December 1, 2023
Tundra swans will make your day at Mackay island NWR Open Roads Day


By Mary Reid Barrow

If I were a tundra swan, my choice of a cold-weather getaway would be Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, a four-star resort in my view.

When the weather gets icy up north, I would tell my swan friends and other waterfowl to head straight south to the refuge. This haven of woods, marshes, and former farmland stands where Back Bay and the North Landing River flow into Currituck Sound.

I would tell you that the Refuge’s Open Roads Day this week is a great opportunity for you to see me and my friends on our winter R and R. That’s when the staff open the maintenance road around the refuge allowing you to get a sneak peek into the lives of waterfowl celebrities like me. Open Roads Day is a four-day event this year – Thursday through Sunday, from 7 a.m. to sunset.

If I were a swan, I would love this area just south of Virginia Beach on Knotts Island because it has been a waterfowl resort for centuries, serving up the best underwater grass dinners you will find. Refuges, like Mackay Island along the Atlantic Flyway, manage impoundments, or ponds, to make sure our gourmet underwater grasses are there for us. Refuges also offer protection from waterfowl hunters.

I would also tell you that Mackay Island is closed in winter to protect us not just from hunters, but from curious humans too, except for selected times like Open Roads Day.

If I were a swan, I wouldn’t mind telling you that I would be quite beautiful, with a pure white body, graceful long neck, and black beak (except for our youngsters who are still a little gray)!  I would tell you that we, swan teases, often make you wait for a glimpse of us until you have traveled almost all the way through the refuge.

Then suddenly, as you come up on the last impoundment, there we might be, several of us, beauties, floating placidly on the water, our white bodies dazzling against the blue sky.

Oh, I would also tell you that the drive through the refuge to see me is certainly not boring. Keep your eyes open for my friends, like mallard ducks, teal and gadwall, swimming in the open water. Scan the treetops for two pairs of bald eagles that nest at the refuge. Marsh hawks with a white rump patch might fly low, seeking rodents scurrying through the grasses.

Watch the roadside ditches for herons and egrets. Young white ibises with their brown and white feathers feed in the ditches and perch in the trees too. Look for coots, swimming one by one.



Snow geese, which some might say vie with us swans for beauty, also winter at Mackay Island but usually arrive later in the year. But if I were a swan, I’d just say come down to Mackay Island this week and I’ll make your day.

To reach the refuge, drive straight down Princess Anne Road into North Carolina and across the Knotts Island Causeway where you might see any number of birds. An overlook provides a place to stop. Drive south, passing the refuge office entrance which will be closed most of Open Roods Day.  A bit further south you will see a turn to the right that takes you into the road around the impoundments. The address is 316 Marsh Causeway, Knotts Island, NC.


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