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139. Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Visit this sandy spot just outside Wilmington for views of nesting Least Tern, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, and Wilson’s Plover.

The chance to see the nests of Least Tern, Black Skimmer, American Oystercatcher, and Wilson’s Plover drew me to join a recent weekly birdwatching expedition to Mason Inlet. The birds’ nests amount to little more than indentations in the sand, and they lay buff-colored eggs that blend in perfectly, so the top-quality binoculars and high-powered scope that we carried were absolutely essential.

Students from local colleges monitor the sanctuary and have placed little orange flags near the almost-invisible nests. I focused my lenses on two tiny fuzzballs, species unknown, twittering away, no doubt calling for Mom and Dad, which were nowhere in sight.

Audubon North Carolina took over the area a couple years ago and roped it off against the incursions of people and dogs. They’re the folks who led our Friday-morning walk and also the ones who erected a narrative kiosk explaining what’s going on out there. They also posted art by fifth graders from Wrightsville Beach Elementary around the area, mixed in with official signs threatening fines and prosecution for trespassing. “Save the birds,” say the children. — Lois Carol Wheatley

Lois Carol Wheatley is a freelance writer who writes often about nature and tourism. She is the author of Images of America: Carolina Beach (Arcadia Press, 2012).

139. Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina


Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area is a 300-acre sanctuary of open beach, dunes, and marshes east of Wilmington. From the city, take Hwy. 74 toward Wrightsville Beach. Bear left on W. Salisbury St., drive one mile, and turn left on N. Lumina Ave. Continue northeast for 1.6 miles and park in the public lot next to Shell Island Resort.

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At a Glance

Click on the coordinates below to view location:
34°14’11.63″N 77°46’30.42″W


Beach, dunes, marshes, and ocean.


Flat sand.


Year-round: Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, Brown Pelican, White Ibis, American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, Clapper Rail, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, Royal Tern, Greater Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, Turkey Vulture, Fish Crow, Boat-tailed Grackle, House Finch. Fall and winter: Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harrier, Belted Kingfisher. Fall through spring: Black-bellied and Piping Plovers, Double-crested Cormorant, Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows. Spring and summer: Least Tern, Wilson’s Plover. Spring through fall: Laughing Gull, Osprey.

When to go

Year-round. Mid- to late spring to see nests, eggs, and young of waterbirds.


Free bird walks led by Audubon North Carolina Friday mornings from April through August. Sandy path beginning at interpretive kiosk leads along dunes to beach. Shell Island Resort, an upscale hotel, has a restaurant.


Bird sanctuary operated by Audubon North Carolina and municipalities. Access unrestricted. Parking fee $2 per hour from April to October.


Sandals with shorts OK spring through fall, weather permitting. Bring a spotting scope to view nests. Avoid posted areas to prevent disturbance to nesting birds and sensitive dunes.

For more info

Mason Inlet Waterbird Management Area
Audubon North Carolina, (910) 686-7527.
North Carolina Birding Trail
Carolina Bird Club

Sites nearby

Airlie Gardens
300 Airlie Rd., Wilmington. Public garden with large ponds, old trees, and heritage plants. Shorebirds, herons, migrating songbirds, breeding orioles and warblers.

Carolina Beach State Park
About 12 miles south of Wilmington off Hwy. 421. More than six miles of trails. Great for woodpeckers, warblers, Summer Tanager, Painted Bunting, and migrating raptors.

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