17 Types Of LARGE Birds In North Carolina (Guide With Photos)

Did you recently come across a large bird in the state of North Carolina, and want to know what species it was?

Identifying big birds found in North Carolina is not as easy as it might seem, since there are many bird species in the Old North State that are on the large side.

To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most common large birds of North Carolina in this article.

Types of large birds found in North Carolina

What are the types of large birds in North Carolina?

The 17 types of large birds that can be seen in North Carolina are:

  • Great Egret
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Snowy Egret
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Caspian Tern
  • Common Loon
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Golden Eagle
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Canada Goose
  • Tundra Swan
  • Brown Pelican
  • Great Black-backed Gull

While many of these big birds are year-round residents of North Carolina, some only occur in the state during the winter, as migratory birds that spend the cold months in North Carolina.

Yet other birds are summer visitors during the breeding season, and some are scarce vagrants that are rarely seen in the state (more on that below).

Now let’s dive into the details, and take a closer look at each of these species in order to get the full scoop:

Great Egret

Scientific name: Ardea alba

Photo of Great Egret

The Great Egret has a range that spans nearly the whole planet, and can be found on almost all continents. 

This heron is one of North Carolina’s biggest birds and is a scarce visitor during spring and fall migration. It is all white, and has long black legs and feet along with a thick, yellow bill.

During the summer breeding seasons, the Great Egret grows a plume on its back that extends all the way to the tip of its tail.

It lives in both saltwater and freshwater habitats, and often nests in large colonies on the banks of marshes, lakes, and rivers.

Great Egrets forage in any type of shallow water in North Carolina, including ponds, lakes, and rivers, as well as flooded areas.

Outside of the breeding season it is less common, but where it occurs it can be seen in large flocks. This species is one of the white birds that can be seen in North Carolina.

Great Blue Heron

Scientific name: Ardea herodias

Photo of Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is one of the most common herons in North Carolina, where it can be seen year round.

With a wingspan of up to 6 feet, this heron is one of North Carolina’s largest birds. It is almost entirely blue gray, except for a white throat and eye stripe, as well as dark gray wing feathers. 

This enormous blue bird in North Carolina likes to hunt for small fish by wading in the shallows of estuaries, mud flats and marshes along the seaboard.

It waits patiently for a suitably sized fish to come close enough to be grabbed with its long, yellow bill.

Snowy Egret

Scientific name: Egretta thula

Photo of Snowy Egret

The Snowy Egret has become an increasingly common breeding bird in North Carolina

This is due to aggressive conservation efforts that were necessary because this Egret species was systematically hunted in previous centuries.

This white heron stands out due to its slim black bill and bright area between the eyes and nostrils. It has long legs and yellow feet, which distinguish it from other herons.

In adult birds, the feet are a brilliant golden yellow, while the legs are totally black. It is thought that the brightly colored feet help to attract small fish and other prey.

The legs of juvenile birds have a predominant greenish yellow color, with some black areas on the front of the leg.

It is found in practically all types of wetland environments, from small ponds to saltwater and everything in between.

During the summer, the Snowy Egret is a rare to relatively common breeding bird in the state.

It is much more common during the winter months, when large numbers can be observed in coastal North Carolina.

Double-crested Cormorant

Scientific name: Phalacrocorax auritus

Photo of Double-crested Cormorant

The Double-crested Cormorant is a large, dark waterbird with a long neck and blue eyes. It is a winter visitor in North Carolina, and is commonly found on large lakes and coastal waters.

This cormorant likes to gather in large flocks that roost on trees close to water. It is a skilled diver and hunts fish with its large, hooked bill. 

When a group of cormorants flies together, they like to form up in a V shaped formation.

Often these V-shaped formations can be seen in the evening, when the birds fly to their roosting spots in North Carolina.

Caspian Tern

Scientific name: Hydroprogne caspia

Photo of Caspian Tern

The Caspian tern is the largest tern species in the world, and a rare visitor in North Carolina during migration, as well as wintering along the coastline in small numbers.

It superficially resembles the Forster’s Tern, but it is a much bigger bird and has a thicker bill, broader wings, and a less forked tail.

Also, during winter the Caspian Tern doesn’t lose its black cap completely, but always retains a streaked, dark crown.

Forster’s Terns, on the other hand, lose their cap entirely during winter, which becomes completely white.

The Caspian Tern is not only a skilled hunter, but this bird also steals food from other terns and gulls. It catches fish by diving into the water with astonishing precision.

