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Jekyll Island: Southern Area

Jekyll Island Causeway and Jointer Creek

[Fig. 21] Most people view causeways as something to quickly travel across on the way to their destination. But nature lovers might want to slow down on their way to Jekyll for some outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities. The causeway crosses 4,000 acres of Spartina marsh and adjoining mud flats on Jointer Creek to the south, which support many animal species. At low tide, the mud flats of Jointer Creek, located 1.8 miles south of the causeway on US 17, are some of the best places to view roseate spoonbills between July and September, as well as wood storks, great blue herons, and great egrets. Look out for rare diamondback terrapins, which cross the road between April and July and are frequently squashed by vehicles.

The land supporting the causeway hosts salt-tolerant coastal shrub species such as wax myrtle, sea oxeye, marsh elder, and exotic pink and white oleander. The causeway at dusk might be the best place on the Georgia coast to view marsh rabbits. The gray berries of wax myrtles provide important food energy to thousands of migrating tree swallows, which are one of the most glorious sights of the coast. Tree swallows fly in large groups and look from a distance like a swarm of graceful bees. They are identified by their white belly. Avocets and plovers have been seen in the mud flats behind the Jekyll Island Visitors Center, along with many other species of birds. Seaside sparrows are heard singing in spring, and secretive clapper rails and willets inhabit the marsh. Whimbrels and long-billed curlews are unusual migrants in the winter. Birds observed perching on wires and poles include osprey, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and peregrine falcons.

Binoculars are a great aid for wildlife watching in the marsh, and remember to use great caution while viewing wildlife on the causeway because of the hazard of fast-moving traffic. Fishermen angling for inshore prey use Jekyll Creek Pier on the Jekyll Island Causeway near the bridge.

South Dunes Picnic Area, Glory Boardwalk, and South Beach

If you are looking for a good place to picnic and enjoy the beach near a fascinating and beautiful maritime and dune forest of Live Oaks, then South Dunes Picnic Area [Fig. 20(12)] is for you. Protected by a 20-foot back dune, the well-equipped picnic area has two boardwalks, numerous picnic tables and shelters, and public bathrooms with showers for those spending a day at the beach. The series of dune ridges fronting the picnic area supports several interesting natural communities, including an older, wind-sheared live oak and shrub forest, along with a re-establishing shrub-interdune meadow. Wildlife observed here includes songbirds in the forest and shorebirds on the beach, raccoons in the park, and deer south of the park where the forest ends and a beach meadow begins. Freshwater ponds support frogs, turtles, snakes, and an occasional alligator. The boardwalks provide glimpses into the dune communities without disturbing them. Insect repellant is highly recommended in this area.

Today, it is much better understood, but unfortunately not entirely practiced, that one should not disturb a dune community by trampling or picking the plants found there. In the past, the area was assaulted by beach-lovers whose foot traffic up and down the dunes caused tremendous erosion. Dune plants hold the sand in place, and when they are killed the sand is liberated, causing a domino effect. Tons of freed sand migrated southward on Jekyll and to the north end of Cumberland Island, burying healthy forests and shrub communities. In 1983, a beach restoration project formed new primary dunes with bulldozed sand, installed snow fences, planted sand-trapping plants, and built two boardwalks over the dunes. After crossing the oak-shrub forest on the boardwalk, naturalists may want to examine the natural progress of the dune communities that are the results of these reclamation activities and compare species diversity here with less disturbed, more established shrub-meadow zones. The live oak forest is most interesting, as it shows the shrubbing effect. Notice that regardless of whether the tree's base is located near the top or the bottom of the dune, it grows up to the shearline created by the prevailing winds from the ocean.

Glory Boardwalk and South Beach

[Fig. 21(11)] Known as the Glory Boardwalk, this footway was built by the producers of the movie Glory, who filmed the climactic battle scene of the classic Civil War movie on Jekyll's beach. This provides easy access to the progression of natural communities in five dune ridges that lead to the beach on Jekyll's southern Atlantic side. The beaches of the southern end of Jekyll, in an arc from the Atlantic side, past St. Andrews Sound, and to the western side of the island to the St. Andrews Picnic Area, are regarded as the best places for shell collecting and wildlife observation on the island, especially during the winter. The South Beach area is regarded as one of the best sites on the Georgia coast for bird-watching during migratory periods. Saltwater fishing is excellent here as well. Access is available at the Glory Boardwalk, the 4-H boardwalk farther south, and a boardwalk located at the end of Macy Lane.

Crossing the Glory Boardwalk, the nature observer will travel from the shrub forest zone of oaks, willows, buckthorn, hercules club, and other woody plants into the shrub zone of wax myrtle and groundsel, then into an extensive beach meadow zone of camphorweed, yucca, Russian thistle, and various grasses. Each dune is like the rings of a tree, with the older communities closest to the parking lot and the youngest closest to the beach. The swales between the dunes trap water and provide important freshwater sites for wildlife. Rabbit, raccoon, and deer tracks are observed in the muddier portions of sloughs. Traveling south on the beach, eroded scarps expose older, clay soils in layers below younger sands, suggesting the former existence of an ancient salt marsh. For clays to settle out, they need a calmer body of water. Like all barrier islands, the sands of Jekyll remain in transition.

