By Pat Foster-Turley
November 4, 2022
When the land on Crane Island was slated for development a number of years ago there was a huge outcry from many Amelia Island residents, which eventually led to the homes being permitted, but with a conservation area and park provided for the public. This park now sits at the terminus of the Amelia River-to-Sea bike trail and includes a long boardwalk out into the marsh that all can enjoy.
On a recent misty day my friend Susan and I decided to walk the trail here to see if the eagles have returned yet to their nest that is situated in fine viewing distance from the boardwalk. We did not see any eagles, but we did see the addition of a couple of new homes that were built near the nest, presumably legally during the months when the nest was unoccupied. Hopefully the eagles will still return to feed again on the fish that lurk right off shore in the marsh regardless of new homes nearby.
Down at the end of the pier a young man was fishing. He passed us by as we drove around the traffic circle to Crane Island, walking and lugging along a wagon full of gear. Even though we drove much of the way and parked in the lot, he got to the end of the pier way before us. Jacob Kovalcik was hoping to catch small sharks that day, like he had in the past, he told us. As we were leaving the park another fellow was walking over to join Jacob with his own fishing gear in tow. It was great to see young fishermen enjoying the pier!
The tide was high during our walk, and we happily photographed the marsh and the somewhat misty views of the Shave Bridge in the distance. And then we noticed all the white spots on the emerged ends of the Spartina marsh grass—in the mist they really stood out. On closer inspection these were snails—marsh periwinkles to be precise. During high tides like this one these snails climb up the stalks of the marsh grass to escape predatory fish coming in with the tide. These periwinkles can also detect if blue crabs are nearby and can climb the stalks to avoid them too. And marsh periwinkles are often “fungal farmers.” They make small wounds on the marsh grass stalks that are then inhabited by fungus that the snails eat. Amazing.
The periwinkles are a key component of the marsh, one that forms a food web that ultimately produces the fish the young fishermen are catching and the fish to feed the eagles and the dolphins swimming offshore. Periwinkles also feed more land-based critters like raccoons, and diamondback terrapins. First there is the detritus and the fungus that the periwinkles eat, then the crabs and fish that eat the periwinkles, and the larger fish and mammals that eat the smaller prey. Saltwater wetlands like these fuel the ocean life that lives beyond their borders. These periwinkles are an important part of the whole circle of life in the marsh and the millions of them are a basic building block for the food web—a sign of the marsh’s productivity.
There was more to see, too, along the Crane Island pathways. A number of species of flowers—yellow, purple, red—were blooming along the path edges, affording great photos, even if we couldn’t identify them. We doubled back to the parking lot, then continued on foot along the River-to-Sea trail to sit for a while at a well-placed bench, and then we admired the view from the second boardwalk across another tendril of the marsh. I often see blue crabs in the little streams that flow under this boardwalk and sometimes even schools of small fish. It was great to see that this salt marsh is alive, with snails and crabs and fish there for the viewing. The mullets are running now too, and this often coincides with the return of the nesting eagles to feed on this bounty.
Protecting our salt marshes is important to the ecology and productivity of the watery environment that surrounds Amelia Island. It is wonderful that Crane Island offers us a chance to view this miracle from the boardwalks they have provided for the public. See it for yourself and be amazed too!
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]