Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part I

Chapter 7. Mattamuskeet: A National Wildlife Refuge

[1947]

IN 1946 Rachel Carson submitted a plan to her Fish and Wildlife superiors for a twelve-part series highlighting the national wildlife refuge system. These Conservation in Action booklets would serve not only as guides to individual refuges, but also as a forum for public education in ecology. The series gave Carson as editor an opportunity to design a model for Service publications.

To do the necessary research, Carson planned visits to the selected refuges – Chincoteague, Parker River, Mattamuskeet, Bear River, Red Rocks Lake, and National Bison Refuge – beginning in 1946. This project afforded her the first and most extensive travel opportunity she would ever have, and it was the only time in her life she worked as a professional without the encumbrance of family.

Carson chose to feature in the series three waterfowl refuges on the Atlantic flyway. The southernmost was Mattamuskeet off Pamlico Sound in eastern North Carolina, notable for protecting the endangered whistling swan, which she visited with her friend and colleague artist Kay Howe in February 1947.

One morning Carson rose before dawn to walk out along the canal hoping to see the swans before they rose for the day’s foraging. Geese flew off over her head “so close,” she wrote in her notebook, “that I could hear the sound of their wings.” Her sensory impressions of the waterfowl of Mattamuskeet, along with her acute observations of behavior and habitat, found their way into the text of this number four in the Conservation in Action series, an ecological classic among government wildlife publications.

image [ … ] MATTAMUSKEET – the rhythmic softness of the Indian name recalls the days when tribes of the Algonquin roamed the flat plains of the coast and hunted game in deep forests of cypress and pine. The Indians are gone, leaving few traces upon the land they once knew. Much of the forest as the Indians knew it is gone, too, but even today some of the wildest country of the Atlantic coast is to be found in this easternmost part of the Carolina mainland – the area bounded by Albemarle Sound on the north and Pamlico Sound on the east and south. Here, in this coastal region, are dense woods of pine, cypress, and gum; here are wide, silent spaces where the wind blows over seas of marsh grass and the only living things are the birds and the small, unseen inhabitants of the marshes.

The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge includes about 50,000 acres of land and water in this Carolina coastal country, in the county of Hyde. The dominant geographic feature of the refuge is Lake Mattamuskeet – a shallow, sluggish body of water more than 15 miles long, 5 or 6 miles across, and some 30,000 acres in extent. Being little more than 3 feet deep anywhere, the lake is stirred deeply by the winds and its waters are usually muddy. Silt-filled waters support little plant life, and so the best feeding grounds for the waterfowl are not in the open lake but in its surrounding marshes. Cypress trees form most of the northern border of the lake, but its eastern and southern shores pass into low swamplands.

Try to learn the origins of this vast inland lake and at once you stumble upon a collection of local legends in which it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Of all the stories of the genesis of Mattamuskeet, local opinion divides its support between two. According to one story, the Indians long ago set fires in the peat bogs, fires that burned so long and deeply that a huge, saucer-like depression was formed. This caught the rains and the drainage water, creating a lake.

The other story has it that a shower of giant meteors once struck the Carolina coastal plain, the impact of the largest ones digging out the beds of Lake Mattamuskeet and the smaller, but otherwise similar, Lakes Alligator, Pungo, and Phelps that lie northwest of Mattamuskeet. [ … ]

Whistling swans are the most spectacular birds to be seen at Mattamuskeet. With their wing spread of 6 to 7 feet, they are the largest of all North American waterfowl except the related trumpeter swan, which is now reduced to less than 400 birds in the United States.

The whistling swans arrive at Mattamuskeet sometime in November, remain several months, and usually in February begin their northern migration. When they leave Mattamuskeet, they have a trip of 2,500 to 3,500 miles before them, for most of them breed north of the Arctic Circle. The species winters on the Atlantic coast, principally between Maryland and North Carolina, and also on the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to southern California.

