The Georgia coast contains many unique habitats. Although the coastline is only 90 miles long it contains a third of all coastal wetlands on the East Coast. Most of these wetlands are found in the region referred to as the Golden Isles which are made up of Brunswick and its four barrier islands; St Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island and Little St Simons. These islands actually contain 28 percent of the coastal wetlands of the east coast of the united states. Jekyll Island in particular is owned by the State of Georgia, which has created zoning that allows 65 percent of the island to remain in a natural state. I have been fortunate enough to spend some time in this region and it is well worth the 4-hour drive from metro Atlanta to get there.
Driftwood beach on Jekyll Island is among the most well known in the region. Strong currents let to erosion which caused the trees to die, which were then preserved by the salt air. The in the southern part of the beach there are piles of large rocks. In these rocks, you can find sea squirts, blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), and some species of crabs. Be sure to visit the beach at low tide as the critters in these rocks can only be accessed at this time. In addition, as the tide rises most of the beach goes underwater and you will be forced to either walk back in the uplands or in the water. If you walk northward on the beach you can reach a bike path that runs through a salt marsh. If you continue north you will eventually end up in St Simons Sound. This marsh contains a lot of bird species, in fact, e-bird has reports of over 304 species here. If you don’t have an e-bird you can view birds that have been seen on the beach on this inaturalist page. This is in part due to the fact that the beach serves as a critical stop-over habitat for migrating shorebirds. Highlights include the threatened birds like thepiping plover (Charadrius melodus), wood stork (Mycteria americana), golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera), red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), black-capped petrel (Pterodroma hasitata) and Fea’s petrel (Pterodroma feae).
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is located in South Georgia, near the border with Florida. Recently my friend and I visited to paddle around the swamp and drive around swamp island and walk the Chesser Island boardwalk to try and see some wildlife. The refuge is 630 square miles and encompasses nearly all of the swamp and was designated as a refuge in 1937 by President Roosevelt. It is one of the best preserved freshwater ecosystems in the world and some of the swamp is a national wilderness area. In the western part of the refuge there are is a cypress swamp but in the east it opens up to a prairie land. If you rent a kayak from Okefenokee adventures its is a short trip to see both regions of the swamp. The swamp is births the St. Marys river and the Suwannee river. Okefenokee is a native american word which means land of trembling earth. Most of the “solid” ground is actually peat that is floating. This floating peat is called batteries. Overtime the batteries grow larger and area able to support trees and large animals. The swamp was formed in a saucer shaped depression that used to be a part of the ocean floor.
Many people do not realize that fire plays an important role in the swamp. Without fire the swamp would simple become a hardwood forest. Today prescribed burns reduce the amount of fuel available fire fires. In areas where there is a natural fire regime and humans stop these fires there is a build up of organic materiel. When a fire does break out because there is more fuel, the fire burns hotter than it normally would, damaging the seed bank in the soil. This can permanently damage the ecosystem. One of the most recent fires in Okefenokee occurred in 2011 in the Honey Prairie which burned down the former boardwalk on Chester Island. This was not due to a build up of fuel however, as the parks service lets fires that were caused by lighting burn which maintaining the safety of people and structures inside the park. The new boardwalk has a built in sprinkler system. Over the 7,000 years that the swamp has existed fires occur an average of every 20 years. Currently the swamp is regenerating from the fire. Notable from the young pond cypress trees (Taxodium ascendens) that are sprouting. Trees that sprout from old stumps are common and actually grow faster than seed generated trees. This stump sprouts are called coppices.
While on a boardwalk in Okefenokee National wildlife refuge, which is in South Georgia, my friend and I heard chewing noises. After waiting patiently, a tiny rabbit with short ears and small paws appeared out of the bush! It was a marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). Marsh rabbits are a species of rabbits that are adapted to live in wetlands. There is also a species called swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus), but they the largest species of rabbit in the Southeast and weight between 4 and 6.5 pounds. The ranges of the two species do not entirely overlap which is how I figured out I had seen a marsh rabbit and not a swamp rabbit. You can see marsh rabbits in southeast Virginia, southern Georgia, eastern Alabama, and the Florida peninsula. The largest population is found in the Dismal Swamp. There is a subspecies, Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), which is found in south Florida. The subspecies has darker fur and has a different sized skull than the regular marsh rabbit. The subspecies is considered by IUCN to be critically endangered and is federally listed as endangered. Most of these rabbits can be found on Big Pine and Boca Chica keys. Because of its conservation status, there is more information available about the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.