The Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Sanctuary is a 2,600-acre complex owned and managed by Audubon North Carolina with a vision to preserve the rich history of the land and protect the diverse mix of birds, wildlife and coastal habitat along the Currituck Sound. The Sanctuary will be the site of North Carolina’s first Audubon Center built to engage researchers and the local community in developing conservation programs for birds.
For centuries, the lush and pristine land along the Currituck Sound has provided a wonderland for wintering waterfowl and the hunters that come to enjoy them. The tradition of the waterfowl continue to be celebrated by local residents, visiting hunters and conservation enthusiasts, all who have a deep respect for the land and the ducks that return every year. With the preservation of the Currituck Sound and it’s expansive marsh system, the traditions of the original Outer Banks can continue to be passed down for generations.
In this series, we will revisit the history of hunters and fisherman that helped spur these longstanding traditions and a respect for preserving the land and wildlife found here.
For the first installment, we have interviewed Chandler Sawyer, a native of Currituck County and seventh generation hunt guide. As Audubon North Carolina’s habitat manager, Sawyer takes care of the property and grounds at the Sanctuary in Corolla. Each workday, he ensures the overall health of the marsh and waterfowl populations by maintaining the duck blinds and impoundment areas, conducting controlled marsh burns, and monitoring the grounds to prevent illegal poaching, so the tradition of duck hunts are preserved for generations.
Read on to see how Sawyer is preserving the legacy of the Currituck Sound, his own family’s traditions, and the wildlife that thrive at the Audubon Sanctuary.
Tell us about your history with the Audubon Sanctuary and how your family acquired this property.
The property now known as the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary, was given to my great x4 grandfather, Abraham Baum, by the Queen’s Land Grants in 1715. They were farmers and market hunters, so the property was used for hunting long before it became a club. The family-owned property originally stretched from the current county line to the lighthouse in Corolla.
Later, 3,000 acres were sold to the Currituck Shooting Club (considered to be the oldest active hunt club in the nation) and the Pine Island Club now know as the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Audubon Sanctuary. The Pine Island Club property was used for raising cattle until 1890 when it became a hunt club. The hunt club property passed through different owners before landing on Audubon. Audubon North Carolina took over full management of the property in 2009 as a sanctuary for birds and wildlife and a conservation hub for the organization.
As a native of Currituck County, what have the presence of birds and wildlife meant to you?
For many years, duck hunting was a way of life for Currituck County natives. If you lived here back in those days you farmed, fished, hunted or you left because there wasn’t much else to do. Now, some from those types of old families are still making their livelihood from commercial fishing or working as hunt guides.
Members of my family have always been duck hunters or fishers, so I’m happy to have a job where I can guide duck hunts and take care of the wildlife at the Sanctuary. It’s a family tradition I get to live out every day.
Why is the Audubon Sanctuary special to the hunting community?
There are a lot of guides that make their living carrying hunters. Currituck has always been a different kind of place by providing the best habitat for ducks. It’s a special gem in the middle of the Outer Banks because of the fresh and brackish water. We have conditions ducks like more than anywhere else on the east coast. The reason why duck hunting is so good here is because of places like the Audubon Sanctuary and the hunt clubs that preserve the marshes and places ducks prefer.
How long have you been hunting?
I’ve been hunting for 28 years. I started hunting with my granddad when I was 5, and he trained me to guide when I was 9. We would take hunters across the Currituck Sound. It was in my blood and I loved it! I started carrying hunting parties at age 14, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Tell us about your experience guiding with your grandfather, author Travis Morris.
My grandfather, Travis Norris, is a native of Currituck. He’s a county historian and knows everything there is to know about duck hunting in this county because it’s what he’s done his whole life. He taught me everything I know about the Sound.
Morris ran the Monkey Island Hunt Club, and then started the Piney Island Hunt Club on the opposite side of the Sound. While carrying famous artists to paint or write about the Sound, he would tell them stories about the region. One author convinced him to write a book, which eventually turned into 8 or 9 books with historical stories of the duck hunting, history of Currituck County, and Outer Banks developments. He’s a living legend.
