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)
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)
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).