Southeast Birding Trail
Beginning in Brunswick County and running to points south and west, 11 stops represent pretty much the area's most familiar attractions. It starts with Ev-Henwood, a 174-acre tract owned by UNCW, fraught with nature trails that wind through woods, field and stream. Just down the road a bit, Brunswick Town is a state historic site preserving the remains of a colonial port town and a Civil War-era fort, and you can climb the wooden stairs at the north end of Battery B to scan the Cape Fear River for blackbirds, woodpeckers and sparrows. The site is adjacent to Orton Gardens, an elaborate formal garden with a big pond that acts as a magnet for large shore birds flying inland for a bite to eat.
The Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve is a far less familiar attraction, 6,000 acres owned by the Nature Conservancy with a two-mile nature trail that runs through a pine forest to one of many small lakes that pepper the region. It is rumored there's an alligator in the big lake—but you might not want to bring your small dog on a birding expedition anyway.
The Southport Riverwalk may be the most breathtaking bird-watching vantage point in the entire geographic vicinity. From this picture postcard boardwalk in a historic downtown district you can almost see Battery Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the nesting ground for 80 percent of the state's white ibis population. Thousands of huge shore birds dominate the island and the entire flock takes off in the morning, completely fills the entire sky, and comes home at night in the same sort of helter-skelter rush-hour traffic. The town holds an annual ibis festival with its main focus on photography. Some of the prize-winning shots have a bit of an Alfred Hitchcock quality to them.
Bald Head Island is on the trail, a popular resort accessible only by a private ferry from Southport and navigated strictly by golf cart or bicycle—no cars allowed. It is three miles long and one mile wide, with only a small portion devoted to development. The rest is thousands of acres of beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests, and the Bald Head Island Conservancy offers a full slate of educational programs and guided tours.
Brunswick Community College is a bit of a surprise in this context because, as we all know, it's fish that move in schools. But the campus has some walking trails, aquaculture ponds and dense shrubbery, and visitors are invited to crouch behind an eagle blind in their quest to behold the Great American Bald Eagle.
The Nature Conservancy owns and maintains the Green Swamp Preserve near Supply, and maybe they put a not particularly attractive name on the place to discourage attendance. It is dense, evergreen shrub land with a one-mile trail from which it would be difficult to deviate. TNC limits access due to the preserve's fragile ecosystems.
Lake Waccamaw State Park is in Columbus County, far from the beaten path. The Lake Trail is a five-mile circuit around the largest of Carolina Bay lakes, giving access to boardwalks, sun shelters and a pier. Shorter trails leave from the visitors' center and two nearby public boat launches allow you to put in your canoe or kayak.
Sunset Beach is pretty much the jumping-off point to South Carolina, and the last stop on the Southeastern Trail.
Some notable IBAs—Important Bird Areas—are absent from this list, and with very good reason. North Pelican Island, Ferry Slip Island, South Pelican Island, Striking Island and Battery Island hang like a very loosely strung strand of pearls down the center of the Cape Fear River and represent the most significant bird habitat in the state. The Audubon Society has declared these islands off-limits to visitors. Some of these silly shore birds do no more than dig a shallow hole in the sand to deposit their eggs, and they have been known to move on to parts unknown if they see a lot of men in sneakers walking all around their wives and children.