by Jo O'Keefe
Surely the Town of Sunset Beach can consider itself "The Bird Capital of the World." Besides the barrier island and portions of the mainland, Sunset Beach includes birds, birds and still more birds.
Folks come from throughout the country to see graceful wading birds in marshes, tide pools, mud flats, trees and roost sites. Many people colloquially call large birds such as egrets and herons "Shorebirds." Actually, shorebirds are smaller birds such as sandpipers that dart at the edge of waves pecking for food.
Here is the link to a list of birds prepared by Taylor Piephoff.
The majority of birds that people watch are wading birds. Around low tide, they stealthily search for food in shallow water. They include at least four species of egrets (Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets and Reddish Egrets) and six species of herons (Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, Green Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Herons and Little Blue Herons). There are White and Glossy Ibises and our beloved Wood Storks. Wading birds roost - that is, rest - hundreds together in several places at high tide during the day and again at night.
Shorebirds include Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Sanderlings, Red Knots, Dunlins, Least Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones, American Oystercatchers, and Common Snipe. Less often seen are American Avocets, Piping Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Whimbrels, Marbled Godwits and Pectoral Sandpipers.
Another category is Swimmers and Divers. They include Double-crested Cormorants, Anhingas, Northern Gannets, Horned Grebes, American Coots, Common Loons and Red-throated Loons.
Gulls, terns and skimmers form a large share of our local birds. Gulls, often loosely called "seagulls" although found nationwide, are abundant. We have magnificent Great Black-backed Gulls with a 65-inch wingspan, Bonaparte's Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls - second largest with a 58-inch wingspan. Our terns include Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Caspian Terns, Forster's Terns, Common Terns and threatened Least Terns. Gorgeous Black Skimmers are unparalleled in beauty.
No one could visit Sunset Beach without seeing powerful, majestic Brown Pelicans with 79-inch wingspans. Watching them fly in formation and dive for fish is delightful.
There are numerous species in the duck family. In the winter we have Gadwalls, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers. Wood Ducks breed and remain all the year. There are Mallard Ducks, Mute Swans and Canada Geese.
Although raptors remain year-round, a large number from the north pass through during fall migration. Both categories include Bald Eagles, Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Black and Turkey Vultures, Red-shouldered Hawks, American Kestrels, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons. Merlins and Northern Harriers are migrants only.
There are scores of other species such as Common Nighthawks, Orchard Orioles, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Prothonotary Warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A brief article cannot mention all of them.
Some of the coastal birds mentioned above breed not only in the coastal northeast but also in the Great Lakes area, well up into Canada, in the northern Prairies and maybe even further northwest in Alaska. Wood Storks from southerly breeding areas spend late summer and early fall at Sunset Beach, and then migrate south in late September. Egrets and ibis head south to winter in Florida, the Caribbean islands, or even along the northern coast of South America.
One thing's for sure: Sunset Beach is a bird watcher's paradise!
For assistance with this article, I thank Diane Hahn of Sunset Beach, an excellent birder who mentioned numerous species, Susan Campbell, North Carolina's hummingbird researcher, and John S. Weske of Maryland, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service zoologist who bands colonial waterbirds in coastal North Carolina each summer.