North Carolina’s Outer Banks–a narrow string of barrier islands jutting off the mainland into the Atlantic– is America’s wildlife highway.
By Donovan Webster
This is the spot: a ribbon of sandy beach facing the ocean, somewhere along the 17-mile length of an island off North Carolina called Ocracoke. It’s early April, just before sunset, and everything has gone gold. All around me, nature–rascally and gorgeous–rules. F To my left, a trio of laughing gulls squawk and battle for the rights to an infant dogfish washed ashore.
To my right, plovers, sanderlings, and a solitary American oystercatcher hustle between tongues of an ankle-slapping surf, plucking bits of food. A hundred yards at sea, surf scoters flap and drop into swarming schools of baitfish. So do brown pelicans. Farther out, the dihedral stoop of a great skua dots the horizon.
Every once in a while, to remind me of the underwater action, tuna-shaped silhouettes of false albacore explode from the ocean into the sky. Beyond them, the rounded dorsal fins and smooth gray backs of bottle-nosed dolphins lift from the sea at odd moments, as joyfully unpredictable as actors in a nursery school play.
But here’s the best part: I have this whole place–plum-colored twilight ocean, pale beach, and darkening dunes under a still-bright Magritte sky–all to myself.
This is North Carolina’s Outer Banks during the nontourist season. Before the arrival of the warm weather and the crowds, the place is a mosquito-free zone, blessed by temperate days and chilly nights. The quiet patch of time leaves these islands mostly to the millions of beasts that commute past them toward their breeding habitats.
In 1980 I threw the mattress from my college bed into the back of my car and took off for my first visit–a long-weekend escape from the icy spring mud of central Ohio. I got to the beaches of Ocracoke and did exactly what I have done on every visit since to the Outer Banks: nothing. I watched the birds, caught a few fish, napped in the sun, and read books with my beach chair planted firmly in the sand.
Night has now fallen on the beach. With the failing light, a wind has blown up, and I pull on my jacket. The birds, too, puff up, filling their feathers with insulating layers of air. They know as I do: Often, the environmentally richest places on earth are also the rawest and most tenuous.
Among seashore environ-ments, oceanic barrier islands are extremely rare. Named for the way they keep high-energy ocean waves from slamming the mainland, recent estimates show that they constitute just 2.2 percent of the world’s coastal ecosystems.
Yet even inside this tiny statistical measure, huge variety exists. Black-sand barrier islands fringe Iceland, and icy versions front Siberia and Alaska. Barrier islands protect lagoons in Australia, China, and India. And here, along the Atlantic coast of North America, lies the longest string of them on earth. It stretches more than 2,000 miles–from New York’s Long Island to the Belizean Yucatan.
Embedded in this ocean-island chain is the Outer Banks. On some of these
islands–rarely more than a half-mile
Nurtured by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, whose wandering western boundary flows just 20 to 30 miles offshore, temperatures on the Outer Banks dip below freezing an average of only 13 days a year–that’s five fewer than in Tallahassee, Florida, 450 miles to the south. To this rare northern warmth add long strands of seashores, woods, and marshes and what emerges is a hassle-free habitat for wildlife and a perfect way station for migrating animals.
Each year the Outer Banks is host to nearly 400 species of birds, from native Carolina wrens and cardinals to wintering merlins and bald eagles to migrating tundra swans. In April and May I’ve witnessed pelagic birds such as petrels, jaegers, and shearwaters driven near the shore by strong spring winds. By June 13,000 terns and skimmers are nesting on sand islands off the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Beneath the sea, beyond thick schools of red drum, sea trout, and bluefish
that inhabit local waters year-round, other swimmers pass by in a procession
nearly as ancient as the seasons themselves. In January and February the
giant bluefin tuna arrive: Big as Volkswagen buses, they tear through schooling
bluefish like teenagers at a smorgasbord. In June and July I’ve walked
That these delicate islands still exist is something of a miracle. Most
geologists think the sandy islands were blown into being 18,000 years ago–a
time when continental glaciers still held much of the world’s water as
ice. Back then sea level was as much as 400 feet lower than it is today,
and the beaches of the Outer Banks, which are now as much as 30 miles from
Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, as the Ice Age ended and the earth warmed, glacial melt lifted the level of the seas, which worked through low spots between dunes to inundate the valleys behind them, forming Pamlico Sound. As the seas continued to rise, only the dune tops remained above water. Over thousands of years, root systems of plants, beach grasses, and trees have helped stabilize the islands’ blowing sands.
Rolling seas, howling winds, and hurricanes continue to push the islands west toward the mainland and south–as much as 200 feet a century. In some years, beaches of the Outer Banks’ biggest island, Hatteras, erode as much as 14 feet. The historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse once stood 1,500 feet from the ocean. As the land beneath it moved westward, waves began to lap dangerously close. Last summer the lighthouse was moved to a higher and drier site.
