Wetlands are a vital part of the ecosystem of Hilton Head Island. They provide many functions and values, and help to make this a special place to visit or live. Wetlands improve water quality by filtering surface water of harmful pollutants and trapping sediment that might otherwise enter our creeks. Wetlands also help minimize flooding by providing a natural storage area for high waters and absorbing rainfall into the soil. In addition, wetlands provide habitat for a large variety of plants and animals including many threatened and endangered species. Wetlands provide a myriad of outdoor recreation opportunities including boating, hiking, fishing and bird watching.
There are three main types of wetlands on Hilton Head Island; salt water marshes, freshwater marshes, and freshwater forested wetlands.
By far the most abundant type of wetland on Hilton Head Island, salt marshes are a vital part of our ecosystem. They form a boundary between the open water and land, which is rich in minerals and nutrients, and supports a wide variety of animal and plant life. There are two vegetation zones in our salt marshes. The low marsh is the regularly flooded zone which usually consists of a single plant species - smooth cordgrass. It is this smooth cordgrass that changes from brown in the winter to a spectacular green grass prairie in the late spring. The high marsh is the zone closer to the shore which receives only occasional flooding. The predominant plant species in the high marsh are black needlerush and sea oxeye.
Our beautiful salt marshes form the basis for the marine food web, and support our bountiful seafood populations. Salt marshes also provide habitat for numerous wading birds, including herons, egrets, woodstorks, and a variety of wintering waterfowl.
Freshwater marshes account for only a small portion of the wetlands on Hilton Head Island, but provide important habitat for our local wildlife. These marshes, which are not influenced by tides, usually form along the edges of lakes and lagoons, or in landscape depressions. Freshwater marshes do not develop a tree canopy, but contain species such as wax myrtle, cattails, rushes, and sedges. Freshwater marshes provide ideal habitat for beaver, muskrat, herons, egrets, and migratory waterfowl. Also common in freshwater marshes are snapping turtles and various species of water snakes. An excellent example of a freshwater marsh can be seen in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.
Freshwater forested wetlands occur in the interior portions of Hilton Head Island. Once abundant, these wetlands have been fragmented and destroyed by rapid development. Because they provide the only source of fresh water for many animals, these wetlands are vital to the long term health of Hilton Head Island's ecosystems. Forested wetlands are comprised mainly of red maple, sweet gum, black gum, and pine trees, with a diverse understory of wax myrtle, fetterbush, ferns, and other water-loving plants.
Many wildlife species can be seen in Hilton Head Island's forested wetlands. Songbirds find shelter and food among the trees and understory vegetation. Many mammals such as rabbits, deer and otter depend on the wetland for their survival. Reptiles and amphibians are also common wetland residents. Good examples of forested wetlands on Hilton Head Island include the Cypress Conservancy in Hilton Head Plantation, and Boggy Gut located off Pope Avenue.
We can all help protect Hilton Head Island's wetlands. Here are some things you can do to ensure the health and vitality of our precious wetland habitat: