Wild Georgia: State’s rich natural heritage delights nature lovers

The view of Wassaw Creek from Wassaw Island near Savannah. The remote, pristine Wassaw is one of Georgia's 14 major barrier islands and a national wildlife refuge. It helps make Georgia the sixth most biologically diverse state in the union. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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The view of Wassaw Creek from Wassaw Island near Savannah. The remote, pristine Wassaw is one of Georgia's 14 major barrier islands and a national wildlife refuge. It helps make Georgia the sixth most biologically diverse state in the union. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Georgia is an incredibly diverse state when it comes to natural richness. With some 4,440 species of native plants and animals, Georgia ranks sixth among all the states in biodiversity, according to the Nature Conservancy.

It’s what draws scores of nature lovers like me nearly every week to the state’s wild places — from the mountains to the sea — to explore, appreciate and understand the wild legacy.

As the authors of the 2013 book “Natural Communities of Georgia” note: “From cool mountain peaks in the Blue Ridge to the sun-drenched shores of our Atlantic coast, this state boasts an amazing diversity of natural habitats. This diversity of habitats supports an equally impressive variety of plant and animal communities.”

Some 100 such habitats ranging from mountain ridge forests to coastal salt marshes exist in Georgia — wild places where certain groups of plants and animals prefer to live.

I thought about all of this during a couple of widely separate walks this month — one in North Georgia’s mountains and the other on a coastal barrier island. In my mind, the two very different places are prime examples of Georgia’s amazing biodiversity.

The mountain walk took us on a wooded trail some 2,300 feet above sea level through a diverse botanical area in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Union County, where several trillium species, pink lady slippers, wild geraniums and numerous other spring wildflowers bloomed in profusion. The colorful wildflowers thrive in the cool, moist mountain forests.

On the coast, we were only a few feet above sea level as we explored the remote, pristine Wassaw Island near Savannah, one of Georgia’s 14 major barrier islands and a national wildlife refuge. Loggerhead sea turtles soon will be crawling from the Atlantic Ocean to lay their eggs on Wassaw’s breathtaking, 7-mile-long beach.

Many of the native plants that thrive on Wassaw must be salt-tolerant because of the ocean-influenced saline environment. Its most prevalent salt-tolerant plant, of course, is Spartina alterniflora, or marsh grass, which covers 90% of Georgia’s 378,000 acres of salt marshes.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be last quarter on Sunday. Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (rising just after midnight) are low in the eastern sky a few hours before sunrise.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.