One of North Carolina's greatest natural events occurs during November and December and experiencing it is as easy as a Sunday drive. A long drive, perhaps, but that's about the only effort you'll have to expend for a front-row seat. The performance is the annual congregation of thousands of waterfowl in the coastal region as geese, ducks, swans, and other birds set up house after abandoning their northern breeding grounds for the winter.
It's difficult to state population numbers for the birds, since it varies from year to year with species and location. Some species are in decline while others are rebounding, and only by studying trends can you get a good handle of the population situation. But just to give you an idea, in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge alone, the average overwintering population of waterfowl is over 100,000. To see the birds at many locations requires careful planning and the use of four-wheel drive vehicles or boats, or by making long, difficult hikes. However, a number of locations provide easy access with great viewing and photographing opportunities. Two favorite places are Mattamuskeet and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges. Both provide extraordinary opportunities for birding, while at the same time offering superb scenery and other wildlife viewing.
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in Hyde County would make a good destination even if it didn't have a single bird. Its more than 50,000 acres consists of open water, marsh, timberlands, and crop fields, with the vast majority being Lake Mattamuskeet. At 18 miles long and 6 miles wide, it's the largest natural lake in North Carolina, and among the largest in the East. The lake averages only a little over two feet in depth and the lake bed is said to have soil that is among the richest soil in the world, a fact that has drawn interest from agricultural speculators since the late 1700s. There were many early attempts to drain the lake, the grandest of these efforts culminating in 1916 with the completion of the massive pumping station that still stands on the south side of the lake. When the lake bed was dry enough to cultivate, the crop yields were outstanding, but problems with constant flooding and financial issues stopped the drainage efforts.
The federal government acquired the property in 1934, creating Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Three years later the old pumping station reopened as a hunting lodge and for the next three decades, Mattamuskeet was in its glory days, with waterfowl arriving in staggering numbers: 100,000 Canada geese, 200,000 ducks, 4,000 swans. Since the early 1960s those numbers have decreased drastically (In 2002 there were less that 80,000 total waterfowl recorded at the refuge) and the old pumping-station-turned-hunting-lodge shut down in 1974, the same year the refuge was closed to hunting.
Although the heyday of waterfowl at Mattamuskeet is long gone, the visitor today is still rewarded with the spectacular sight of thousands of birds on the lake and surrounding marshes, as well as excellent opportunities for viewing other wildlife such as deer, nutria, turtles, raccoons, rabbits, and numerous reptiles and amphibians, including American alligators. The old lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and in recent years the local community has worked to convert the building for a wildlife research and educational center. Unfortunately, in 2000 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to close the building to the public until they acquire funds for structural repairs.
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A visit to the refuge should begin on N.C. 94 with a drive along the six-mile causeway that transects the lake. Numerous breaks in the vegetation provide good views of the lake and birdlife. The best view along the causeway is from the Charles Kuralt Trail. The trail is part of a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society. Each of eight national wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, along with a fish hatchery in Edenton, have designated a particular feature of their site as part of the commemorative trail system. This component at Lake Mattamuskeet has a boardwalk extending a short distance into the lake, with a viewing gazebo at the end. A small island of bald cypress trees sits in the lake in front of the overlook and you can often see bald eagles in the trees. In November you can always see waterfowl of some kind on the lake. This is a particularly good spot to photograph the sunrise and sunset, as well.
After exploring along the causeway, turn off N.C. 94 onto the refuge entrance road. The two-mile drive offers exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities, particularly in early morning and late evening. Near the end of the road, just before the old lodge, is the refuge headquarters, where you can pick up a map and ask questions. From here you can walk around and explore the lodge building. When viewing the lodge in a photograph, persons not familiar with the history of the lake often mistake the 120-foot smokestack for a lighthouse.
Numerous other sites within the refuge offer good birding and wildlife viewing opportunities depending on local conditions. It's best to inquire at the refuge office about the best places to go during your visit. One thing's for sure, though. If you visit during peak season-early November to mid-December-you're going to see something no matter where you go. After around mid-December the numbers of waterfowl begin to decline and by mid-winter there's not much to see. No boating is allowed on the lake from November 1 to March 1 and the refuge is open during daylight hours only.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is, for most people, just something you have to drive through to get from Nags Head to the Cape Hatteras area, but for birders the refuge presents perhaps the finest birding in the state. Various species of shorebirds are seen thought the year and during the peak autumn migration period (September and October), the refuge hosts impressive numbers of raptors, warblers, and numerous other birds. By November the waterfowl take center stage, with snow geese being a prominent species. In all, more than 360 bird species are listed for this small (5,834 acres) refuge.
A visit to Pea Island (an island in name only since New Inlet closed in the 1930s) begins with a drive over Oregon Inlet on the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge. As soon as you leave the bridge, you're on refuge property and subject to the refuge regulations that are posted at various sites. A few miles from the bridge is the refuge visitor center, which should be your first stop. The folks at the center have daily updates for bird sightings and can provide all the information you need for your visit. The center also sells an impressive selection of books and other nature-related items.
The finest birding opportunity on the refuge (and possibly the entire state) is along the dike trail that encircles North Pond-the shallow freshwater pond you drive by on N.C. 12 just before reaching the visitor center. There is a trailhead on each end of the pond, but most people start on the south end from the visitor center parking lot. This trail is Pea Island's component of the Charles Kuralt Trail system. It starts out over a small pond that is usually full of turtles and then follows along the south end of the pond to a couple of overlooks. During peak autumn migration and into November and December, these overlooks can keep a birder busy for hours. Most of the waterfowl begin arriving in late October and you can expect to snow geese, Canada geese, tundra swans, and numerous types of ducks, along with seemingly countless other species. This is the only place in the state where I have seen an American white pelican.
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As at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, you don't even have to get out of your car to have a great time watching birds at Pea Island. About two and a half miles of N.C. 12 run alongside North Pond and there's plenty of room to pull off the road for viewing. Just south of North Pond and the visitor center is New Field, which contains cultivated grain fields that attract large numbers of snow geese. The best way to see them is to just pull off the highway and stay in the car. The birds are often so close to the road that you don't even need binoculars for a good view.
One thing I particularly like about Pea Island is the fact that it's on the Outer Banks. From the visitor center parking lot you can cross the road and walk along a path through the dunes to the ocean. I like to start at sunrise on the seashore before walking along the North Pond dike. The strong side lighting on the pond from the low angle of the sun helps to define the birds and creates wonderful photographic opportunities.
Lake Mattamuskeet and Pea Island are only two of North Carolina's great November birding sites, but they are two of the best and most accessible. Whether you're a beginning bird watcher or a veteran, the scenic and birding opportunities of these refuges provide an unforgettable experience.
Wings Over Water
Want to take a coastal trip to watch and take photos of birds, enjoy the sights, learn about nature and ecology, and maybe do a little hiking or kayaking? Want to make that trip without the hassle of planning and making arrangements? Well, you're in luck. Just attend the annual Wings Over Water Festival on the northern Outer Banks in November. Through guided walks, kayak and canoe trips, lectures, and demonstrations, the festival offers something for everyone who enjoys the outdoors. Events take place all along the northern Outer Banks, and to inland sites such as Alligator River and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. For information, visit the Wings Over Water web site at www.northeast-nc.com/wings.