August 9, 2017

OBX Gone Wild:
Capturing the Outer Banks’ Wild Side



Many Outer Banks locals have hobbies that take full advantage of the islands’ inherently wild nature.

But few locals spend their free time just a shell’s throw away from mating water moccasins, protective black bear mommas, or an assortment of other scaly or furry critters that would cause anyone to abandon their pursuits, and head back to the safety of the couch for a TV binge-fest instead.

Meet Sheila Charrette.

Sheila is a Hatteras Island native who has had a love of photography since she first picked up a camera for the Sea Chest magazine – the local Cape Hatteras School publication which has fostered a collection of locally-famous creative types.

Today, Sheila’s photos have made Instagram a favorite social media destination for locals and visitors alike. Her close-up shots of wild critters from the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and virtually all points in between have grabbed attention, and have shown just how wonderfully wild our landscape can be if you have a good camera, a great eye, and a ton of patience.

But to get to the heart of Sheila’s passion for wildlife photography, you have to start with her Hatteras Island roots.

Sheila first discovered a love of taking pictures when she snapped a few pictures of her cat for the Sea Chest magazine, and developed the ensuing footage in the dark room at the local high school. She spent a few years off the island, but ended up in her hometown for the long-term, where she eventually ended up taking photos for Hatteras Realty.

The owner of Hatteras Realty at the time, Stewart Couch, noticed her eye for photography almost immediately, and encouraged her to keep at it. Stewart passed away in 2012 – a huge loss for the island – but his influence lingered in many locals’ minds, including Sheila’s. “Stewart had a lot to do with my taking photos – if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing it right now,” she says.

Sheila continued taking photos of the various homes and landscapes for work, but found that her love of photography spilled over into her free time as well.

“It started a couple of years ago,” she says. “I kept seeing photos of bears online [at the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge] and thought, ‘I want to go up there sometime…’ So one day, my nephew and I went riding around in that area, and a bear came out and I snapped the photo – that’s all it took.”

Since the inaugural trip, Sheila can be found in the wild on a good chunk of her days off, waiting patiently for a feathered, furry, or scaled residents to make an appearance.

It sounds like hard work on the surface to be sure, but Sheila has developed a great system to stay comfortable – and more or less out of harm’s way.

Finding quiet spots within the varying refuges, Sheila can park and capture the wildlife from the safety of her car in most instances. And along the way, she may pick up lunch or breakfast to make the ensuing hours fully enjoyable.

“I’ve seen snakes – like rattlesnakes – all the time. I even watched a guy play with a rattlesnake once for a [homemade] video, and I wouldn’t do anything like that,” she says. “I try to keep my distance from all of it. Of course, I want to get a good shot, but using my zoom lens, I’m far enough away that nothing is going to reach out and grab you… and the animals aren’t scared away by my [presence.]”

The distance - and the patience, which can easily last for hours - most certainly pays off.

Sheila’s ensuing collection of photos – which have been shared by several of the wildlife refuges she frequents – is a marvel of wild activity.

Local rabbits munch nonchalantly on area greens, with no knowledge that anyone is watching. A trio of baby black bears enjoy a swim across the creek, or a gallop down a dirt road, under their mother’s scrutinizing and supervising eye. And a pair of raccoons observing the scene from a tree are bordered by a raccoon buddy or two, who are just barely visible in the leafy tree branches.

When it comes to the furry area residents, the bear photos are arguably the most popular among Instagram and Facebook fans, although it requires a bit of a systematic approach to capture the best moments.

“Sometimes if you see the bear sit back, you know you have to wait, and watch, to see where they go,” says Sheila. “This time of year, you have the big ones come out first. They might have babies so you have to wait a few minutes to see what they do next, but a lot of times they’ll cross the street to get to the fields to eat.”

As for Sheila, she has her own favorite mammals to capture on film – namely, the playful and spunky otters that make infrequent visits to the local wildlife refuges. And she’s also captured a few rarer species while on the hunt for local wildlife.

“Oh, the bobcats – they’re hard to catch,” she says. “It seems like you see them right before dark, but you’ll never see them as often as the other [animals.]”

Bears, otters, and bobcats - (Oh my.) They’re all represented in Sheila’s photos, and they are just a handful of the furry animals she has captured with her camera.

And when it comes to feathers and scales, well, the variety is stunning.

Sheila has picked up a great knowledge of birds along the way – which includes an assortment of wading birds, migrating birds, and colorful smaller species that are more than meets the eye.

“I like looking at the American kestrel,” says Sheila, singling out a photo of a bright yellow bird with black markings that is no larger than a closed fist. “He looks so sweet and innocent on the surface, but he is actually really mean - He was hunting moles and mice at the time… and yet they look so adorable and innocent in a photo.”

Other treasured shots include a red-headed woodpecker, a stealthy alligator, and more than one snake photo that will give any wildlife lover a chill or two.

“Oh I’m petrified of snakes, and you never know how something is going to act in the wild,” says Sheila. “Occasionally I may step out of the car to get the shot, but I stay inside when snakes are involved. A lot of people are like ‘Oh my God, you’re so close!’ I am fairly close, but I’m not going to get out of the car and dance with them or anything, or invite them over for dinner.”

Despite a fear of snakes, however, it is truly amazing what one can capture from the comfort of a car when a love of photography and a ton of patience is involved.

Sheila’s Instagram page,, is a colorful collection of shots that veer from the sunset-dappled beaches to the secretive corners of the Dare County mainland. And virtually every pic will cause an adventurous explorer to pause and marvel at the sheer variety of wildlife that is found close to home.

It’s not easy having the pre-requisite perseverance to wait until something happens. Wild activity is never a guarantee, and it’s certainly possible with a wildlife photography hobby to spend hours on end without anything of note occurring.

But both the barrier islands and the mainland of the Outer Banks can offer a big payoff to photographers when the deer, antelope, alligators, and other wildlife come out to play.

“It’s always exciting to go out and see something that I’ve never seen before,” says Sheila. “There were quite a few animals I had never seen out in the wild until I was just [concentrating on] looking around.”

“I’m addicted to it,” she adds. “And I’ve met others out there who live closer to the mainland refuges, and they can’t believe I come all the way from Hatteras Island to take photos.”

“But it’s so quiet and nice when I go out there. I ride around, have lunch or a snack, and just go with what appears… I call it critter patrol. I love nature, and I love wildlife.”

Sheila may take her grandson along for a ride – or other willing parties who don’t mind being so close to a variety of bears and reptiles – but on the whole, it’s something she does for herself. With an obvious eye for wild beauty, and the patience required to just relax and let nature do its thing, her ensuing photos are grabbing attention among visitors and locals alike who appreciate an insider’s look into the Outer Banks’ wild side.

“It’s always exciting to see them re-posted – especially by the refuges,” says Sheila. “But I do it for myself. It’s different, and it’s peaceful, and it’s relaxing – a stress-free zone. And you never know what you’re going to capture next.”


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