Monitoring our Muhly Grass Meadows

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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. In addition to the grass’s cultural role, the muhly dominated grasslands provide important habitat for many species of wildlife. These grasslands, along with the associated wax myrtle and scrub dominated areas, are becoming increasingly rare along our coast.On developed islands, there is great demand for houses near the beach, and in some cases, areas that may have once been dominated by muhly and wax myrtle are now covered by neighborhoods. Coastal erosion, exacerbated by sea level rise and other human practices, has likely washed away many acres of this habitat.

Little St. Simons Island stands out among the islands as having some of the most expansive examples of muhly grass dominated habitat left on the Georgia coast. These grasslands on our island support a large density of wildlife and a number of rare species. Common ground doves and common nighthawks both nest in these areas. Marsh rabbits and Eastern kingsnakes are found there along with one particularly interesting and rare legless lizard species–the island glass lizard. The muhly grasslands on Little St. Simons Island are one of the few places that the island glass lizard has been recorded in recent years in Georgia. In October and November, flocks of tens of thousands of tree swallows descend on wax myrtles scattered throughout these areas to feed on the tiny blue fruits. The congregations of these birds here are so immense that they have been mistaken for smoke on the horizon. Considering the large percentage of this rare habitat that is found on the Island, we are taking steps to conserve it here on the island. Working with the Nongame Section of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and TheNature Conservancy,we are using prescribed fire as a management tool to control the woody vegetation in the muhly dominated areas.