New Hanover Trail
New Hanover is a densely populated county, making birding opportunities about as scarce as hen's teeth. Only six stops are on a trail that encompasses Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington and Carolina Beach. The painfully obvious fact is that birds don't much want to live where we do, despite those lovely birdfeeders we buy for them. Also, due to the higher people-to-birds ratio in this area, you'll find more guided tours here than in adjacent sparsely populated areas.
Greenfield Lake is the first stop on this trail, and it's smack dab in the middle of downtown Wilmington. A five-mile trail encircles the lake and seasonal birding tours encompass the whole urban oasis: bald cypress trees, wigeons, gadwalls, cormorants, egrets and Great Blue Herons.
Near Wrightsville Beach, Airlie Gardens also offers birding tours, free with the price of admission to the gardens, the second Wednesday of every month at 8 a.m. Terns, shorebirds and wading birds are almost always hanging around the Bradley Creek Overlook.
Audubon North Carolina manages the 300-acre Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area at the north end of Wrightsville Beach, and from April through October conducts free Friday field trips. Sensitive areas are roped off and visitors are advised to meet at the information kiosk on Shell Island at 9 a.m. and to tread very lightly.
Masonboro Island National Estuarine Research Reserve is nine miles long, an undeveloped barrier island stretching from Wrightsville to Carolina Beach, accessible only by boat. It's what Wrightsville and Carolina Beach would look like without all those high-rise condominiums.
Park rangers conduct the nature hikes at the 761-acre Carolina Beach State Park at the north end of Pleasure Island, and while they point out the woodpeckers and nuthatches, they're just as likely to get sidetracked onto ancient Indian mounds and the inscrutable Venus Fly Trap. This is arguably the state's most biologically diverse habitat, with 13 distinct plant communities.
Let's just go ahead and lump the next three stops into one: Fort Fisher Historic Site, Fort Fisher Aquarium and Fort Fisher Recreation Area. It can safely be assumed they all pretty much share the same birds. The historic site has a walkway that winds around Civil War earthen battlements and includes a boardwalk along the banks of the Cape Fear. The aquarium has a beautifully manicured outdoor area with lots of ponds and tropical plants—and it charges admission. The recreation area has a long stretch of pristine beach and a well-maintained nature trail that runs through maritime forest to an observation deck.
Some of our more intrepid residents have demonstrated that it is possible, at low tide, to walk the entire 18 miles from the tip of Fort Fisher to Bald Head Island, following a line of rocks known, most intriguingly, as "The Rocks." This activity is not highly recommended. The last stop on the New Hanover Trail is Zekes Island, only a couple miles from the mainland down that rocky shelf, and your best bet is to get in a private boat to get there. It's part of the NC Natural Estuarine Research Reserve and its 1,165 acres include a tidal basin, various creeks and salt marshes, and sufficient plant habitat to keep it interesting for all sorts of birds. Four-wheel drives can gain access to the adjacent barrier spit via an access road near the Fort Fisher Aquarium.