At 16,500 acres, Sapelo is the fourth largest island along the one hundred miles of Georgia coastline. 97% of the island is state-owned and managed entities primarily focused on environmental, marine, and wildlife research. Their ‘lab’ the largely intact and near-pristine habitats on and surrounding the island. Entities include the University of Georgia Marine Institute, the Richard J. Reynolds Wildlife Management Area, and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
What appeals to the scientists is that the state of the island appeals to and attracts an abundance of wildlife that live in or visit the multiple intact habitats of the island and surrounding estuaries. Birds are in abundance throughout the year with the Spring and Fall migrations highlighting the calendar. And because of the conservation, preservation, and management practices, it is getting better for at least some of the species. For example, Piping and Wilson Plovers. Official checklist entries include:
- Number of species: 269
- Number of globally threatened species: 4
- Number of introduced species: 3
Much of the remaining 3% of the island, including the 434-acres Hog Hammock community, is owned in a complex entanglement of Heirs Properties by descendants of the enslaved people that provided the labor for the antebellum plantations. The Geechee people.
This split is an artifact of the unique histories of the Georgia barrier islands. The earliest European settlers valued the islands for their agricultural potential, in particular rice, cotton, and sugar cane. All of which require scale to be profitable. Sapelo, and most of its neighbors, were acquired for large plantations by a small number of planters. When this economy fell apart after the Civil War, an equally small number of northern industrialists purchased large tracts on the larger islands, if not the whole island. The remote islands became private hunting and fishing preserves and generally playgrounds for the rich. Accessible only by boat or plane and by invitation, unless you lived in Hog Hammock. Access by ferry only continues this isolation.
Viable wildlife numbers were valued by the visiting owners. Overseers implemented conservation and management practices to protect the success of the experience. It was Georgia’s good fortune that the owners did not need to monetize their island property holdings. They were already wealthy and Georgia’s islands being separated from the mainland by marshes with high tidal exchanges made development challenging and less valued. Most island ‘preserves’ were sold to the state, including Sapelo by the Reynolds heirs. This fortunate protection was all consummated with the 1975 enactment of the Georgia Marshland Protection Act. A permit is required to “fill, alter or locate a structure over marshlands”. Today Georgia has fully 1/3rd of the salt marsh along the Atlantic coast. Ninety-two percent of Georgia’s shoreline is dominated or fronted by salt marsh. Except for Tybee, Jekyll, and St Simons, there are no bridges or causeways to the islands. Unimpeded marsh and mudflat views remain.
There is another factor contributing to the cultural respect for the natural state of Sapelo. Early island plantations not only needed large tracts of land, but they also needed cheap labor. You cannot get any cheaper than free, so slavery made an early appearance on the remote islands. Because rice, in particular, required unique knowledge, many of the slaves were captured in West and Central Africa where rice was successfully cultivated. Many of the present-day Gullah-Geechee people can trace their ancestry to tribes in these regions of Africa.
This legacy is a critically important Sapelo’s natural state. The Geechee people retained much of their ancestors cultural and religious respect for land and wildlife and communal living. Hog Hammock has private parcels but is laid out in a very communal perspective with accessible open areas and paths, including the section of beach the community received in the gift from Thomas Spalding, an original planter. These communal spaces are in their natural state and should not be available for development. Working in close coordination with the state entities in conservation and preservation has also been welcome outcome such as protection of freshwater ponds.
But. There is always a but. The original 434-acres gift was partitioned along family lines in a practice known as Heirs Properties. The families assumed that the land on which they dwelled at the time of the gift was theirs to pass along to their heirs. It’s a long story, but the lack of clarity of deeds and ownership makes it possible for a less than scrupulous heir to work with a less than scrupulous developer (or county government for that matter) and the family lose the property with the residence and adjoining communal property. Just look at what happened to the Carolina barrier islands.
If you have been kind enough to read this far you might be wondering what this has to do with birding. Quite simply, this unique combination of science and nature-centered culture has made Sapelo one of the last intact sanctuaries for year-round southeastern coastal birds and, in some ways more importantly, a safe migration layover. Pristine, uncrowded beaches and flourishing tidal creeks and mudflats are a welcome sanctuary for migrant shorebirds. So even if you do not physically bird Sapelo, you benefit from this history and legacy.
One way to continue to reap this benefit is to not only support the conservation NGOs at work on the islands, but also to go birding and experience the Geechee culture. See first hand how the islanders coming together as the Save Our Legacy Ourselves working to continue to protect their nature-rich, but cash strapped, inheritance. They want to stay. They just need an economy that is sustainable.
Environmentally sensitive and nature and culture appreciative visitors might just fund such an economy.
Plan a trip. Reynolds plantation is a fun place to stay. There is also a growing number of environmentally sensitive rental properties such as Gateway to Sapelo. There are guided tours, including JR Grovner’s, a true Geechee son, Sapelo Island Tours. NGOs, like Georgia Conservancy also host trips. A great one is their annual service weekend.
All of these photos were taken on a Georgia Audubon Birdfest trip in late April 2022.
In short, take you binoculars, cameras, and cash to this critically birding destination. Leave the cash to take pressure off the remaining families. You will not regret it.
The uplands have their own wonders.