Monday, November 10, 2008

ROADTRIP: Near the Mouth of the Cape Fear River (Brunswick & New Hanover Counties, NC)

Overview: On November 8, 2008, my husband and I were able to take a fascinating boat tour of the magnificent mouth of the Cape Fear River. The tour originated on Oak Island in Brunswick County, North Carolina and ended miles upstream in Carolina Beach, New Hanover County, North Carolina. This tour was offered at the North Carolina Environmental Education Conference and led by naturalist Andy Wood, education director of Audubon North Carolina.

Directions: The tour described here started at Fort Caswell on Oak Island. Fort Caswell is located on the expansive grounds of the North Carolina Baptist Assembly (map; call ahead (910) 278-9501‎ to schedule a tour of the old ruins of Fort Caswell). To arrive at Oak Island from the Triangle, take I-40 east nearly 140 miles to US-17 S. Continue on US-17 S for approximately 10 miles until merging onto NC-133 S. Follow NC-133 S onto Oak Island until is ends, continue on Country Club Road until reaching Fort Caswell. Need a place to stay? Try the historic (c. 1859) Brunswick Inn located in Southport, NC.

History, Ecology and Personal Observations: Our journey began at Fort Caswell (Oak Island, NC), a historic North Carolina fort, constructed between 1826 and 1836, which saw action during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Fort Caswell was captured by Confederate forces in 1861 and only abandoned after the fall of nearby Fort Fisher (across the Cape Fear River) to the Union on January 15, 1865. On January 17, 1865, the Confederate Army ignited their magazines and exploded over 10,000 pounds of gun powder, which resulted in the loss of an entire wall of the fort. The fort was in use intermittantly by the U.S. army or Navy until just after World War II.

Fort Caswell, Oak Island NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Mark W. Cagle)
Fort Caswell, Oak Island NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Mark W. Cagle)
Fort Caswell overlooks the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Here, one is greeted by gorgeous butterflies (e.g., fritillaries and sulphurs), low-flying brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) and even bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). We were lucky to see a pod of three bottlenose dolphins swimming and surfacing near the fishing pier at Fort Caswell, presumably feeding on their favorite foods: small fish from mullet (Mugilidae), mackerel and tuna (Scombridae) and drum and croaker (Sciaenidae) families.

View of Cape Fear River & bottlenose dolphins, Oak Island NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

After delighting in the sight of dolphins, we boarded our catamaran and began to explore the Cape Fear River with Audobon naturalist Andy Wood, who described the fascinating history and ecology of the Cape Fear River. Until the 1790s, the Cape Fear River (previously known as the Clarendon River) was a shallow (between 6 and 12 feet deep), fresh water river surrounded by bottomland hardwood forest and hardwood swamps, containing bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and the nutmeg hickory (Carya myristiciformis), the rarest species in its genus. Currently, the Cape Fear River is dredged to a depth of roughly 50 feet, which allows for more saltwater influx from the Atlantic Ocean. This saltwater incursion has signicantly altered the ecosystems within and around the river, and was largely responsible for the end of the regional rice industry in the ealry 1800s.

Despite the major ecological changes in the area, the North Carolina Audobon Society has been able to preserve a number of islands and sand bars that serve as important breeding areas for coastal bird species. Battery Island (pictured below) supports North Carolina's largest colony of wading birds, including 10% (or nearly 15,000 breeding pairs) of all American white ibises (Eudocimus albus). The island also supports 23o pairs of great egrets (Ardea alba), 250 pairs of tricolored herons (Egretta tricolor), 215 pairs of little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), 40 pairs of black crowned night herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) and over 60 pairs of additional wading birds.

Battery Island in the Cape Fear River, Brunswick County, NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Battery Island in the Cape Fear River, Brunswick County, NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Another North Carolina Audubon site, South Pelican Island, serves as an important breeding area for brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) (760 pairs), royal terns (Thalasseus maximus) (1100 pairs), sandwich terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis) (530 pairs) and laughing gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) (2200 pairs).

Pelican Island in the Cape Fear River, Brunswick County, NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)
As we continued up the Cape Fear River, it was impossible not to be disconcerted by all of the obvious ecological and historical changes that had occurred in the region: fresh water has been replaced by salt water; hardwood swamps have been replaced by Sunny Point, the largest munitions port in the entire world; and Confederate blockade runners have been replaced by deluxe yachts and commercial vessels. Fortunately, some sections of this important North Carolina river have been preserved. One such place is Carolina Beach State Park, the subject of my next entry.

Coquina rock formation near Carolina Beach State Park along the Cape Fear River, New Hanover County, NC, Nov. 8, 2008 (© Nicolette L. Cagle)


RoadDog said...

Enjoyed the trip and pictures. I'm particularly fond of this area including Fort Fisher and Carolina Beach.

I'm the opposite of you, being born in NC and living there until I was ten, then moving to Illinois, where I've been since.

Hope you stopped for Paul's Hot Dogs in Castle Hayne. A treat since the 1920s.

John Dancy-Jones said...

Another great post with wonderful history, links and observations. Like roaddog I'm from NC and have great memories of visiting Fort Cswell as a church kid and roaming the ruins and the watersides, which range from river to open ocean. This is where I learned to treasure Gaillardia, which I still do, though I've learned it is a naturalized introduced species.