Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Kirtland's Warbler - Setophaga kirtlandii
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General Comments Considering that North Carolina is about halfway between the species' wintering grounds in the Bahamas and breeding grounds in Michigan, one would think that Kirtland's Warbler might be a regular transient through our area. Well, in actuality, it probably is. However, the rarity is mostly explained in a simple way -- there are perhaps 4-5,000 individuals in the world, as opposed to many times more than that -- 100 to 1,000 times more -- for practically all other warbler species. The chance that a birder would encounter a Kirtland's is thus quite remote. At least, there are now about 15 accepted records, in addition to a handful of others than have not been accepted or yet reviewed by the NC BRC. [A species this rare needs nearly indisputable details for acceptance of a sight report.] Nine records are for the mountains, four are for the Piedmont, and finally one (in 2018) is from the Coastal Plain. Only two are from spring and the others are from the fall season; nearly all occur between 23 Sep and 3 Oct, rarely to 15 Oct. Oddly, even though the species has to migrate in fall over much of the entire state, the preponderance of records from the mountains is not an artifact of birding effort, as the Piedmont has (by far) more birders and effort. Thus, these birds (at least in fall) deliberately drop down from nighttime migration much more frequently in the mountains, and essentially fly over the Piedmont and Coastal Plain (where there is much birding effort in fall along the coast) without stopping.

In October 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the species directly from the Endangered Species list. Thus, it went from an Endangered status to no status, and thus bypassing the Threatened status listing. This seems odd, as the global population is only a few thousand birds.

Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G3
Coastal Plain Remarkably, just a single convincing report -- one photographed at Duck (Dare), from 2-5 Oct 2017* [Chat 83:35 link]; photos are on the Carolina Bird Club Photo Gallery. There are also several old reports from the inland part of the province that were not accepted owing to lack of published details. Considering that the straight line between its breeding grounds in Michigan and its wintering grounds in the Bahamas passes through this province, the near absence of confirmed records is surprising, if not disturbing.
Piedmont Casual fall transient in the western portion of the province, but just one accepted record for the eastern half; just four accepted records so far. A male was seen in Allison's Woods (Iredell) on 29 Aug 1982* [Chat 51:107-08 link]. A female or immature was seen and photographed at Cowan's Ford Wildlife Refuge near Huntersville (Mecklenburg) on 27 Sep 2010* [Chat 75:51 link]; this report is the first record documented with photos. In 2020, there were two accepted records, with photos -- just below the Jordan Lake dam (Chatham) from 27-30 Sep*, and at Haw River SP (Rockingham) on 4 Oct* [Chat 85:37 link]. There are several other reports that have not been accepted.
Mountains Very rare transient (with numbers increasing in recent years); now with 10 records (but only two of them in spring). A first-year female was seen by five birders along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Haywood Gap (Milepost 426.2) (Jackson) on 20 May 1995* [Chat 64:21-25 link], [Chat 64:140 link]. An immature female was seen by multiple observers near Milepost 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Alleghany) on 23-24 Sep 1995* [Chat 64:21-25 link], [Chat 64:140 link]. One was seen near Brevard (Transylvania) by eight observers on 1 Oct 2008* [Chat 73:2 link]. One was photographed at Ridge Junction Overlook, along the Blue Ridge Parkway (Yancey), 28 Sep 2016* [Chat 81:26 link]. One was banded and photographed on Big Bald Mountain (Yancey), along the TN state line, on 3 Oct 2017* [Chat 82:44-45 link]. One was seen and photographed by many observers at the entrance to Mount Mitchell SP (Yancey) from 24 Sep - 3 Oct 2018* [Chat 83:35 link]. This record is remarkable for length of stay (for any migrant bird in fall), a minimum of 10 days. In 2019, single birds were seen and photographed at two Buncombe sites: on Flat Top Mountain on 24 Sep, and at the Biltmore Estate on 14-15 Oct [Chat 84:27 link]. Another was photographed at Valle Crucis (Watauga) from 30 Sep - 9 Oct 2021 [Chat 86:43 link], another bird that stayed for at least 10 days. The first state record of a singing bird was a male videotaped at Meat Camp Creek Environmental Studies Area (Watauga) on 13 May 2020*, and also seen on the next day [Chat 84:101 link].
Finding Tips Some recent birds have stayed over for an extra day to three, for many observers to observe them. Far too rare to search for, so your best bet is to quickly search for a bird reported by others.
Attribution LeGrand[2023-04-07], LeGrand[2022-02-10], LeGrand[2021-11-06]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.