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Brown Pelican on Pea Island by Jeff Lewis

Below are commonly seen and/or most sought after birds on Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.  The Brown Pelican, pictured above, is a favorite of many of our visitors.

  • American Avocet


    These interesting and attractive shorebirds may be seen at Pea Island year round, with numbers lower during the breeding season (May – July). Striking in their black and white plumage, avocets also have a cinnamon wash on the head and neck during the breeding season. The upturned bill is used to sweep the shallow waters in search of prey.

  • American Coot


    This abundant waterbird can be found in the impoundments at Pea Island, where it primarily feeds on aquatic vegetation along the surface of the water. The oversized, lobed feet aid in swimming plus allow coots to walk on floating vegetation.

  • American Kestrel


    This small, attractive falcon is found primarily during fall migration and in winter until late March. Kestrels mainly feed from a perch, eating insects, small rodents and small birds. 

  • American Oystercatcher


    American oystercatchers are large, boldly patterned birds that are conspicuous along ocean shores and salt marshes. True to its name, it is specialized in feeding on oysters, clams, and mussels and uses its brightly colored bill to catch them.

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  • American Widgeon


    Present from October until April, American Wigeon are common on Pea Island. Birders like to sort through flocks of these birds in hopes of finding the rare Eurasian Wigeon. Wigeon feed primarily on aquatic plants. 

  • Black-bellied Plover


    Scarce in summer, Black-bellied Plovers can be easily found during spring and fall migration as well as during the winter. Beautiful in breeding plumage with their black belly, these birds are basically gray and white the rest of the year. Black-bellied Plovers can be found on mudflats or on grassy lawns at Pea Island. Watch for their “stop-and-go” plover feeding behavior and in flight, the black axillars under the wing.  

  • Black-necked Stilt


    This long, pink-legged shorebird can be found at Pea Island from April until the end of October.  

  • American Black Duck


    One of our wariest ducks, Black Ducks are usually the first to take flight in a mixed flock of waterfowl. Males can be distinguished from females by their yellow bills, females sport olive greenish bills.

  • Black Skimmer


    Black skimmers can often be seen flying low above the waves along Pea Island during the summer with their long lower mandible skimming the water to catch small fish and crustaceans.  They can be recognized by their black above, white below bodies with red, knife-like bills.  They usually don’t see their food, snapping their bills shut on fish by feel alone.

  • Brown Pelican


    Brown pelicans are large water birds with long bills and throat pouches.  They can be seen along the shore and over the sound flying solo or in formation or diving for fish and crustaceans.  They tend to fly slowly, low over the water.  

  • Canvasback


    This diving duck is usually found in large bodies of water, such as bays and sounds, but is occasionally seen in the impoundments at Pea Island.

  • Eurasian Widgeon


    This rare duck from the Old World is annual at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. A drake or two can often be found from October until late March in one of the three impoundments. Search through the flocks of American Wigeon for a wigeon with a rusty red head. 

  • Great Blue Heron


    These large herons can be found here year-round, but are rather scarce during the breeding season. They are often seen as they wade slowly, searching for prey. They will eat a great variety of small animals, but fish make up the bulk of their diet.  

  • Great Egret


    Our largest normally occurring white wading bird, Great Egrets can be found as they stalk prey in the impoundments or soundside marshes on Pea Island. They can be distinguished from our other herons and egrets by their large size, yellow bill and black legs and feet. 

  • Least Tern


    Least Terns are endangered species because their nesting habitat is declining. They nest on sandy or gravelly beaches that have been developed and are used extensively for recreation. The breeding colonies are not dense and appear on exposed overwash flats, unvegetated areas within the dune grass community adjacent to beaches. They eat fish and some invertebrates.

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  • Northern Harrier


    – This attractive hawk can be found gliding over the salt marshes at Pea Island NWR in search of reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and birds. The adult males are gray and white, while the females are brown. Look for the white rump-patch, a diagnostic field-mark.

  • Northern Pintail


    One of the most common “puddle” or “dabbler” ducks on the refuge is the Northern Pintail The male (drake) is beautiful with its brown and white patterned head and neck and its long “pin” tail. These ducks occur in large flocks in the impoundments. Binoculars or a spotting scope are recommended for better views of any waterfowl. 

  • Osprey


    Osprey are the only raptor that plunges into water.  They are large birds with black backs and white bellies and can often be seen around Pea Island hovering over water with their talons extended hunting for fish.  They often appear “crooked-winged” as they fly.

  • Peregrin Falcon


    These stunning, fast-flying raptors are most common during fall migration, but can sometimes be seen in winter, as well. Peregrines feed almost exclusively on birds, primarily shorebirds and waterfowl.

  • Piping Plover


    Piping plovers, another protected species, can sometimes be found on Pea Island, and are the color of dried sand.  These birds, unlike sandpipers, run in short starts and stops as they fish for small marine life in the surf and tidal flats. 

  • Redhead


    This diving duck sometimes occurs in huge “rafts” of thousands of birds at pea Island Refuge. Redheads are named for the burgundy colored head of the drake. They feed on aquatic vegetation.

  • Semipalmated Plover


    - Smaller than a Killdeer, and sporting only one breast band instead of two, the Semipalmated Plover is common during migration and fairly common during winter. Like other plovers, they prefer to feed on mudflats in the typical run, stop, run habit.

  • Semipalmated Sandpiper


    This small “peep” is common during migration, especially in May, August and September. They occur along the edges of the impoundments and on mudflats near Oregon Inlet.

  • Snow Goose


    Snow geese are white, heavy-bodied, long-necked waterfowl.  They are also called Blue Geese in their dark phase, when they have dark bodies and a white head. They can be found around Pea Island during winter months on migrations to the Gulf of Mexico.  These birds can often be seen flying in formation and tend to be very noisy in flight. 


  • Snowy Egret


    Smaller than the Great Egret, Snowies can be distinguished by their slimmer build, their dark bill with yellow lores, and their dark legs with bright yellow feet. Snowy Egrets may feed slowly, stalking and watching for prey, or may actively chase their prey.

  • Tri-colored Heron


    – This colorful heron, much smaller than out Great Blue Heron, and with a white stripe running down the front of its throat, is most common from mid-April through November, although they can be found year-round. They use many methods of feeding, from stalking to chasing prey.

  • Tundra Swan


    Tundra swan can be seen on Pea Island during the winter as they rest from their migration south.  These large white birds have a black bill and can often be heard calling in flight.

  • Whimbrel


    This large shorebird, with a long, down-curved bill is mostly seen at Pea Island during spring and fall migration. They feed on burrowing animals such as fiddler crabs.

  • Willet


    Although considered to be a year-round resident, Willets actually form two races. The Eastern race breed in this area and migrates away by late fall, only to be replaced by a slightly larger Western race that spends the winter here. These birds are found in the impoundments, at the inlet or on the ocean beaches.

Page Photo Credits — Brown Pelican and other bird photos on this page courtesy of Jeff Lewis
Last Updated: Jul 27, 2015
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