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Aug 06 2010

Life on Little Bear


(Photos by the Kiawah Conservancy)

(Photos by the Kiawah Conservancy)

Described by a leading conservation easement attorney as “one of the most important conservation easement across the country,” Little Bear Island consists of 151 acres of undeveloped land and forms the most eastern tip of Kiawah Island. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Stono Inlet and is connected to the Ocean Course by a small strip of land.

Habitats on Little Bear include maritime dune shrub thickets, Atlantic maritime dry grasslands, tidal salt marshes, tidal salt flats, salt shrub thickets and coastal beaches. With no history of past environmental disturbance, thanks to a permanent conservation easement held by the Kiawah Conservancy, and no plans for future development, Little Bear Island is preserved in its natural state in perpetuity.

The beaches of Little Bear are home to many loggerheard turtles that arrive in the spring and summer to nest. From the Kiawah side of Little Bear across Penny’s creek is Cougar Island with some of the highest ground on Kiawah. Dolphins are often seen in the creek. Where Little Bear connects to the Ocean Course, the vegetation is best described as Tidal Salt Marsh and Salt Shrub Thicket. Masses of bright yellow sea ox-eye form a backdrop for the dark green perennial glasswort. Nearby are stands of marsh-elder with delicate twining stems of sand-vine attached. Adding to the beauty of the landscape are large stands of yellow seaside goldenrod.

Areas that receive salt water daily present a mosaic of black needle rush and dark green smooth cordgrass. Adding to the diversity of colors is yellow sea ox-eye sharing space with perennial glasswort and large expanses yellow saltwort flanked by the delicate purple flowers of sea lavender. Scurrying around the yellow saltwort are hundreds of fiddler crabs. Footprints of bobcat, deer and raccoon can also be seen in the tidal mud. Red-winged blackbirds fly in and out of the cordgrass.

While standing in the Tidal Salt Marsh, the drier, harsher environment of the Tidal Salt Flats can be seen. These habitats are formed where tidal waters drain away incompletely and the soil becomes hypersaline as the water evaporates, leaving behind the salt, which often forms a white crust on the soil. This environment is so harsh that areas with no vegetation are not uncommon. Those plants that can survive here include perennial glasswort and saltwort. Intermixed with the saltwort and glasswort are diminutive forms of species including sea ox-eye, marsh-elder, smooth cordgrass, sea lavender and seaside goldenrod. The Tidal Salt Flats are traversed by trails used by the many deer that inhabit the Island.

Plant succession on a barrier island away from the influence of salt spray will ultimately result in the development of a Maritime Forest or a Maritime Shrub Thicket. Expanses of these habitats line both margins of Little Bear. The canopy trees are abundant and include live oak, sand oak, red bay, yaupon holly, red cedar, wax myrtle, hackberry, winged sumac and cabbage palmetto. An occasional loblolly pine can also be found. Several species of Smilax, including dune greenbrier, with its purple fruits and spiny stems, dominate the habitat. Other common vines include Virginia creeper and Muscadine grape. If the thicket or forest includes higher ground another habitat type, Atlantic Maritime Dry Grassland, will form. This is the same plant community that is found on the sand dunes along the Stono River side of Little Bear.

Atlantic Maritime Dry Grasslands are wonderful vegetation types and are common along Kiawah beaches. Color again dominates these habitats. The waves of golden sea oats are flanked by masses of yellow flowered camphorweed and prickly-pear cactus and pure white fiddle-leaf morning glory. Grasses include salthay, seaside panicum coastal dropseed and sweetgrass. Plants with onerous names such as devil joint, sandbur, Spanish bayonet and Bear-grass are found throughout this habitat type.

Within its 151 acres, Little Bear Island exhibits some of the most beautiful and diverse undisturbed habitat on Kiawah Island. This part of the island will remain unchanged, except for natural changes brought about from wind and water. The importance of conservation easement programs becomes apparent when truly unique habitats such as these are preserved.

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