Maritime Forests are upland wooded areas that form over time on barrier islands behind dune systems. These forests are made up of canopy trees, like oaks, pines, and palmetto trees, and a variety of understory trees, shrubs, and ground cover.
Intact forests provide a host of ecosystem services for natural processes and protecting the local community. They naturally reduce stormwater runoff and improve environmental quality by holding water, treating it, and slowly releasing it into surrounding aquatic areas over time. Additionally, forests on barrier islands provide protection from severe weather events.
Over the past 50 years, suburban development has fragmented the maritime forest on Kiawah Island. However, the initial planning efforts to preserve natural habitat on the island through the development process has protected portions of the forest and promoted the use of lush landscaping to benefit wildlife.
Shrub Thickets are habitat transition areas dominated by shrubs and trees. They are commonly found on the seaward side of the island between the dunes and maritime forest (called a Maritime Shrub Thicket), on the inland side between tidal salt marshes and the maritime forest (called a Salt Shrub Thicket) and on Hummock Islands, wooded areas that are just slightly elevated above marshes and contain notably more dense vegetation.
Some notable plant species in these habitats are sea ox-eye daisy, marsh elder, and groundsel tree, loblolly pines, coastal live oaks, palmettos, and coastal red cedars. These areas not only help protect maritime forests and other inland habitats but also provide shelter, food, and nesting areas for Kiawah wildlife including birds, deer, and bobcats.
Shrub thickets are threatened by human development, sea level rise, king tides, and invasive species such as tallow trees.
Tidal Salt Marshes are very dynamic and diverse habitats and are often seen as a symbol of the South Carolina Lowcountry! They’re even cited as a major driver for property owners moving to Kiawah.
Twice a day, these habitats are inundated and drained with salt water due to the tides. Of the 8,500 acres of land mass that make up Kiawah, about 45% is saltmarshes. In lower elevations, they’re dominated by Spartina cordgrass but contain a diversity of other wetland plants in higher elevations.
Coastal wetlands are considered one of the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, with about a third of the world’s population dependent on the ecosystem services they provide despite wetlands only comprising 4% of Earth’s land cover. This also applies to coastal communities such as Kiawah Island, where tidal salt marshes protect the island from erosion, buffer storm surges and provide abundant wildlife, recreational and aesthetic amenities.
Beaches and Dunes stretch for ten miles along Kiawah’s coastline from the Stono River Inlet to the end of Captain Sam’s Spit. Our beaches and dunes are feeding, resting and nesting sites for numerous sea and shorebirds, such as red knots, Wilson’s plovers, oystercatchers, least terns, piping plovers and others. Not only do these birds need a healthy beach but so do the hundreds of sea turtles that nest here each year. Beaches and dunes are also the first line of defense during hurricanes by protecting humans and wildlife from destructive storm surges.
Ponds on Kiawah are home to a variety of fish, invertebrates, wading birds, waterfowl, snakes, and alligators. The 122 stormwater ponds on Kiawah are important to the island’s biodiversity and ecological health and pass water through the Kiawah Island Community Association’s (KICA) drainage systems. KICA’s Lake Management Department monitors these ponds’ health and tests 26 of them weekly.
Possible threats to the ecological health of the ponds include saltwater inundation, stormwater runoff and others. The Conservancy plans to continue working with community entities to ensure the ecological health of our ponds.