Surrounded by a mostly evergreen maritime forest, the salt marsh reveals the arrival of spring in very subtle ways. As each day gets longer and warmer, we witness a transformation in both the plants and animals that fill the salt marsh eco-system.
Looking across the broad expanse of marsh, the low lying field of grey-brown is now punctuated with bright green, evidence of a new crop of cordgrass.
A perennial, shoots of cordgrass (Spartina Alterniflora) sprout from the rhizome anchored in the mudflats. By summer, the grass has matured to a height of about 5 or 6 feet and is brilliantly green. As autumn approaches, golden seed heads appear – great food for wintering birds – and by early winter the seasonal crop turns brown and dies off.
The decaying cordgrass serves our eco-system in numerous ways.
Wracks of dead cordgrass drift up onto our beaches where it forms the foundation for our dune system, as well as providing important nutrients in the sandy habitat. Nesting birds carry off pieces of the dead grass, or the detritus remains in the salt marsh adding to the mix of organic material in the water. Have you ever noticed all the particles floating in the water? That’s decaying cordgrass, and lots of other good organic matter.
As the marshes renew themselves, migrating birds such as loons, mergansers, and buffleheads are leaving the confines of our marsh habitat. Bald Eagles, having re-established their pair bonds and re-inhabited the nests they left a year ago, are seen in flight overhead or perched high on a tree or power pole. Their chicks are ready to fledge. Look for these, too, on nearby oyster shell banks. Especially in the morning, just as the sun rises, I’ve observed these magnificent raptors enjoying a fat fish or two.
Osprey pairs are busy refurbishing their nests (like eagles, osprey return to the same nest year after year), laying one or two eggs, and patiently awaiting young chicks.
And like the eagle and osprey, our quintessential Lowcountry salt marsh birds – heron, egrets, white ibis, wood storks – will be busy with nesting activities and scouring the mudflats for fish and crustaceans to feed their young. When not in the salt marsh, find them in trees overlooking the marsh.
Dolphin, while residing in our waters year round, really seem to enjoy warming waters, and become much more active. Usually, during this time, our resident population of dolphin is joined by migrants who have spent the winter traveling the Eastern seaboard or inhabiting waters just off our coastline. Springtime observations of our Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin can be truly dynamic; as they play and eat and welcome offspring into the family.
Get Outside and discover the arrival of spring in the salt marsh!
Written by Captain Patte Ranney, Master Naturalist with Outside Hilton Head. For over 30 years, Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. “The Island’s outdoor outfitter” also offers an outstanding selection of clothing, gear and accessories for men, women and children at the flagship store in the Plaza at Shelter Cove and a second location in Palmetto Bluff. (843) 686-6996 or outsidehiltonhead.com.