Currituck Sound Country Almanac Southern Shores to Corolla

Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary and CenterLast weekend, we were cheerfully saying goodbye to winter as we traveled on the edge of the continent along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It felt like we were threading the eye of the needle as we headed north on Hwy 12 from Southern Shores. The road snaked along the razor-thin barrier island. A stretch of highway past Duck disclosed a sliver of constantly shifting land with less than a 1000’ beam from sound-to-sea. Most of our previous OBX adventures have taken us south along Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Today, my wife and I were day-tripping to Corolla for a hike through the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary and Center. We were also going to get a sneak peek of Historic Corolla before the upcoming tourism season arrives. For now, this shoulder season was the perfect time to beat the crowds, discover Corolla and spend a wonderful spring-like day shooting the breeze.

As the coordinator for Your Pocket Guide to the Albemarle Sound, I’ve been extensively exploring the region the past couple of years discovering unique, one-of-a-kind places and experiences. I’ve skiffed skinny creeks, visited NC Century farms, cycled back roads, hitched ferries, toured breweries and browsed regional art galleries. One of the most challenging feats has been collecting a cache of local hiking trails. This region of the sounds where land merges with water has plenty of blueways, intra-coastal waterways, open seas and coastal rivers but unfortunately, there are very few off-pavement hiking or walking trails. So my wife and I were extremely excited to learn about the 2.5-mile (5-mile out and back) nature trail at Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary and Center.

Observation Platform at Audubon Pine Island Nature Trail

A Delicate Balance

North Carolina’s first Audubon Center is located on the northern end of the Outer Banks in Corolla. The sanctuary maintains a balanced resource management philosophy guided by conservation, education, research, habitat restoration and hunting. The public can enjoy sections of the 2,600-acre sanctuary and participate in spring and summer kayak tours and educational programs offered by the center. The 2.5-mile nature trail is open to the public and can be enjoyed year-round. Parking for the trail is located behind the Pine Island Racquet & Fitness Center.

The trail follows a dirt road from Pine Island to Duck and traverses through a variety of marine evergreen forests. Immediately, visitors will notice the gnarly, twisted canopy of live oaks. The wide roadbed offers excellent birding opportunities along the way. A wildlife observation platform is located one mile from the trailhead and at the end of the trail. Each platform provides excellent views of the sound, forests, marshes and creeks on Pine Island. Wildlife photographers will enjoy the photo blinds that enable up close and intimate sightings of migratory waterfowl and aquatic wildlife. Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to extend your viewing opportunities to include the extensive marshland, duck blinds (29 total in the sanctuary), ponds and open sound. My wife and I enjoyed watching an Osprey munching on a large fish while it was precariously perched in a red bay shrub along Baum’s Creek and Yankee Pond. We also casually observed a few black ducks, a pair of grebes and a belted kingfisher from the platforms. A variety of songbirds were seen flitting above the shrub and canopy along the trail.

Trail notes: Leashed pets are permitted on the trail. Bring water for your dog if you decide to hike the entire trail. We found March to be an ideal time to experience the trail. Because the trail runs along an open road with very little shade, hiking in warmer weather might be best enjoyed in the cooler times of the day.

Whalehead Club with Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Historic Corolla

After our midday hike, we continued north for nine miles to visit Historic Corolla and Currituck Heritage Park. When we stepped out of our Subaru, it was like stepping back into time. The open park-like setting of Corolla Heritage Park unveiled the picturesque backdrop of the Whalehead Club.

Constructed nearly a century ago, the Art Nouveau mansion stands sentinel above the Currituck Sound and the 39-acre park. The 21,000 square foot structure was built in 1925 by the northern industrialist Edward Wright and his wife Louise. They also owned more than four miles of coastal property developed as a hunt club along the northern end of the island. The grand home served as their winter residence until 1928. The property changed ownership several times over the years. It is now owned by Currituck County and is managed by the county’s Travel and Tourism Department. The beautifully restored residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours and events.

We continued our self-guided tour of the park down to Point Lawn to take in a soundside perspective of the club. We were quickly rewarded with a splendid view of Currituck Beach Lighthouse towering above the elegant canary-yellow mansion by the sea.

Currituck Beach Light Station

As we walked the half-mile back to the lighthouse grounds, we let our eyes slowly scroll up the 162’ unpainted brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The lighthouse was completed in 1795 and was the final station built along the Outer Banks. It was strategically built to guide vessels through the “dark spot” of the Atlantic that existed from Bodie Island to the Cape Henry lighthouse in Virginia. Although the lighthouse was closed for the season, we enjoyed strolling outside the property admiring the grounds, the Victorian Lighthouse Keeper’s house and a smaller “keeper’s” house, which we learned was moved to the property in 1920. It now serves as the lighthouse station’s museum and gift shop.

The 500-meter CAMA Sound Boardwalk east of the lighthouse station leads visitors to sweeping views of Currituck Sound and a long-range glimpse of the lighthouse.

