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Exploring Nature Conservation on a Jekyll Island Vacation

As we sped down the Georgia highway towards a beach getaway I found myself videoing the relentless GDOT pesticide destruction along the roadway. My husband mentioned that my mind always seems to be focused on nature. He’s right. We were on our way to check out a new vacation spot that wouldn’t be as busy and sad for us as our once sleepy and beloved South Carolina island that has become so developed over the last 30 years that when we return each year all we see is the loss of natural areas.

Maritime forests along the coast are fragmented because of human development. Our new goal is to find Southern coastal islands where there are more live oaks than hotels. I took this in a maritime forest on Jekyll Island.

Our destination was Jekyll Island, a 7-mile barrier island that is a Georgia state park where the focus is on conservation and sustainability, and the only building going on is on already developed land. Almost a century ago the resort we stayed at was a millionaire’s playground. Now the fanciest hotel near the beach is next to a Days Inn, there’s 25 miles of biking trails around the island, and anyone can stay at one of the most beautiful beaches on the Atlantic for an $8 entrance fee. My interest is not sharing details about our family vacation, which was magical, but showing some of the ways I was able to make some of the same kind of connections to nature on vacation as I do at home.

I was on vacation but did pretty much the same kind of nature sleuthing I enjoy doing at home - only in a brand new natural area.

Native plants are one of my favorite ways to explore local ecosystems and I took dozens of photos of new and familiar native plants.

This is just a handful of the native plants I saw at Jekyll Island. Clockwise from top left - Snow squarestem/Melanthera nivea, shrubby camphorweed/Pluchea odorata, beautyberry/Callicarpa, sea oxeye/ Borrichia frutescens, frogfruit/Phylla nodiflora, and beach sunflower/Helianthus debilis

I learned about a beautiful yet evil white flowered native beach plant aptly called finger rot or tread-softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus) that unsurprisingly shows up on dangerous plant lists. All parts of the plant are covered in stinging hairs that release a toxin when touched causing intense stinging, burning and itching that lasts about an hour or so – with a lingering rash in most cases. My husband experienced the intense pain firsthand when he brushed up against this plant biking and a bristly seed capsule stuck to his leg. When he tried to flick it off it stuck to his finger and got him again! Yet finger rot doesn’t bother the gopher tortoises eating the leaves, songbirds and bobwhite quail eating the seeds, or the many pollinators seeking out the flowers.

You can see the tiny, stinging hairs all over the finger rot.

The habitat value of native spurred butterfly pea/Centrosema virginianum was obvious by the bumblebees that seemed to be crawling in and out of the flowers. Nature is brilliant because the popular flowers (named for their butterfly shape) are specialized for bee pollination. Butterfly pea is also a host plant for the Northern cloudywing and long-tailed skipper butterflies. Gopher turtles, white-tailed deer, and bob-white quail eat the plant, and birds eat the seeds. Butterfly weed blooms all summer in full sun to partial shade in moist sandy, well-drained acidic soils with poor nutrients. It grows 6-12 feet with a twining habit, has fine white hairs throughout, and gets its name from a visible little green part (spur) on the top of the flower.

When I came home from our beach trip I made the connection that one of the plants I took home from the recent Intown Atlanta GNPS native plant swap was a spurred butterfly pea. After seeing how well it grows on a coastal strand area on I'm curious to see how it does in a completely different place like my Atlanta yard. I'm sure if it grows well the bumblebees will thank me!

Everywhere we went on the island I saw patches of native bidens alba, a sun loving native plant that attracts a large variety and number of pollinators from summer through fall. Bidens alba is considered a valuable habitat plant. It’s a butterfly and moth host plant, and in Florida it’s the third most reliable source of nectar for pollinators.

Some of the butterflies on the bidens alba included (clockwise from top Left) white peacock, long tailed skipper, zebra longwing, pearl crescent, great Southern white, and long winged skipper.

If you look close the little orange dots all over this small patch of bidens alba are gulf fritillary butterflies!

