Into the (Nags Head) Woods

While “Into the Woods” is a creepy Disney movie about a witch, Nags Head Woods isn’t anything like that. There have been reports of a pack of coyotes stalking trail-goers. But that’s largely uncorroborated.

My name is Julia Maron, I’m a sophomore Environmental Studies major and Public Policy minor, and I got to spend this fall interning with Aaron McCall at The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods ecological preserve. Aaron is the Northeast Regional Steward and oversees basically the entire eastern area of the state.

I had heard of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) before coming down here but I didn’t know that on the Outer Banks, which you think of as all beach (tell me you don’t only think of it as all beach), there would be 1,400 acres of maritime forest and swamps. And by the looks of the visitor’s log, a lot of other people didn’t know the Woods existed as either.

Unlike almost all of the other internships, my time spent at the Woods wasn’t focused on one overarching project, which was fine by me. I got to learn about stewardship, which is “the recognition of our collective responsibility to retain the quality and abundance of our land, air, water and biodiversity, and to manage this natural capital in a way that conserved all of its values, be they environmental, economic, social or cultural.” Basically, it’s important to know that we have certain environmental spaces and resources that we can and should use, but we have to use them in a responsible way.

With woods comes pine straw and leaves and with the Outer Banks comes storms and hurricanes. So naturally, sometimes the trails get covered with such debris and it is my dutiful task to make sure the trails are clear and walkable. As much as I loved doing this, I realized that it’s important especially to the people who visit the Woods. If you can’t walk easily, then it won’t be as enjoyable and people won’t visit as often. So yes, trail maintenance is important. Can I put “handy with a rake” on my resume? All I can say is that I got to explore all of the trails pretty thoroughly and spending time outside can be better than sitting in an office all day (no offense to those who work in offices, specifically the planning department of the Town of Nags Head).

*Disclaimer: One would STRONGLY advise visiting the Woods sometime after November, when mosquitoes the size of a quarter have gone to wherever they go. If not, coat yourself in bug spray, wear long sleeves and pants, and bring mosquito net hats. I can give you my personal one, if you’d like. Very handy.

Walking trails sometimes leads to running in to critters, some of which scare you half to death. Especially when you take Fergie, Aaron’s dog, with you and she doesn’t see the black rat snake in front of her. And you’re too scared to get close to it to see if it’s venomous, so you don’t know it’s only a black rat snake until you take a picture and show it to Aaron when you get back.

As I mentioned before, when I wasn’t raking, I did some Excel work, mainly inputting the Woods’ visitor’s log into a format where the total number of visitors could be gathered for each month. These numbers are useful because they get sent to The Nature Conservancy’s main office and can help the Woods get grants and different things, since TNC is a nonprofit. Additionally, bow hunting season for deer started September 10th in the Woods, and Aaron is in charge of collecting hunting licenses and information, so that too was put into Excel.

Nags Head Woods sits between Jockey’s Ridge and Run Hill sand dunes, which causes it to be shielded from harsh ocean winds. It has forested dunes, interdune ponds, marshes, wetlands and a whole lot of diverse plant and animal life. The most interesting part of my internship has definitely been capturing creatures that use the woods on wildlife cameras. At the beginning of the semester, I asked Aaron if there had been coyote sightings in the Woods, since that would relate to our Capstone project. As you may or may not know, coyotes are now officially found in all 100 counties of North Carolina, and have been increasingly seen up and down the Outer Banks. A lot of residents have been complaining about them as well, so I thought I’d see if I could find any. TNC had some wildlife cameras that they’d used before and I thought it would be super neat if I could put some out to try and catch some sneaky canids on camera.

When I went out to check the cameras, I took my laptop and popped the SD card out from the camera to see if there were new pictures. Honestly, it was kind of exciting when you saw any amount of pictures, even when you realized that there were 174 just of a squirrel (I think he just wanted to have a photo shoot). I had 2 cameras out for 3 weeks that never had any pictures on them, which was a little frustrating. But hey, it was even better when you got some clear shots of does, bucks, raccoons and even a possum. And sometimes you got a super cool picture of a young buck only 3 hours before you went out and pulled the camera.

All in all, interning at The Nags Head Woods was a great experience that has made me realize what I enjoy doing and what I only kind of enjoy doing. I’m appreciative that I’ve had this great opportunity and hopefully I can build on this experience in the future.

Oh, and this internship has also reaffirmed that I absolutely hate mosquitoes.