Ossabaw, the northernmost member of the historically defined Golden Isles, has a fascinating natural and human history to share. Humans have lived on Ossabaw Island for more than 4,000 years, enjoying and putting to use its rich salt marshes, freshwater ponds, ancient maritime forest, wind-swept dunes, and deserted white beaches. Shaped like a wishbone with marsh filling the middle, the island consists of 25,000 acres, of which 11,800 are upland and almost 10 miles are beach, making it roughly twice the size of Bermuda and counting total acreage the second largest barrier island on the Georgia coast. The island was the first acquisition of the Heritage Trust Act of 1975, which protects the island from overuse and development, but makes public access difficult and rare.
Geologically, Ossabaw's two pieces of the wishbone consist of the Pleistocene western part fronting the interior marsh and the Holocene, eastern part facing the sea. The western piece is around 35,000 to 40,000 years old and the eastern piece is roughly 5,000 years old. The older the island, the more time it has had to develop richer soils to support a greater diversity of flora species, and the more likely it is to have developed new species.
Sighting Source Key: 1=published reports,; 2=surveys (CBC; BBS; etc.); 3=personal observations; 4=other sources (specify)
The island was the first acquisition of the Heritage Trust Act of 1975, which protects the island from overuse and development, but makes public access difficult.
By state law, all of Georgia's barrier island beaches are open to the public, and Ossabaw is no exception. During daylight hours, the public is allowed to use the beach for hiking, picnicking, or shelling. However, the interior of the island is off limits to the public without permission. The management of the island is the responsibility of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. As a heritage preserve, the island is open to individuals or groups for "natural, scientific, and cultural purposes based on environmentally sound practices."
In addition to State ownership by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a Heritage Preserve since 1978, Mrs. Eleanor 'Sandy' Torrey West retains rights to the main house that her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Torrey, built in the early 1900s, and to 40 acres that surround the house.
The Ossabaw Island Foundation (http://www.ossabawisland.org) is responsible for public use and education initiatives on Ossabaw Island. They are a public, 501(c)3 charitable corporation governed by a volunteer board of trustees. They operate through a use agreement with the State of Georgia, administered through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Last year, the foundation hosted over 1500 visitors to the island. People must apply to visit, and preference is given to organized groups whose purpose is consistent with the island's intended use. Past groups have included a writers workshop, a 4th grade elementary school class, undergraduate and graduate level researchers in all disciplines, an at-risk youth camp, preservation and environmental organizations and the like. Rather than focusing on quantity, the foundation seeks to increase the quality of the Ossabaw experience without compromising the island's resources or delicate ecosystem.
The island's natural communities have been allowed to recover from its 1700s?1800s plantation era under management by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Ossabaw Island Foundation. Today, whatever barrier island natural communities you are looking for, they are represented on the island in abundance. Productive salt marshes and tidal creeks dominate the western side of the island, providing nursery grounds for a wide variety of fish and shellfish, such as trout, bass, oysters, crabs, and shrimp. Egrets and herons are frequently seen wading in the marsh, and vultures glide in their familiar circles overhead. Queen Bess Island, a marsh hammock, supports many nesting bird species, including the endangered bald eagle. Low-lying areas support red bay, American holly, and southern magnolia. The maritime forest consists mainly of live, water, and laurel oaks, and slash and loblolly pines. Eastern red cedar and cabbage palm are found in the upper marsh border and transition zone between marsh and maritime forest. The understory is dominated with abundant saw palmetto and wax myrtle, along with less frequent wild azalea, sparkleberry, beautyberry, sassafras, and yaupon. Catbrier, pepper-vine, and muscadine vines climb on branches of woody vegetation, bearing their fruit that provides important food energy to migrating songbirds.
Interior freshwater marshes, with cattails (Typha sp.) and bulltongue (Sagittaria sp.), are home to alligators, frogs, and small fish. Wading birds are common, and migrating waterfowl are also seen using the habitat. The island has noisy bird rookeries, where herons roost and raise their young. Freshwater ponds provide refuge to migrating waterfowl using the Atlantic flyway.
The sandy, dense interdune communities support a healthy population of lizards and snakes, including the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which grows to its maximum size due to the protected status of Ossabaw. Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera) is common vegetation. Yucca earns its common name of Spanish bayonet with its succulent leaves with very sharp points. Other prickly plants worth avoiding are the spurge-nettle (Cnidoscolus stimulosus), and devil-joint (Opuntia pusilla), a small pricky pear cactus with barbed spines.
Primary dunes support flora communities consisting of beach panic grass (Panicum amarum), salt meadow cordgrass (Spartina patens), beach elder (Iva imbricata), sandspur (Cenchrus tribuloides), and the dune pioneering sea oats (Uniola paniculata), Russian thistle (Salsola kali), and morning glory (Ipomoea sp.).
Each summer Ossabaw's dunes attract approximately 160 nesting loggerhead turtles, which are drawn by primordial urges to its dark, sandy shoreline. The threatened piping plover winters on the shores of Ossabaw.