Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Back Bay Refuge contains 7,732 acres, situated on and around a thin strip of coastline typical of barrier islands found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Habitats include beach, dunes, woodland, farm fields and marsh. The majority of refuge marshlands are on islands contained within the waters of Back Bay. Since 1939, an additional 4,600 acres of Bay waters within the refuge boundary have been closed to migratory bird hunting by Presidential Proclamation. To assure long-term protection for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species, the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to acquire additional wetland habitat in the Back Bay area.
Approximately 10,000 snow geese and a large variety of ducks visit Back Bay Refuge during the peak of fall migration, usually in December. The refuge also provides habitat for a wide assortment of other wildlife, including threatened and endangered species such as loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles.
A Rich Wildfowling Tradition
The Back Bay area has long been famous as a wildfowler's paradise where once large concentrations of wintering waterfowl and shorebirds could be found. Before refuge establishment, the Princess Anne and Ragged Island Hunting Clubs occupied the site. Other well-known hunt clubs in the Back Bay area include the Dudley Island Club, the False Cape Gunning Club, the Cedar Island Club, and the Back Bay Gunning Club. Many of these hunt clubs were founded in the late 1800s and attracted wealthy professionals from as far away as New York and Philadelphia.
Waterfowl numbers throughout North America have drastically declined in recent years. To help rebuild goose and duck populations, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Working together with the private sector under this plan will help protect and manage critical breeding, staging, and wintering areas for waterbirds of all types throughout the continent.
An Area of Diverse Habitats
Back Bay Refuge habitats support a wide variety of plant and animal life. Marshlands, which include more than 75 percent of the refuge, are found within several large impoundments and on the Bay islands. This productive, protected marshland contains valuable wildlife food plants such as threesquare, smartweed, and spikerushes.
The shifting sands of the barrier beach are constantly exposed to ocean waves, currents, and tides. No vegetation canwithstand these powerful forces,but ghost crabs, gulls, andmigrating shorebirds are common here. Sand duform a ine of defense, protecting marsh and woodlands from high tides and storms. Like the beach, the dunes are exposed to the powerful forces of nature. However, dunes are able to support vegetation which helps to stabilize the sandy soil.
Wax myrtle, highbush blueberry, bayberry, wild black cherry, and persimmon dominate refuge shrublands. Woodlands consist mostly of live oak and loblolly pines. Shrubland and woodland habitats are found in areas of higher elevation, where the soil is well drained and the harsh effects of the ocean are not as dramatic. Raptors, rabbits, squirrels, and deer are commonly found here.
Edges between major habitats, such as between land and sea, are places where wildlife is most active. In fact, coastal barrier habitats are thought to harbor a greater variety of bird species than any other ecosystem in the continental United States. In many cases, this diversity occurs within an extremely narrow area. At the refuge, for instance, the distance to the ocean from Back Bay is no more than one mile.
A Haven for Waterfowl and Other Wildlife
Nearly 300 species of birds have been observed at Back Bay Refuge. During the fall and winter months, large flocks of waterfowl use the Bay and freshwater impoundments. Snow and Canada geese, tundra swans, and many duck species are abundant. Each year, waterfowl numbers rise and fall in response to weather conditions, farming practices, and reproductive success. Migrating songbirds and shorebirds arrive at the refuge each spring. Brightly colored warblers dot shrub and woodland areas while shorebirds line the intertidal zone and search for food in shallow waters
The varied habitats at Back Bay Refuge provide food and cover for mammals such as river otters, whitetailed deer, mink, opossums, raccoons, and the redfox. Nutria, introduced to the United States from South America in the early 1900s are common in refuge marshlands. Other non-native species include feral horses and pigs. These animals compete with native species for food and cover, and are responsible for negative impacts to the managed environment. Nutria damage dikes through burrowing activity; pigs uproot valuable marsh vegetation; and horses trample plants and litter the area with their droppings.
Many types of reptiles and amphibians occur at Back Bay Refuge. Snakes, including poisonous cottonmouths, are frequently seen. Other common snakes include brown and northern water snakes, black rat snakes and eastern hognose snakes. On warm, sunny days, turtles line up on logs and bask at the water's edge. Red-bellied, painted, eastern mud, and snapping turtles are most common.
Management Improves Habitat
Wildlife managers constantly work to improve the quality of wildlife habitat. Even though refuge wetlands have a natural appearance, most areas are intensely managed for use by waterfowl and other native wildlife. Management actions create diverse habitats to encourage use by many wildlife species.
