On October 9, 1999 the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network recognized the Altamaha River Delta in Glynn and McIntosh Counties as the 40th major reserve for shorebirds, highlighting its importance as a stopover for migratory and wintering birds traveling between the Arctic and South America. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimates this area supports at least 55,000 seabirds and shorebirds annually, stating "There are very few places as valuable to such a large and diverse number of coastal birds in all the southeast United States."
Prominent features of the delta include sand spit and barrier islands to the north and south with extensive barrier beaches, dunes, maritime forest and salt marshes. The islands and their associated habitats offer exceptional habitat for breeding and wintering birds. The surrounding waters and wetlands provide a readily available food source. The area serves as a resting site for migrating shorebirds, waterbirds and landbirds, including high concentrations of American Oystercatcher (migration/winter: 250), Red Knot (migration 5,000), Dunlin (migration 1,500) and Piping Plover (migration/winter: 65).
Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge, Little Egg Island Bar and Little St. Simon’s Island are the three main geographical areas within the WHSRN site.
Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge includes Wolf Island, Egg Island, and Little Egg Island. Over 75% of the refuge’s 5,126 acres are salt marsh. Wolf Island encompasses 4,219 acres of salt marsh with tidal creeks and 300 acres of scrub/shrub upland, including a four-mile long oceanfront beach. The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a bird sanctuary and also as a National Wilderness Area. It is only accessible by boat and public access is not allowed. The high-use shorebird area on Wolf Island NWR is Wolf Island’s ocean shore from the northern spit on the island down to the Altamaha Sound.
Little Egg Island Bar is located to the east of the Egg Island and is owned and managed by the State of Georgia as a protected site with restricted access. The bar encompasses just 14 acres of salt marsh and it is completely submerged at high tide.
Little St. Simons Island is a private barrier island. It includes maritime forest, marshes, tidal creeks, dunes and a seven-mile beach. The island is undeveloped except for a small eco-resort, which is operated as a low occupancy natural sanctuary.
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Ecology & Conservation
Many endangered, threatened, and species of concern utilize the area around the delta as wintering grounds or pit-stops along the way during migration, including the Piping Plover, Red Knot, Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, Peregrine Falcon, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bewick’s Wren, Kirtland’s Warbler, and the Bachman’s Sparrow. Other species of concern that nest on or around the delta are the Wood Stork, Bald Eagle, Wilson’s Plover, American Oystercatcher, Gull-billed Tern, and the Least Tern.
The National Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy have also designated this area as one of the top 500 Important Birding Areas (IBA) in the country and as a Bioreserve in 1991. No person is allowed on Little Egg Island Bar; Little St. Simons Island is open to the public only by reservation and can accommodate a maximum of 30 guests; and, Wolf Island is a National Wildlife Refuge. Also, Little St. Simons Island offers day trips periodically. The lack of human interactions and presence is what makes this area prime habitat for these migratory, wintering, and nesting species.
Recreational and Commercial Fishing
Oil/Chemical spill (low probability)
Increasing human population in area
Five large and controversial proposals to construct dams to create water supply reservoirs are on the table and more could follow. The proliferation of these artificial lakes in the Altamaha's headwaters will have a number of adverse effects -- more water withdrawn from the river, seasonal flows that no longer resemble the natural cycles of high and low water, the inundation of wetland habitat under reservoirs, and the subsequent increase of pollution levels.
Major causes of disturbance:
Greater frequency/intensity of recreational boating
Low-flying aircraft (private and military)
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The Atlamaha River is the largest river system east of the Mississippi. Colonial Georgia settlers followed the river. From Darien in the coastal lowlands to Fort Barrington 12 miles upriver and on into the wiregrass country, they relied on the Altamaha for transportation, irrigation, and timber. In the vast forests of longleaf pine they cleared small lots, built crude shelter and planted corn, tobacco and sugar cane. Their cattle and hogs roamed freely, grazing on wiregrass, acorns and pine mast.
In the 1770s John and William Bartram's naturalist excursions brought them through the lush Altamaha River watershed in search of new species of native flora. Camping near Fort Barrington, they identified the overcup oak, the Ogeechee lime, and discovered the beautiful "Lost Gordonia" which John named “Franklinia Alatamaha” after his great friend Benjamin Franklin. The “Franklinia Alatamaha” is Bartrams’ most famous discovery, and is credited with saving it from extinction. All Franklinias growing today are descendants of those propagated by the Bartrams in their Philadelphia garden.
For most of the 19th century, the Altamaha was the main artery of trade between middle Georgia and the coast. Flatboats loaded with cotton and corn were floated downriver and then dismantled and sold for lumber. Poleboats carried passengers and freight both ways, and great rafts of the longleaf pine were poled downriver to the Darien and Brunswick lumber mills, destined for ports around the world.
Today the river is known for being invaluable to the coastal fishing community. The freshwater mixture with the ocean at the delta houses millions of species and the marshland provide nearly 2000 grams of biomass per square meter. The marshlands are vital nursery grounds for fresh and marine species which enable the delta to be a “buffet” for migratory and residential birds. With such large tidal amplitude of two tides a day, twice a day new food is placed on the “buffet” for birds to forage.
The Altamaha River drains one quarter of the state of Georgia, including prime agricultural land and pockets of undisturbed forest.