Hot Bird Summer: The Wildest NC Birds to Watch While You’re Out and About in Nature

The blue heron takes flight at sunset in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Michael McElroy

July 1, 2021

From the hard-to-spot Wilson’s storm-petrel to the effervescent scarlet tanager, a guided tour of North Carolina’s most colorful, feisty, and fascinating birds.

As you head out on NC’s diverse hiking trails, lakesides and beach fronts, we recommend you bring a good pair of binoculars – The birds could be as breathtaking as the views.

North Carolina has over 100 native bird species and, because of its eclectic terrains, is beloved by bird-watchers nationwide. Here is a look at some of our favorite local birds you might be able to see this summer.

Source: The Compact Guide to North Carolina Birds, by Gregory Kennedy and Curtis G. Smalling, and  

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The Northern Cardinal

Photo: Carole Wiley/Audubon Photography Awards

We might as well start with North Carolina royalty and official state bird, the Cardinal. The males are that vibrant red that you can basically see from space, and the females are paler, more pink. You don’t have to go hiking to see them, just look out your window. Do it now. See? There’s like two of them right there isn’t there?

They are beautiful, feisty and loyal.

“[A cardinal] will vigorously defend his territory, even attacking his own reflections in a window or hubcap. [They] are one of only a few bird species to maintain strong pair bonds.”


Marie Lehmann/Great Backyard Bird Count

A few minutes ago a gray-catbird dive bombed the squirrel hanging from my bird-feeder.

I was not going to include the catbird in this list, but I can take a hint. The catbird can be ruthless, and I don’t want it coming for me.

This gray, almost blue bird will take out the nests and eggs of songbirds and does not mess around. They are common all over the state year round but are more prevalent in the central and mountainous parts during the summer breeding season. 

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

Photo by Peter Layt via the Australian Antarctic Program

This one might be the hardest to find, because they prefer the open ocean and it’s hard to hike on the open ocean. But, they love fishing boats, so if you charter a boat off Cape Hatteras or near Wilmington, you are likely to see them. And if you do see them, tip your sun hat to a weary world-traveler. The petrels come to the NC coast from Antarctica every year. Then they fly back.

“[They fly] with an arching, roller coaster-like flight pattern,” and “can live up to 20 years.”

Indigo Bunting

Photo: Megumi Aita/Audubon Photography Awards 

If you like colorful birds, NC is the place to be. The Indigo Bunting is prevalent all across the state, but loves the Blue Ridge Parkway in particular. It often nests in blackberry bushes, where the thorns keep out any predators. And it loves to sing, even in the full heat of the day.

“Females choose the most melodious males as mates.”

Scarlet Tanager


Like the storm-petrel, the scarlet tanager could be hard to find. The males are a startling, vivid red, but the birds love the deep woods and thick canopies. While they are common in the mountainous portions of the state, you are likely to hear them even if you can’t see them.

“Sometimes in spring, when the Scarlet Tanagers have just arrived from their winter home in South America, a late freeze will force them out in the open as they search for insects on roadsides or in gardens.”

European Starling

Image via Shutterstock

Thank you, Shakespeare. Fans of the bard brought European Starlings to the US in the late 1800s as part of a plan to show the country all the birds he mentioned in all his plays. The starlings were released in Central Park, and have since expanded their terrain. This most beautiful of birds is worthy of Shakespeare, with a dark array of purple, black and green, and a gift for mimicking the calls of larger birds to ward off competition. 

Northern Flicker

Photo: Jeff Reiter/Audubon Photography Awards 

The flicker is a woodpecker, but prefers pecking its lovely blue and red head into the ground rather than a tree. Once abundant, they are now facing dwindling numbers because of threats to their habitats. Like many birds, they are tough and not to be trifled with. It eats insects, but it finds other uses for its prey as well.

“To clean themselves even more thoroughly, flickers, and most other birds, squash captured ants and preen themselves with the remains.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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