Non-native invasive species (invasives) have been identified as one of the greatest threats to habitat and wildlife conservation in the United States. They are a threat to LSSI’s ecosystems, in spite of the relatively undisturbed landscapes found here. A non-native invasive species is an exotic species that causes damage to native plants and animals. The ecological management team and other island staff actively manage and remove invasives in order to protect the island’s biodiversity and keep the natural habitats as healthy as possible.
Little St. Simons Island’s seven miles of beaches are great habitat for nesting loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). LSSI experienced a record nesting year in 2013 for Loggerhead turtles with 119 nests. In 2012 the island saw its second highest year with 116 nests of this federally threatened turtle. This trend is reflected in state numbers which reached a record high in 2013.
LSSI has been working on a project to replace our old bulkhead with a more ecologically friendly form of bank stabilization – a living shoreline. The project is the third in a series of pilot projects of this type in Georgia. Several conservation partners are working with us on this, The Nature Conservancy, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division and University of Georgia’s Marine Extension. We have also received some funding for the project from a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) grant.
In March 2012, Abby Sterling transitioned from the naturalist staff to begin working on a research project for her graduate work at the University of Georgia. She had been a naturalist since 2008, and was excited to continue to work on Little St Simons Island and contribute to research which serves several purposes that have direct application to the island. Through this research, we have been able to continue our intensive monitoring of nesting shorebirds, focusing on American oystercatchers and expanding to monitoring Wilson’s plovers. Additionally, this project will ultimately provide guidance for focusing monitoring and management on nesting areas that are highly productive for these two species.
For years, a variety of wading birds have gathered at Norm’s Pond to nest. Wading birds typically look for islands surrounded by freshwater wetlands. These freshwater wetlands are home to American alligators, who act as the birds’ best defense against mammalian predators, such as raccoons. According to Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist for Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Non-game program, there are 10 other nesting colonies, or rookeries, like this one on the coast. All of these colonies are monitored by GADNR at least twice a season by fly-overs and some are monitored additionally on the ground.
Fire is an important ecological management tool for a variety of habitats, returning nutrients to the soil and reducing woody vegetation and shrubs. Last week, we conducted a prescribed burn in the maritime shrub and grassland habitat between the beach, Bass Creek Road and Beach Road. With the help of local biologists from the local non-game division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Jekyll Island Authority, and the St. Simons Land Trust, the island maintenance staff and ecological management team ignited and controlled a low-burning fire on Tuesday, February 18th to prevent woody vegetation from encroaching on open grassy areas.
Muhly or sweet grass (Muhlenbergia filipes) grows throughout much of the southeastern United States, and is most widely known from the barrier and sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina. It’s often found growing along the edges of the islands, along the uplands adjacent to the salt marsh and in some cases forming relatively vast grasslands just inland from the primary dunes near the beach. Historically muhly grasswas used by Native Americans and the Gullah-Geechee people as the primary component of sweet grass baskets. This cultural art form is continued by descendants of the Gullah-Geechee and their beautiful baskets can be bought at places like Sapelo Island and Savannah in Georgia, and St. Helena Island and around the Charleston area in South Carolina.
Approximately 280 species of birds utilize the habitats on Little St. Simons Island over the course of a year, and just over 200 of these species spend the winter here. This includes some of our resident birds that are with us year-round, as well as others that nest further north but migrate south to coastal Georgia for the winter. Our relatively mild winters and variety of natural environments result in abundant food resources and areas of cover to support this multitude of bird species. We have a particularly high diversity of shorebirds, waterfowl and birds of prey during the winter months.
Black Rails are a highly secretive marsh bird about the size of a mouse. These birds can be found in Georgia marshes, although they are a rare species. Due to their small size, Black Rails prefer shorter vegetation in the high-marsh like Distichlis spicata and Salicornia sp. Due to habitat loss, Black Rails are considered “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, and on the National Audubon Society’s “Watchlist” as a declining species. Very little research has been conducted on Black Rails, so there is much to learn about these birds.
Since 2010 Little St. Simon’s Island has been teaming up with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to monitor bat populations using AnaBats. As a bat is foraging, it emits a high-pitched “feeding buzz” inaudible to the human ear. An AnaBat is a device that detects and records these sounds. Each species emits calls at a unique frequency, which has allowed researchers to determine the species that are present on the island. Of the sixteen species in Georgia, Little St. Simon’s Island is host to six of them.