Pintails in front of Historic Pine Island Lodge
Coratank is the Indian word from which our Currituck - sound, county, courthouse - was long ago derived. "Where the wild geese fly," it meant, and so prodigiously did they once fly here that even hunters going after the decimated remnant flocks of the 1960s believed they were seeing all the birds in God's creation. Precious few now living can recall the geese and ducks flying so thick and voluminous over Currituck that they darkened the sky, but there are still a few of the old clubhouses and hunters' halls about the sound: Pine Island, Swan Island, Whalehead and modest Monkey Island.
-- Bland Simpson, Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian's Coastal Plain
When Audubon North Carolina assumed full management of a nearly 3,000-acre parcel of pristine marsh, uplands, dunes and maritime forest in Corolla, NC, we became the stewards of one of the last remnants of the storied Currituck Sound landscape. Audubon now protects a mosaic of marsh, sound and forest in a region that was famed for waterfowl hunting and bass fishing, and is now a popular vacation destination. The first Audubon Center in North Carolina came to fruition when the National Audubon Society, through the generosity of Mr. Earl Slick and his family, received ownership of parcels of land on the Northern Outer Banks, nearly 30 years ago. The family continued to use the Pine Island hunt club on the property and maintained the property until Audubon took full management a few years ago.
Named for Audubon's late board chair and legendary conservationist Donal C. O'Brien, Jr., the sanctuary protects marshes along Currituck Sound, bottomland areas, dry sandy areas and upland maritime forests. Audubon has worked closely with community leaders since 2010 to develop a vision for this sanctuary and educational center that will offer visitors an array of environmental experiences, from exploring the vast expanse of Currituck Sound to studying the smaller wonders of nature.
The story of the landscape
Currituck Sound is a shallow, brackish water system located between the Outer Banks and the mainland in the northeastern region of North Carolina. ThisImportant Bird Area (IBA) is comprised of an extensive system of marshes, creeks, channels and open water, as well as the Donal C. O’Brien Sanctuary and Audubon Center. The region has experienced rapid residential and commercial development in the past decade but historically it was a wild, road-less area.
Currituck Sound's abundant waterfowl and appeal as a remote getaway attracted wealthy businessmen seeking hunting opportunities in the nineteenth century.
"They bought up vast tracts on the Outer Banks and the marshy islands of the sound," writes Thomas Schoenbaum in Islands, Capes, and Sounds. "Sumptuous clubhouses and lodges were built on these tracts," including a rambling two-story hunting lodge built at the Sanctuary in 1913.
Local residents worked in the hunt clubs as guides and caretakers. According to Schoenbaum, "in this heyday of market hunting, 'battery-boxes' equipped with huge 'punt guns' blanketed the air with shots, and brought down a whole flock of birds with a single burst, until the practice was outlawed in 1918."
Although hunting diminished the huge concentrations of waterfowl, in the 1970's the Sound still supported an estimated 300,000 waterfowl. Today, numbers have declined considerably, but the Sound is home to a few thousand ducks, geese and swans annually, including Snow Goose, Tundra Swan,American Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup and Northern Pintail. The sanctuary’s shrub thickets and forests provide good habitat for migrant songbirds, and the marshes support rails, bitterns and wading birds. The sanctuary harbors 170 bird species, as well as seven amphibian species, 17 reptile species, 19 mammal species and more than 350 species of plants.
In developing a conservation management plan for the sanctuary, Audubon science staff factored in the area's changing natural dynamics. Water quality is an issue of concern for all of Currituck Sound. Declines in submerged aquatic vegetation, and subsequent declines in waterfowl and fisheries have been attributed to increased salinity, turbidity and non-point source pollution. Increased development and recreational activity on Currituck Sound contributes to the disturbance of birds. Additionally, sea-level rise is projected to impact this part of the state more than almost any other location along the Atlantic Seaboard. This Audubon property will become a center for discussing and modeling appropriate responses to climate change.
The Audubon Sanctuary promises to be a conservation hub for Audubon North Carolina and the region. Northeastern North Carolina is home to one of the largest concentrations of IBAs in North Carolina. Nearby Cape Hatteras National Seashore is among the highest priority conservation sites for Audubon, and several national wildlife refuges are located within a three-hour drive of the sanctuary, including Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes, Alligator River, Pea Island, Mackay Island, Currituck Banks and Great Dismal Swamp.
Audubon North Carolina’s Conservation Plan for the Sanctuary and surrounding Currituck Sound includes the following:
Our Target Bird Species for protection include the Black Rail, Clapper Rail, Seaside Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, American Black Duck, Western sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sanderling, Least Tern, Common Tern, Black Skimmer, Wood Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Tundra Swan, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, White Ibis, Least Bittern, King Rail and Chuck-wills Widow.
Under the guidance of Center Director Robbie Fearn, Audubon North Carolina has made great progress at the Sanctuary, including contracting Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects to develop a site plan for the historic building renovations.