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The Sheltering Cedar - Interesting Facts

by Anne Marshall Runyon

Interesting Facts   -   Reading List

Map of the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Ocracoke, a Barrier Island

Ocracoke Island is one of many narrow, sandy islands marking the outer edge of North Carolina’s continental shelf. These barrier islands form at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and they shift with the changes bought by the wind and water moving around them.

Between Ocracoke and the mainland of North Carolina lies a large, shallow body of salty water called Pamlico Sound. Fresh river and creek waters continually flow across the state from the Mountains, the Piedmont, and the Coastal Plain into Pamlico Sound. Here the fresh water mixes with salt ocean water pushed in and pulled out of the sound by the ocean tides.

Protected from the rough ocean waves by the barrier islands, salt marshes grow all around the edges of Pamlico Sound, including the northwestern shore of Ocracoke Island. Salt marsh estuaries, growing where the fresh and salt waters mix, provide nutrient-rich and sheltered habitat for many small marine animals.

The southeastern shore of Ocracoke faces the deep and wild Atlantic Ocean. The constant churn of ocean waves on the beach prevents even the hardiest of salt marsh plants from growing here. Life is sparse, but small worms, crustaceans, and mollusks survive, buried in the beach sands under the surf.

The southern redcedar tree in my story grows on Ocracoke Island, nestled among the windswept sand dunes, halfway between the Atlantic Ocean beach and the salt marsh of Pamlico Sound. Southern redcedars are the first tree species to join the hardy dune grasses, vines, herbs, and shrubs. These cedars grow low and wide in response to the harsh winds, and will grow thick new foliage and branches when salt spray kills a portion of the tree. Other island trees, needing more shelter from wind and salt spray to survive, will sprout under the protection of the maturing cedars. These evergreen cedars also provide food and shelter for many animals like the ones in The Sheltering Cedar. 

Red Birds

All of the animals sheltering in and under the cedar tree in my story live year-round on Ocracoke Island. The red birds, or cardinals, gather in small flocks each winter. They roost together at night and during storms, inside the cedars and other island trees or shrubs that have thick, evergreen foliage. They often return to the same roost each evening. The flock sheltering in the cedar tree consists of two bright red male and three female cardinals. One male and female are a mated pair and will nest together in the spring. The other three will scatter across the island in search of mates and nesting sites. Can you identify the mated pair of red birds in the story?


There are many insects living on Ocracoke. Summertime visitors are probably most familiar with (and annoyed by) the mosquitoes and flies! The peeling bark of the cedar is loose and provides safe nooks and crannies for small insects like the four adult ladybird beetles to hide inside.


Not all adult insects can survive the winter. During warmer months, mantids lay many eggs inside a frothy substance. The froth dries and hardens into a sturdy egg case securely attached to cedar twigs or to some other island plant stems. Two varieties of mantid live on Ocracoke Island. The round egg cases in my story were laid by the Chinese mantid, a large green-and-browninsect introduced many years ago, and now widespread across the Eastern United States. The adult mantid shown on the last page is our native Carolina mantid. She will lay a slightly flatter and ridged egg case.


If you look carefully on the pages showing the red birds up close, you can find the cocoons of another insect living in the cedar trees on Ocracoke Island. Bagworm moths are pupating inside each dangling, brown, cedar-coated cocoon. Later in the summer, the bagworms, which are the larval stage of these moths, will feast on the cedar leaves. They will build their cedar-coated bags around themselves as they fatten. When fall comes, each bagworm attaches its bag to a cedar twig and seals it shut to form a snug cocoon for the winter.


The two toads buried in the sand among the cedar tree’s roots are Fowler’s toads. This is the only toad species known to live on Ocracoke Island. In early spring these Fowler’s toads will emerge to seek mates along the banks of the island’s freshwater creeks and ponds. You can hear their loud calls “W-a-a-ah!” in the evening and at night.

More Year-Round Residents

Some of the other wild animals in my story are also year-round residents on Ocracoke. They are the cottontail rabbit, the ghost crab, the white-footed mice, the fish crows, the red-bellied woodpecker, and the pelicans. Bottle-nosed dolphins can be found year-round in the salt waters around Ocracoke, although they do migrate up and down the coast.

Winter Visitors in The Sheltering Cedar

The cedar waxwings, yellow-rumped warblers and black-bellied plovers are winter visitors to Ocracoke Island. Some herring gulls will stay along the North Carolina coast year-round, but most are winter visitors like the one flying over the ocean on Christmas morning in my story.

