The Cape Fear area in southern coastal North Carolina takes its name from the Cape Fear River -- a 202-mile blackwater river flowing at a deep and slow pace through the swamps, marshes and wetlands of southern North Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean. Its mix of freshwater and saltwater create diverse habitats from forest to wetlands to riparian areas that appeal to an extensive variety of animals.
The Cape Fear area supports habitat for freshwater and saltwater fish species. Lakes, ponds, streams and the area's namesake Cape Fear River support freshwater species such as largemouth bass, speckled trout, walleye and the Cape Fear shiner -- a yellowish minnow with a black band along the sides of its body that was first described as a new species in 1971 and is not native, but is also confined to the Cape Fear River system, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Saltwater fish species such as butterfish, black sea bass, bluefish and black drum live in the area's coastline waters and estuaries. Bank sea bass, marlin, barracuda, tuna, mackerel and amberjack are commonly found marine species living in the Atlantic Ocean waters directly off the Cape Fear area.
Cape Fear's unique combination of freshwater and saltwater habitats with its numerous wetlands, marshes, ponds, lakes and moving waters and associated grasslands and forests draw a diverse contingency of birds to the area. There are 14 sections of Cape Fear designated by the Cape Fear Audubon Society as "important bird areas." These are areas identified by the Audubon Society as essential habitat for the breeding, wintering and migration of birds that are listed as either threatened or endangered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. A few of the species drawn to the area's wetlands are the great egret, great blue heron, white ibis and royal tern. Birds such as the yellow-rumped warbler, American robin, red-headed woodpeckes and American crow are considered arboreal birds, meaning they prefer to live in trees.
Cape Fear's biological diversity is also well represented in the area's snake population. Both venomous and nonvenomous species live in the Cape Fear area, so it's important for people exploring the area to know the difference between them. Venomous snakes have a pit between their eye and nostril, long fangs and a triangular-shaped head. Nonvenomous snakes do not have a pit or fangs, their eyes are rounded and their heads have more of an oblong shape, according to North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. Species of venomous snakes commonly found around Cape Fear include copperhead, eastern coral snake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake and pigmy rattlesnake. Nonvenomous species include the rainbow snake, eastern and southern hognose snakes, various water snakes and scarlet snake.
Several species of sea turtles nest in the Cape Fear area. The loggerhead, green and leatherback turtle species are most commonly found -- the loggerhead is by far the most predominant. These three species are the only turtles known to lay egss on North Carolina beaches. Two other species -- the Kemp's ridley and the hawksbill -- are found on rare occasions. All five of these species are listed as threatened or endangered in the U.S., according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. In April 2013, eight separate tracts of beach land in the Cape Fear area were designated as critical habitat for the purpose of nesting by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as reported by the Star News Online of Wilmington, N.C. Alligators and skinks -- which are a nonvenomous lizard with stubby legs -- are other reptiles commonly found here.
The West Indian manatee is an endangered mammal making his home in the waters of Cape Fear. They like both freshwater and saltwater -- a handy preference for hanging out in the mix of waterways there. Adults average 10 feet in length, weighing 1,000 pounds or more, according U.S. Fish and Wildlife. They are slow-moving creatures often injured by the engines of motor boats speeding through waterways. In an effort to protect manatees, several waterway areas have strictly enforced speed zones. Other mammals found in the area -- particularly in protected sanctuaries such as the Masonboro Island Coastal Estuarine Reserve and Holly Shelter Game Land -- are possums, cotton rats, marsh rabbits, raccoons and river otters.
- University of North Carolina Wilmington: The Ecology of the Cape Fear River System
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service: Cape Fear Shiner
- Davidson Herpetology Laboratory: Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina: Snakes of North Carolina
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service: West Indian Manatees in North Carolina
- North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources: Division of Marine Fisheries: Fish Finder
- Cape Fear Audubon Society Brunswick Towne Bird Walk: Species List
- Audubon: Important Bird Areas Program
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office: Endangered and Threatened Species of North Carolina
- North Carolina State University: A & T State University Cooperative Extension: Distinguishing Between Venomous & Nonvenomous Snakes
- North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission: Sea Turtles Fared Well Along North Carolina's Coast in 2012
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.