A Matter of Migration

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Prairie warblers breed in North America and migrate south during wintertime.

A variety of species travel to and through Sea Island, bringing impressive stories of adventure and survival, as well as unique experiences for members and guests.

By Ashley Ryan

Sea Island lies along a special part of the Georgia shoreline, with coastal beaches and salt marshes coming together to create nutrient-rich waters that are pivotal not only to marine animals, but to those that travel by land and sky as well. As such, the Island enjoys a broad array of wildlife—many of which members and guests can encounter through the resort’s nature programming.

Some of these creatures live at Sea Island throughout the year, but others migrate to and from the Golden Isles in patterns that are often vital for their survival. “They really take advantage of completely different resources in different parts of the world,” explains Haley Watkins, a naturalist at Sea Island. “… As far as locally, our migratory species that come through are a big part of dispersing seeds and pollinating all kinds of plant species, and wildlife pest control.”

The animals’ motivations vary, ranging from those in search of the perfect nesting or birthing ground to those seeking out nutrient-rich foods or a specific water temperature. No matter their reason for coming, these animals are clearly an important part of the local ecosystem. This is something that Watkins says serves as a great learning tool.

“I think that it’s really important for guests to have a bigger picture of what ecologically is happening on Sea Island and on the whole Georgia coast,” she says. “Whenever you are learning about an animal like the red knot or the monarch butterfly or even sea turtles, you really get a little bit more perspective when you see that these animals are traveling across continents. … I think it puts it in more of a global [context]. And I hope it gives people a more appreciation for helping to conserve some of that wildlife.”

Michael Kennedy, director of recreation and resort logistics at Sea Island, adds that our impact on these migrating species can affect what happens elsewhere in the world.

“It’s important to look at the ecosystem as a whole—it’s all related,” he explains. “What we do here in Georgia will affect those species, and vice versa. … It’s pretty interesting to look at how everything is tied together.”

Birds

Bird-watching at Sea Island

Thanks to the wetlands, a variety of shorebirds migrate through Sea Island. “Essentially, there’s this huge area of almost half a million acres of salt marsh that’s flooded twice a day with the saltwater coming in from the ocean,” Watkins says, noting that this is where unique nutrients come from. “… It creates a nursery ground for shrimp and blue crabs and different types of fish and, in turn, becomes a buffet for our birds that migrate through.”

In the spring, local wetlands and beaches draw birds traveling from as far as the southern tip of South America. Some migratory species that stop over on the Georgia Coast include red knots, dunlins, sanderlings, semipalmated plovers and black-bellied plovers. “Those … are really just here to feed and get as fat as they possibly can before migrating farther north, where they’ll actually nest in snowier parts of the arctic tundra,” she explains. This is particularly true for the red knots, which travel from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to feast on local horseshoe crab eggs before venturing to northern Canada—traveling an incredible 19,000 miles each year.

In the fall, Sea Island also sees songbirds migrating through. Watkins says the redstart, a bird that breeds as far north as Canada and makes its way south to Central and South America for the winter, stops in the Golden Isles to dine on insects that live in nearby cedar and pine forests. Set out on Sea Island’s birding tour to visit some of the best viewing spots on the Island.

Fish

Blue marlin migrate seasonally. | Photo: joshua francis/shutterstock.com

Many of the fish at Sea Island are migratory as well. “In terms of fish, you’ll typically see [migration] start and end around water temperature,” Kennedy says. “As the water temperature heats up, you’ll see fish migrate from the south into our waters. In the fall,  they’ll start migrating back down south.”

About 72 miles offshore, Kennedy says there is a mass migration up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard. This warm-water current draws blackfin tuna, wahoo, blue marlin and sailfish to nearby waters from March through June, with some pushing in closer to live around Sea Island’s reefs.

Kennedy says species like king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and cobia migrate to offshore waters closer to the resort, following bait pods moving up from the south. Tarpon is another species that pays a visit to the area, with hundreds or thousands of the sportfish taking up temporary residence everywhere from the coastal beaches to sandbars and creeks. Inshore, guests will typically find juvenile fish: jack crevalle, bluefish, ladyfish and more. “From spring to fall, we get this huge push that doubles, if not triples, the number of species we have,” Kennedy explains. “It’s not unusual for an angler to go out and fish inshore and catch 15 different species during that time.

“We also have some species that migrate east to west due to breeding habits,” he adds. “The red bullfish, for example, are resident fish to Georgia but they move offshore during the summer months. Then, in the spring and fall, they’ll come into our sandbars and spawn and move offshore for winter.”

