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Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve ...

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Carolina Footprints - Bob Decker

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve: A Hidden Jewel on the Crystal Coast

Bob Decker | E-Mail | Updated 05-09-2011

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve Banker Horse - Bob Decker

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve Banker Horse - Bob Decker


Beaufort, North Carolina is a quaint little historic seaside town full of restaurants and gift shops. A popular stop for "Snow Birds" traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway as the seasons change and by sun burnt tourists visiting the Crystal Coast, you wouldn't expect to find an ecological gold mine just a few hundred yards across a creek from this active, little town. But there is! The Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve is home to wild mustangs, foxes, raccoons, rabbits and entertains over 200 species of birds!

Established in 1985, the reserve consists of five small islands and several smaller shoals. Four of these islands, Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Bird Shoals and Horse Island, are nestled together just across from Beaufort along Taylor's Creek. This section, the main area of the reserve, is about three miles long and less than a mile across at its widest point. More isolated, the Middle Marshes lay across the North River channel and is also part of the reserve. Surrounded by water the only access to the reserve is via boat.

Nature Perspective

American Oystercatcher - Bob Decker

American Oystercatcher - Bob Decker

Greater Yellowlegs - Bob Decker

Greater Yellowlegs - Bob Decker

Estuaries, a transition area between river and ocean environments, are partly enclosed coastal areas with an open connection to the ocean and one or more rivers flowing into them. At Rachel Carson the Newport River flows in on the west end and the North River feeds in on the eastern tip of Carrot Island. Bogue Inlet feeds seawater from the Atlantic into Back Sound which borders the southern length of the reserve. The combination of an inflow of freshwater from the rivers and saltwater from the ocean results in high concentrations of nutrients in the waters and sediments found in these environments. This results in a highly productive natural habitat. The estuary serves as a nursery for many marine species as well as an important nesting area for a variety of coastal shore birds. It also provides a convenient rest stop and feeding area for migratory birds traveling the eastern flyway between their winter homes in Central and South America and breeding areas on the tundra.

In addition to being an important habitat for wildlife, the wetlands areas of estuaries serve other important duties. The waters coming down the rivers contain a variety of nutrients, sediments and contaminates. As the water flows through the salt marshes many of these sediments and pollutants are filtered out. This filtration results in cleaner, clearer water that benefits both man and nature. The plants and soils of the estuary also acts as a buffer between land and sea. By absorbing flood and storm surges valuable real estate and upland habitats are protected. The plant life of the marsh area also helps to stabilize the shoreline by preventing erosion.

Banker Horse - Bob Decker

Banker Horse - Bob Decker

The wild mustang population calling the reserve home draws a lot of interest from tourists and photographers alike. The herd is a remnant of livestock kept on the island by a local doctor in the 1940s. That herd was made up of Core Banks ponies, the famous "Banker Horses" left behind during pre-colonial exploration, and domestic breeds... mostly Quarter Horses. While closely related to the horses found on Shackleford Banks, Okracoke and Corolla, these animals tend to be a bit larger due to the influence of domestic bloodlines. They still maintain many of the distinct characteristics of the Banker Horses.

The marshes, shoals and islands of the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve make a wonderful area for photographic exploration. However, the estuary is a delicate environment. Foot access to Horse Island and the Middle Marshes is only allowed via special permit. There is a trail located on the western end of the reserve. This self-interpretive trail passes through most of the different types of environments found within the reserve. There is also a boardwalk that leads from the edge of Taylor's Creek to an observation platform overlooking a large lagoon. The boardwalk is located directly across from the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission boat ramp on Lennoxville Road. While foot traffic is allowed on other areas of the reserve it should be limited to avoid damage to the estuary's fragile ecology.

Photography Perspective

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve Kayaker - Bob Decker

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve Kayaker - photograph by Bob Decker

The best photographic opportunities are found by kayaking around and through the reserve. Shorebirds gather and feed on the numerous shoals and oyster beds providing a lot of wonderful photo opportunities. The shallow draft of the kayak places the photographer at nearly bird's eye level resulting in images with a unique perspective. Additionally, the wild mustangs frequently feed on the mudflats of the estuary, as well as along the banks of Taylor's Creek. Images of these horses living in this unique environment can be quite striking.

One doesn't expect to find a natural jewel like the Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve hidden in plain sight and so close to a bustling little community like Beaufort, North Carolina. With a few quick paddle strokes modern explorers can find themselves in a wild, natural and almost unexpected environment. The reserve offers a variety of opportunities to bird watchers, naturalists and nature photographers. It's just another reason that North Carolina's Crystal Coast is one of the best kept secrets in nature photography.

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Kayak - this is a marine reserve so the only way to get to there is via boat.

  • Camera - you'll want to record the pristine surroundings and wildlife.

Location and Points of Interest

Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve (Google interactive map)

left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions

Additional Information

http://www.nccoastalreserve.net/About-The-Reserve/Reserve-Sites/Rachel-Carson/58.aspx - The North Carolina Coastal Reserve (NCCR) & National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NCNERR).

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Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.

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