The long, question-mark necks of herons and egrets, just evident above the golden-hued marsh grass, catch the first rays of the new day. I am not the only early riser on the water.
With a diverse collection of wildlife and stunning landscapes, Kiawah Island possesses an inherent magnetism that attracts nature lovers. Yet the ecosystem on the Island is as fragile as it is beautiful. Residents who recognized the responsibility of living in this environment formed the Kiawah Conservancy in 1997. Since that time, the list of the organization’s accomplishments has multiplied.
Pamela Cohen, a biologist and nature photographer, recognizes the benefits of conservation efforts on Kiawah. “I’m out there by myself and, all of the sudden, these incredible creatures just appear,” she explains. “It’s still an island with people living on it, but when I’m taking pictures, I can’t help feeling like I’m all alone with the animals.” The thriving natural milieu, even among development, proves the success of the Kiawah Conservancy. The organization has taken a holistic approach to protecting the Island’s delicate ecosystem and natural beauty, ensuring the flora and fauna continue to thrive.
The broad scope of the Kiawah Conservancy’s mission starts with the individual property. The Naturally Kiawah Habitat Award Program encourages homeowners to utilize landscape designs that foster welcoming environments for Island wildlife. Following an exhaustive visual survey of each property, the Kiawah Conservancy created a database to gauge the degree each lot incorporates components of a native habitat: the maintenance of natural, vegetative buffers; creation of understory habitat in the main yard; and the absence of invasive plant species. Properties that meet the criteria for the award receive a special Naturally Kiawah emblem that is affixed to the home’s mailbox post. “Very little marketing has been required, as residents of Kiawah are genuinely interested in doing their part,” explains Richard Fishburn, chairman of the Kiawah Conservancy’s habitat committee. “Word of mouth has been an invaluable tool in raising awareness of the program.”
I’m headed south now on Bass Creek, toward Pintail Pond. I marvel at how undisrupted this aquatic ecosystem remains. Instead of houses stacked one by one along the marsh, a boater only notices the occasional gabled roof rising among the trees. This was not a happy accident.
The fragility and complexity of the ecosystem on the Island underscores the importance of having good information to help guide the Kiawah Conservancy’s actions. For this reason, several important strategic partnerships have been formed with local environmental experts as well as with graduate students from the College of Charleston. One of the most ambitious of these joint projects, with the
Town of Kiawah Island’s wildlife biologists, has been the Bobcat Tracking Program, which uses GPS collars to record the movement of bobcats on the Island. The tracking has yielded important information about the habits of the animals. Along with the data gleaned from a host of
other research programs (such as painted bunting studies and monitoring the bird population), this information has helped guide the Kiawah Conservancy’s decisions
regarding land conservation. To date, the Kiawah
Conservancy has preserved 22 properties, totaling 330 acres. “Decisions related to future developments take all data regarding the bobcats’ behavior and the Island’s ecology
into account,” says Susan Corcoran, the chairman of the Kiawah Conservancy.
Research is ongoing, often resulting in important applications for the Island. Experts such as Dr. Joel Gramling, associate professor of plant ecology and evolution at The Citadel, have played a key role in conducting research. Dr. Gramling’s survey of the Island, funded by the Town of Kiawah Island, identified the Chinese tallow tree, an invasive species common on Kiawah, as being a significant threat to the Island’s ecosystem. “The tallow tree is the most significant issue on the Island. They soak up the freshwater wetlands and have the potential for killing off entire areas,” argues Ms. Cohen. Simply cutting down the trees is not a feasible solution, as that only exacerbates the problem by spreading the seeds. Fortunately the “hack and squirt” method—chipping off a patch of bark and injecting the trunk with a compound that prevents growth—effectively kills the tree.
Island conservation efforts often extend beyond these partnerships. Several initiatives depend on the dedication of the community to take a proactive role beyond their own property. As a nesting ground for the loggerhead turtle, Kiawah’s beaches require special care to help protect the eggs buried in the sand. The Town of Kiawah Island-supported volunteer program known as the Turtle Patrol enlists the help of residents to search for tracks, locate nests, and mark their locations. “The Turtle Patrol offers residents an incredible opportunity to take an active role in the Island’s habitat and learn about an iconic South Carolina animal,” explains Justin Core, land preservation coordinator and research liaison. The information collected from the program helps the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources maintain an up-to-date database of the turtle population and gain a better understanding of nesting dynamics.
The Kiawah Conservancy understands the importance of community involvement and promotes it through the Conservation Matters education series. These events bring environmental experts and researchers to the Island for various presentations and interactive events. “We recently brought some specialists from the South Carolina Aquarium for a presentation about local wildlife. It was a great opportunity, particularly for children, to see animals up close and to raise awareness about what we all can do to help protect their environment,” says Core.
My kayak glides up to the dock and I stretch my arms, taking a moment to appreciate how the arrival of full morning has transformed the river. A cacophony of chirps and flapping wings descends from the canopy of live oaks overhead, and across the way three white-tailed deer cautiously approach the water.
After sixteen successful years, the Kiawah Conservancy recently established a new strategic plan for the future. With input from the public, the eight-year vision for the Island builds on the initial mission to protect native species and to develop the land in a responsible way. “It is our modest belief that of all similar developments in delicate ecosystems around the country, Kiawah has the highest percentage of habitat in its natural state,” says Fishburn. Thanks to the continuing efforts of the Kiawah Conservancy and the environmentally conscious residents, there is little doubt this will remain true for decades to come. — j.g.
Page 85 – Great Egret, Ardea Alba
Page 87 – Green Heron, Butorides Virescens
Page 88 – Bobcat, Lynx Rufus