A large flock of swans is noisy and their voices are a typical winter sound on the refuge. The mingled chorus of swan voices is something like the sound of geese, although somewhat softer. The name “whistling swan” is given because of a single high note sometimes uttered – a sound that suggests a woodwind instrument in its quality. The trumpeter has a deeper, more resonant voice because of an anatomical peculiarity – the windpipe has an extra loop. Trumpeters are never found on the Atlantic coast, however.

After a long history of persecution by man, all wild swans now enjoy complete protection in the United States, Alaska, and Canada. As though sensing this security, the swans at Mattamuskeet show very little fear of people and allow themselves to be approached much more closely than the geese. Five to ten thousand swans usually winter here, feeding in shallow water areas about the southern and eastern shores of the lake. It is possible to see a flock of 500 swans at one time, magnificent in their gleaming white plumage. Sometimes the swans feed or rest in family groups in which the young birds or cygnets may be identified by their grey color.

For the Canada geese of the Atlantic coast, Mattamuskeet is one of the chief wintering places, with a population of about 40 to 60 thousand of these handsome birds from November to the middle of March.

Magnificent though the swans are, the person who visits Mattamuskeet in midwinter is likely to come away with impressions of geese uppermost in his mind. Throughout much of the day, their wings pattern the sky above you. Underlying all the other sounds of the refuge is their wild music, rising at times to a great, tumultuous crescendo, and dying away again to a throbbing undercurrent.

Guided by the voices of the birds, you walk out along the banks of one of the canals about sunrise. A steady babble of goose voices tells you of a great concentration of the birds on the lake, probably off the end of the canal. At intervals the sound swells as though a sudden excitement had passed through the flock, and at each such increase in the sound a little party of birds takes off from the main flock and moves away to some favored feeding ground. As you stand quietly in the thickets along the canal, they pass so close overhead that you can hear their wings cutting the air, and see their plumage tinged with golden brown by the early morning sun.

The Mattamuskeet country is so famous for its geese that hunters come from great distances, and rent shooting blinds from farmers of the region or in the managed hunting areas operated on the refuge. In the 1946–47 season, the total kill of geese within these managed areas was 868. Large numbers are shot also in the surrounding countryside, but exact figures are not available.

A large majority – probably three-fourths – of the Mattamuskeet geese breed along the eastern shores of Hudson Bay, smaller numbers in the Maritime Provinces.

The ducks that winter at Mattamuskeet are largely the marsh or dabbling ducks – the shallow-water feeders. Pintails are the commonest of these, and it is a beautiful sight to see 10,000 or more of these graceful ducks wheeling above the marshes. Small flocks of wigeons appear in spring along the lake road. Black ducks, green-winged teal, mallards and blue-winged teal spend the winter here in varying numbers, from a few hundred to a few thousand.

Most of the ducks found in winter from Delaware Bay south nest in the prairie provinces of Canada or in the flat country of the Dakotas and Minnesota. All of this country is subject to periodic droughts; then many ponds and marshes dry up, few ducks nest successfully, and few ducklings survive to join the fall flights south.

The bird clubs of North Carolina and surrounding States have made frequent visits to Mattamuskeet ever since the refuge was established. So many birds may be seen in the thickets or along the canals within a few hundred feet of the lodge that it is unnecessary for older members or others unable for strenuous exercise to go far afield. More than one person confined to a wheel chair, who had believed his days of field ornithology behind him, has been brought to Mattamuskeet for a satisfying and refreshing experience.

To gain the best vantage points for observing swans, geese, or ducks, it is worthwhile to hike out along the remnants of the former canals that here and there extend in long, densely overgrown peninsulas into the lake. Sometimes this will bring into view thousands of geese resting on the water. Concentrations of swans on feeding grounds along the south shore of the lake can sometimes be spotted from the highway, and can then be approached on foot within good binocular or camera range. All cultivated fields of the area should be watched for large flocks of geese.

The bird life of Mattamuskeet includes about 200 different species, with water birds and water-loving land birds predominating – less variety than is found in a more diversified country. Bird clubs visiting Mattamuskeet therefore may not compile a long list but see extremely large numbers of certain species, occasionally record a rarity, and have excellent opportunities for close observation of bird behavior.

