Ossabaw’s Natural Environment
Ossabaw Island’s greatest value lies in its biological richness of native plant and animal communities. The island has a variety of unique ecosystems which can be divided into three general categories: beach and dunes, wooded interior, and marsh and sound.
Beach and Dune Communities
The natural beach and dune communities on Ossabaw Island are of great state and regional importance. Beachfront development, beach renourishment projects, and unregulated recreational access have altered the natural condition of beaches from Maine to Florida. The State of Georgia has a rare opportunity to protect and maintain the biological value of Ossabaw’s beaches through careful and creative management practices.
Ossabaw has approximately 13 miles of undeveloped beaches and associated dune communities. These dunes are both non-wood, active, and arrested dunes. Characteristic plant species on active dunes include dune greenbriar, sea-beach croton and a variety of grasses such as seaside panicum and marsh hay. Older, less active dunes are additionally inhabited by species such as yucca, yaupon holly and loblolly pine, among numerous others.
The wildlife value of Ossabaw’s beaches is high, and could be dramatically impacted by unregulated human access. Ossabaw’s beach consistently has one of the highest annual nesting densities of loggerhead turtles in Georgia. These loggerheads are part of a unique nesting cohort including the turtles nesting in the Carolinas and north Florida. The undisturbed beaches of Ossabaw are the most important areas on the island for migrant, wintering and breeding shorebirds and seabirds. It is one of the only sites on the Georgia coast where long-billed curlew can be found in the winter and early spring with regularity.
Unchecked recreational use during critical nesting and brood-rearing periods from April through July negatively impacts the reproductive success of certain shorebirds like wilson’s plovers and american oystercatchers. Maintenance of beach-nesting bird species abundance and population levels on a state owned island is a crucial task of the Department of Natural Resources. Adherence to existing restrictions on beach use will eliminate the need for more stringent restrictions in the future.
The upland maritime forest on Ossabaw Island is comprised of a mix of native hardwoods, such as live oak, southern magnolia and loblolly pine. The forest is dominated by live oaks, which are common to Georgia’s barrier islands where salt spray from the ocean reduces competition and allows the oaks with their leathery leaves to dominate. Together with overgrazing of feral animals, the reduced amount of light reaching the forest floor from the dense spreading crown of the live oaks greatly limits the amount of vegetation growing below. Saw palmetto forms most of the thick understory of the maritime forest. Other common vegetation of the maritime forest includes the fragrant wax myrtle, red cedar, yaupon holly, and vines such as smilax and muscadine grape.
The Saltmarsh and Estuary
Marshes and estuaries are so dependent on one another that they are considered to be one ecological unit. They are the nursery grounds for the majority of seafood we consume today. Marshes provide food and shelter for a plethora of invertebrates, birds, fish and vertebrates. Marshes also function as filters for coastal waters as well as buffers from storms. Tidal marshes formed in the low areas between the mainland and the sand dunes as the barrier island developed. These waters were less turbulent than the open sea, and in these quieter waters, suspended sediments (clay and silts) were dropped, forming a layer of mud. Eventually as these deposits built up, salt-tolerant marsh plants stabilized them. The coastal currents and mainland rivers flowing to the ocean ensure a continuous supply of sediments. Areas where river waters meet the sea are known as estuaries. These estuaries and marshes produced much of what people living in a coastal environment ate until agriculture became a major activity. Oyster and other shellfish were used extensively by prehistoric inhabitants, so much so, that shell is a frequent indicator of archaeological sites.
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