With eight boats on property, Kennedy says Sea Island’s nature tours and fishing trips allow visitors to see this wide range of species. From a boat that travels offshore to the flat boats that traverse local salt marshes, there are experiences for all. “On fishing trips, you’re really immersing yourself in the environment and learning about the entire ecosystem, how it’s related and how our resident shrimp and crabs feed fish from South America,” Kennedy says. Options include the resort’s offshore fishing excursions that venture all the way out to the Gulf Stream, inshore and nearshore trips, kayak fishing, fly-fishing lessons and family-friendly experiences designed for Sea Island’s youngest visitors. Members and guests can also try their luck casting a line from The Cloister dock.

Manatees

Manatees travel to Georgia in April. | Photo: Eric Carlander/shutterstock.com

Migrating north from Florida, manatees thrive in tropical and subtropical environments, traveling to Georgia in April and venturing back south in October or November. “They don’t have thick blubber layers like whales,” says Clay George, a senior wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

While the main attraction is the water temperature, they are also motivated by food. “Manatees spend a lot of time feeding on vegetation, especially the smooth cordgrass that dominates our tidal marshes,” George explains. During low tide, when it is harder for them to reach the grass, they rest, travel and socialize. Sometimes these creatures, often called sea cows, will lie on the ocean floor for five to 10 minutes between breaths. “We’ve recorded tagged manatees migrating the entire 100-mile length of the Georgia coast in only a few days. Some manatees will spend most of the summer in just one or two estuaries … while others will make larger loops around the coast all summer. … They are usually seen alone or in small groups, but they do like to socialize. Social groups can get pretty rambunctious, with lots of splashing, rolling and tail slapping.”

Manatees are still a threatened species in this country, but their numbers have increased steadily to over 6,600 animals, thanks to boat speed zones and other protections. “We suspect 100 or more manatees migrate to Georgia during most summers,” George says.

They’re not easy to spot, but George says you’ll see them in local estuaries if you keep a sharp eye when fishing, boating or paddleboarding. “They are often attracted to marinas because of fresh water from washing boats and because of the algae that grows on the floating docks,” he notes.

While Watkins says Sea Island doesn’t have any programming specifically aimed at manatees, they can often be spotted on trips and tours leaving from the resort. “It’s a matter of luck,” she explains. “Our boat captains will take people out on dolphin tours or fishing tours and sometimes they spot manatees in the rivers. They’re just a little more difficult to see, since they’re very slow moving and don’t have [an] obvious dorsal fin that comes up out of the water.”

Right Whales

With only about 400 North Atlantic right whales on Earth, this rare species is one of the Golden Isles’ hidden treasures. Many large whale species, from humpbacks to blue and gray whales, spend their summers feeding near the poles and then venture to the warmer, temperate and tropical waters at the equator during winter months to mate and give birth. The right whales, however, are different: Only a portion of these majestic animals travel from their summering grounds off New England and Canada to the Georgia and Florida coast each winter. Most of the population remains up north, feeding through the cold winter months.

As it’s mostly pregnant adult females that migrate south, local biologists guess that they are seeking out a calving ground that has warmer temperatures than the north. “Our water temperature may make it easier for the newborn calves to regulate their body temperatures because their blubber layers are thin when they’re first born,” George explains. “Also, we get fewer storms here, … which probably makes it easier for the newborn calves to stay with their moms.”  Variable numbers of adult males, juveniles and non-calving females make the trip too, though George says they are unsure why. Many mysteries remain about these 40-ton, 40-foot long animals. In fact, the existence of their calving ground off Georgia remained unknown to science until the early 1980s.

Found in local waters from December to March, this endangered species has little direct effect on Georgia’s coastal ecosystems; they’re not feeding while here but, rather, nursing, resting and socializing.

“The main thing that jumps out when you see a right whale is how huge they are,” he notes. “… Sometimes they’ll breach, throwing half or more of their bodies into the air, and come down with a huge, loud splash. But most of the time, they seem rather lazy, resting at the surface or swimming slowly.”

After being driven to near-extinction by the commercial whaling industry, the population was finally increasing in the 2000s, but has been on the decline yet again in recent years. “Over 80 percent of all the right whales have scars from having gotten entangled in fishing rope,” George says, noting that entanglement, paired with ship strikes and changes in plankton populations in the northeast, are harming the whales. “If mortality rates and calving rates don’t improve quickly, the species could start declining back toward extinction.”