I also saw my first white peacock butterflies flitting around the bidens alba. In North America these beautiful sub-tropical butterflies are found in Gulf Coast states and South Carolina - and apparently the Georgia coast. Host plants include wild petunia (Ruellia caroliniensis), Carolina false vervain (Verbena carnea), Herb-of-grace (Bacopa monnieri) and turkey-tangle frogfruit (lippia nodiflora).

The only flowers I saw white peacock butterflies on were the bidens alba.

We biked through diverse habitats including freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and an old growth maritime forest where I didn’t know the invasives from the natives very well but was able to enjoy the dense forest filled with native live oaks and pine trees. The pine trees mean the area was once impacted by nature-made fire or winds, or by people from timbering and agriculture. Pine trees grow back but are naturally replaced by live oaks over time. This is why the number of centuries-old live oak trees is so remarkable - the largest and oldest on the island is a 375 year old live oak named Plantation Oak!

This is "Plantation Oak", the largest and oldest live oak on Jekyll Island.

Jekyll Island is famously known for a post-apocalyptic area called Driftwood Beach where sand erosion from one end of the island has left preserved dead trees where there was once a maritime forest. The existence of this stunning beach has to do with the unique geographical features of the island – the waves are not strong enough to sweep large debris out to sea because of the distance from the continental shelf, there is a deep shipping channel between the island and the one next to it, and barrier islands tend to naturally shift west. The steady natural and manmade rise in sea level also contributes to this reappearance of an ancient marshland.

The fantastical landscape of Driftwood Beach has many ecological touchpoints.

We visited the Georgia Sea Turtle Center where we learned the biggest threat to the endangered loggerhead turtle population is being caught in fishing gear. Other threats to sea turtles include development, pollution, invasive species, and boat strikes. One of the turtles we met at the hospital will never be able to be set free because he was too injured by a boat strike and is partially paralyzed. There were signs everywhere to stay off the fragile dunes where turtles nest. Thanks to conservation efforts this year there were 236 sea turtle nests on the island - the highest number ever recorded!

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is a hospital as well as an educational center for visitors to learn about protecting coastal sea life.

Signs about conservation, restoration, protection, and preservation of the fragile coastal ecosystems help instruct and educate island visitors.

During a bike ride at dusk, I had to backtrack and take another route because there were a handful of deer right in the middle of my path. The white-tail deer population is prolific on the island because there has traditionally been no apex predators to keep them in check. As I cut through a back parking lot to try to avoid the deer, I saw what looked like a cat walking through a clearing near the woods, but it was larger and had a bobbed tail. It didn’t see me because I was behind the parked tour trollies. When I realized it was a bobcat, I took out my phone and was able to capture just a few seconds of it just casually walking along before it went out of sight. The first photo documentation of a bobcat on Jekyll Island was in 2014, a century after bobcats vanished from the island. In 2016 there were two cubs. In 2017 at least four bobcats were believed to be living on the island. They are making a comeback and it is estimated that there are currently 10-12 bobcats on the island. Their primary food source is marsh rabbits which are abundant. Maybe as the population increases the deer population will decrease. It doesn’t take much effort to connect the dots between restoring nature on a 5,500-acre barrier island with a reputation for focusing on preservation and the return of the reclusive bobcat!

I took a short video so I don't have a photo of the bobcat, but these deer were blocking a path not far from where I saw the bobcat.

We only brushed the surface of making nature connections on Jekyll Island. We’ll definitely return to explore and learn more.

Nature was front and center on our way home. My husband admired the wildflowers planted along the highway. Non-native garden and sulphur cosmos (bipinatus and sulphureus) dominated the view. GDOT requires all plants used along Georgia roadways to be both native to the state and grown in a Georgia nursery. According to their website, there are over a dozen native plants on the list of plants used on public roads including black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bur-marigold (Bidens artistosa), clasping coneflower (rudbeckia ampleicaulis), lanceleaf coreopsis (coreopsis lanceolata), and narrow-leaf sunflowers (helianthus angustifolius). Yet the website photos profiled also include the cosmos. Also on the list is non-native cornflower (centaurea cyanus), an exotic invasive in some states. The inconsistency confirms the need to continue raising awareness...

I love the idea of native wildlife lined highways....Georgia needs to stop including non-native flowers in them.

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