Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Red-billed Tropicbird - Phaethon aethereus
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General Comments Until the mid- or late 1990's, there were very few state records of the spectacular Red-billed Tropicbird, and one could almost assume a tropicbird on a pelagic trip prior to this time to be a White-tailed. However, records of Red-billed Tropicbirds have accumulated considerably since about 1995, such that one to several are seen offshore every year. Nonetheless, one has only a 1/10 to 1/20 chance, perhaps, of seeing one on a given Gulf Stream trip in the warmer months, making it clearly a red-letter bird on a trip. Unlike the White-tailed, this species has yet to be seen inland, perhaps because it is a larger bird and a stronger flier, less prone to be carried astray.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Offshore visitor. Rare in the Gulf Stream, and less regular than White-tailed, from spring to fall; more frequent than White-tailed in cooler weather and/or over cooler water temperatures, with a peak in mid- and late May; many records mid-May to early Sep; one quite early record, one off Hatteras Inlet, 29 Mar 1997. Remarkable was one photographed flying south past a pier at Nags Head (Dare) on 9 Feb 2018*; this is certainly one of the very few winter records for the United States. Peak offshore counts: 2, off Oregon Inlet, 16 May 1979; 2, off Oregon Inlet, 27 May 2003; all of the other records are of single birds. Only a few additional reports from shore: one, Figure Eight Island (New Hanover), 14 Aug 2004; one, Cape Hatteras Point, 10 Mar 2009, and again 21 Apr 2009 (same bird?); one, Cape Hatteras Point, 24 May - 10 Jun 2011; one again at this site, 15 May 2013; one again at this site, 2 Apr 2017; one again at this site, 25 Mar 2921; and again one at this site, 30 May 2022. One was also at the Salt Pond at Cape Hatteras Point on 29 Mar 2016; probably the same bird was there on 18 Apr 2016. One at nearby Sandy Bay at Hatteras (village) on 25-26 Apr 2106 could have been the bird at Cape Hatteras Point earlier in the spring. It is likely that just one or a few birds are responsible for all of these odd Cape Point records in spring. No far inland records.
Piedmont No records.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips Seeing a Red-billed Tropicbird on an organized pelagic trip is simply a matter of luck, though there is a better chance of seeing one in Apr or May than during the hotter parts of the year. Take plenty of four-leaf clovers and rabbit's-feet along!
Attribution LeGrand[2023-03-14], LeGrand[2022-09-12], LeGrand[2021-09-03]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.