Habitat management at Back Bay Refuge includes water level manipulation, prescribed burning, plowing, discing, dike construction, chemical control, seasonal closures to protect various species, and wildlife population control. As you travel through the refuge you will see how habitats have been modified. Look for burned-over areas, water control structures, signed or cabled closed areas, and marsh areas which have been deliberately disturbed to prevent woody plant growth. Waterfowl, especially, thrive on marshes containing succulent plant growth with few upland species.
Approximately 100,000 people visit Back Bay Refuge each year. They come to enjoy the unique beauty of the area, to learn about wildlife, and to participate in environmental education and wildlife-oriented recreation. Because wildlife needs to have priority on a wildlife refuge, you may encounter seasonal closures and special regulations during your visit. Check the list below to see what activities and facilities are provided for visitors.
VISITOR CONTACT STATION - Displays, brochures, and films are available. A small auditorium may be used by prescheduled groups.
FOOT TRAILS - Two boardwalks lead to the beach. The Bay Trail, Environmental Study Area, and portions of interior dikes are also open to visitors on foot. See map for distances.
FISHING - Surf and freshwater fishing are permitted in specific areas. A Virginia fishing license is required to fish in Back Bay. Phone the refuge office for details.
BOATING - No launching facilities are available. Small boats and canoes which can be hand-carried to the Bay's edge are allowed. Trailers are not permitted.
BICYCLING - Some interior dikes are open to bicyclists, although certain areas are closed seasonally to protect wildlife.
HUNTING/TRAPPING - Available by permit during designated periods. Phone the refuge office for details.
VOLUNTEER PROGRAM - Back Bay Refuge has many active volunteers. To join this dedicated group, please phone the refuge office.
EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS - Organized school, civic, and professional groups may reserve dates for slide talks, films, and outdoor classroom activities. Public programs are regularly announced. Phone the refuge office for more information.
REFUGE HOURS - Visitor Contact Station:
Open 8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. on weekdays, 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. weekends.
Closed Saturdays, December through March.
Closed holidays except Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day.
Outdoor facilities are open daily, dawn to dusk.
Regulations Protect Visitors and Wildlife
Refuge regulations exist for your safety and for the welfare of wildlife. Visitors are expected to know and comply with all regulations. A complete listing of refuge regulations can be obtained by phoning the refuge office.
Listed below are a few regulations which you should know about before your visit:
An entrance fee is required to enter the refuge.
The refuge is open during daylight hours only.
Only wildlife-oriented recreation is permitted. Swimming, sunbathing, and surfing are not allowed.
Visitors may not park cars overnight.
Entry into closed areas, including the dunes, is prohibited.
Groups of more than ten people must obtain a refuge permit prior to their visit.
Pets are allowed from October 1 to March 31 only, and must be kept on a leash not longer than 10 feet at all times. Pets are not allowed during the rest of the year in order to avoid conflicts with wildlife and for visitor safety.
Open fires, including charcoal-burning grills, are prohibited.
Vehicle access is permitted only as far as the Visitor Contact Station. Visitor access beyond this point must be by foot or bicycle. Congress has mandated that certain residents of North Carolina be allowed to drive vehicles on the beach. In addition, employees of False Cape State Park may drive to and from their park residences. Only those holding a valid refuge permit may drive on the beach.
Wildlife and Seasonal Happenings
WINTER Wintering waterfowl congregate on the refuge. Winter storms and cold fronts may bring increased numbers of birds to the area. Rafts and long lines of pelagic (oceanic) birds can be observed along the beach. Northern harriers are abundant as they search for food in the marsh. Deer shed their antlers and breed through February.
SPRING Local breeding ducks pair off and nest. Broods are visible by early May. Ospreys return in early March and begin using refuge nesting platforms. By May, white-tailed fawns appear and rare orchids and carnivorous plants bloom in the marsh and in ditches along refuge dikes. Songbird and shorebird migration peaks during this same period.
SUMMER Ospreys are hatching, along with songbirds. Sea turtles nest at night on the beach. Ticks, chiggers, and other biting insects are abundant. Wading birds concentrate in the marsh. Blackberries and blueberries provide food for songbirds and marsh hibiscus (rose mallow) blooms along march edges.
FALL Migratory waterfowl begin moving through the area. Ospreys, swallows, and songbirds depart for their wintering grounds. Peregrine falcons hunt shorebirds along the beach and other raptors pass through as they migrate southward. Reptiles, amphibians, and insects become less active.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach, Virginia. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Unpaginated.This resource should be cited as:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1996. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach, Virginia. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Unpaginated. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. http://www.npwrc.usgs.govbackinfo.htm (Version 22MAY98).