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Altamaha River Delta

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

United States, Georgia

Relative Location:

On the Georgia coastline, approximately at the midpoint between the Florida and South Carolina borders.


N31° 30’, S 31° 13’ : E 81° 12’, W 81° 21’



Basis for Designation:

Greater than 20,000 shorebirds annually.


8,549 hectares (21,125 acres)


October 1999

Site Owner/Steward:

Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Little St. Simons Island
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Site Partners:

The Nature Conservancy
Georgia Ornithological Society
Coastal Georgia Audubon
Georgia Wildlife Federation

Human Population within 100 km:



Stacia Hendricks
Little St. Simon Island


About Us

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.

Other characteristics:

- Highly dynamic sandy beach utilized by rare nesting and migratory shorebirds

- Extensive inter-tidal flats due to large tidal fluctuation

- A salt marsh providing an invaluable nursery for countless marine and freshwater species

- Dune grassland

- Maritime Forest containing freshwater sloughs

Ecology & Conservation

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." 

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. 

Land use:

Recreational and Commercial Fishing
Recreational Boating

Current threats:

Beach erosion
Marine pollution 
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 
Recreational beach-going
Recreational fishing
Low-flying aircraft (private and military)