Rachel Carson Reserve - An Overview

A synopsis of Rachel Carson Reserve information, transcribed/compiled/updated by Mary Warshaw from The North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. For the complete 33-page document, see PDF

LOCATION
The Rachel Carson component of the NCNERR is located in the central part of North Carolina's coast. It is located near the mouth of the Newport River in southern Carteret County, directly across Taylor's Creek from the historic town of Beaufort. Rachel Carson is bounded on the north by Taylor's Creek and Beaufort, to the east by Back Sound, to the south by the Cape Lookout National Seashore, and the west by Piver's and Radio Islands. The reserve is located in the White Oak River Basin and on a broader scale in the Carolinian biogeographical province. Acquisition of the area was completed in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The site is accessible only by boat. The 2625-acre site consists of several small islands--Carrot, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marshes--and extensive salt marshes and intertidial/subtital flats.

HISTORY

COREE: Prior to colonization of North Carolina, the Carrot Island-Middle Marshes area may have seen intermittent use by the Coree tribe of Native Americans. The Coree are thought to have spent considerable time on the nearby Outer Banks especially in the vicinity of Cape Lookout.

EARLY SETTLERS not only fished but used the waters in and near the Rachel Carson site for shipping lumber, naval stores and farm commodities.

WAR: In 1782 a Revolutionary War skirmish near the mouth of Taylor's Creek involved townsmen and a small British-landing party. Following an initial exchange of fire, the British moved about one-half mile eastward and landed on Carrot Island, spending the night there. At sunrise the British crossed Taylor's Creek to the mainland, overcame the troops and swept into Beaufort to begin a short-lived occupation.
With Fort Macon so close by, during the Civil War there was significant activity in the area before, during and after the siege of the fort when Union forces took control of the fort and Beaufort inlet.

FISHERIES: As early as 1806 it was reported that mullet were being caught by a fishery on Carrot Island, then dressed, salted and taken to Beaufort to be sold. Other fisheries also developed in the region including menhaden, oysters, clams, flounder and sea turtles. The first menhaden processing plant in the state was established on Harker's Island in 1865. The first factory in Beaufort was built in 1881.

DREDGING CREATED ISLANDS: In 1854 Town Marsh was three-eighths of a mile long. By 1885 Town Marsh had more than doubled in length and its northern shoreline moved even closer to the Beaufort waterfront. The growth of Town Marsh had made the Taylor's Creek channel almost unusable. In 1893 the citizens of Beaufort asked the federal government to build a breakwater on Town Marsh to protect the channel along the town's waterfront. The request was denied, but in the early 1900s the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began dredging the mouth of Taylor's Creek, using Carrot Island as a dredge material deposition area. Before the dredging Carrot Island was essentially all tidal marsh with some elevated hammock land. By the 1930s the island had been built up by the dredge material deposition to the point that they provided protection for the town from high winds, flooding and storm waves. The Corps of Engineers continued to utilize the islands as deposition sites for local dredging projects and maintain rights for this purpose even today. 

FERAL HORSES: Dr. Fulcher, a Beaufort resident, placed horses on the islands during the 1940s. Livestock was also taken over to the islands to graze. With the resident's passing, the horses remained and became feral, reverting from domestication back to the wild. The horses became the property of the state when the land was purchased in the 1980s. There are currently 33 horses on the reserve - 14 males and 19 females. (updated 3/19/2014) .


Since these horses are not part of the natural biota for the islands, their presence has caused problems and interference with the native communities of the reserve. The main food supply of the feral horse is Smooth Cordgrass--Spartina alternaflora. Studies have shown feral horse populations may adversely affect biomass, percent cover, height, density and surface cover of Spartina and more importantly decrease seed production. Thus, horse activity decreases the marshes' ability to provide wave dampening; fish habitat and erosion protection; and may eventually lead to marsh loss. The action of the horses' hooves can also hasten erosion of island sediment and can cause damage to colonial bird and sea turtle nests.
       Despite the harsh conditions the horses have thrived on the reserve. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the population exceeded capacity. This led to massive malnutrition and several deaths. The horses are considered a cultural resource; management action was required using a birth control program. This coupled with natural mortality helped the population get near the target number of 40 horses.
       The reserve's staff from the Beaufort office 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.


STORMS: The Rachel Carson area is especially susceptible to tropical storm and hurricanes due to the geography of the region--jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean in an east-west orientation. Since 1960 all northward moving storms have passed within 65 nautical miles of the area. Most recently, storms causing heavy damage and flooding include: Hurricanes Bertha and Fran in 1996, Bonnie in 1998, Floyd in 1999, Isabel in 2003 and Ophelia in 2005. 