Views of Currituck Beach Lighthouse from boardwalk

Currituck Sound: Past, Present & Future

The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education is another exciting attraction located at Currituck Heritage Park. The center is nestled on 29-acres overlooking Currituck Sound. The interpretive center houses a variety of exhibits that chronicle the region’s natural and cultural history. Families will certainly enjoy the 8,000-gallon aquarium and a number of other exhibits which showcase the region’s duck hunting heritage; decoy making culture; and Currituck Sound’s hunting and fishing history. Admission is free to the center and the adjacent grounds, which include a small picnic area.

Other seasonal activities at Currituck Heritage Park include fishing, crabbing, kayaking, treasure hunting and special events. The park is open from dawn to dusk year-round.

Trip Tip #33

 

 

Coming or Going ~ Make sure you stop by Coastal Provisions in Southern Shores for one of the OBX’s most authentic food, wine and beer experiences! Knowledgeable and friendly staff, best selection of oysters on the coast, great food, eclectic market and deli items all rolled up into one mighty fine stop.

Coastal Provisions Oyster Bar & Wine Café

 

 

 

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National Wildlife Refuges in Coastal NC Wild & Wonderful Resources

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

The Federal Land Ownership Overview and Data Report in 2014 revealed that federal land ownership in North Carolina totaled 2,429,341 acres. This included land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Defense, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service. The USFWS administers approximately 420,068 acres. Most of this land in North Carolina is managed by the National Wildlife Refuge System, which includes 11 NWRS units and the Edenton National Fish Hatchery. Connecting Corridors attended a lecture last month to learn more about these fascinating natural resources.

NWR Volunteer discusses wildlife refuges in NC

NWR volunteer Bob Glennon discusses coastal refuges

Bob Glennon, a retired Natural Resource Planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a volunteer for the NWR gave an informative overview of the refuge system in our state. The presentation was part of the Harry Rosenblatt Memorial Speaker Series held at the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library in Edenton, NC.

National Wildlife Refuge System Mission

Before the presentation, I picked up one of the refuge’s brochures and learned that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

Glennon opened up with a geographical overview explaining, “We are blessed to have nine area refuges so close together.” He added, “Of the 11 NWR units managed in NC, nine are in northeastern NC. They are located all within two hours and span from the barrier islands along the Outer Banks west to the Roanoke River. According to Glennon, the area refuges make up approximately 380,000 acres.

Compared to other wildlife refuges in the 562-unit system, Glennon reasoned, “We’re not huge but instead, we are diverse.” The regional refuges are also relatively close together.

tours and wildlife Albemarle Sound

Wildlife Refuge Complex

Glennon pointed out that being so close is convenient for both visitors and staff. “Area refuges share staff, supplies and facilities,” explained Glennon. Refuges that share a similar ecological region or habitat and have a related purpose and management needs are grouped into a complex.

Alligator River, Pea Island, Mackay Island, Pocosin Lakes, Currituck and Roanoke River are managed as part of the North Carolina Coastal Plain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Mattamuskeet, Cedar Island, and Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuges are managed as the Mattamuskeet Complex.

Working as a Natural Resource Planner for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Glennon wrote the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for nine of the NWR units. He confirmed, “Each refuge is unique and each refuge has its own delegated purpose mandated by Congress.” Glennon informed the group of the agency’s premier task, which focuses on a “wildlife first” conservation model and a “big six” core of wildlife dependent uses on wildlife refuges. They include environmental education, interpretation, photography, wildlife observation, hunting and fishing.

Glennon outlined each unit and shared his first hand experiences working professionally and as a volunteer for various refuges. He has led paddling tours of the Alligator River NWR and guided visitors along a sound-to-sea interpretive walk on the Pea Island NWR. There are many visitor experiences available at each refuge ranging from tram tours along the Alligator River to volunteering for “beach walks” during the sea turtle nesting season on Pea Island. Wildlife observation is one of the more popular activities and visitors may observe a variety of resident and migratory wildlife including red wolves, black bears, waterfowl, shorebirds, wildflowers, alligators, songbirds, wading birds, sea turtles and marine mammals. The refuges offer diverse habitats from one of the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the east coast to pocosins, marsh shrub forest and managed mainland and barrier island wetlands.

Great Egret Mattamuskeet NWR

Great Egret along Mattamuskeet NWR Wildlife Drive

Glennon acknowledged that refuge staff, interns and volunteers work with school groups, adjoining landowners and other community partners. Special partnerships or programs mentioned by Glennon include Swan Days at Mattamuskeet NWR and Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival (WOW). Glennon noted, “All refuges share the WOW event, which features over 30 tours, art instruction, drawing, photography and video workshops, natural history programs, and canoe tours.” Recently, the WOW Festival has added an encore session in December.

Paddlers touring Alligator National Wildlife Refuge

The Alligator River NWR is a popular destination for paddlers

In the two years that I’ve resided in eastern NC, I’ve been fortunate to visit nine of the 11 refuges including the National Fish Hatchery in Edenton. I’ve enjoyed wildlife photography, birding and fishing at several of the refuges. I have also paddled several of the paddle trails in Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes. I look forward to completing my northeastern, NC NWR bucket list soon.

To learn more about each refuge and programming opportunities including volunteering, click on the following links:

National Wildlife Refuge list by State
Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society

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