Prescribed Burn, February 2014

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Prescribed burn in wax myrtle/sweet grass habitat. (Photo: Laura Early)

Fire is an important ecological management tool for a variety of habitats, returning nutrients to the soil and reducing woody vegetation and shrubs. Last week, we conducted a prescribed burn in the maritime shrub and grassland habitat between the beach, Bass Creek Road and Beach Road. With the help of local biologists from the local non-game division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Jekyll Island Authority, and the St. Simons Land Trust, the island maintenance staff and ecological management team ignited and controlled a low-burning fire on Tuesday, February 18th to prevent woody vegetation from encroaching on open grassy areas.

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

Scott Coleman, Ecological Manager igniting broomsedge. (Photo: Laura Early)

This ecosystem adjacent to the beach dunes is dominated by wax myrtles (Myrica cerifera) and Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), and left to its own devices, the wax myrtles would continue to recruit eventually closing out the open habitat where the grasses thrive. This burn did not reach an intensity that would take back large established wax myrtle shrubs, but it will reduce wax myrtle cover by preventing young seedlings and saplings from taking hold. The balance of open grassy areas and cover provided by the wax myrtles provide excellent habitat for a variety of species, including the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coachwhips, kingsnakes, small rodents, painted buntings, chuck-wills widows, island glass lizards and marsh rabbits.

Other plants that make up this community include: broomsedge (Andropogon spp.), dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), flat-topped goldenrod (Euthammia tenuifolia), groundsel (Baccharis halimifolia), and pepper-vine (Ampelopsis arborea).

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

The day after the fire, herbaceous vegetation had been cleared out. (Photo: Laura Early)

Over the next couple of weeks and months, we will start to see new growth in the burned areas, and will continue to monitor the burned plot. Another plant community that benefits from fire is the slash pine forest on the southern part of the island, and if conditions are suitable, we hope to burn there this season as well.

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

Ten days after the burn, the grasses are already showing new growth! (Photo: Willy Hazlehurst)

 

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Naturalist Fact: Sweetgrass

Muhlenbergia filipes, also known as sweetgrass or muhley grass, is a native, perennial grass found growing sparsely in the coastal dunes extending from North Carolina to Texas.  Sweetgrass prefers full sun and sandy soil, usually growing in bands about 50 to 75 m from the mean high tide line in undulating sand dunes behind the first dunes along the ocean.  Also, plants are found growing on well-drained, sandy uplands bordering brackish marshes and in open maritime forests.  African Americans from the Gullah tradition of the Lowcountry have used this plant for centuries to make their renowned sweetgrass baskets.  The baskets are nearly identical to those made hundreds of years ago in the West African rice culture whose traditions have been passed on in families from generation to generation, and is a glimpse into living history.  Muhley grass provides important food and habitat for much of the island’s small mammal populations including mice, rats, and marsh rabbits.  It is also an important area for birds, reptiles, and other plant species.  Due to coastal development, much of this habitat has been lost and has been designated a N2 (or imperiled) status by NatureServe.  This plant which flowers from September through November, but peaks in October, produces a beautiful pinkish-purple haze throughout much of the islands’ open grasslands.  Little St. Simon’s Island has great examples of this plant community along Sancho Panza and to the North and South of Beach Road.

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