birds in Schoolyard” program.
“Teachers don’t have a lot of money for equipment and field trips,” he says. “This was an inexpensive way to get them involved with the earth and environment.”
Senzig, who teaches environmental science and marine ecology at Fuquay-Varina High School, started by putting out 40 boxes for bluebirds on the school’s campus.
“Sixty percent of the boxes had one or more nests,” Senzig says. “The first year, we raised 120 bluebirds. It was interesting to see students open the box of bluebirds and see pink skin of young birds. It was like opening a whole new world to them.”
As part of the birding program, he invited Wake Audubon members to speak about birding basics to the students.
“Each day, a volunteer talked about feathers and shapes of birds and birding etiquette,” says Senzig. “We made a school campus bird list of 43 bird species.”
As a result, the North American Bluebird Society certified the birding trail at Fuquay-Varina High School.
Later, Senzig’s students helped put out bird boxes at Fuquay-Varina city parks, natural areas and at Lincoln Heights Elementary School, where they taught the younger students how to monitor birds.
“It was a great project because students were actively involved,” he says.” A couple of my students went on to college where they continued to be good bird watchers and major in science.”
Christmas Bird Count
During one recent holiday season, birders on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge saw thousands of northern gannets flying along and diving into the surf to feed on fish.
This spectacle featured just one of more than 100 species of birds counted during a Christmas bird count, according to long-time birder Lena Gallitano, a member of the N.C. Birding Trail Steering Committee.
During another bird count on the Pea Island refuge on Hatteras Island, Harry LeGrand and other team members estimated 3,000 to 4,000 redhead ducks between North and South ponds.
“The bird counts are great fun — and a good way to stay in touch with the birding world,” Gallitano adds.
The Pea Island bird count is one of many conducted annually in communities across the state.
Each year, more than 50,000 volunteers across the country become “citizen scientists” during the National Audubon Society’s annual census of early-winter bird populations. The results are compiled into a long-running ornithology database.
In 2006, more than 57,000 volunteers observed more than 61 million birds from Dec. 14 until Jan. 5, including a large number of snowy owls on the move, according to the National Audubon Society Web site.
In Morehead City, John Fussell says volunteers counted more than 167 species of birds — from the yellow rail to the ash-throated flycatcher, which usually is only seen in western states.
“We had beautiful weather in 2006,” says Fussell, compiler of the Morehead City bird count.
Audubon runs the country’s oldest bird count. The group has collected data for more than 100 years.
Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a new holiday “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.
That first year, there were 25 bird counts from Toronto, Ontario, to Pacific Grove, Calif.
“The Christmas Bird Count is special because it is done by citizens, but scientists use the data for studying trends in bird populations.,” says Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina.
This article was published in the Holiday 2007 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.