Maritime Forest Serves as Habitat and Protector

(Letter to the Editor Written by Grace Reed)

Sullivan’s Island does not exist in a vacuum. The importance of Sullivan’s Island’s Maritime Forest is closely related to the neighboring communities of Mount Pleasant and Charleston.

The islands along the coast of South Carolina are called “barrier islands” for a reason. They act as a barrier between the enormous forces of the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland. Were it not for the barrier islands, there would be waves crashing onto the Battery in Charleston and the Intracoastal side of Mount Pleasant. One has only to look at an aerial photo of Sullivan’s Island to realize its vital position as a massive surf break for Mount Pleasant during hurricanes.

A high density of trees and vegetation on the island serves to fortify its diffusive effect on the velocity of ocean waves during a storm surge. Thus the trees and shrubs of the Maritime Forest on Sullivan’s Island’s accreted land play an important role in the protection of Mount Pleasant and downtown Charleston, in addition to the protecting the middle and back side of the island itself.

Besides protecting the mainland, the trees and shrubs of the Maritime Forest act as a critical habitat for migratory and indigenous songbirds and butterflies. Moreover, the flora and fauna of the Maritime Forest are woven in a complex web of co-dependence to create a thriving ecosystem.

As an example, the lowly wax myrtle provides a necessary food source for tree swallows which migrate in masses of thousands and swoop through the myrtles to snatch berries on the fly. The berries of the myrtle also are a necessary food source for the beautiful myrtle warbler, which overwinters here. These birds, in turn, help to propagate the myrtles by spreading seeds in their droppings. Cutting myrtles to 3-feet or 5-feet, as designated in the Sullivan’s Island mediation agreement, could deprive the tiny warbler of protective cover, and also affect the availability and accessibility of berries. The lack of an abundant source of food could threaten individuals of both these species during their most vulnerable seasons.

Most people are aware of the habitat needs of the Monarch butterfly, which stops on Sullivan’s Island during its southern migration in fall. But they might not realize the importance of the Hackberry tree for our indigenous Hackberry butterfly. Hackberry nectar and sap are important food sources for the butterfly. Also, it lays its eggs exclusively on that species and the larva hatch to feast on the leaves of the Hackberry before pupating. The larva and butterflies, in turn, provide food for many migrating songbirds. Yet in the Sullivan’s Island mediation agreement, the Hackberry tree is considered expendable and allowed to be removed.

During the last 25 years, there has been a vitally important occurrence in Mount Pleasant that has largely gone unrecognized. For countless eons, one of the the southward neotropical song-bird migrations has generally followed the Eastern coastline. One of the reliable and important stopovers on their journey has been Patriots Point, where the birds have dropped down for rest, food and water before crossing the “big water” of Charleston Harbor. However, the state-sanctioned development of Patriots Point has resulted in a significant loss of valuable habitat. When the millions of migrating birds and butterflies arrive here, each year there is less land and vegetation to support them.

However, as that door has shut, a window has opened in the growth of an alternative habitat on Sullivan’s Island, just a few miles away.

The importance of Sullivan’s Island’s Maritime Forest is interwoven with the area around it, both as habitat and in storm surge mitigation. Its protection should be considered vital for Islanders and mainlanders alike.