Subtle transitions signal the change of season on Hilton Head Island.
If it weren’t for the drop in temperature and humidity, one might find it challenging to notice the shift from summer to late fall in the Lowcountry.
Since our maritime forest is dominated by evergreen flora, the customary signs of fall, like leaves turning yellow to crimson to golden brown, are all but absent. So what does autumn in the coastal Lowcountry look like? And how can those of us who originally hail from northern climates recognize the signs of this more subtle change of seasons?
Ah, look to the grasses.
The smooth cordgrass prairie. That vast expanse spreading across the landscape between island and mainland, along narrow saltwater creeks and inlets. South Carolina has more of it than any other state, and Beaufort County has more cordgrass prairie than any other county in the state. It’s beautiful, it’s abundant, and it reveals the season to us in a very subtle, yet obvious way. Lush or decaying, it serves the flora and fauna in important ways.
Look now, and it appears rather lackluster.
The golden colored seed heads have been ravaged by seed-eating birds or cast over the marsh with the winds. Soon, the marsh will appear brown-gray as the stalks dry and die. During the winter months, brittle grasses break off, decompose and fertilize the mud. Deteriorating grasses also add crucial nutrients to the water. Have you ever noticed all the tiny particles suspended in our rivers and marshes?
Come January, seeds that have germinated over the winter begin to spout.
Fresh green shoots rise from the mud, replacing last year’s crop. As spring advances to summer, the marsh becomes a rich verdant green.
Dead grasses accumulate in floating wracks and are swept with the tides onto our beaches. Here the wracks form the foundation of the dune system and offer a smorgasbord of nutrients for plants and animals inhabiting the Atlantic shore of our island.
The dead grasses also serve as an important nesting material for a wide variety of birds. One to look for now is the Bald Eagle, which returns from summer refuges to the north at this time of year to re-establish pair bonds and freshen up the nest.
Eagles inhabit the same nest year after year, and dry cordgrass serves as an excellent building material.
In nests measuring six to eight feet across (weighing up to a ton!), the pair will likely lay two eggs.
In late winter, chicks the size of adult eagles will start to stretch their wings and prepare to fledge. Once the family moves on, well manicured eagle nests are frequently inhabited by other birds. Look for them high in the treetop. Perhaps you’ll observe an eagle soaring with a bunch of cordgrass held tight in its talons. Now you’ll know what they’re up to. Get outside!
By Capt. Patte Ranney, S.C. Master Naturalist
Outside Hilton Head provides adventures for all ages, from kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kids’ camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddle boarding. Don’t miss the guided full moon kayak tour, which explores the saltmarsh. 843-686-6996 or www.outsidehiltonhead.com.