Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

The word refuge evokes two meanings for me – a place to escape and a place of safety. For all the right reasons, the places we call National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) serve both meanings. I had a chance recently to visit the Pinckney Island NWR and found it incredibly wonderful.

Sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens)
The Pinckney Island NWR was established in 1975 after serving as a game preserve for some years. The following description of the refuge comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

The 4,053 acre refuge includes Pinckney Island, Corn Island, Big and Little Harry Islands, Buzzard Island and numerous small hammocks. Pinckney is the largest of the islands and the only one open to public use. Nearly 67% of the refuge consists of salt marsh and tidal creeks. A wide variety of land types are found on Pinckney Island alone: salt marsh, forestland, brushland, fallow field and freshwater ponds. In combination, these habitats support a diversity of bird and plant life. Wildlife commonly observed on Pinckney Island include waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, neo-tropical migrants, white-tailed deer and American alligators, with large concentrations of white ibis, herons, and egrets.

Pinckney Island NWR is the northern most refuge in a group known as the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex. This chain of national wildlife refuges extends from Pinckney Island NWR near Hilton Head Island, SC, to Wolf Island NWR near Darien, Georgia. Between these lie Savannah, Wassaw, Tybee, Harris Neck, and Blackbeard Island refuges. Together they span a 100-mile coastline and total over 56,000 acres.

Isn’t it wonderful to have so much area protected together? The essential role of this refuge is evident to even the most novice observer. Birds are everywhere! The paths and signage at the refuge are wonderful, so the first group of birds came with a sign all about birds known as marsh feeders.  There was also a sign about salt marsh plants, including the beautiful sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens). There was a lot of groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), but it won’t be flowering until later in the year.

Salt marsh morning glory, note distinctive arrow-shaped leaf
Next came a sign about other critters in the salt pan that emerge when the tide is low. We found fiddler crabs, periwinkle snails, and old oyster and mussel shells. These are important food sources for shore birds as well as filters to keep the water clean. Twining along the ground there was the bright pink bloom of the salt marsh morning glory (Ipomoea sagittata). Click on any picture to see more detail.

Here a snail rests on cordgrass (Spartina ) with a piece of glasswort (Salicornia depressa) behind him.

Vistas of the marsh were beautiful - how restful the area feels. And it is an important resting place for the birds that live here.

Soon the path led us to a rookery known as Ibis Pond. What a fascinating (and noisy) place! A large pond was filled with water-loving trees; I could see a lot of willow (Salix spp.) and in those trees were dozens if not hundreds of nests. Ibis was the most notable species, but we also saw the tricolor heron, the great egret, the green heron and ducks. Quietly swimming around the edges of cattails was a young American alligator.

A rookery

On we pressed, past the demonstration butterfly garden, to an area known as Shell Point. As we walked we passed through communities known as maritime forests. The signs pointed out that maritime forests on barrier islands like this face the Atlantic Ocean. 
Maritime forest has an interesting mix of plants

They are an interesting mix of live oak (Quercus virginiana), Spanish moss, yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), juniper (Juniperus virginiana var silicicola), wax myrtle, vines and herbaceous perennials. It was similar to vegetation I’d seen on nearby Hilton Head Island.

Teucrium canadense

I found another new perennial (to me). This is Canada germander (Teucrium canadense), a perennial that appears to be incredibly widespread (per USDA).

American oystercatchers

At Shell Point we discovered more new shore birds in the marsh. They were very shy, but I managed to sneak a picture of them. I think they are American oystercatchers. Here are a few more of my pictures from the day:

Fiddler crab - one big claw to wave at you

Tri-colored heron

Ibis looking for food in the marsh

Great egret showing all that is beautiful about the coastal south

Be sure to visit if you're in the area - it's free! But you can leave a donation.



  1. Lovely post, as always, Ellen. These marshes, called "Wildlife" refuges are indeed refuges for people, too. And so importantly, they are refuges for the native plants that make the whole thing possible. On Tuesday, July 30 there will be a vote in congress to slash funding for our National Wildlife Refuges. This would be a good time to let your congressman know what you think.

    Thanks for the beautiful visit. If you ever have the chance to travel to Huntington Beach State Park, SC it's another really magical place.

  2. It is sad to me that nature needs a refuge from humanity..We should be an integral part, rather than a destructive force. I always enjoy your posts!

  3. Pickney is a gem. Thanks for the reminder of all there is to experience there! And thanks to CleanGreenNatives for the heads up on that vote!

  4. The barrier islands are some of my favorite places on earth! We regularly visit the ones off of the NC coast...same plants and same beautiful scenery as Pinckney. It's soothing just to look at your photos now. Nice meeting you, by the way. Did you love that conference, or what?! So inspiring!

  5. I loved your post. What a nice mix of sharing the birds, crabs, other wildlife and the native plants of the area. And I really appreciated the arrow pointing towards the (arrow-shaped) morning glory leaf - I would have missed it otherwise!