OBX Birding: Fall migration phase three, and an invasion

By on November 5, 2018

This rare Ringed Plover was found on the OBX. Its usual haunts are closer to the North Pole than Hatteras Island. (Jeff Lewis)

Before we get into November, there was some huge news last month in the Outer Banks birding world when a Common Ringed Plover was spotted in Pea Island’s North Pond on Oct. 12.

This is an extremely rare, accidental is the term, plover that breeds in the Arctic and subarctic, primarily from Europe to Siberia, with a few nesting in Greenland. They migrate in fall to spend the winter in Western Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

What the little bird was doing here in Dare County is anybody’s guess. During the same period that this shorebird was at Pea Island, one was also visiting the California coast!

Luckily, the word got out, and I was able to see the Ringed Plover within hours of the initial discovery and then again the next morning (for better photographs). Lots of birders flocked down here to see it, some successful and some not (some happy and some not).

After four days, the Ringed Plover was not seen again.

November winds will send lots of waterfowl our way. At the time of this writing, many puddle ducks are already here, and diving ducks are starting to show, so November should be exciting for birders.

Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Brant, and Tundra Swans will arrive this month. The impoundments at Pea Island should be hosting many thousands of ducks, geese, and swans, not to mention grebes, coots, American White Pelicans, herons, egrets, and other water birds by the time you read this. Good times!

Over the ocean, look for strings of sea-ducks as they migrate south. Surf Scoters, Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and hopefully a few Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders will arrive in our area for the winter.

Tundra swan (Jeff Lewis)

Non-waterfowl to look for include the spectacular Northern Gannet, Common and Red-throated Loons, and Horned Grebes.

Jennette’s Pier is a popular spot from which to watch, as are Coquina Beach and Pea Island, across from the visitor center (pick a high dune). Binoculars will help you enjoy the spectacle, but a spotting scope is superior for actually identifying the ducks. Mornings are usually best.

Shorebird variety decreases in November, but there are still plenty of birds out there to see. Shorebirds that remain in good numbers include Black-bellied Plover, American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Dunlin and Long-billed Dowitcher.

The ocean beaches are your best bet for the Willets and Sanderlings. You may also find Black-bellied Plovers, Piping Plovers and Red Knots on the beach. Beaches near inlets are usually best.

Look for Wilson’s Snipe in wet fields and along ditches. Their raspy scream, given when they are disturbed, is often heard before they are seen.

Search for Purple Sandpipers along the groin or on the bridge supports at Oregon Inlet.

October saw many passerines migrate through and our great variety of songbirds is over. Most warbler species are now on their wintering grounds – same with cuckoos, vireos, swifts, swallows, tanagers, orioles, buntings, grosbeaks and nightjars. Have a good rest and we’ll see you in the spring!

Our “winter” birds are just arriving, though. A stroll through the woods may allow you to observe (or hear) Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush and Orange-crowned Warbler.

In marshy areas, like along Highway 12 on Bodie and Pea Islands, you may find Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and Swamp Sparrows. American Bitterns are sometimes seen standing in the vegetation along the ditches here.

Listen for Sora, Virginia Rail, Clapper Rail and King Rail here or in any of our brackish marshes.

Driving the roads adjacent to the farm fields on the Alligator Refuge, look for large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds (often mixed with grackles, cowbirds and starlings), Eastern Meadowlarks, American Pipits, Palm Warblers, and Savannah Sparrows.

It should be easy to spot Northern Harriers drifting over the fields in search of prey. Red-tailed Hawks are often seen perched in trees or flying high in the sky.

Pine Siskin is a common winter visitor. (Jeff Lewis)

Bald Eagles are fairly common, although often overlooked. Peregrine Falcons, Merlin and American Kestrels, our three falcons, may also be seen; the kestrels are especially common.

Along the edges of woods, look for Eastern Phoebe, a common flycatcher here in winter.

Be aware that rare western flycatchers like Western Kingbird and Ash-throated Flycatcher are seen on this refuge most years, and so are a real possibility.

In the dense thickets near the ditches, you should find plenty of Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, House Wrens, and Common Yellowthroats.

Abundant Yellow-rumped Warblers can be found anywhere along the forest edges, or even in scrubby habitat. Flocks of American Robins can be seen almost anywhere: woods, fields, road shoulders, even backyards – anywhere there is plentiful food, usually berries.

Speaking of backyards, this is the time of year that the action at our feeders increases, so keep them filled.

In addition to our year-round (permanent) birds, you should start seeing White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows or even possibly Dark-eyed Juncos, depending upon your yard. We’re already seeing good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches this fall, especially in wooded habitats, and the “finch invasion” that was predicted seems to be coming to pass.

Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are already here in October, so November should be even better. Study your field guide now, to be sure you can tell a Purple Finch from a (year-round) House Finch.

Keep your fingers crossed that we’ll get lots of American Goldfinches, plus some rare finches, like Common Redpolls, Red Crossbills or even Evening Grosbeaks this year. It’s been a long time, but it could happen!

You may or may not be hosting hummingbirds in November. If you are, please keep the feeders clean and filled. If you think you have a species other than a Ruby-throat, please let me know.

This is the time of year when we sometimes get visits by western species, especially Rufous Hummingbirds. Last year a very rare Broad-billed Hummingbird stayed in a Southern Shores yard for weeks!

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Great article! I just left for the winter but you are making me want to come back and see what new will show up. I’m looking forward to more articles like this one !


Thanks so much for another great rundown on what birds there are to see here on the Outer Banks!


I so enjoy the birding posts as I am an amateur birder and enthusiast. I’m new to the area and still go back and forth to Virginia, where I am from, and have one son, and Washington state, where I have another son living. So I haven’t been here year ‘round yet and have been anxious to find out about the bird migrations that I know take place. I’ll be anxious to find out more! Thanks for the great article.


What a great overview of the bird action. Awesome!