A Walk on the Quiet Side

by Aug 1, 2023Animals, Nature, South Brunswick

Take a walk on a beautiful, uninhabited barrier island with the Bird Island Reserve Stewards.

Abutting Sunset Beach’s opulent abodes and many peopled places lies an Eden lush in beauty and seclusion. Sandwiched majestically between the Atlantic Ocean and rambling maritime thickets and salt marsh, Bird Island is “a place for poets, painters, lovers and loners,” wrote the Raleigh News & Observer more than 30 years ago.

That’s when a band of Sunset Beach preservationists joined forces to save the place from planned development. They succeeded, with the State of North Carolina putting it under its wing as a dedicated nature preserve around the turn of this century. Today it continues to be a state-protected land for visitors to enjoy and study. It is kept pristine by a couple of dozen local volunteers, who lead educational nature walks on its beautiful grounds. They’re known as the Bird Island Stewards.

Stewards of Bird Island Brunswick County NC

The boundary between the Carolinas lies on the west end of Bird Island near the Little River jetty. Until 2001 the island had been privately owned many times. It remained virtually untouched for hundreds of years, except for a fish camp on the South Carolina side from the 1920s until 1954, when Hurricane Hazel wiped the entire island clean of mostly all things made by man and God.

Time and nature rebuilt the island, populating it with rich flora and fauna. When the owner, Janie Price, planned a 15-lot development in the 1990s, several Sunset Beach residents objected.

They included Bill Ducker, who became a co-founder of the protesting Bird Island Preservation Society (BIPS), and chairman of its steering committee.

Ducker still lives on Sunset Beach and says the neighbors back then put into place a plan to engage visitors in tours of the island and a related letter-writing campaign to federal and state agencies. Their goal was simple.

Nature Trail Bird Island NC

Bring public outcry to government officials and stop the owner’s plans. Their objection was based on ecological considerations. Resident Frank Nesmith (co-founder of the Kindred Spirit Mailbox and now deceased) volunteered to lead the tours, thus becoming the original Bird Island

“Being in the public limelight was not up his alley,” Ducker says, “but he loved the place so much he was willing to sacrifice his privacy.” By only the third tour, Ducker says Nesmith was leading as many as 85 visitors and gaining their support.

Today, Bird Island is formally known as the Bird Island Reserve and is a component of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve, overseen by a regional site manager.

The Bird Island Stewards is an offshoot of the BIPS and Nesmith’s efforts, says Katie Hovermale. She and her husband, Bruce, are the current co-coordinators of the organization. They organize the work of 26 stewards, who support the reserve manager, and provide the public with information about the island’s history, flora, fauna, birds, sea shells and the nearby Kindred Spirit Mailbox.

Ducker touts the Stewards as the most integral part of the preservation of Bird Island.

Bird Island Tour NC

The Bird Island Stewards lead tours at 8:30 am on Wednesdays in the summer. They will cover safety expectations before getting underway.  Then they will stop along four stops to share a bit about the history of Bird Island, visit a sea turtle hatchling nest (if there are any along route), discover the many species of seabirds (the namesake of the island) and talk about the flora, fauna and four eco-systems present there. Children particularly enjoy the display of shells that wash up on the beach, and the tour ends at the Kindred Spirit Mailbox in the dunes, about 1.5 miles west of the start.

“There are special activities for children along the way, and the children ask the best questions,” Hovermale says. “It’s particularly enjoyable to watch how wide their eyes get when spotting a turtle nesting site, or one of the beautiful birds which fly in strings and flocks and swoop down over their heads.”

For the physically fit, visitors can continue on their own to a 1.25-mile nature trail etched into the north side of the dunes or cross the state boundary into South Carolina on foot near the jetty at Little River Inlet.

On the day of this reporter’s tour, the wind picked up and it began to rain. We had a great time anyway, and I am grateful I learned a lot that I could share with you here. Many thanks to the Hovermales, Bill Ducker, Ed Gutknecht (ecology), Richard Layton (birds), Leslie Woodin (shells) and Ann Bokelman (history) for taking me on such a nice walk. Our “story tour” ends now with a thought from one of the original preservationists back in the 1990s. It was Sue Weddell who stated: “Progress is preserving something that can’t be created again.”

What a wonderful gift of progress to us all in the preservation of Bird Island, and the ongoing commitment of the Bird Island Stewards.

Bill Ducker Bird Island Brunswick NC

Bird Island had various names until an 1873 map became one of the first documents to refer to it that way. The island has many avian occupants, so that is why the name stuck.
Starting with royal land grants then real estate sales, private owners kept it before our nation even existed, from 1771 until 2001.
The North Carolina Bill of Rights declared it the state boundary with South Carolina in 1776.
During the Civil War, the Union Navy and Confederate blockade runners battled in its waters.
The war-sunk blockade runner Vespa under the Sunset Beach pier still deposits anthracite coal onto the strand now and then.
It is a haven for federally protected sea turtles, eagles, rare sea beach amaranth and the only reptile adapted to survive in fresh or salt waters – the diamondback terrapin.
Dennis F. Daniels, a research historian with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, worked for more than five months in 2002 on a comprehensive history of the island and the people who saved it.

Go to: https://www.deq.nc.gov/coastalmanagement/coastalreserve/sites/bird-island/bi-daniels-2002-historicalreport/download

How to visit
Bird Island Guided Tours
Summer Wednesdays, 8:30 am
40th Street Boardwalk, Sunset Beach
The Bird Island Stewards invite everyone interested and able to walk three sandy miles to meet them on the beach strand off the 40th Street boardwalk on Sunset Beach for a leisurely walking tour of Bird Island. Just show up by 8:30 am on any summer Wednesday, through the
Wednesday after Labor Day. No sign-up is required. Note that the tour may be canceled or shortened due to inclement weather.
For more details on Bird Island go to deq.nc.gov.