National Wildlife Refuge System is a designation given to a protected area that is part of the system of public lands and waters set aside and managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. These lands set out to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants. North Carolina is home to a number of state parks, scenic drives, and national parks but there are four National Wildlife Refuges that I truly love for their wildlife.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the government agency dedicated to the conservation, protection, and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats through their management of our National Wildlife Refuges. The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 outlined the fundamental wildlife conservation mission of the Refuge System, described as ‘wildlife first’. Because of this mission, the wildlife refuges we have in the United States are one of the best places in the country to go birdwatching and see wildlife in their native habitats.
North Carolina Wildlife Refuges
Across the state of North Carolina, there are State Parks, National Parks, and National Wildlife Refuges where the fauna and flora of the state really shine. I’ve always loved spending time outdoors. When I was a little girl, my grandfather would always take me to our public lands. I spent my summers camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and my weekends exploring state parks. That love for wildlife and nature followed me into adulthood.
Tim and I spend as much time outdoors as we can. Whether we are hiking or camping, we’ve set out to see as many of our public lands as possible. Here are my favorite National Wildlife Refuges in North Carolina for wildlife viewing.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has great paddling trails, a wonderful wildlife drive, two wildlife trails, and plenty of wildlife and habitat for you to learn about! The refuge has some pretty special residents and was established to:
- Protect and preserve unique wetland habitat types and associated wildlife species.
- Provide habitat and protection for endangered species such as red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and American alligators.
- Provide habitat for black bears.
- Provide habitat and management for waterfowl and other migratory birds.
- Provide for a wide variety of native wildlife species through diverse wildlife management techniques and strategies.
- Provide wildlife-dependent public opportunities including hunting; fishing; wildlife interpretation; observation; photography; and environmental education
At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, everything is closely connected. Each habitat type throughout the refuge supports different species, though some like black bears and red wolves range over the refuges entirety. On the other hand, some species can be incredibly selective of where they reside so if you’re planning to visit Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge try to see as much of it as you can!
- 145 species of birds
- 48 species of fish
- 48 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the American Alligator
- 40 species of mammals
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is incredibly biodiverse. Marsh birds spend their time in the brackish marshes of the refuge while neotropical migratory songbirds breed in the forest during the spring before migrating to the West Indies as well as Central and South America for winter.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge provides a habitat for over 250 species of birds making it a must for anyone who enjoys birdwatching. The refuge’s location along the Atlantic Flyway contributes to the number of waterfowl, wading birds, migratory songbirds, and shorebirds you can find in the refuge.
Raptors like hawks and owls hunt some of the more open areas of the refuge searching for their prey. And ospreys and bald eagle nest can be seen in the tops of trees that have been killed by lightning. Their nests are often close to open water so they can fish and stay close to their nests. Sometimes Barred Owls can be seen during the day too.
One of the birds I was excited to hear about was the Blue Grosbeak. We had a house on a street named after the bird and when I heard that they can be found at the refuge immediately wanted to learn as much as I could about them! But one of the most stunning birds to see in the refuge is the Prothonotary Warbler. These “golden swamp warblers” arrive at the refuge to build their nests in April and leave on their journey south by early Septemeber. They are commonly seen in the forested areas of the refuge, often in the low shrubs near the canals.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge isn’t just a haven for birds. It was the site for the reintroduction of the red wolf in 1987. Today, the wolves are thriving on the refuge even though they are one of the most endangered species in the world! About 40 red wolves roam their native habitats throughout North Carolina.
It is also home to black bears. The Refuge is considered to be one of the largest concentrations of black bear found in the southeastern United States. Many times, females give birth to twins or triplets which isn’t the norm for black bears!
People often ask about alligators in the refuge. While American Alligators can be found in the refuge, it is believed that the Alligator River, after which the refuge is named, was given its name for its shape not the presence of gators. As our climate has changed and gators moved further north, they have found their way into the refuge which shares their name.
Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Ansonville, North Carolina has a really unique history that all started in 1934. Lockhard Gaddy, a local farmer and goose hunter, retired from hunting and decided to turn his private pond into a goose refuge. That year, as if they knew they were onto something with big potential, nine wild Canadian geese wintered on Gaddy’s pond. Each year, the flock of wintering wild Canadian geese grew. And by 1954, there were well over 10,000 James Bay Canada geese calling the pond their winter home. What we know today as Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge was called “Gaddy’s Wild Goose Refuge” back in the day.
What became a popular destination under Gaddy’s name was established as Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in 1963 as a migratory bird sanctuary. Pee Dee shows the importance of National Wildlife Refuges and how their missions in conservation can change.
Originally the refuge had a mission to protect geese and waterfowl. Today, the refuge is an 8,500-acre area filled with more than just geese. The refuge is home to over 180 varieties of birds that call the refuge’s distinct habitats home. From bottomland hardwood forests to pine forests and from mixed pine-hardwood forests to open waters, these diverse habitats offer migratory birds somewhere to stop along their journey. The refuge is still important for waterfowl, each year, over 10,000 ducks and geese winter at the refuge, but the area has also become a safe have for other types of birds.