The shifting shoals in the intertidal area, along with the shrub dune and marsh transition areas of South Beach, are popular with many bird species that roost and feed here. Identified here are a variety of gulls (laughing, ring-billed, and herring), terns (royal, Caspian, and Forster's), and sandpipers. Brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common during all seasons. Plovers, turnstones, avocets, godwits, curlews, dowitchers, willets, stilts, and oystercatchers are observed resting or feeding in the intertidal area during migratory seasons. As the beach becomes marsh, more wading birds are seen, including wood storks and a variety of herons and egrets. Migratory birds of prey, including kestrels, peregrine falcons, and merlins hunt the South Beach area, and rattlesnakes populate the interdune areas.

St. Andrews Picnic Area

[Fig. 21(10)] With views of Jekyll Sound, St. Andrews Picnic Area rests on a bluff where several dramatically different natural communities come together. Fronting the bluff is a narrow inlet beach, which runs north from the tip of Jekyll to the picnic area where it ends at a marsh creek. On the bluff at the picnic area is a mixed forest of Live Oaks, red cedars, and loblolly pines that are being undercut by erosion from fast and deep tidal currents carrying a rich soup of marine life. Locals are often seen pulling seine nets attempting to snare shrimp, crabs, flounder, and mullet. Out in the sound, gleaming Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins are commonly seen surfacing for air. Going south, the trees give way to buckthorn shrubs and dune grasses. The dune ridges reveal the fingerprints of a recurved spit. This mix of natural communities produces an edge effect preferred by many species.

The Live Oaks of the picnic area harbor many plants on their branches and trunks worth examining, including lichens, resurrection fern, and Spanish and ball moss. Ball moss (Tillandsia recurvata) is a tropical cousin of Spanish moss that is more commonly observed in the Caribbean. It has a coarser texture and tends to clump in balls.

Mid-Island Nature Trail

[Fig. 21(13)] This short but interesting nature trail that crosses the southern end of the island allows access to mid-island forest habitat and the wildlife it supports. This area can be inundated with water during wet seasons and insect repellant is strongly recommended. Bikes are allowed on the trail, but nature lovers may prefer to enjoy the surroundings at a slower pace.

Hikers cross a dune ridge before descending into a lower area of mixed maritime forest of live oak, pine, and cedar. The understory is populated with saw palmetto, wax myrtle, sparkleberry, and beautyberry. muscadine vines, with their grapelike fruit, cling to trees and shrubs. Very interesting are 15-foot-tall saw palmettos, noticed by naturalist and author Taylor Schoettle, that grow nearly as upright as a tree about 35 yards from the entrance. Palmettos, with their fan-shaped leaves, usually creep along the surface of the ground. As the hiker approaches Riverview Drive, the canopy opens up and pine, cedar snags, and cabbage palms are more prevalent. Here the quiet observer may see deer, turkeys, or quail that remain from the island's service as a hunting plantation for the rich. At the end of the trail, walk north to a freshwater marshy area where marsh plants and frogs are common.

Pignut hickory (Carya glabra) Coastal Encounters Nature Center

[Fig. 21(9)] If Jekyll Island is an outdoor classroom, the teachers are based out of here. Coastal Encounters Nature Center has two centers, one on St. Simons in the historic Coast Guard Station and one here in the location of the closed Waterskipark. The work done here is extremely valuable if you love the Georgia coast. Environmental education plays an important role in generating understanding and political support for protection of Georgia's sensitive natural areas.

The Jekyll center has 12 aquariums featuring local wildlife, including baby loggerheads, and many nature programs geared for children and adults. Travelers with an interest in the island's natural history and environments should stop in and get acquainted with the animals and programs. Summer science camp for children age 7–12 helps open younger minds to the world around them with hands-on educational programs. Other programs include stargazing, family boat trips, all-ages beach and marsh ecology walks, and kayak excursions with experienced biologists that are a great way to learn coastal ecology. (See also Nature Tours and Sea Turtle Watches on Jekyll Island.)

The Coastal Encounters Jekyll office fronts a 17-acre man-made lake that was part of the 1968 effort to build a marina on the island. The lake was to be used to osmotically kill unwanted saltwater organisms on the hulls of yachts, and the marina site, located south of the lake, was dredged to create a 36-acre marina for yachts. However, nature is hard to control, and silt quickly filled in the marina site and salt water seeped into the freshwater lake. The lake was then used as a waterpark, where tourists were pulled on water skis by a towing contraption.

Today, the lake is home to alligators, snakes, frogs, turtles, and fish such as croaker and drum. Raccoons and deer are local residents. Wading birds commonly seen feeding in the shallower areas of the pond include egrets, herons, and wood storks. Many types of migrating waterfowl rest on the surface. A nature walk is found on the property and is used in the educational programs.

Jekyll Harbor Marina

[Fig. 21(8)] Seen on the right as you cross the causeway is Jekyll's most fully equipped marina. The restaurant, SeaJay's, is located here, as well as boat rentals, food and drinks, gas and oil, bait and tackle, forklift hoist, diesel, telephone, pool, spa, showers, laundry, picnic area, and rental bikes. Located down Harbor Road off South Riverview Drive. Phone (912) 635-3137.

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