See Outer Banks Wildlife That You'll Never Forget

barred owl
Barred owl at Alligator NWR

The Outer Banks comprises over 130 miles of sandy barrier islands along the North Carolina shoreline. In addition to miles of beaches, the islands also contain miles and miles of waterways, marshes, and wetlands, which provide a haven to several hundred species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.

To research, protect, and preserve the Outer Banks wildlife, several wildlife refuges were established.

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984 and is a true wilderness. Located on US 64 west of Croatan Sound, the Refuge is bounded on the west by the Alligator River and on the east by the Pamlico and Croatan Sounds. Comprising over 150,000 acres of wetlands, the Refuge is home to over 150 species of birds, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. In addition to the birds, the forests of the refuge protect red wolves, bobcats, deer, and black bears. As may be guessed from the Refuge's title, alligators populate the waters.

Visitors may observe these animals and a variety of plants and shrubs via one of many hiking or wildlife trails. The Refuge also has fishing areas and canoeing and kayaking routes.

Our Experience at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge - We hiked both trails here. Both are 1/2 miles long. The Creef Cut Trail parallels a canal so we were hoping to see an alligator. We did not see any alligators, but we saw a fair amount of birds including warblers (I forget which species). This trail, which is an abandon road, also parallels US 64, so one doesn't get the sense of wilderness. The Sandy Ridge Trail is amid a cypress swamp, so there is also a chance of seeing alligators here. The road to this trail is where I photographed the barred owl (above, right). The Refuge also has miles of isolated gravel roads to explore.

Brown pelicans at Nags Head
Brown pelicans at Nags Head

The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 and is located on the north end of Hatteras Island between the Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe. Comprised of over 6,000 acres, the Refuge contains ocean beach, dunes, fresh, and brackish water ponds, salt flats, and salt marshes. A myriad of Outer Banks wildlife find a haven here, including more than 360 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, 24 species of reptiles, and 5 species of amphibians. Endangered animals include peregrine falcons, loggerhead sea turtles, and piping plovers.

Visitors can view the wildlife from observation platforms near the parking areas and take part in public interpretive programs during the summer and fall.

Our Experience at Pea Island NWR - We always make time to spend part of a morning here as we always see something interesting. There is a nice gift shop here and the start of the North Pond trail overlooks the turtle pond. Stop for a moment at the turtle pond and you will see many turtles, small and large, slowly coming to the surface below you. It's obvious that they're used to being fed by visitors. Along this trail we've seen a turtle covering her nest with sand and we always see lots of different birds. A spotting scope is useful here as many of the birds are some distance away. If all you have are binoculars, you'll still see a lot. There is an observation tower that affords a good view of the area.

The Currituck National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984 as a satellite of the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Virginia. The refuge provides a transition from the Atlantic Ocean to the Currituck Sound in five different tracts, totaling nearly 5,000 acres of sandy beaches, grassy dunes, maritime forests, shrub thickets, and fresh and brackish marshes. Located north of Corolla on the northern portion of Currituck Sound, the Refuge is home to wading birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors along with a variety of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Loggerhead sea turtles occasionally nest on the refuge. The Refuge is also the home for the very popular Outer Banks wild horses that used to roam Corolla.

These three national reserves (Alligator River, Pea Island, and Currituck) are maintained by the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, a division of the U. S. Department of the Interior.

oak trees on the trail at Currituck Banks
Oak trees on the trail at Currituck Banks

The Currituck Banks is part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve (NCNERR) and is an excellent example of a low-salinity estuarine system. The site lies ten miles south of the Virginia border and three-quarters of a mile north of Corolla. Bounded by the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, the site encompasses 960 acres.

The mixing of the warm Gulf Stream current and the cool Labrador Current off Currituck Banks creates a climate where northern species reach the southern limit of their ranges and southern species reach the northern limit of their ranges. As a result, a diversity of species from both regions is found here. The habitats are ocean beach, sand dunes, grasslands, shrub thicket, maritime forest, brackish and freshwater marshes, tidal flats, and subtidal soft bottoms.

The site is accesible by foot, 4WD, and boat, although there are no boat ramps or docks. Currituck Banks has a 1/3 mile boardwalk and a 1.5 mile hiking trail.

Our Experience at Currituck Banks - The boardwalk is pleasant and interesting and ends at a cove off Currituck Sound. Though the end of the 1.5 mile trail is not an especially interesting spot, the trail itself winds through various habitats and is worth the trip. There is the chance of seeing the horses here and we've seen a fair amount of avian activity.

Lichen at Nags Head Woods
Lichen on tree at Nags Head Woods

The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve was declared a National Natural Landmark by Congress in 1974. The Nature Conservancy took on the project in 1977, and now maintains the over 1000 acres of pine and hardwood forests, wetlands, and ponds This forests harbor trees up to 500 years old. Outer Banks wildlife finds a home here, as well. Over 50 species of birds nest on the preserve. Turtles, salamanders, and a variety of plant life flourish in the salt water ponds. The marsh system of Roanoke Sound supports river otters, muskrats, herons, and several species of migratory waterfowl.

Our Experience at Nags Head Woods - There are several trails here. One goes to the sound and there it ends in an interesting setting. We've found all of the trails interesting and worthwhile. Lots of varied habitats with lots of flora and fauna to see and photograph.

Kitty Hawk Woods is part of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve Program (NCCR) and is in the center of the village of Kitty Hawk bordering the Currituck Sound. It encompasses a total of 1,877 acres of maritime deciduous swamp, forest, and marsh.

Because of the location of Kitty Hawk Woods a great diversity of wildlife is found here. Upland areas support gray fox, raccoon, and white-tailed deer. The marsh areas support nutria, muskrat, river otter, and a high density of reptiles and amphibians. The woods are home to warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, wrens, and other songbirds. Wood ducks inhabit the deeper swales and herons, egrets, geese, ducks, swans, and rails may be found in the marsh. The rare plants found on the Reserve are southern twayblade and wooly beach heather. The hop hornbeam, rare on the Outer Banks, is only found in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head Woods.

The Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival is a six-day celebration of the wild side of the Outer Banks region of North Carolina. The festival offers over 85 programs in themes ranging from paddling and wildlife photography to birding, natural history, and more! This festival is traditionally set during the "shoulder season" when rates are lower for accommodations, traffic is light and the weather is mild. To learn more about the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival call 252-216-9464 or go to All proceeds from this event go to the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society - a non-profit organization established and incorporated in 1989 by a group of local citizens to provide support for National Wildlife Refuges in eastern North Carolina.

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