Habitat Types


 Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is situated on a typical southeastern United States barrier island system with ocean beach, dune, brackish ponds, and marsh communities dissected by tidal creeks containing submerged aquatic vegetation. The refuge’s plant communities have been affected by human development activities over time. Some of these activities occurred before the Service established the refuge and some have occurred since. The most notable products of those activities today are artificial dunes, North Carolina Highway 12, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, and three impoundments. Although natural dunes occur, the Civilian Conservation Corps first constructed some oceanfront dunes in the 1930s and, since then, agencies have vegetated and maintained them for various reasons. The primary reason for dune maintenance on the refuge today is protection of North Carolina Highway 12.   

Although a sand trail pre-dated the refuge, the state did not pave what is now North Carolina Highway 12 until the 1950s, and the state has relocated much of it westward since its initial construction. The Service constructed three man-made impoundments in the late 1950s and 1960s to enhance habitat quality for migratory waterfowl. The plant communities today reflect succession since the late 1930s, with some areas being subjected to ocean overwash, agricultural practices in the refuge’s early years, and prescribed fire. More recently, prescribed fire has substantially altered plant communities and successional stages on most of the refuge.

  • Brackish Marsh

    Brackish Marsh by Cindy Heffley

    The brackish marsh community occurs along the margins of sounds and estuaries in areas not subjected to regular flooding by salt water. Often referred to as “high marsh,” this community is subjected to irregular flooding mostly from wind tides along the Outer Banks.


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  • Dune Grass Community

    Beach Dune by Cindy Heffley

    The Dune Grass Community occurs immediately landward of the Upper Beach community and is subject to exposure to salt spray and abrasive, wind-blown sand. These communities are excessively drained due to the nature of the substrate and are subject to frequent shifting unless stabilized through artificial means. 

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  • Exposed Overwash Flats Community

    Exposed Overwash Flats by Bob Glennon

    The exposed overwash flat community is located on marine flats, not otherwise considered part of the current beach. These flats are direct results of overwash during storm events. These flats are the unvegetated, sandy areas adjacent to beaches and inlets that can have high shell content.


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  • Managed Wetlands

    Managed Wetland by Cindy Heffley

    The managed wetlands are manmade impoundments with borrow canals around the perimeter that may include open water, moist soil, exposed sand/mud flats, and emergent vegetation with varying amounts and management regimes. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has three impoundments: 390-acre North Pond, 192-acre New Field Pond, and 208-acre South Pond.


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  • Maritime Dry Grassland

    Maritime Dry Grassland by Bob Glennon

    The Maritime Dry Grassland Community occurs on low, stable dunes and sand ridges. It also occurs in overwash terraces behind or between dunes in areas subject to inundation by the ocean or partial burial due to wind-blown sand.


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  • Maritime Shrub Community

    Maritime Shrub by Cindy Heffley

    The Maritime Shrub community occurs in a wide range of conditions from excessively to poorly drained soils in areas protected from salt spray and flooding by salt water. These conditions may occur on stabilized sand ridges, in dune swales, and on sand flats.


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  • Ocean Beach Community

    Ocean Beach by Bob Glennon

    The Ocean Beach Community is the unvgetated beach and can be divided into the lower beach below the mean high water level and the upper beach above mean high water level. The lower beach is the exposed portion of the beach between the mean high tide and mean low tide lines.


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  • Salt Flat Community


    The salt flat community occurs in estuarine areas subjected to irregular flooding by salt water. It occurs in shallow depressions wherein evaporation of the high salinity ocean water concentrates salt. Sparse cover and low diversity characterize its plant density and species composition.


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  • Salt Marsh

    Salt Marsh by Cindy Heffley

    The Salt Marsh community occurs on the margins of sounds, estuaries, and other coastal waters. Salt marsh occurs on the landward side of barrier island systems in areas under tidal influence.


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