Barrier islands

In Australia we have barrier islands, especially off the east coast. Larger examples are the sand island Fraser Island and the Whitsundays in Far North Queensland.

Barrier islands protect the mainland from the effects of wind and waves to a certain extent, and have their own unique geological and ecological characteristics.

The barrier islands on the east coast of the USA are, naturally, different from ours in the flora and fauna that live there, but no less fascinating – perhaps more, being something I’m not used to.

My friends Alan and Jane,  who live in Atlanta, took me to Cumberland Island. We caught the ferry (a 45-minute ride) to the island from St Mary’s on the mainland of south Georgia. On the horizon, you can see the industrial towers of Florida’s peninsula over the marshes – quite a contrast. I learned the difference between a marsh and a swamp – marshes are areas of short grass, and swamps have tall trees, but both have channels of water running through them.

Typical marshland

I love travelling by ferry, and this was no exception. There’s something soothing about travelling in calm waterways. The island is a sand island, designated a ‘National Seashore’ and managed by the US National Park Service. Here are the statistics – Cumberland Island is the largest of Georgia’s barrier islands in terms of continuously exposed land area (i.e. not counting the marshes at the edges). The island is 28 km (17.5 miles) long, with an area of 147.37 km² (36,415 acres), including 68.19 km² (16,850 acres) of marshes, mudflats and tidal creeks. The eastern (Atlantic-facing) beach is about 27 km (17 miles) long.

Unlike some of the other barrier islands, there is no bridge connecting it to the mainland; most visitors reach the island by the Cumberland Ferry, which goes from St Mary’s on the mainland along the channel to the island. (Alan and Jane took me to another barrier island connected by bridge, and it was incredibly built up with swish houses – just another suburb.)

After arriving on the island, the park ranger told us that in 10 minutes she was going to give a 1-hour walk-and-talk, so we quickly had a look at the small but effective museum, housing some archaeological bits and pieces from when native Americans lived on the island. The talk by the ranger was most interesting – not too high-brow and not dumbed down, taking in both the human and natural history of the island.

The Timucuan tribe lived on the island for something like 4000 years. The interpretive exhibit at the museum relates the same old story: ‘Wars between tribes, forced labour, cultural conversion and disease eventually brought [their] end’.

Other human artefacts are the ruins of mansions belonging to the wealthy Carnegie family in the days when the island was used as a retreat for those in ‘society’. The rangers have modern houses there, and there’s an expensive hotel at one end of the island.

Now on to the natural history.

Palmetto palms form a dense forest

The dense forest of palmetto palms, massive live oaks (Quercus virginiana) with dripping Spanish moss, and tall magnolia trees is very atmospheric – especially when you learn that there are chiggers (a type of tick) in the Spanish moss! The park ranger was discouraging anyone from taking some moss back to their gardens with this information. Made me feel right at home, as we often come in from working on the property at Larnook to discover several ticks on us. Luckily, they are easy to dislodge, as you just smother them with anysort of oil – tea-tree oil, cooking oil will do, whatever is handy, even butter. Being creatures that have airholes in their bodies for breathing, blocking these airholes makes them loosen their grip. Then you can scrape them off and snap them between your fingernails. Beats trying in vain to get them to stop biting by force, which usually results in their heads breaking off and lodging in your skin, which then gets infected, not to mention the increased fluid they pour into you when they are upset causing a bigger and itchier lump. I’ve not yet fallen foul of tick typhus (cross fingers, or hold thumbs if you’re in South Africa).

Live oak in the park near the museum

Spanish moss, probably with chiggers

The long limbs of the live oaks are host to other plants, such as resurrection ferns (Pleopeltis polypodioides) – so called because they rise again after seeming to die in dry weather. It had been quite dry (I was there in May, their early summer) and the ferns were looking a bit parched.

Resurrection ferns line the live oak limbs

Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) are native to America’s South, and the trees here are massive and the white flowers are the size of dinner plates – gorgeous!

Southern magnolia

The island has many interesting native animals and plants, both marine and terrestrial. Just before we took of on our walk, the ranger called us to see a manatee at the dock. We have the dugong in Australia, so I was keen to see its relative. I saw its nostrils poking out of the water – and not much else! Better than nothing, I guess.

How to treat manatees

I was keen to see an armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). A former wildlife carer had told me that the safest way to pick them up (for both me and the armadillo, not that I was going to pick one up) was to grab it by the base of the tail and hold it upside down, a little away from the body so that it can’t scratch you with its sharp claws. They are nocturnal so the chances of seeing one were slim – but, alas, I did see a baby one, quite freshly dead, on a walking path. At least I got a good, close-up look. I touched the ‘plates’ – they were unexpectedly soft. The soil had many ‘holes’, which looked very much like bandicoot scratchings – I suppose armadillos fill the same niche as bandies at home.