The refuge strives, as all National Wildlife Refuges’ do, to manage lands in a way that benefits the wildlife. The efforts at Pee Dee have created an environment where 200 different migratory bird species can find a habitat that supports them. These habitats have attracted rare and endangered species like the bald eagle and the robust redhorse sucker. And even endangered wood storks have been known to pass through on occasion to rest during their migration. It is no surprise that Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge attracts bird watchers from all around the country.
Bird Watching at Pee Dee
Yellow-throated Warblers can be seen in both pine and hardwood forests, generally on the lower limbs and branches of trees. These cuties with bright yellow throat patches can be seen in spring and summer. If you’re near the woodland edges and farm fields, you can see Indigo Buntings from mid-April until fall. The brightly colored blue males will be easily visible as they sing perched on branches.
Belted Kingfishers will be near water and hunting. You can see them hover in the air until they drop straight down with the hopes of catching something to eat. You might hear their loud chattering noise before you see their feathery crest on the top of their heads. In the transition zone between the older forest and open fields, you’ll spot red-headed woodpeckers. And in the spring and summer, keep an eye out for ruby-throated hummingbirds among the thistle in the refuge.
Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge
Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge has a mission to protect and conserve migratory birds as well as other wildlife resources through the protection of wetlands.
During the spring as flora starts to bloom, you’ll see a lot of neotropical songbirds returning from their migration to the West Indies and Central and South America. The birds will breed and nest in the forested wetlands while black-eyed Susan and other wildflowers color the refuge. And mother bears will emerge from their den with their cubs and search for food in the forest. In the summer, songbird chicks are fledged. Turtles can be seen sunning themselves on the banks. And great blue herons, bald eagles, and ospreys are plentiful. The weather is lovely this time of year so you’ll see anglers fishing in the creeks and along the Roanoke River.
For fall, the refuge’s color changes as red maple leaves turn red and water tupelo leaves turn yellow. Bears in the refuge take advantage of the fruits and seeds throughout the refuge to start fattening up. And ducks start to arrive during these months to rest or overwinter in the refuge. December through February is a great time to see thousands of green-winged teal, mallards, and hooded mergansers can be found in the flooded swamps of the refuge. Great blue herons stick around the colder weather and white-tailed deer mosy around. During this time, you might also see a black bear or two scavengings for acorns.
Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
The Algonkians, the inhabitants who lived in the area before European’s came, called this area “Coratank” which means “The Land of the Wild Goose.” As settlers came and established towns and the population grew over the years, the region became known as a sportsmen’s paradise. The abundance of fish and game led to the land being used for lavish hunting clubs before becoming Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.
The primary purposes of the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge are to preserve, protect and maintain healthy and viable populations of migratory birds, wildlife, fish and plants, including federal and state endangered species and trust species. The refuge supports this mission by using land management techniques that restore, enhance and maintain the natural processes and diversity of its varying habitats.
The most famous attractions of the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge are the wild horses! The horses can be seen throughout the parcels of the refuge. But the Corolla Wild Horses aren’t the only wildlife that calls the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge home. In fact, you’ll find a wide range of reptiles, fish, plant life, and mammals throughout the refuge.
Bird watchers visit the refuge right after sunrise, or just before sunset for the opportunity to photograph shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors. Another bird watcher favorite is the Monkey Island tract. This area is a noted bird rookery that allows visitors to view diverse vegetation. The vegetation which includes beach grasses, live oak, loblolly pine, wax myrtle, sedges, cattails, and rushes creates an ideal nesting habitat for several species of wading birds.
If you like getting out on the trails like Tim and I do, you can walk through the interior of the barrier island and see the dune structure, dune vegetation, as well as the maritime forest.
Winter at the refuge is an exciting time. Thousands of waterfowl make Currituck their winter home. If you visit during this time you can see green-winged teal, mallards, American widgeon, black ducks, pintails, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, and tundra swans along the refuge’s waterways. And it isn’t uncommon to see bald eagles, barred owls, great blue herons, or American egrets during this time of year.
In spring, wildflowers begin to bloom and the refuge’s trees start to sprout leaves. Indian blanket color the refugee as shorebirds begin to replace wintering waterfowl. During the summer, you can find sea turtle nests along the refuge’s beaches. And freshwater turtles can be seen enjoying the sun on logs in the pond along the North Pond Trail. And when fall starts to come around, the wintering ducks and geese make their way back to the refuge.
Visiting National Wildlife Refuges
National Wildlife Refuges are filled with so much amazing wildlife! They offer so many opportunities for you to get to know the land through ranger-led programs. If you have little ones, they are a great way to explore nature, spend some time outdoors, and learn about the wildlife that calls the refuge home.