A rare White-winged Tern visits Hatteras Island. Photo by Hal Broadfoot

Text by Peter Vankevich
Photos by Hal Broadfoot

The Outer Banks is famous for its bird life. Over the years, about 400 species have been sighted. Black Skimmers in the summer, Northern Gannets in the winter and Brown Pelicans all year round give many folks a connection with nature and is why the Banks are so special.

Several factors go into why so many species have been seen out here: A variety of habitats, the mid-Atlantic Ocean that brings subtropical waters from the south, the narrow land mass and especially the many storms that blow in birds from well out of their normal range.

On occasion, a super rare bird will show up and such was the case last week when word went out on the Internet that a White-winged Tern had been sighted on May 28 flying around Salt Pond at Cape Hatteras. It was still seen as of today.

To say that this tern was out of range is an understatement. This time of the year, these terns can be found in their breeding habitat–freshwater marshes across an extensive range from southeast Europe to Central Asia and the Russian Far East. In winter, they migrate to southern Asia Africa and Australia.

Another view of the White-winged Tern visiting Hatteras Island. Photo by Hal Broadfoot

The only other time such a tern was seen in North Carolina dates to August 1994 when one was observed  flying over the Bodie Island Lighthouse pond area. States farther north, including Virginia, Delaware and Maryland, have more records.

Unlike the nesting terns of eastern Carolina, these terns do not dive when foraging for fish. Rather, they behave like the closely-related Black Tern and fly over water and marshes catching insects in flight and skimming the water surface for small fish. It was this behavior that gave those who traveled from afar a treat.

One of them was Hal Broadfoot. No stranger to the Outer Banks, he has participated in the Ocracoke and Portsmouth island Christmas Bird Counts for more than 25 years.

“It showed up on Thursday on the ‘notable recent sightings’ feature of the Carolina Birds website that I check most days before work,” he said. Due to work constraints, it wasn’t until Saturday morning that he could make the five-hour trek from his home in Fayetteville. Anxiously, he checked the website Thursday and Friday and the reports were good. Several posted having seen the tern and included photographs.

The photographs are especially important for documentation. The 1994 report did not have a photo, thus giving that tern the status of “provisional.” Observed for only five minutes by Michael Mathieson and Harry E. LeGrand, Jr. , it was described as in advanced molt, which would be typical for that time  of the year. What that means is the stunning black and white breeding plumage had dulled to grays and whites.

But not this one.

“This is a strikingly beautiful bird,” Broadfoot said. As a talented artist he has a great appreciation of nature’s aesthetics  “The white wings of this tern don’t disappoint.  The upper surface seems to be frosted, and it looks like it’s glowing when the sun reflects off of it.  Likewise, the under-surface flashes white with every upstroke.

“It is the contrast of this bird’s white wings against its black head and body that makes it so stunning, especially this time of year when it is in its blackest breeding plumage.”

He noted that one birder had posted photos earlier and misidentified it as the most beautiful black tern he had ever seen.

To check on its status as well as many interesting birds recently see in the state, here is a good source: https://www.carolinabirdclub.org/sightings/

If you go, be aware that high winds may keep the bird down and, on the way to Salt Pond, located near ramp 42, you have to pass through a flooded road near the campground road.

A rare White-winged Tern skims over the water on Hatteras Island. Photo by Hal Broadfoot


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  1. We offer shuttles for Birders who either can’t or prefer not to walk to the Salt Pond and other popular areas for viewing and photographing. OBX Rentals and Shuttle Services 252-908-2994

  2. Thanks for the great article and photos about this very special birding event on the Outer Banks!

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