Long before folks were coming to the Outer Banks to sunburn along the windswept white sandy beaches of these barrier islands, they came for the birds. Well, they came for the waterfowl that is – ducks, geese, and swans. Upon the close of the Civil War, so many union soldiers trekked back into the Northeast with tales of the natural bounty that was to be found along the sound counties of eastern North Carolina. Fish that would practically leap into your boat, deer and bears that grew fat from eating all year-long without having to hibernate, and waterfowl that blackened out the sky as they migrated to the region. These were the stories that would garnish the attention of sportsmen the world over.
There is a really good reason why eastern North Carolina has long been famous for its waterfowl populations. From the Great Lakes, the Hudson Bay, all the way out to Nova Scotia, the migration routes of waterfowl and other migratory birds swing south across the continent only to converge like so many strands of rope overtop of eastern Carolina. This is the Atlantic Flyway, and this is the sort of virtual super highway used by countless birds in their fall migrations. And why congregate overtop of eastern Carolina? Food. It’s what migration is all about.
One of the unique characteristics of North Carolina’s sounds are their shallow depths. For the Curituck, the average depth is only around 4 feet. What this means then, is that sunlight can penetrate the water all the way down to the sand, mud, or loam at the bottom. For this reason, what is known as submergant aquatic vegetation proliferates – much to the dismay of many a boater who has been forced to unfoul a prop while still on the water.
This submergant aquatic vegetation or SAV for short is comprised of everything from the native wigeon grass to the non native Eurasian millfoil. Regardless of the name or origin, the waterfowl love it and come by the millions each fall to exploit it. Therefore, beginning sometime around November, as food begins to grow scarce further north, the swans arrive.
This year has been pretty slow so far. The north has not been hit too hard with many major cold fronts and freezes and due to the enormous amount of rain experienced all across the East, suitable habitat and food sources abound without making it all the way to the Curituck Sound and points beyond. Hopefully though, the cold front that numbed my fingers and chilled my bones this weekend will be the change we’ve been waiting for. As the winds picked up and the mercury plummeted, the waterfowl began to arrive.
These photos were taken from Knotts Island on Saturday morning as I watched wave after wave of these swans come filtering in out of the northern horizon. Once the first swans gathered in the waterfowl impoundments at the Mackey Island National Wildlife Refuge, the population began to grow exponentially. As the old saying goes, nothing attracts a crowd quite like a crowd. Which I might add, is one theory as to why so many large birds like this are indeed white – so that other flocks are easier to find from the sky.