The barrier islands north of Cape Lookout are part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which extends from Ocracoke Village northward to Nags Head. Within the Seashore, visitors will find a variety of ecosystems and the most extensive range of animal species on the coast. The combination of the cold arctic waters north of Cape Hatteras and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream in the south makes for a diverse ecosystem.
At Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on northern Hatteras Island, birdwatchers are treated to a spectacular array of over 300 species of migrating birds. Platforms and dike trails dot the refuge, offering prime viewing of raptors, owls, snow geese, herons, and many rare birds. At the Bodie Island Lighthouse just north of Oregon Inlet, nature trails meander through a diverse maritime environment, from sound to the open beach.
Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head is the site of the tallest and most active sand dune on the east coast. The bare dune, shrub thickets, and surrounding woods are rich wildlife habitats, home to fox, deer, rabbits, and many species of birds. A few miles north, Nags Head Woods is a stark contrast to the wind-whipped dunes of Jockey's Ride. Here, visitors will find a spectacular assemblage of maritime forests, relict sand dunes, freshwater ponds, pine-covered hammocks, and a great variety of animal life. This treasured Nature Preserve is a must-see for any environmentally concerned individuals.
Currituck Banks is a twenty-two mile stretch of some of the most diverse, protected habitats for migratory waterfowl in the country. Many hunt clubs were built here in the late 19th century to take advantage of the abundance of geese, ducks, and swans. The banks are famous for the large concentration of winter snow geese and tundra swans. Nearby Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in Currituck Sound has had wintering populations of 50,000 snow geese and 4,000 tundra swans.
Wildlife lovers will also find plenty of viewing opportunities inland from the barrier islands. Nearly 25 National Wildlife Refuges, Game Lands, and State Parks have been designated in the coastal plain areas, featuring pine forests, cypress bogs, and freshwater rivers, lakes, and sounds.
The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia border features 25,000 acres of one of the largest protected areas of swamp wilderness in the United States. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in mainland Dare and Hyde Counties is one of the last untouched coastal wilderness areas in the country. Thanks to a reintroduction program, the Refuge is home once again to the red wolf, a species that was nearly extinct ten years ago.
Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is another popular wintering place for Canadian geese and ducks. Native legend has it that the lake, which is the largest in the state, was created when a great fire burned a crater in the earth, which later filled with water. Nearby Pettigrew State Park and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge are also prime wildlife viewing locations, especially by canoe.
Along the Pamlico River, Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge and Goose Creek State Park are examples of untouched wetland environments. The marshes and sandy bottomlands are easily explored by boat and foot, which are home to alligator, deer, ducks, and birds of many species.
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