Bald Head Island is a barrier island, and quite simply put, that means it is in a constant state of change. Barrier islands move, thanks to winter storms that take sand away and gentle summer waves that bring sand back up on the beach. However, it won’t always put the sand back where it took it. Some areas of the island erode while other areas experience accretion. This is a completely natural process that has occurred over thousands of years and will continue to occur, as that is how Mother Nature works. There is also the occasional hurricane, which can throw everything up in the air and completely change the way a barrier island looks in a matter of hours. Inlets close or open, dunes are flattened and personal property built too close to the ocean may be forever lost to the sea.
The beach and dunes play the important role of protecting the backside of the island. The bigger the dunes, the safer the rest of the island will be. On Bald Head Island, this means the maritime forest, freshwater lagoons, salt marsh, and hundreds of homes. Once those dunes are gone, they take years to replace, putting the island at risk during the next storm. Dunes are formed by the interaction of three things: wind, sand and plants. The wind whips the sand along the beach, and the grasses act as a stopping mechanism. When the sand hits the grass, the grains drop to the ground, building up over time to form a dune.
When visiting the beach, be sure not to walk on the dunes, as this can trample the grasses that hold it all together.
On a barrier island, the maritime forest is found behind the primary and secondary dune line. Many barrier islands are so narrow that they do not have a maritime forest; however, Bald Head Island has one of the best tracts of maritime forest in the state. Maritime forests are not an easy place for plants to become established. The soil is sandy, the air is filled with salt spray, and there isn’t much light below the canopy. The dominant plant species of the maritime forest are salt-tolerant trees such as live and laurel oaks, which in turn provide a canopy for smaller trees, shrubs and vines which can not tolerate high levels of salt. This thick undergrowth provides an exceptional habitat for a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
Here on Bald Head, you can find several freshwater lagoons, many of which run through the golf course on the island. These are important habitats for fish, turtles, alligators and several species of birds. The Wildlife Overlook, located on Stede Bonnet Wynd, is a great place to catch a glimpse of island wildlife. Please be aware that alligators are present in these lagoons and under no circumstances should any wildlife, especially alligators, be fed or harassed. Please respect the wildlife and enjoy their beauty from a safe distance.
The salt marsh is a place of great importance and absolute beauty. Marshes are comprised of three key factors: grass, mud and water. Grasses provide food and nutrients to the critters, while holding the marsh together. The mud contains microscopic anaerobic bacteria that do a fine job of breaking down all the dead and rotten “stuff” that finds its way into the marsh. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the marsh smells like rotten eggs? This sulfur smell is produced by those bacteria that are acting as decomposers. The third key factor of the salt marsh is the water. Water found in the salt marsh is what we call “brackish”. This is a mix of fresh and salt water and the salinity will vary greatly depending on tide and rainfall. The waters around a salt marsh and the surrounding estuary are essentially a nursery for juvenile fish, crustaceans and other marine life. Estuaries have fairly calm water, few large predators, places to hide, and an abundance of food, providing a perfect habitat for those little critters. Without marshes and estuaries, we would not have the seafood that we have today. About 90% of all commercially harvested seafood is dependant on the estuary-marsh system for survival.
Plants and animals that make their residence in the salt marsh must have special adaptations to survive in such a harsh environment. Factors such as tidal fluctuations, salt content, extreme temperatures and low oxygen levels in the mud make for difficult living conditions. Click here to find out more about the plants and animals you can find in the salt marsh, estuary and salt marsh hammocks.