The Outer Banks has long attracted nature lovers — and birders, in particular — because it is a key stop along the Atlantic Flyway bird migration route, which follows along the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains through U.S. and into Canada.
According to the Audubon Society, more than 500 bird species use the route — some fly only a few hundred miles or even over a mountain range that offers a climate more to their liking. Others, like the snowy owl, wing their way to Greenland, the massive island nation East of Canada.
From the American goldfinch to the yellow-rumped warbler, the Atlantic Flyway aids migrating birds on their incredible journeys, but it’s not an easy trip: More than 40 percent of the birds that use the flyway are of conservation concern.
The annual Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival — the East Coast’s cardinal wildlife event — includes nearly 90 activities (both indoor and outdoor), including bird watching, SUP paddleboard tours, sunrise kayak tours, reptile and amphibian hikes, an owl prowl, workshops, presentations, photography and painting classes and more. “But the driving engine of the festival is birding,” says Steve Brumfield, Wings Over Water coordinator.
There are several new activities this year, including Nags Head Woods Reptile and Amphibian Hike (Tuesday, Oct. 17); Sorting Out Shorebirds, a beginner-intermediate workshop out in the field (Thursday, Oct. 19); Bear and Bird Photography class with renowned professional photographer Mark Buckler (Friday, Oct. 20); Pamlico Sound Birding Kayak Tour along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore National Park (Saturday, Oct. 21); and Beginning Bird Photography in the Field with Jeffrey P. Karnes, an award winning photographer from Wilmington, North Carolina (Saturday, Oct. 21).
The weeklong festival — which has an encore presentation Dec. 9-10 — takes place over a six-county area of northeastern North Carolina that includes six national wildlife refuges — Alligator River, Pea Island, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island and Currituck National Wildlife refuges.
On any given activity, the potential exists for participants to spot a variety of reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as the river otter, black bear and the endangered red wolf.
Each seminar, lecture, class and excursion is led by an expert in the field — professors, top birders, renowned botanists and biologists and award-winning photographers, artists and authors.
“Every trip, activity or class has at least one leader assigned to it. For instance, if it’s a class on drawing and watercolor, the leader is an artist who will work with each attendee to help them learn how to draw and use watercolors,” Brumfield says. “If the trip is the maritime forest stand-up paddleboarding tour, then the leader will teacher each person how to use a stand-up paddleboard, if the participant doesn’t already know how to do it. Birding leaders will take time to point out birds, help identify calls and songs, etcetera. It’s all meant to be both fun and educational with others who want to learn and share the same experiences.”
Brumfield says more than 40 volunteer leaders, as well as staff members, “give a lot of time and effort each year to make the festival work.”
Among the experts is keynote speaker Noah Strycker, 30, an Oregon-based author and associate editor of Birding magazine, who has studied birds on six continents with field seasons in Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Australia, Antarctica, Galapagos Islands and Farallon Islands.
In 2015, Strycker set a world record when he traversed 41 countries and all seven continents, seeing 6,042 species of birds — more than half the birds on the planet — in one year.
Strycker will speak at a reception and dinner, which is from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at Pamlico Jack’s Restaurant 6708 S. Croatan Highway, Nags Head. Tickets are $35 per person.
Strycker also will lead several activities, including:
Bare-naked Birding: Strycker will be joined by Susan Campbell, a wildlife biologist who works with both the State Museum of Natural Sciences and NC State Parks. The duo will present an introduction to the world of intuitive birding. The seminar is designed to help newcomers to birding focus on features such as behavior, vocalizations, posture, habitat, and position in the habitat. (7:30-11 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 18; meet at the Lost Colony parking lot near ticket booth at Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site, Roanoke Island; $25.)
The Thing With Feathers — Insights for Humans From the Amazing Lives of Birds, An Illustrated Talk: Strycker explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, self-image in magpies, life-long loves of albatrosses, particle physics of starling flocks, and other mysteries--revealing why birds do what they do and how we can relate. (3-5 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 19, National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Auditorium, 100 Conservation Way, Roanoke Island; $20)
Mattamuskeet Refuge Tram Tour — Birding & Wildlife: Strycker will be again by joined by Susan Campbell — who has been with the festival since its inception — on a field trip to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, which is renowned for its waterfowl and is widely recognized as one of the best birding sites in North Carolina. (9 a.m.-noon, Saturday, Oct. 21, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge headquarters parking lot, 85 Mattamuskeet Road, Swan Quarter; $25)
About the event
The festival began in 1997, under the direction of Mike Bryant, project leader for the NC Coastal Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, who was at the time the refuge manager.
Bryant’s goal was to find a way to engage the public in the natural beauty of the Outer Banks, “in a focused festival,” Brumfield says. “This annual national wildlife refuge fundraising event has grown from a few offered activities in 1997, to over 90 birding, paddling, photography, art and natural history programs.”
The event would not be possible, Brumfield says, without the support of area businesses, including Kitty Hawk Kayak and Surf School, Coastal Kayak and others.
“It is with the amazing folks who own Kitty Hawks Kayak and Surf School that most of our paddling trips are handled,” Brumfield says. “Also, Joe O’Grady of Coastal Kayaks has worked with WOW for years and leads a kayaking program. All leaders, and their time and effort, are donated in support of WOW. They get nothing — but hopefully a lot of thanks from us and those who attend.”
Classes range in fee from $20 to $50. Funds raised through the festival are used for trail maintenance; new trail, road and interpretive signs; purchase of scopes and binoculars for visitor use; and educational transportation grants to give students refuge opportunities they might not otherwise have, Brumfield says.
Programs are kept small, so that participants can easily get instructions and ask questions.
The class fees are nominal, especially when you take into account the pedigrees and experience of the class leaders and field guides, Brumfield says.
“That said, this year we do have an almost free event — there is a $5 registration fee required to sign-up online for the event. The North Carolina Birding Trail is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Wings Over Water is hosting a celebration and reception at the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center on Friday, Oct. 20.”
The evening’s program, which is from 6 to 7:30 p.m., includes refreshments and guest speakers, including North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper, wife of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
“What keeps Wings Over Water going year-after-year, with a high return rate, are the great, knowledgeable activity leaders, the small ratio of participant to leader and wonderful wildlife opportunities,” Brumfield says.