Wildlife & Habitat

American oystercatcher - Keith Ramos.

The refuge is not open to the public. Due to fragile habitats and safety concerns associated with its former use as a bombing range, public access is prohibited.

  • Northern Diamondback Terrapin

    Diamondback terrapin - Ryan Hagerty.

    Frequenting the tranquil waters, marsh, and shoreline of the refuge is the Northern Diamondback Terrapin. The reptile’s skin is olive colored with black specs and its shell is decorated with numerous angular rings. This distinctive shell pattern was the reason the terrapin was given the “diamondback” name. The terrapin spends much of its time in the waters hunting for food (small shellfish, worms, and plants), but also comes ashore particularly to lay eggs. The base of sand dunes provide ideal habitat for depositing a clutch of eggs, which ensures this prehistoric creature has the chance to survive for future generations.

  • Seaside Sparrow

    Dusky seaside sparrow - PW Sykes.

    This six-inch, dark, olive-grey sparrow, as its name suggests, prefers coastal marsh habitat. The relatively non-descript bird can best be identified by a small yellow patch before the eye. With the help of its large feet (comparable to other sparrows) the Seaside Sparrow is able to forage effectively in the mud of the salt marsh. Joining hundreds of other bird species that use the refuge (including a diverse group of waterfowl and waterbirds), this sparrow is a neo-tropical migrate, which means it returns each year during warmer months. The bird has been identified as a Bird of Conservation Concern due to unsustainable coastal development and limited undisturbed habitat.

  • Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle

    Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle

    During the spring and summer the tiny Northeastern Beach Tiger Beetle actively searches for food along the tranquil intertidal zone and upper beaches of Plum Tree Island NWR. The Federally Threatened beetle depends on undisturbed beach habitat for survival. The historic range of the invertebrate extended from the Chesapeake Bay to Massachusetts. However, over the centuries beaches have been increasingly developed and now few offer the serenity the beetle requires to survive as larvae, and then in adulthood to forage and breed. Plum Tree Island NWR serves as one of the southern-most locations within the beetles range, thus making it an important species for evaluating possible climate change impacts.

  • Tidal Salt Marsh

    Tidal Salt Marsh

    The dominate habitat type on the refuge is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world….the salt marsh. The sediment of these marshes annually produce an amazing 4-10 tons of organic matter per acre. The refuge has over 2000 acres of saltmarsh that supports a huge plant and animal community in a complex food web cycle. The prevalent plant species, Salt grass, plays an instrumental role in the cycle. As leaves die in the fall they decompose, allowing microscopic organisms to attach and help to further breakdown the plant material. Worms, fishes, shrimp, and crabs then feed on this material. Birds, mammals, and reptiles continue the web by feeding on the bottom feeders. All remnants of the decomposing plant material becomes fertilizer for the next growing season.

  • Shoreline (Dunes, Intertidal Zone, and Mudflats)


    Characterized as a dynamic, ever-changing habitat, coastal shorelines support a number of distinct zones in a relatively narrow band. Three zones are described in this band- dunes, intertidal zone, and mudflats. The dunes are elevated several feet above high tide but serve as some of the highest peaks of the refuge. These sporadically vegetated sand mounds protect the salt marsh from strong water currents and waves. The intertidal zone gets inundated with water twice a day. The mudflats are obscured by shallow water at some times and fully exposed at others. The intertidal zone and mudflats support large numbers of invertebrates, thus making these areas highly attractive to foraging shorebirds.

  • Interior Dunes (Remnant Maritime Forest)

    Interior Dunes

    This habitat type is an ancient remnant of much larger tracts of forest that once existed up and down the Atlantic coast hundreds of years ago. The remaining small linear patches of forest are situated on slightly elevated ground and support a community of varying-sized woody vegetation. Only the hardiest of plants can survive in this unforgiving environment- subject to high winds, heavy salt concentrations, fluctuating water heights, and temperatures. Loblolly pine, eastern red cedar, and wax myrtle are typical species able to withstand this location. Birds and other creatures converge on this “oasis” as it helps provide cover to an otherwise unbuffered, low-laying marsh.