Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus
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General Comments Typically, one of the most exciting birds to spot on a warm season pelagic trip to the Gulf Stream is a tropicbird. Both of our two species, White-tailed and Red-billed, are rare enough that one can take 10 or more trips and still miss them; but each is seen a few times every year, just enough to give a glimmer of a chance of seeing one any time while offshore. The White-tailed is the more numerous and smaller of the two, the one a birder typically sees first. Tropicbirds normally fly several dozen to 100 or more feet off the water, with strong wingbeats like a pigeon. A first view is often right over a boat, sneaking in before birders are aware of them, or up against the clouds. They are almost never seen in numbers in our waters, usually found singly or rarely 2-3 in a day. Unlike the Red-billed Tropicbird, there are a handful of storm-carried White-tailed Tropicbirds to inland lakes.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Offshore visitor. Rare though regular in the Gulf Stream (mainly seen off Oregon and Hatteras inlets), late May to late Sep; most frequent in early Aug. Peak offshore counts: 5, in the Gulf Stream 75 miles offshore, 1 Jul 2011; 4-5, off Hatteras, 17 Jul 2011; 4, off Oregon Inlet, 18 Jun 1994; 4, off Oregon Inlet, 6 Aug 1985. Casual to very rare from shore, usually in association with hurricanes, though one seen from Cape Hatteras Point (Dare) on 20 May 2023 was presumably not storm-related. A remarkably early record is of one seen in Cape Lookout bight, 23 Mar 2003. Accidental far inland, after hurricanes: one, Smithfield, 20 Sep 2003 (after Hurricane Isabel).
Piedmont Casual visitor (5 records), essentially only after hurricanes -- single individuals only: Jordan Lake, 6 Sep 1979 (after Hurricane David); Jordan Lake, 25 Jul 1985 (after Hurricane Bob); Moss Lake near Shelby, 22 Sep 1989 (after Hurricane Hugo); Roanoke Rapids Lake, 19 Sep 2003 (after Hurricane Isabel); and at Mebane (Alamance) -- found away from a lake -- 15 Jul 2020, a week after passage of a Gulf of Mexico tropical storm. This last bird, an immature, was taken to a bird rescue site; it was photographed for confirmation while inside the carrying cage.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips As with so many other species, one must take to the seas to see one, and that means taking pelagic trips, preferably organized trips for birders. The latter half of the summer season is slightly "better" for seeing a White-tailed Tropicbird -- i.e, late Jul to early Sep -- than late May to mid-Jul, but you are still looking at a 10-20% chance of seeing one on a given trip. Be prepared to take many trips.
Attribution LeGrand[2023-08-10], LeGrand[2023-03-14], LeGrand[2020-10-20]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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