Because they swim 3 to 30 miles offshore, and are so few in number, guests and members at Sea Island aren’t likely to spot these endangered creatures. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth learning about. Watkins says that while programming isn’t focused on these large mammals, the
Sea Island Nature Center still teaches visitors about them.

“We’ll do a whale day with our kid’s nature camp, and we will talk about the right whales,” she explains. This activity, known as the Junior Naturalist program, gives children between the ages of 7 and 14 the chance to explore the salt marshes, the beach and the maritime forest while learning about local ecosystems and wildlife.

Sea Turtles

After traveling long distances, sea turtles return to the beach where they hatched to lay eggs.

A unique migration that takes place along Sea Island—and one that many visitors love to see in action during the summer months—is that of the sea turtle. “Sea turtles as a whole are a species that travel incredibly long distances before they come back to the same beaches where they hatched to lay their own eggs,” Watkins explains.

This means that during the summertime, many of the turtles that once hatched at
Sea Island return. “They imprint on the beach where they hatched … and the idea behind it is that if they were one out of a thousand hatchlings that survived to adulthood, it’s very likely that they hatched in an ideal spot on the beach. So that instinct is very strong for them to go back to that location to lay their own eggs,” she says. “We still don’t completely understand how they’re able to find their way back.”

Nesting begins in early May, continuing through August or September, but the first hatchlings usually appear around the Fourth of July. They set out for the open water and make their way into the Atlantic, where they spend their first year camouflaging in kelp and seaweed, while the adults travel up and down the East Coast. When the adults return to use local beaches as nesting grounds, Watkins says they are enjoying a healthy diet of horseshoe crabs, knobbed whelk and cannonball jellyfish.

There are two programs that allow guests to experience this process. One, the Sea Turtle Dawn Patrol, is when the naturalists do their research, taking visitors along to observe the turtles’ nests, put up screens to keep predators out, look for hatchlings, take DNA samples and dig up old nests to see how successful they were. Offered in the early morning, Watkins says it’s a great way for resort guests and members to see how they do their research on the turtles. Another offering, the Night Walk, is less research-oriented, but gives wildlife enthusiasts the chance to set out on the beaches at night with red, species-friendly flashlights to seek out sea turtles making their way up the beach to lay their eggs or hatchlings setting out to sea.

Monarch Butterflies

Sea Island Nature Center is partnering with the Butterflies of the Atlantic Flyway Alliance to learn more about monarch butterfly migration. | Photo: bottom: tippapatt/shutterstock.com

New at Sea Island, the Sea Island Nature Center is preparing to partner up with the Butterflies of the Atlantic Flyway Alliance for a research project that will take a look at how many monarch butterflies are migrating through the area. Twice a year, these vibrant orange insects pass through the region, moving up through Georgia from Mexico and Central America in the spring, when the weather starts heating up, and then venturing back down south for the winter. This new study is an island-to-island research project that will examine the volume visiting Georgia’s coastal region in particular.

“Monarchs are an important pollinator species for many native plants that can be found growing on the Island,” Watkins says. “They also serve as an important link in the food chain during their migration.”

Due to the impact the butterflies have on the local ecosystem, naturalists will keep a closer eye on them during their next migration. “As we gain more information, we plan to use the Nature Center as a means to educate guests on where they can be observed and how they can take action to help protect this species during its migration,” she notes. “… Recently, looking into it a little bit more, I read that they’re one of the only insect species that migrates about 2,500 miles each direction each year. So [it’s] quite the migration. I’ve even read that they’re able to find their way back to the same exact tree. Just try to imagine that—it is wild.”

From butterflies to fish species to endangered whales, the amount of wildlife moving through the Golden Isles ensures there is always something new to see and learn about animals from across the globe.


Facts on the Move

1. Currently, roughly half of the species on Earth undergo some sort of migration.

2. Animals migrate with the help of external cues like the magnetic field, seasonal changes and ocean currents as well as the sun, moon and stars.

3. Internal cues are also important, with genetics, instinct, smell and communication all aiding in animals’ migration patterns.

4. Migration tends to happen in a line rather than a random travel path.

5. Ocean currents play a major role in migration by changing the water temperature and transporting marine life—two things that heavily contribute to an area’s biodiversity.

6. Some animals are able to alter their bodies to prepare for migration; for example, various species of shorebirds reduce their digestive organs in order to travel with less weight.

7. Known as the Great Migration, the nearly 2 million wildebeest that travel from Tanzania to Kenya each year make up the biggest land migration on Earth, with zebras, gazelle and antelope joining in.

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