How has the hunting and game industry in Currituck County changed over the years?
The tools have changed, like using fiberglass boats and plastic decoys when we hunt. The way we preserve the ducks and their habitat has also evolved. But there is just as much hunting activity today as there ever was. There are a lot of guides carrying hunters for a living.
How do hunting and fishing contribute to conservation efforts in Currituck County?
The Ducks Unlimited local chapter is one of the top chapters in the nation as far as fundraising for the largest duck conservation organization in existence. Additionally, the cost of federal stamps and hunting licenses go directly toward conservation efforts. Duck hunters work very hard to protect and conserve the habitat for ducks. The majority of people who are hunters and fisherman care so much for what they do they want to put back in and preserve the lands and wildlife so its there for their kids and their kids after that.
How has the history of the Pine Island Hunt Club been preserved at the Audubon Sanctuary?
The cool thing is that the area is very culturally and historically significant. We’ve got this beautiful campus that we aren’t going to change and shake it up that it’s unrecognizable. We’re going to keep the historic hunt lodge and guides’ quarters basically the way they are and restore with minor upgrades while maintaining the nostalgia and historical significance of the original buildings.
Hunting is only allowed at the Sanctuary in select areas and on a very limited basis. Ducks are able to thrive without human disturbance. Conservation is what we are all trying to do, preserve this special, pristine place for the ducks – that’s how it’s been since the 1800’s. Hunters came and put care into the ducks because that’s why we are all here. We are carrying on that tradition of old hunting times so ducks keep coming back.
How do the Audubon Sanctuary and the organized waterfowl hunts contribute to the local economy of Currituck County?
They contribute significantly if you think about the hunters coming in. There’s been a game board in place since 1921, which allows us to regulate our duck blinds. We have laws and regulations for our duck blinds, so if you don’t have a blind you have to hire a guide. When hunters come to Currituck from out of state, they pay for guides, rent hotel rooms, eat at local restaurants. The winter is slow on the Outer Banks; so hunting provides a boost to the locals.
When Audubon took control of the Sanctuary in Corolla the property’s duck blinds were included. Duck blinds in Currituck are yours as long as you maintain them until the day you die. If you do not meet the requirements, however, you can lose them, and they go into a lottery system where people can apply for them. The available blinds are drawn once a year. Audubon maintains our blinds at Pine Island so we can keep them and control how they are used.
Would bird and wildlife conservation efforts be hindered without hunters and fisherman to manage populations?
Yes. Hunting is regulated by what is most healthy for each species. You have to keep populations in check for greater health and survival. For example, the snow geese population would be out of control without regulations, and when you have too many snow geese, they are destroying habitats for the other birds. But conservation measures have allowed for extended hunting seasons and other additional measures to manage healthy populations.
How do you see hunters and conservationists working toward the same goals?
Hunters are conservationists. They are the same people. They are some of the best conservationists because they have a vested interest in trying to conserve the animals and their habitats. They love to watch birds, so they will put in what they can to preserve what they love and love what they do. It’s all connected.
What do you hope Audubon readers and visitors to the Sanctuary in Corolla can learn from the relationship between hunting and wildlife conservation.
Hunters and fisherman can get a bad wrap, which is so far from the truth. They are good people who love what they do and want to give back in order to continue what they are doing. When anyone comes to the Sanctuary, they can see that we are an organization that supports the ducks, we also care about the resources and understand they are as important.
We are doing our best to make sure these resources are here for many generations. We put into the resources of the Sanctuary more than we ever take from it.
With your support, Audubon North Carolina can continue it’s vision to preserve the history of the Audubon Sanctuary while developing conservation programs that protect the waterfowl, birds and other wildlife that thrive here. Visit our website to learn more about the Sanctuary and future Audubon Center in Corolla.