Staff photo by Sam Wilson
N.C. Coastal Reserve environmental educator Marie Davis discusses the importance of barrier islands to the estuarine ecosystem with two visitors on Masonboro Island for National Estuary Day.
Celebrating National Estuary Day, the N.C. Coastal Reserve held an educational outreach event on Masonboro Island, teaching visitors about the unique maritime habitats and how their actions both on-site and upstream can affect the island reserve’s ecosystem.
“The whole point is to get people out here and understand why estuaries are important, and to let them see what we’ve done out here,” Marie Davis, the reserve’s education coordinator said during the Sept. 26 event. “We really want people to get out here and enjoy the area, but they have to also understand that it’s not an amusement park. It is sort of a balancing act.”
For the event, Marie and several volunteers set up a tent at Masonboro’s Third Beach, offering educational materials, shells and other exhibits such as whelk shell casings, and pledges that visitors could sign, adding how they would work to protect the estuarine environment along the coast.
A self-guided walking tour provided snapshots of several different habitats on the island. Beginning with the tidal flats and salt marshes on the back side of the island, it wound toward the dunes, popping out onto the beach before circling back to the tent. Along the way, Davis placed an array of signs identifying some of the common vegetation in the island’s interior.
On the ocean side of the dunes, thick, hardy stalks of bitter panicgrass stifled the onshore wind, acting like anchors for the dunes, allowing sand to collect and providing a footing for other types of upper beach vegetation, such as sea oats. The sea oats’ thick root systems reinforce the dunes’ shape and structure, naturally mitigating the erosive forces of wind and surf.
Traveling away from the ocean, the flora were less adapted to the harsh conditions of the beach, including pennywort, wax myrtle thickets and blanket flower, the red and yellow flowers common to many area beaches.
Davis also pointed out a pair of edible plant species native to the area. Vines populated with tiny purple flowers bore thin, string bean-like pods, called beach peas, providing a healthy snack for island visitors. Closer to the sound, a tidal flat succulent called glasswort offered a salty crunch, which Davis said is often used in salads.
“This walking trail really covers a lot of different habitats, that’s one of the reasons I love taking people to this part of the island,” she said. “It provides a great cross-section of the different ecosystems here.”