Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins.
Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.
This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.
The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.
The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.
Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.
The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.
I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.
Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.
The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.
While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.