Alas, poor armadillo

As I walked past a pile of rusting cars, my eye was caught by a movement – a small, attractive green lizard flashing an orange throat-pouch sat on a bonnet. What a jewel! It was a green anole (Anolis carolinensis).

Green anole

The anhinga (this one looks like a juvenile) is very like our darter.


The laughing gull (Larus atricilla) is another bird we don’t have at home.

Laughing gull in summer, mating plumage

The island is famous for its wild horses roaming free on the island. These horses have over the decades adapted to the environment (and the environment has adapted to them), and they can drink much more salty water than ‘normal’ horses can. What looked like cattle egrets followed the horses, just like they follow cattle at home. There are arguments pro and con leaving them on the island.

Horses adapted to salty living

I was bushed by the end of the walk (it was warm and humid), so I lay down on a picnic table and left Alan and Jane to visit the Atlantic Ocean by themselves. Jane reported several horseshoe crab skeletons on the beach. I’d got excited over live ones in the Georgia Aquarium. At home I would be souveniring these (they are found only in fossil form in Australia), but Australian Customs most certainly would not let me bring them into Australia.

Near the toilets, there was a display of shells found on the island, many of which were familiar to me from home – I wasn’t expecting that.

Cumberland Island is reputed to be one of the most undeveloped areas of the United States – and may it stay that way.

Here are some of Jane’s notes from that day:

* Staring at the surface of the water for a glimpse of a manatee and then getting it – just a glimpse of a nose.

* Following the park ranger around the lower side of Cumberland and watching a foal scratch his back on a low tree limb.

* Finding a baby armadillo (sad but interesting) and watching fiddler crabs wave at us in unison from the boardwalk.

* Truly royal giant old oaks with elegant robes of Spanish moss and shoulders of redemption ferns

* A perfectly delicious lunch of bread, pepper-jack cheese, apple and stale cookie without even one ant bite or mosquito bite.

All in all, an excellent day – thank you, Alan and Jane.

This entry was posted in Animals on land, The sea, Travels. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Barrier islands

  1. Rebecca says:

    Can’t believe you were on a Georgia barrier island for ONE DAY and saw a manatee – I’ve been living here for six months now and have yet to see one. I saw tons of armadillos when I was backpacking on Cumberland, though, including some out during the day. It’s interesting to read a description of our natural history through the eyes of someone who finds it exotic the same way that I find Australian flora and fauna exotic and exciting (bandicoots??? I would LOVE to see a bandicoot!).

    By the way, the birds following the horses probably were indeed cattle egrets – they colonized the Americas from Africa in the early twentieth century.

    • Joy Window says:

      Bandicoots are great, although not so well-loved by suburbanites whose gardens they tend to dig holes in. On my 8 hectares (20 acres) of bush, who cares about a few extra holes? I’ve nick-named mine ‘yeepers’, as they make a ‘yeep’ when you startle them in the night (when they come out to feed on worms and insects) – we’ve got the long-nosed species (see They also like cat food – I occasionally catch one in my cat trap when I’m trying to catch feral cats.
      I felt very privileged to see even the nostrils of a manatee.

      • Joy Window says:

        I should clarify that the cat trap is non-lethal. I just open the door and the bandicoot lurches out, blinking in the sunlight, and heads straight for the shelter of the forest. They have a peculiarly slow but rabbit-like gait.

  2. Cath Clark says:

    A perfect place to put your write-up, really nice interspersing of text w/ photos, Joy.

  3. Alan Sandercock says:

    Thanks for doing this write-up Joy. I’m going to mention this on my twitter stream as well, so you might get some more hits via my followers. I was trying to remember the other barrier island that we visited, and I’m guessing it was that brief trip over to Isle of Palms just North of Charleston. Jane and I had seen dolphins in the river a year before and we were hoping to see them again. I’m glad you got to appreciate the difference between Isle of Palms and Cumberland Island!

    • Joy Window says:

      Yes, it was Isle of Palms. I don’t know whether you have checked out Rebecca’s blog (she’s on my blogroll), but she currently lives and works on Jeckyll Island, just north of Cumberland. She’s going to be moving in a few months, and I’ll miss her news from that environment.

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  5. Ben Amini says:

    Ant bites can really be annoying. I always use some anti-inflammatory to treat it. .

    Our very own web portal

    • Joy Window says:

      I rarely use anti-inflammatories for bites – I find they heal on their own pretty quickly. But if they get infected (common here in the subtropics), I’ll wack on some tea-tree oil, which is a good antiseptic.

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