Beyond the movement of the sands, other threats imperil life on the
Outer Banks–and most walk on two legs. Offshore, the Mobil and Chevron
oil corporations have chased state and federal permission to drill exploratory
natural-gas wells on the continental shelf. Thanks to local and state opposition,
Mobil has withdrawn its proposal, and Chevron has placed its project on
hold. But humans continue to import hazards. Rampant hog farming within
North Carolina’s hurricane-prone coastal plain continues to threaten the
waters between the mainland and the Outer Banks. Tons of hog waste and
other pollutants regularly spill into Pamlico Sound, often causing extensive
fish kills. And because of its wild beauty and proximity to the mainland,
the Outer Banks hosts millions of visitors a year, their sheer numbers
taking a toll on the narrow, fragile environment. Despite annual warnings,
precautionary signs, and fences, nesting areas are destroyed by unleashed
pets and rogue off-road-vehicle
Still, the outer banks seem anything but a perilous place. Since my first visit, the Outer Banks has always been a pleasant, peaceful, virtually wild place, with its own rhythms–not to mention a sense of time that stretches like Silly Putty. It’s also a place where weather systems aren’t just jagged lines on a newspaper map. Thanks to the Gulf Stream’s proximity, I can go to bed on a balmy night, awaken at 2 a.m. to a howling rain, and, in the morning, find the place not only peaceful again but rinsed clean.
My favorite spot is the expansive Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on northern Hatteras Island, where I’ve grown close to a family of ospreys nesting on a platform in the marshes behind the Cape Hatteras National Seashore visitors’ center. This past spring I watched as Mom and Pop would slip from the platform, cruise warily above the marsh, then slide down on air currents to pluck a mullet from the water. Then they would return to let their young tear it to bits.
In testimony to the richness of life here, you don’t need to find an off-road wilderness site to see the area’s tapestry of birds, plants, and animals. I start every trip on the Buxton Woods Trail–a three-quarter-mile hiker’s loop through the island chain’s largest forest, the 3,000-acre Buxton Woods, a half-mile southwest of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. During sunrise walks, reading interpretive plaques along the trail–through thickets and on raised boardwalks over swamps–I’ve glimpsed otters, deer, snakes, and a variety of birds. By the time I finish, I feel like a local.
After my walk I head for the water. I stand shin-deep in the surf and
let the day go dark. In the wild ephemerality of this place, I know that
the next time I return the winds, rolling grains of sand, and tides will
have altered it once again forever. Because on the Outer Banks, movement
is life–and life is everywhere.
Donovan Webster lives in Virginia. He hopes to write a book about the Outer Banks, which he visits as often as he can.
Being There: The Outer Banks
A 150-mile stretch of narrow sand islands as much as 30 miles off the North Carolina coast, the Outer Banks has one of the richest and most varied ecosystems on earth. The islands begin on the now-crowded Bodie (pronounced "baa-dee") Island in the north, pass along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands in the middle, and end in the south on the roadless Core and Shackelford banks of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Getting There: Located roughly 150 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina, and 275 miles from Washington, D.C., the Outer Banks is best reached by Highway 64. The road passes through the woodlands of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge–a 150,000-acre home to black bears, hundreds of species of birds, and a red wolf reintroduction area.
Weather: Thanks to the surrounding water, weather on the Outer
Banks is moderate by southeastern U.S. standards. Summer temperatures may
climb into the 90s, but a breeze blows all day, cooling things off.
Temperatures drop below freezing only 13 days a year. In January the daytime
temperatures may get into the 50s. But no matter what time of year you
visit, be prepared
Hiking: Beachcombing is a time-honored tradition and can be spectacular after a storm or hurricane. Beyond the Buxton Woods Trail (see main story), other worthy hikes are on Cape Lookout National Seashore. You can catch a ferry ride there with Captain Rudy Austin (252-928-4361). To get general ferry information, call 800-BY-FERRY.
Camping: Camping on the beaches or dunes isn’t allowed, but there are dozens of private campgrounds in the area. Also, the National Park Service manages four campgrounds along the Outer Banks: one on Bodie Island, two near the tip of Cape Hatteras on Hatteras Island, and one on Ocracoke Island. They cost about $14 a night. Call the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (252-473-2111) for more information.
Wild Things: The Outer Banks is a naturalist’s playground, with nearly 400 species of birds, plus otters, deer, sea turtle colonies, seashells from the sand dollar to the scotch bonnet, and dozens of species of fish. Endangered right whales are sometimes seen off the coast.
Lodging: Each town along the Outer Banks offers several hotels and restaurants; here are a few of the standouts. Cochran’s Way (888-278-1406), a charming porch-encircled bed-and-breakfast on Pamlico Sound between the towns of Frisco and Hatteras, charges from $125 to $145 a night for what’s probably the best stay along the island chain. The Berkley Manor Bed & Breakfast (252-928-5911), built in 1860, offers 12 rooms for $145 a night. The Comfort Inn of Hatteras (252-995-6100), $80 a night, along Highway 12 in Buxton, is convenient to the upper parts of the Outer Banks.
Food: There should be a law that everyone who visits the Outer Banks must stop at Bubba’s Bar-B-Q, on Highway 12 in Frisco, for a chopped-pork barbecue sandwich served with cole-slaw and a side of baked beans. Another must is Billy’s Fish House, on Highway 12 in Buxton. On Ocracoke, you’ll do no better than Howard’s Pub and Raw Bar on Highway 12.
Learning more: For more information, visit the Dare County Tourism
Bureau at www.outerbanks.org or call 800-446-6262. For birders, the
bible on the Outer Banks is John O. Fussell’s 540-page A Birder’s Guide
to Coastal North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press). The book
covers the area by zones and recommends nature walks. –D. W.
© 2000 NASI
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