Backyard to the Beach – Birding Tips from the Pros

Written by Diana Matthews | Photography by Gretchen Schramm

Jill Peleuses along with her husband Pete, owns two stores providing supplies and equipment for bird lovers. Along with birdseed, books and binoculars, the couple and their employees provide the Wilmington area with a wealth of birding know-how and resources.


Peleuses grew up in Missouri and came to Wilmington by way of Virginia. One of her earliest memories is of seeing “a cardinal in the snow. My mother introduced me to birds,” Peleuses said. “I find a peaceful feeling from observing nature, and birds are part of that.” Arriving in Wilmington 20 years ago, Peleuses was amazed by the diversity of bird species that either live in the area’s varied habitats or migrate through the region seasonally. “We have shorebirds, songbirds, a lot of ducks in winter and I love to see the different hawk species that we have,” she said.


She bought the book Birds of the Carolinas and began recognizing the dozen or so birds that she saw most frequently. “It’s a good book for someone getting started,” she said. “The sections are color-coded by the colors of the birds.”


Peleuses earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in environmental science and natural resource management at UNCW, taking “as many bird classes as I could,” she said. As a volunteer for Audubon North Carolina, she helped tag birds and study the health of shorebird populations. Rather than pursuing a scientific teaching career or working for an advocacy group, Peleuses and her husband started a business that has become a hub of Cape Fear birder life. They opened their first Wild Bird & Garden store in Hanover Center, at 3501 Oleander Dr. in Wilmington 13 years ago and another in Southport three years ago and have become as much an educational business as a retailer.


“A lot of people first become excited about birds through their own yards,” Jill Peleuses said. “It’s their first connection and we’ve made that a focus of our business. A good place to start is with a mixed birdseed feeder,” she said. “Put it near a window or porch where you can watch the birds.” Another fun way to get started, said Peleuses, is by installing a bluebird house. “Eastern Bluebirds are always here, and they can nest three times between March and August. People can see 12-15 babies each year. It’s fun to watch them come and go. They like sunflower chips and worms.”


Customers do not need to feel silly about going in with a simple question about what birdseed to use. “I love to talk about birds. It’s what I love most,” Peleuses said. “It’s exciting to any of us in the stores.” Wilmington Wild Bird & Garden staffer Christen Jones said, “We get a lot of new inhabitants to the area coming into the store and asking questions about birds they haven’t seen before. They say, ‘I have a red bird.’ We ask them, ‘Did you see it on the ground or in a tree? We play a game we call ‘What’s That Bird?’ and use a process of deduction to uncover what it is.”

Store personnel are also happy to share tips on the best places to go to see different types of birds. One of the places Peleuses recommends highly as a bird-sighting destination is Airlie Gardens. With its creekside location, wooded areas and wide-open lawns, it’s a good place to see a wide variety of species. Along with the gardens’ environmental educators, she leads a birding walk the second Wednesday morning of every month.

“In the winter, Greenfield Lake is a great place to see ducks,” Peleuses said. Between early May and early August, she also recommends joining a bird walk held at the south end of Wrightsville Beach, near Access Point #43, in an area where colonies of shorebirds nest directly on the sand. “The parents stand over the eggs to shade them from the sun,” Peleuses said.

During the nesting season, on Monday’s at 9am, Marlene Eader of Audubon N.C. leads bird walks on the beach, teaching visitors and locals about the habits of Common Terns, Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers. Eader has trained a team of blue-tee-shirted Wrightsville Beach Bird Stewards, who work to keep the area clean and educate visitors.

Like Wild Bird & Garden staff members, Peleuses said that the Bird Stewards “love to talk to the public about birds. That’s what they’re there for. (The walk area) is also a great place to photograph birds.” Eader and the volunteers aim to protect the birds from human disturbances that could threaten their offspring’s survival. Throughout the season, they warn beachgoers that vulnerable eggs are just a few steps away. Elementary school students have designed signs to warn humans to be careful near the nesting zones. If people or dogs rush into an area where eggs are incubating, they can scare the parent birds away, Peleuses, said. On a hot day, “Those eggs can literally cook in just a few minutes. A small disruption can lead to a big nest failure.” Educating people about bird habitats is “part of the purpose of Wild Bird & Garden.”

Another purpose is promoting native plants for local gardeners. The stores host native plant sales each spring and fall. “They’re easy to care for because they’re meant to grow in this area,” Peleuses said. “Plus they support the native insects that native birds rely on.” Eader calls Peleuses and her staff “fantastic educators” for the public. “They teach classes in the store and Jill teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNCW,” she said. On their website,, patrons can find out about more excursions, including kayak-based birding adventures.

If you’ve made your yard bird-friendly, you are well on your way to making it a refuge for other kinds of animals, such as butterflies, bats, frogs, toads and beneficial reptiles.

The National Wildlife Federation recognizes homeowners whose yards qualify as official wildlife habitats.  To earn certified habitat status, a yard must include the following features.

  •      Food – three sources, such as seeds and nuts produced by the yard’s plants or man-made feeders. A patch of sunflowers, a hummingbird nectar feeder or a dogwood tree qualifies.
  •      Water – one source of clean water, for example a rain garden, a pond or a butterfly puddling area.
  •      Cover – at least two places where creatures can find shelter from the weather and predators. Dense shrubs can meet this requirement. Placing your birdfeeder within a short flight from the nearest shrubs allows birds to perch on the shrubs’ branches as they take turns feeding. Look out for shrubs that trail on the ground, creating cover for cats that may want to crouch in wait and jump out to kill a ground-feeding thrush or catbird. Bat houses provide a place for bats to hang out during the daytime. A pile of rocks can be cover for a harmless snake.
  •      Places to raise young – at least two places where animals can engage in courtship behavior, mate and then bear and raise young. Nesting boxes come in different sizes appropriate to different species of songbirds. A dead tree that owls can live in is another way to provide this feature.
  •  The last requirement for NWF certification is that the homeowners employ sustainable practices from at least two of the following three categories: soil and water conservation, control of exotic species and replacing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with more organic methods.