North Carolina's Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
Hidden in the eastern part of North Carolina, the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge consists of over 50,000 acres of open water, marsh, timber, and cropland habitats with Lake Mattamuskeet as its glorious centerpiece. In fact, Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina's largest natural lake, covers 40,000 acres with a surprisingly shallow basin depth of 2 to 3 feet or about a "swan's neck deep." A must see for nature lovers and a paradise for birders!
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
Our planned Saturday night stay at nearby Goose Creek State Park had us leaving our home in central North Carolina at 3:30am to catch the first rays of sunrise over Lake Mattamuskeet by 6:30am. Our early departure was driven by our desire to see the overwintering tundra swans - the largest such gathering on the East Coast, numbering between 65,000-75,000. They flock to the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge from Canada and Alaska and put on quite a show and - along with the other waterfowl - create quite the racket.
History of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
Originally, Lake Mattamuskeet covered 120,000 acres, but the rich soil at the lake bottom enticed farmers to cut a canal from the lake to the sound, reducing the lake to its current size.
With the desire to access the remaining rich lake soil, developers in the early 1900's built the world’s largest centrifugal pump, capable of moving 800,000 gallons of water per minute, in order to drain and convert Lake Mattamuskeet and the surrounding wetlands to farmland and a residential community. Fortunately, even with advanced technology, the effort proved to be impractical and thus abandoned.
In 1934, the United States purchased the property and established the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Then, in 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) turned the pumping station into a hunting and fishing lodge and the smokestack into an observation tower. Until the 1950's, this region was known to hunters as the "Canada Goose Capital of the World."
However, the 1970's brought a dramatic decline in the wintering goose populations and the lodge closed hunting operations in 1972. The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge currently hosts managed waterfowl hunts through lottery permits.
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Headquarters
Stop in at the Mattamuskeet National Wildllife Refuge visitor center and view the natural resource exhibits and dioramas that explain the history of Lake Mattamuskeet and display taxidermy of the wildlife found at the refuge.
Pick up a Mattamuskeet and Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife List. The detailed pamphlet contains lists of possible wildlife to be seen:mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. The bird list is coded by seasonal appearance and abundance of avian species.
- Visitor Center Hours: 8am - 4pm
- Public restrooms available
- Picnic tables near the former hunting lodge
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Activities
Scenic Drives: Highway 94 Causeway, Entrance Road, Wildlife Drive
One great place for viewing waterfowl is along the Highway 94 Causeway which goes across Lake Mattamuskeet. Pull off at the Kuralt gazebo observation deck about midway down the causeway and use the free spotting scope.
Other great places for viewing birds are along both the Entrance Road and Wildlife Drive in the refuge.
Maximize your sightings by learning bird field marks and calls. Additionally, exploring the different habitats and visiting at different times of the year will increase the variety of animals encountered.
TIP: During winter months, parts of refuge are closed to public so observe refuge regulatory signage.
The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge hosts the annual Swan Days Festival each December to celebrate the return of the tundra swans to Lake Mattamuskeet. The festival features birding tram tours, photography workshops, wildlife presentations, and more.
The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge also participates along with five other area national wildlife refuges in the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival each October with an encore birding event in December.
As a valuable wintering area, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge attracts large concentrations of migratory waterfowl such as tundra swans, snow geese, and 22 species of ducks that use this refuge as their winter feeding ground. From November through February, a total of 200,000 waterfowl visit the area.
We witnessed several species such as tundra swans, American coots, Northern pintails, snow geese, Northern shovelers, great blue herons, and Canada geese during our two-hour visit.
Be on the look out for otters, black bear, deer and bobcat - if not the animal, then the scat or tracks.