Waterfowl are, of course, the chief winter attraction. Of these, swans, Canada geese, and the surface-feeding ducks find ideal conditions at Mattamuskeet. Diving ducks tend to go to the Swanquarter area. Marsh birds like herons are common: the great blue stays throughout the year, the American bittern is here in winter, the least bittern, green and little blue herons, and American egret are summer residents. Shorebirds, loons, and grebes find little suitable country for their habits and occur only in limited numbers.

The brown-headed nuthatch is a permanent resident, probably nesting on the islands of the lake or about the borders of the canals. In winter the wax myrtles are alive with myrtle warblers. Carolina wrens, chickadees, white-throated, fox, swamp, and song sparrows fill the winter thickets. Other winter residents or transients include the hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, pipit, horned lark, and cedar waxwing. The mockingbird is common throughout the year.

The most abundant of the summer warblers at Mattamuskeet is the prothonotary, with the prairie warbler also a common bird. Vireos, both white-eyed and red-eyed, are common in summer, as are wood thrushes and orchard orioles.

Observers of birds at Mattamuskeet over the years have marked up a number of unusual species, such as the white pelican, blue goose, white-fronted goose, Hutchins goose, black tern (a fall transient), European wigeon, black rail, and – as interesting stragglers from the west – the avocet and Arkansas kingbird.

What does the Mattamuskeet refuge do for the waterfowl that could not be done in the same area of wild country without management? This is a fair question, and its answer gives one of the chief reasons for establishing wildlife refuges in selected localities over the country.

The answer is this: by cultivating or managing the marshlands by scientifically tested principles, the land within the refuge is made many times as productive of natural foods as outside areas not under management.

Underlying and determining the character of the management activities are the great recurrent rhythms of nature. Moving over the marshlands as over a stage, the passing seasons bring the cyclic sweep of two great series of events, one in the animal world, the other in the world of plants. The two cycles are directly related. In the spring the marshes that have been brown and desolate come alive with fresh green shoots of plants like the sedges, bulrushes, and salt grass. Spring yields to summer, the hot sun is over the land, the plants grow, flower, mature their seeds. By the time autumn begins to paint the leaves of the gums and the swamp maples, the marshes are loaded with food – the roots, seeds, and shoots of the plants that waterfowl eat.

Now the fall migrations of the birds – the sweep of the other, the animal cycle – fill the marshlands with ducks, swans, and geese come down from the north. Here in the marshes they find the food they must have if they are to survive the winter.

By late winter or early spring the food supplies are exhausted. But once more the urge to migrate is stirring among the waterfowl, and soon the marshes are left empty. In the stillness and heat of summer the recuperative powers of nature set to work to build up new food supplies.

To get the largest possible production of waterfowl foods out of the marshes at Mattamuskeet, the manager operates the refuge with certain aims in mind. Among the most important, he must keep down the brush that is forever moving into the marshes. Geese, swans, and ducks feed in marshes but not in thickets, so every foot invaded by the fast-growing brush is a corresponding loss of waterfowl pasture. Today at Mattamuskeet you can see hundreds of acres of productive marsh which have been won back from the thickets by burning, disking, and cutting.

Control of the water level is another method used by the refuge manager to increase the production of food plants. In the spring he lowers the water by manipulating the gates in the canals that lead from the lake to Pamlico Sound, about 8 miles distant. This lays bare extensive areas where 3-edge, 4-square, and other food plants can grow. In the fall the gates are closed, and the marsh areas flooded to serve the food plants in the way the birds prefer – under a few inches of water.

By late January or early February, most of the natural marsh food has been eaten. The thousands of birds that remain must have food to fuel their bodies on the long spring migration. This is a season of busy activity on the refuge. Crews of men move out into the marshes, starting fires in the marsh grass. Keeping the fires carefully under control, many hundreds of acres are burned. Less than a week later, new green shoots are coming up all over the marsh. Within ten days the geese have moved in to harvest this new food supply.

By thus coordinating the management of the refuge with the natural cycles of plant and animal life, the Fish and Wildlife Service has developed Mattamuskeet to the point where it now supports much larger flocks of waterfowl than came to this region in former years.

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