HABITATS:
  • Estuarine Intertidal Persistent Wetland (40% of total habitat)> commonly known as salt marsh, dominated by Smooth Cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora.)
  • Estuarine Intertidal Sand (30% of total habitat) represented in the large tidal flats, but intertidal sand also found around the perimeter of Carrot Island.
  • Upland Supratidal Grassland (90 acres representing 8% of habitat) found on the interior portions of Carrot Island contains barrier island grass species such as Salt Meadow Hay and Sea Oats.
  • Upland Supratidal Scrub-Shrub Broad Leaf Evergreen located mostly on the interior portions of Carrot Island. Species found are a mix of Yaupon, Wax Myrtle, Laurel Oak, Live Oak and Eastern Red Cedar.
  • Comprising 2-4% of the total habitat (25-40 acres): Estuarine Supratidal Sand, Estuarine Supratidal Scrub-Shrub Broad Leaf Deciduous contain mostly Sea Oxeye and Glasswort; Upland Supratidal Sand with 30% vegetative cover and Estuarine Supratidal Persistant Wetland, inhabits a variety of grass species.
  • Covering less than 3 acres (less than 1% of the habit) are Upland Supratidal Scrub-Shrub Needle Leaf Evergreen dominated by Eastern Red Cedar; Upland Forested Broad Leaf Evergreen dominated by Live Oak and Upland Supratidal Scrub-Shrub Broad Leaf Deciduous containing a mix of Marsh Elder and Grounsel Tree.
  • Two habits each include less than 0.05% of the total: Upland Forested Mixed (containing a mix of pines and oaks) and Estuarine Intertidal Reef Mollusc consists of live oysters and oyster shells.
PLANTS: The plant communities within the Rachel Carson are consistent with those of other barrier and marsh island found in this part of the country. The Natural Heritage Program has recognized several plant species found within the Rachel Carson as threatened or significantly rare. The reserve is an important haven for these plants because it provides an area protected from development. Large beds of marine seagrass are also found at the reserve. Those documented: Eelgrass (left), Shoalgrass and Wigeon Grass. These species provide habitat, food and refuge; produce oxygen; absorb nutrients and reduce erosion by wave activity. 

ANIMALS: Animal presence is high compared to other coastal areas of comparable size due to the diversity of habitats--which offer foraging habitats for birds, mammals and crustaceans. The estuarine waters and subtital habitats surrounding Carrot Island and Middle Marsh are important nursery grounds for many fish species. The reserve also provides valuable habitat for mollusks, invertebrates and insects.
Crustaceans inhabit the intertidal and supratidal areas. Included are: Ghost Crab, Fiddler Crab, Mole Crab, Beach Flea, Sand Shrimp, Horseshoe Crab, Blue Crab and other crab and shrimp species. Research by a NCNERR Graduate Research Fellow showed that the reserve is an important stopover for migrating female Blue Crab.
       The soft substrates within the reserve provide habitat for 47 species of invertebrates including Eastern Oyster, several species of clams, Atlantic Bay Scallop, Ribbed Mussel, many gastropods and a wide variety of benthic species. Four invertebrates found with the boundaries of the reserve: Channeled Whelk, Knobbed Whelk, Lightening Whelk and the Parchment Tubeworm.
        Several studies regarding oysters and scallops have been conducted in the reserve. Scallop numbers have been declining; studies have found that the area is starved for larvae recruitment. It is also believed the population is suffering from heavy predation by sting rays. 

FISHES: The waters around Rachel Carson serve as a nursery and habitat for many commercially important fisheries. Over 50 species of fish have been documented. Red Drum, Speckled Trout, Snapper, Grouper, Spot, Menhaden, Striped Mullet, Bluefish, and Spanish Mackerel. Many species of sharks and rays are also found.

REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS: Most reptile and amphibian sightings occur in the upland habitats and include several species of lizards, snakes, frogs and toads. The Eastern Box Turtle is the most frequently observed terrestrial turtle on the reserve. The Loggerhead Sea Turtle may be found on or around the reserve. Also present are the Green Sea Turtle, Atlantic Kemps Ridley and the Carolina Diamondback Terrapin. On rare occasions the ocean side boundary of the reserve is used by these marine turtles for nesting. 

BIRDS: Over 200 species of birds have been documented on the Rachel Carson Reserve. This site is within the primary fall migration route for many species. The reserve is commonly utilized by: Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Glossy Ibis, Gull-billed Tern and Black Skimmer. Seasonal nesting by: gulls, terns and skimmers on the dunes of Bird Shoal, while herons and egrets have a rookery within the Middle Marshes shrub thicket. Federally threatened Piping Plovers and Wilson's Plovers have been observed feeding within the reserve. Two species of Raptor have been observed on the reserve--the Osprey and the Red-tailed Hawk.

MAMMALS: Mammals found within the reserve include Raccoon, Gray Foxes, Marsh Rabbits and Feral Horses. In January 2007, the feral horse population was 42 individuals. Marine mammals are found in the waters; Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin is the most common. Occasionally a stray West Indian Manatee will visit, although sightings are rare.

PUBLIC USE: The Rachel Carson Reserve is open to the public for enjoyment. Fishing, boating, sailing kyaking, shellfishing and shelling are all common activities on and around the site. Town Marsh, Carrot Island and Bird Shoal receive the most use because of their easy access by boat.
       The island of Town Marsh has a marked self-guided trail. However, areas of the reserve are heavily utilized as a destination by individuals with private boats. These activities lead to a substantial litter problem; clean sweeps are conducted at least twice annually by reserve staff and volunteers. Unleashed dogs are also a constant problem on the reserve; dogs tend to chase colonial nesting birds disrupting feeding, breeding and nesting.
         Marsh communities, like those of Horse Island and Middle Marsh, are quite vulnerable to effects of use and should be avoided. Small groups may use selected areas on a limited basic for collecting and interpretive purposes if permission is received from the NCNERR. Special habitat areas, such as the horses' watering holes and the shorebirds nesting sites are off limits to visitors.

RESEARCH FACILITIES: The North Carolina Coastal Reserve (NCCR) and National Estuarine Research Reserve System--NCNERR--is a network of ten protected sites established for long-term research, education and stewardship. The NCNERR office in Beaufort is located on Piver's Island. Necessary research and monitoring by the NCNERR provides the knowledge needed to maintain the Rachel Carson Reserve not only to preserve the habitats as a whole but to have the reserve there for future generations to enjoy the vistas and waters surrounding it.