The Caspian Tern breeds in freshwater habitats in Canada and northern USA, and winters in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Common Loon

Scientific name: Gavia immer

Photo of Common Loon adult in summer plumage

If you spotted a black waterbird with white dots, it is most likely the Common Loon (also known as the Great Northern Diver).

These water birds breed in northern areas of North America and can be seen in North Carolina on migration, as well as wintering along the coast.

They have big rounded heads with sharp beaks that resemble a dagger.

In the summer months, the birds have black heads, white chests, and lots of white spots on their black-colored plumage. In the winter or autumn months, their color dulls and turns into a pale gray. 

The common loon is a fantastic diver and is super stealthy when it hunts underwater, allowing it to sneak up on fish without even a splash. It can dive to depths of up to two-hundred fifty feet.

To top that off, these birds can stay submerged for up to five minutes and even swallow their prey while they are still underwater. 

They have a wingspan of between forty and fifty inches and can live for up to thirty years of age.

Osprey

Scientific name: Pandion haliaetus

Photo of Osprey perched on stump

The Osprey is one of the largest North Carolina birds of prey, and with a wingspan of up to 69 in (5.5 ft) it resembles an eagle in size. 

It is usually easy to identify the Osprey due white belly and chest, which contrast with its blackish gray upperparts and black wrist patches on its lower wings.

This North Carolina bird is the only raptor species that plunges into the water in order to catch fish, often becoming entirely submerged in water as it attempts to grab a fish with its feet.

Ospreys are almost always found close to water, except during migration, when they will cross areas without water.

It is a common breeding bird and summer visitor in North Carolina, where it is most commonly found along the shores of large lakes.

Bald Eagle

Scientific name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus 

Photo of Bald Eagle pair at their nest

With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, the Bald Eagle is a huge raptor, and impossible to miss if you spot it soaring in the Old North State.

Apart from its size, it is also one of the most easily recognizable birds in North Carolina, due to its white head and tail, which contrast sharply with the uniformly dark brown body. 

Juvenile birds are dark brown all over, with light irregular streaks all over the body, as well as a buff white belly.

This huge bird of prey is a breeding bird in northern North Carolina, and is also found in other parts of the state outside of the breeding season.

The North Carolina Bald Eagle population has undergone a dramatic recovery in the past decades, growing from a handful of pairs in the 1970s to over 80 pairs in 2022.

Bald Eagles spend a lot of their time soaring on thermal currents with their wings held flat. They feed on fish, birds, and small mammals, although a big part of their diet consists of carrion.

Golden Eagle

Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos

Photo of Golden Eagle adult

The Golden Eagle is one the most impressive eagle species in North America, and is a breeding bird in the western parts of North America. 

In North Carolina state, the Golden Eagle is a rare visitor that can be seen during spring or fall migration.

Golden Eagles can be distinguished from Bald Eagles by their lack of white coloration on their heads. 

The Golden Eagle is one of few circumglobal raptor species, as it can be found in both the New World and the Old World.

Turkey Vulture

Scientific name: Cathartes aura

Photo of Turkey Vulture in flight

The Turkey Vulture is the largest vulture species breeding in North Carolina, and can reach a wingspan of up to 6 feet. 

It is a big black raptor with a red head, and dark gray rear margins on their wings, which can be seen in flight.

A soaring Turkey Vulture is easily identifiable due to the fact that it holds its wings in an upright V shape.

This big bird is a summer visitor and breeding bird in North Carolina, where it favors open country interspersed with woodland.

Similar to other vulture species in North Carolina, this bird is specialized in feeding on carrion, and will often congregate in flocks around roadkill.

While Turkey Vultures look superficially similar to a Black Vultures, the latter are only observed in North Carolina very rarely.

Black Vulture

Scientific name: Coragyps atratus

Photo of Black Vulture

Black Vultures are breeding birds throughout North Carolina, although they aren’t as common as Turkey Vultures.

Black Vultures are almost entirely black, except for white wing tips that can be seen from below. They have a naked head with wrinkled, dark skin.

Black Vultures that breed in North Carolina remain in their breeding territories year-round, while immature birds often move around extensively, and may show up in areas without a breeding population of Black Vultures.

In contrast to Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures don’t have a keen sense of smell. Because of this, they often use Turkey Vultures as “scouts” to find roadkill, and then intimidate the smaller vulture species to chase away from the carrion.

Red-tailed Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis

Photo of Red-tailed Hawk in flight

With a wingspan of up to 52 in (4.5 ft), the Red-tailed Hawk is the largest hawk species in North Carolina.

