Barrier Island Ecology p.3

Ecosystems of a barrier island

Hunting Island is comprised of eight different interdependent ecosystems

The beach—A beach is the continuously changing point where the land meets the sea. Hunting Island Beach has a history of extreme erosion, and in many places the remains of trees that were once part of the maritime forest have created a “ghost forest” on the beach. Yet the beach is an active place, with shorebirds hunting for smaller creatures, turtles crossing it to nest in the dunes, and crabs burrowing into the sand.

The dunes— Dunes are created through decades or centuries of sand accumulation, and they become more resistant and resilient to storm activity as the plants on them increase in size and root depth. Sea oats are protected by the state of South Carolina because of their importance in securing the dunes. Hunting Island’s dunes are constantly under assault from the waves and tides. Hopefully they are not under assault from beach-goers too.

The lagoon—Hunting Island’s lagoon inlet was created in 1968 when sand was dredged and pumped to the nearby beach in a re-nourishment program. This provided a channel to a deep water refuge for many species of fish, including spot, croaker, seatrout, and flounder.

The marsh islands—Small islands, also called hummocks or hammocks, form at the mouths of creeks from sediment accumulation or from very old dunes. They are surrounded by the salt marsh on the back side of islands such as Hunting Island. You can reach one of these islands by visiting the Marsh Boardwalk.  

The salt marsh—Located on the west or land-ward side of Hunting Island, on your right as you drive from Beaufort, the salt marsh is a very large nursery for sea creatures. A vast system of tidal creeks interlaces the marshes, transporting nutrients and living organisms with every tide change. The sheer quantity of nutrients in the salt marsh makes it one of the most productive habitats on earth.

The maritime forest—Climax maritime forests, such as Hunting Island’s, are established after the early successional landscape has evolved. Mature maritime forests are recognized as essential for the stability and persistence of barrier island ecosystems because they have many mutualistic species that provide extensive root systems to anchor the soil, improve water and nutrient absorption, and help establish future growth. Hunting Island’s forest is dominated by oak, palmetto, and pine.  

The freshwater wetlands—Although it has diminished in size, a 20-acre fresh water wetland has been part of Hunting Island ecology for several centuries. It’s an important environment for migrating and wintering waterfowl.

Ecological importance of barrier islands

The Beaufort Barrier Islands were designated one of the global Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) in 2014 by the Audubon Society and BirdLife International, a worldwide initiative to identify and protect critical sites for bird conservation. Hunting Island is included because of a very large number of shorebirds, seabirds, and wading birds that live, winter, and migrate in the area including some endangered species. Included in the Beaufort Barrier Islands IBA are 10,000 acres of pristine salt marshes.

IBA sites are monitored globally to determine the overall health of the biosphere. Monitors look for bird population declines, threats, and protection plans. Like the canary in the coalmine, birds are one of the first indicators that an ecological area is in trouble. Fortunately, Hunting Island has seen an increase in several threatened or endangered bird species in recent years, including bald eagles and wood storks; whereas least terns and piping plovers seem to be losing habitat on the island as erosion takes more beach.

Conserving IBAs is important for the protection of species diversity on the planet. Much of the US has been converted to monocultures primarily for agricultural use. Forests have been razed, prairies have been plowed, and wetlands have been filled in. In place of bountiful, multi-species ecologies, like Hunting Island, we have corn and soy mono-cultural fields supported by petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Habitat for wildlife has been lost in three primary ways: destruction (bulldozing, mowing, cutting trees, draining wetlands), fragmentation (roads, dams, etc.), and degradation (pollution, and invasive species.)  

Biodiversity is important because humans depend on biological resources for food, medicine, wood products, and recreation areas. Healthy, diverse ecosystems can better withstand natural disasters, pest and disease infestation, and climate change than monocultures. They contribute to climate stability, breakdown of pollution, nutrient storage, maintenance of ecosystems, and protection of water resources.

As the only undeveloped publicly-accessible barrier island in South Carolina, Hunting Island is an important experiment. Here we can discover ways that humans can enjoy and benefit from an ecosystem while protecting it from destructive forces. We can’t do much to stop the waves and the winds from moving the sand around, but we can help prevent the loss of species through programs like the Turtle Conservation Project and the Christmas Bird Count.

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