Sunday, October 13, 2019

Georgia’s Coastal Islands: Jekyll Island

I have lived in Georgia for 31 years now but had never traveled to one of Georgia’s barrier islands until now. The Georgia coast is short, but it includes 15 barrier islands (not all of which are easily accessible). In conjunction with a family trip to Florida, we decided recently to visit Jekyll Island. I chose Jekyll because of its numerous bike paths which would allow us to explore the entire length and width of the island easily.

This photo is of a sunrise from the beach. To avoid stepping on the dunes, this was taken from the boardwalk at the Beach Village (there are many convenient boardwalks).

This quote (from this source) is a good one and provides good background on the coast in general:
Georgia does not have a long coastline; it extends roughly one-hundred miles from Tybee Island in the north to Cumberland Island in the south. Georgia’s coast is not a continuous beach where sea suddenly meets dry land, but an irregular, beautiful mixture of rivers, streams, swamps, estuaries, and islands. Another important item to note about Georgia’s coast is that it is not a static place; because of tides - the daily rise and fall of the ocean - the points where the ocean touches the land is constantly changing. At low tide, sea level is down and coastal rivers freely flow out into the ocean. But at high tide the ocean level rises by up to seven feet, pushing seawater inland for distances up to ten miles, sometime more. When this happens the coastal rivers overflow their banks and flood low-lying areas, creating saltwater marshes. These marshes are one of the most important geographical features of the Georgia coast.

The islands off the Georgia coast are called barrier islands because they form a barrier, or wall, blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. Georgia has fourteen primary barrier islands - from north to south they are Tybee Island, Little Tybee Island, Wassaw Island, Ossabaw Island, St. Catherine’s Island, Blackbeard Island, Sapelo Island, Wolf Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, and Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier Islands). Most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by the state or federal governments. Some have been reserved as national wildlife refuges and wildernesses, and one - Cumberland Island - is a national seashore.
We were there just inside the off-season so the weather was nice but the island was not very crowded. The island is very easy to get around, accessible by bike paths clearly illustrated on maps. You can also drive, but I imagine parking spaces fill up during the seasonal months. The beaches are very clean; we picked up very little trash in the area between Great Dunes Park and South Dunes. The sand dollars were delightfully abundant, both alive and dead (only pick up dead ones!).

The bike path is unpaved through this Maritime Forest section

Iopomoea imperati and
Heterotheca subaxillaris
Centrosema virginianum and Serenoa repens

We visited the beach at sunrise and found wide dunes with sea oats (Uniola paniculata), beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati), and small shrubby things. Further back from the dunes was a good mix of plants, with blooming plants like camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris), Spanish needles (Bidens alba), and spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) attracting the very abundant Gulf Fritillary butterfly. In less developed areas, the areas beyond the dunes had more woody plants like cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) and tangles of shrubs and vines. Messy as these areas can be, they are important protection zones from extreme weather.

My husband captioned this: "Put a bird on it!"

An Eastern redcedar leans over a tidal marsh near Driftwood beach (there was a gator in the water)

Outside of the beach, the bike paths went through the other habitats such as maritime live oak forest, freshwater wetlands, and tidal marshes (several of which still had a healthy population of mosquitoes so stops were quick!). Many of the paths have informative signage about the environment and what it supports. I will preface the remainder of the blog by saying I only saw a fraction of what is there. I was not prepared for long stops with extensive exploration. What I did see convinced me that Jekyll contains great amounts of natural areas, rich with a diversity of native plants. Online resources for identifying plants on Jekyll include iNaturalist and Save Jekyll Island.

The Plantation Oak (Quercus virginiana), 375+ years old; considered the largest

There was one particular tree that I sought out. The Plantation Oak on Jekyll is famous for being old and large. It is a live oak (Quercus virginiana) that is located in the historic district next to Crane Cottage, near Faith Chapel. Information on the internet is a bit vague on where it is so I am determined to be specific here! I originally found a large tree next to a small airport, but that was not it. We finally got directions to the Plantation Oak from a friendly employee at the nearby Jekyll Island Club Hotel; the tree is marked with a plaque.

It's amazing how much of this tree is intact given how long it's been here

We visited Driftwood Beach, which more known for what is dead than what is living: erosion has caused trees like live oaks and pines (probably also some junipers and palms) to die and remain in place. Some of the trees appear very close to the water, a testament to the ability of their roots to hold on even in death. This is a fantastic place for sunrise photos as well as good morning light in the adjacent wetlands.

Some of the most abundant plants included live oak (Quercus virginiana), Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), wild grapes (Vitis rotundifolia and 5 other species of grape), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), one of the bays (Persea sp.), groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), and many, many grasses, sedges, rushes, and cordgrass (Spartina sp.), etc. I was also excited to find Hercules club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) in the wild for the first time. In general, many of the aforementioned plants were loaded with fruit, no doubt making this island a good stop for some migrating birds.

The juicy fruits of tough bully (Sideroxylon tenax) were beautiful
I found a monarch butterfly enjoying Bidens alba

Landscaped areas on the island used a fair number of native plants include the coontie palm (Zamia pumila), mulhy grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), wax myrtle, yaupon holly, Walter's viburnum (Viburnum obovatum), and plenty of live oaks and cabbage palms. Several pavilions also used dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis). While non-native plants are also used, it was nice to see such a good mix of native ones included.

Do consider visiting one of Georgia's beautiful and important barrier islands. They have some beautiful beaches, marshes, birds, and native plants!

Map of Islands (source

1 comment:

  1. Great exploration and photography. This is what I love about botanizing. Finding that sense of place through plants. Local ecology and diversity. Thanks for sharing!