It has variable coloration, ranging from dark brown to almost entirely white, but can be readily recognized by its rusty red tail.

This large hawk is common in open areas and even in cities. It is most often seen perched on roadside posts or fences, waiting for prey.

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most common hawk species in North Carolina, and can be seen in southern parts of North Carolina state year-round, while it is a migratory bird in northern North Carolina.

It feeds on rodents and other small animals that it catches by swooping down from its perch when they venture out into the open.

Great Horned Owl

Scientific name: Bubo virginianus

Photo of Great Horned Owl perched on a stump

With a wingspan up to 4 feet, the Great Horned Owl is the largest owl species breeding in North Carolina. It is a large rufous brown bird with two tufts (also called horns) and big yellow eyes. 

In North Carolina, this owl starts its nesting very early in the year, laying its eggs in January or February. 

It is almost entirely nocturnal, and can hunt in complete darkness by relying on its keen sense of hearing.

The Great Horned Owl doesn’t build its own nest, but instead occupies the nests of other large birds, such as herons or raptors.

It is found year-round throughout North Carolina, and can be found in a wide variety of habitats in North Carolina, from woodlands to urban areas.

This owl is a fierce hunter, catching birds up to the size of ducks, and mammals up to the size of squirrels, rabbits, and even young foxes.

Canada Goose

Scientific name: Branta canadensis

Photo of Canada Goose

The Canada Goose is one of the most easily recognizable aquatic birds, due to its white cheeks that contrast with its jet black neck and head. 

They are breeding birds in Canada and northern States, and fly south every fall in large V formations that herald the start of the cold season.

Canada Geese are year-round residents in southern North Carolina, while they are summer visitors in the northern part of the state.

These Geese like to forage on grain fields after they have been harvested, and are sometimes seen together with Snow Geese.

Tundra Swan

Scientific name: Cygnus columbianus

Photo of Tundra Swan adult

The Tundra Swan is a large breeding bird of northern Canada and northern Alaska. It  is a winter visitor along the coast of North Carolina, where it can be seen from October through March.

These white birds are among the largest waterfowl found in North America, and adults are entirely white with a black beak. They can be distinguished from Trumpeter Swans by the yellow area of skin between the eye and the bill. 

In contrast to adults, juveniles are pale gray streaked with white. These swans feed in shallow water, where they use their long neck to reach for mollusks and aquatic vegetation.

Similar to geese, Tundra Swans also feed on leftover grains on harvested farmland.

They spend the winter in areas with lakes or rivers that are free of ice, and they are sometimes forced to fly further south in harsh winters, when all bodies of water freeze over in their primary wintering grounds.

Brown Pelican

Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis

Photo of Brown Pelican

Brown Pelicans are the most common pelicans found along the coast of North Carolina, where they hunt fish by plunging head-first into the water.

Adult Brown Pelicans are grayish brown with a dark belly, and can be easily recognized by their massive bill.

While this pelican species was endangered a few decades ago due to pesticide poisoning, it has now recovered and is once more a breeding bird as well as a winter visitor in the Old North state.

Great Black-backed Gull

Scientific name: Larus marinus

Photo of Great Black-backed Gull in flight

The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest seagull in the world. It is a breeding bird along the northern parts of the North American east coast.

This gull is easily recognizable by its huge size and dark blackish gray upperparts, which sets it apart from any other gulls in the area.

Due to its big size, this seagull is able to bully most other seabirds, and does so regularly in order to steal their food.

Great Black-backed Gulls are rare winter visitors along the coast of north North Carolina.

It used to be an endangered species of birds in previous centuries due to the feather trade, but its population has rebounded, and it is a common sight once more.

What are the big black birds in North Carolina?

The big black birds found in North Carolina are Turkey Vultures, which have a wingspan up to 6 feet. 

These black-colored vultures are commonly seen in North Carolina soaring on thermal currents, or gathering in small groups at roadkill sites.

Another North Carolina bird that’s relatively large and black is the American Crow. However, with a wingspan of 4 feet, it is significantly smaller than the Turkey Vulture.

What is the largest bird of prey in North Carolina?

The largest bird of prey in North Carolina is the Bald Eagle, which can reach a wingspan up to 8 feet.

Big Bald Eagles are always females, while males are somewhat smaller, only reaching a wingspan of up to 6.5 feet.

Fortunately this large and impressive raptor is an increasingly common sight in North Carolina once more, and watching it soar high into the sky on thermal winds is a treat to be savored while bird watching in the Old North State.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the yellow birds in North Carolina.