Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary and Center at Pine Island
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 Pine Island on the northern Outer Banks two years ago, the organization became the steward of one of the last remnants of the storied Currituck Sound landscape. The 2,600-acre Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary and Center at Pine Island 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 that now comprise more than 2,600 acres of marshes and uplands within a 5,000-acre area of the Currituck Sound.
Named for Audubon’s legendary board chair Donal C. O’Brien, Jr., the sanctuary protects marshes along Currituck Sound, bottomland areas, and dry sandy areas and upland maritime forests. Audubon is working closely with community leaders 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. This Important Bird Area (IBA) is comprised of an extensive system of marshes, creeks, channels, and open water, as well as the Pine Island Sanctuary. The region has experienced rapid residential and commercial development in the past decade but historically it was a wild, roadless 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 Pine Island 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 shot 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 1970s 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. Pine Island’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 7 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 staff must factor 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. Pine Island has the potential to become a center for discussing and modeling appropriate responses to climate change. Guided by center director Mark Buckler, staff and stakeholders have identified some key themes during their first year of discussions about Pine Island:
• Pine Island is envisioned as a sanctuary for people as well as wildlife that will offer visitors immersive experiences and educational opportunities.
• The extensive marshlands support secretive birdlife and other wildlife that has yet to be fully documented. Much of the initial work at the site will involve conducting research and natural resource inventories.
• The sanctuary’s facilities will allow this one-time private preserve to become a place that Universities and other institutions can use as a living laboratory for students and faculty.
• With its great diversity of native flora and fauna, the site will evolve into a natural attraction for the area, giving residents and visitors alike a vital connection to the nature of North Carolina, while creating economic benefits for the region.
• Pine Island 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.
Under the guidance of Center Director Mark Buckler, Audubon North Carolina has made great progress at Pine Island, including contracting Frank Harmon Architect PA to develop a master plan for the Sanctuary. Based in Raleigh, this award-winning green architecture firm’s project list includes Walnut Creek Urban Wetlands Park Environmental Education Center and Prairie Ridge Eco-Station. The Pine Island master plan, still under development, promises to model best practices in building and landscape design, construction, and management that are not simply sustainable but environmentally restorative. The plan will include renovations to existing buildings (including the historic lodge) and site improvements that will provide educational opportunities and increased public access to the site.
Chandler Sawyer, the Habitat and Resource Manager at Pine Island, is developing the overall conservation plan for all species that inhabit the sanctuary. An eighth generation native of Currituck County, Chandler has a wealth of natural resource knowledge. Most recently he worked as a Fisheries Technician for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and as an Educator at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. Chandler has a sincere passion for the preservation of local history and the conservation of our local natural resources and is an avid waterfowl hunter and renowned decoy carver in the Currituck tradition.
Among his many responsibilities, Chandler manages waterfowl impoundments on the upland portion of Pine Island that have been prepared to provide resting and feeding areas for wintering ducks. Hundreds of ducks (mostly Green winged Teal, Northern Pintail and Mallards) are already utilizing these important refuge areas. Although these impoundments have been operating for decades to benefit waterfowl, this spring they will also be managed for migrating shorebirds. This past May, hundreds of shorebirds were making use of these areas.
Although science and conservation will always be of primary importance at Pine Island, we will always try to incorporate education into our research efforts and offer educational programs to the public. We have already offered programming on a limited basis, but the spring of 2011 will bring the start of more regular programming. Natural history and birding programs will be offered to the general public and more immersive workshops in the area of nature photography will also be initiated. We will keep you updated on Pine Island news and events in future newsletters and on our website at www.ncaudubon.org.
Audubon North Carolina wants to acknowledge the generosity of those people who have directly contributed to Pine Island and allowed us to make progress with our conservation and planning efforts.
Equipment wish list:
To make a donation, contact Mark Buckler at email@example.com or 252.453.0603.
Tractor and implements
Small skiff/john boat
Mud motor for boat
Spotting scope and tripod