People and Pets

Most of Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The formerly free-roaming Ocracoke ponies are now penned and cared for by the park rangers. Most of the island remains uninhabited by people. However, Ocracoke now has a sizable population of year-round human residents living near the harbor, and in the summer, the island gains a huge number of visitors and their pets. Most people take good care of their pets, keeping them with them, under control, and preventing them from harming the wild island animals. However, there are now many feral cats roaming the island. These non-native predators do great harm to the island’s small native wild animals. These roaming former pets especially affect the beach-nesting shorebirds, such as the endangered piping plover.

Piping Plovers

The piping plovers shown flying over the coast of North Carolina in The Sheltering Cedar are small shorebirds that overwinter on sandy beaches from North Carolina south to the Yucatan, Bahamas, and West Indies. Each spring they migrate thousands of miles north to breed. Most return to freshwater habitats in the central northern plains of North America, but some return to nest along the Atlantic coast.

In April, piping plovers court and nest along North Carolina’s beaches. The male bird claims his nesting territory on an open stretch of sand above the high tides and courts his mate. He chooses a spot near a beach where the waves are gentle. This will be a safe foraging area for his chicks once they hatch. The mated pair of plovers often settles near a colony of least terns, who build nests close together and noisily defend their colony from predators.

By taking turns warming or shading the eggs in their shallow nest scrape, plover parents continuously brood their speckled eggs. Precocial plover chicks can run and peck for food soon after hatching, but can not fly until they have fledged two or three months later. Chicks will follow a parent to a foraging area and feed themselves, but during their first two weeks they must often snuggle under a parent’s breast to keep warm. When frightened or warned by an alarm call from their parents, the chicks lie flat and still. Their down feathers blend with the beach sand and they seem to disappear. Parents will vigorously protect their chicks by threatening or leading away predators, but large feet and beach vehicle tires can easily crush the well-camouflaged chicks, because they remain motionless, hiding.

Protecting our Beach Nesters

The piping plover is federally listed as endangered, or threatened, throughout its range in Canada and the United States. Human beach development, such as rebuilding and stabilizing beach dunes with vegetation, has damaged many good nesting areas along the Atlantic coast, and now good nesting sites are very few. Piping plovers and all beach-nesting birds (plovers, terns, skimmers, and oystercatchers) need undeveloped and protected sanctuaries on beaches and barrier islands, such as Ocracoke, to survive. Biologists are studying all these birds and their current habitat use.

From April 1 through August 31, suitable nesting sites in North Carolina are clearly marked with signs and fenced off with posts and string. If you find such a posted area, do not enter and keep all pets away from it. This windswept beach is their home, and these beautiful little shorebirds have no other place to court and raise their chicks successfully.


Good books about Ocracoke and the Outer Banks

Children’s books

Digby The Only Dog
by Ruth and Latrobe Carroll
Oxford University Press, 1955 (out of print)

Holiday for Edith and the Bears
by Dare Wright
(out of print)

Taffy of Torpedo Junction
by Nell Wise Wechter
(first published by John F. Blair, 1957)
new edition by the University of North Carolina Press, 1996

An Island Scrapbook, Dawn to Dusk on a Barrier Island
by Virginia Wright-Frierson
Aladdin Books, 2002

An assortment of books, many with photographs 

by Alton Balance
The University of North Carolina Press, 1989

Ocracoke Portrait, photographs and interviews
by Ann Ehringhaus
John F. Blair, 1988

Ocracoke Wild, a Naturalist’s Year on an Outer Banks Island
by Pat Garber
Down Home Press, 1995

Hoi Toide and the Outer Banks (the story of the Ocracoke Brogue)
by Walt Wolfram and
Natalie Schilling-Estes
The University of North Carolina Press, 1997

Hatteras Journal
by Jan De Blieu
Fulcrum Incorporated, 1987

Ocracoke in the Fifties, photographs and narrative
by Dare Wright
Edited by Brook Ashley and John Ogilvie
John F. Blair, 2006

Ocracoke Album
by Jack Dudley
Coastal Heritage Series, 2005

Nature Guide to the Carolina Coast
(common birds, crabs, shells, fish and other entities of the coastal environment)
by Peter Meyer
Avian-Cetacean Press, 2000

Native Trees of the Southeast, An Identification Guide
by L. Katherine Kirkman, Claude L. Brown, and Donald L. Leopold
Timber Press, 2007