Habitat Types

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Currituck National Wildlife Refuge is a typical southeastern United States coastal barrier island system that has formed dunes, brackish marshes and forested swamps in the Coastal Plain region. There are five natural communities within the refuge boundary: dune grass, maritime dry grassland, maritime shrub, brackish marsh, and maritime forest. Other habitats have been altered or created by man. Vegetative communities on coastal barrier islands are spatially distributed in a pattern relative to the location of the ocean and sound. Local controlling factors, depth to water table, salt spray, substrate stability, water salinity, and tidal effects contribute to the vegetative pattern that exists on the Banks. Salt spray is one of the most critical of the coastal processes affecting vegetation on the barrier system. Besides limiting the plant species along the beachfront, the spray serves to “deliver” nutrients to those plants growing in the sandy soils of the beachfront. The “pruning effect” of the spray on maritime shrubs and trees acts to tighten the tree and shrub canopy and provide shade during periods of low rainfall and high evaporation, thus conserving the limited freshwater resources

Man has had a substantial effect on the flora. Historic records suggest that livestock severely overgrazed the barrier beach system in the 19th century, resulting in the mobilization of large sand sheets. Loggers culled the forested areas numerous times in the past. That culling undoubtedly changed the vegetative composition of the area. There are over 200 plant species on the refuge. Seabeach amaranth is the only plant species from the federal endangered species list known to occur on the refuge. The National Wetlands Inventory describes the wetlands on the refuge as estuarine emergent herbaceous or palustrine, forested wetland with deciduous or broad-leafed deciduous vegetation and a water regime ranging from temporarily flooded to semi-permanently flooded.

  • Beach

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    Unvegetated beaches occupy 202 of the refuge’s 8,501 acres and occur on the eastern edge of the refuge above the normal high water elevation. These areas would be important nesting areas for colonial nesting birds and sea turtles if there was authority to limit access to the beach below the normal high water elevation.

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  • Dune Grass

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    The dune grass and maritime dry grasslands communities occupy 137 of the refuge’s 8,501 acres and tend to occur in the eastern section of the refuge. The floral diversity and distribution on the North Carolina portions of the Currituck Banks are interesting and complex.

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  • Maritime Dry Grassland

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    The dune grass and maritime dry grassland communities occupy 137 of the refuge’s 8,501 acres and tend to occur in the eastern section of the refuge. The two basic types of maritime dry grasslands cover Currituck National Wildlife Refuge are barrier flat grasslands and interdunal depressions.

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  • Maritime Shrub

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    The maritime shrub community occupies 778 of the refuge’s 8,501 acres and tends to occur in the central part of the refuge between the dunes and the marshes. The maritime shrub occurs along the length of the refuge on areas that are naturally or artificially protected from oceanic influence.

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  • Brackish Marsh

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    The brackish marsh community occupies 2,202 of the refuge’s 8,501 acres and tends to occur on the poorly drained peat soils in the western section of the refuge. Biologically, the marshes serve as important nesting and migrating grounds for numerous animal species at all trophic levels.

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  • Maritime Forest

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    The maritime forest community occupies 637 of the 8,501 acres and tends to occur in the central part of the refuge between the dunes and marshes. The maritime forest of the refuge is generally located on the back dunes of the barrier beach system in areas not directly influenced by storm-tide flooding and migrating dune systems.

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  • Managed Wetlands

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    The refuge has 143 acres of impoundments that are managed to provide seed-producing herbaceous vegetation for migrating waterfowl. The staff manages the water levels in the areas and discs the vegetation to maintain early successional stage vegetation that produces seed with the highest food value to waterfowl. The staff monitors the vegetation sporadically to assess the effectiveness of management. The major species present in the managed wetlands include: baldrush, buttonweed, bermudagrass, crabgrass, three square bulrush, panicgrass, knotgrass, and foxtail.