Balancing Act

Posted by on June 8, 2016 in OUTDOOR | Comments Off on Balancing Act

Balancing Act

Audubon Pine Island Sanctuary is working to restore marshes in Currituck Sound, preserve diverse habitat for wildlife and welcome visitors to the Outer Banks as it used to be.

By Marimar McNaughton


Robbie Fearn leaves no carbon footprint on his daily commute to work.


  • “I’m fortunate that I live on the site,” says the director of the Audubon Pine Island Sanctuary, formally known as Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center.


  • Good thing: The less impact people can have, especially on this fragile ecosystem, the better. North of Duck and south of Corolla, the site is 2,600 acres of prime waterfowl habitat on the eastern shore of Currituck Sound.


  • Fearn and the sanctuary’s habitat manager, Chandler Sawyer, survey the property first thing every morning. Over time, they have witnessed the effects of climate change on the landscape.


  • In fact, National Audubon Society scientists have deemed it such a vulnerable marsh landscape that the society is working to develop management practices that will help both the sanctuary and its birds in the face of marsh loss. The Pine Island sanctuary is one of three Audubon sites — including the Chesapeake Bay and the Louisiana Gulf Coast — already targeted for marsh restoration studies, with three more coming soon.


  • “The Currituck Sound is known as a sediment-starved system,” Fearn says. “You don’t have big rivers dumping a lot of sediment into the system, so our marshes can’t keep up on their own. Our goal is to ensure the habitat persists. Otherwise, all the waterfowl and all the seafood benefits of the sound will disappear.”


  • According to statistics from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Currituck Sound loses 72 acres of marsh per year. Help may lie in a method used to aid conservation of other imperiled islands: a process of suctioning muck from the sound bottom and spraying that muck on top of the area under restoration.


“You can do about 2 inches of mud on the island and the grasses will continue to grow,” Fearn says. “Basically you are raising the height of the island and helping it keep up with sea level rise.”


Audubon has convened an Alliance for Currituck Sound to pilot these techniques in the freshwater marshes of the sound and to share the method and its tools with local farmers and other property owners as well as other conservation groups that may visit Pine Island to watch.


When they come for more than a day, researchers stay in the sanctuary’s 103-year-old lodge, a former hunting club. Its common spaces — living, dining and game rooms — have been repurposed as classrooms, meeting rooms and offices for Fearn and Sawyer.


Upstairs, the bedrooms house visiting scholars, like research team from the Center for Conservation Biology that spent two months at the sanctuary in 2015 as a base for studying the population of a tiny, wren-sized bird called the black rail. Jointly funded by the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, the study, led by biologist Michael Wilson, found the species in serious decline. With only a four- to five-year life span to begin with, the bird is losing its ability to successfully reproduce due to loss of habitat from development, sea level rise, and predators that target their nests.


  • “The black rail is a symbol of an ecosystem that’s collapsing,” Wilson says. “One of the reasons it’s collapsing is because of sea-level rise.”
  • We have many reasons to care that an estuarine system is being threatened, Wilson says — not just the loss of real estate, for example, but also the economic loss of anadromous fish that live in the ocean and come into the sound to breed.


  • The black rail nests in the ecotone, a transitional area of vegetation between two different plant communities. At Pine Island its habitat is found in the fringe between the upland and the low marsh, a fringe that’s characterized by salt grass species like salt meadow hay or cordgrass. Both host small insects and arthropods, as well as marsh grass seeds, on which the bird feeds. The black rail maintains a low profile by day and may be detected only by call and response at night. That’s when Wilson’s researchers troll the shoreline by boat.

“Wherever you are in Pine Island you are immersed in nature,” Fearn says, “and the beauty of that is, really, you are where the Outer Banks used to be. You’re really experiencing the wind and the sun and the salt as it has been for millennia. Even indoors you get a pretty good experience — the coyote, the deer and the bobcat are playing on the lawn and the otter in the pond, the mergansers we can see from our desks.”

Some days, laptop in hand, Fearn sets up his office on a front porch bench. Gazing out across the grounds and the sound, he tackles the hard questions: What does the Currituck Sound need and how is that achieved? How do stakeholders work together so the sound not only continues to work for wildlife but also continues to work for the community that surrounds it? His challenge is managing an environment that has a wide variety of players and ensuring the management plan is executed wisely.


He also is helping plan improvements to the site that will ensure the property’s historic integrity, develop spaces for better visitor experiences and model a design for coastal communities adapting to sea level rise.


In the coming years, the historic lodge, a pair of caretakers’ quarters and other outbuildings will see extensive renovation, along with new construction on the grounds that occupy about 60 tamed acres. Audubon North Carolina is conducting the fundraising to support the construction. Chip Hemingway, of Bowman Murray Hemingway in Wilmington, is the project architect; he also designed public spaces likes Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head and the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.


  • “It’s a hugely important site for preserving waterfowl and a hugely important site for preserving the history of the region,” Fearn says. “Proceeding thoughtfully over a number of years is the way to go.”

Visit the Donal C. O’Brien Jr. Sanctuary and Audubon Center at Pine Island

300 Audubon Drive, Corolla
(919) 929-3899 or
Open dawn to dusk

“The thing I appreciate most about entering the Audubon Pine Island Sanctuary is the feeling I get of stepping back in time,” says Joe O’Grady, whose company Coastal Kayak has been leading tours in the area for 20 years. “I can visualize what it must have been like to visit and stay at this exclusive hunt club in the early 1900s. This protected marsh is arguably the most elaborate and pristine of the entire Outer Banks. It is a very special place, and many visitors and locals drive past without knowing what they are missing.”

  • You can experience the sanctuary on land, via water or by attending an educational program.

Walking trail

  • A 3-mile trail meanders through maritime forest and offers overlooks across the sound. The north end of the trail is at Pine Island Racquet and Fitness Club, and the south end is at the Currituck/Dare County line near the Sanderling Resort. The trail was enhanced this year with benches and interpretive signage. Expect to see wading birds, terns and osprey. Note the red bay shrub swamp, one of only three identified such habitats on the planet.


  • Kayak and stand-up paddleboard
  • Once you have arranged a tour, drive through the sanctuary’s main entrance and follow the signs to parking. You can enter the old hunt club if you’d like, and then it is a short walk to the water and marsh trails to explore by kayak or stand-up paddle board.


Coastal Kayak offers guided two-hour paddleboard tours or 2 1/2-hour kayak tours during the coolest times of day in summer, early morning and early evening. Paddlers can expect to see marsh wrens, American and least bitterns, egrets, great blue herons, Virginia and clapper rails, and bald eagles in spring and fall. Information about ecology and environmental stewardship is offered, along with a brief history of the sanctuary. Reservations are required. Go to for information.


Onsite educational programs

A variety of classes are offered. Among them: Instructors from the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island will host a native plant class for adults in June. Kelly Adams of East Carolina University’s Art Department will hold a nature art journaling/teacher training course this summer. A nature photography course is planned for fall.


Nature-themed, family-friendly programs will be offered throughout the summer.