Green Highlands in the Okefenokee
Green Highlands Takes Service Trip During Spring Break
Spring break found 14 students and three faculty/staff members taking in the beauty of the Okefenokee Swamp on what has become an annual Green Highlands service trip. It was their reward for working hard for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to clear brush blocking the sight line from several observatories monitoring a nearby wood stork rookery.
Wood storks are an endangered wading bird species with large, long legs. They stand about 45 inches tall, and have a wingspan of five feet or more. Their plumage is white with accents of black. They live in freshwater and estuarine wetlands, primarily nesting in cypress or mangrove swamps, and they feed in freshwater marshes, narrow tidal creeks, or flooded tidal pools. Particularly attractive feeding sites are depressions in marshes or swamps where fish become concentrated during periods of falling water levels. The reason for their decline in numbers is due primarily to a decrease in these feeding habitats. Because of their unique feeding technique the birds require a higher prey concentration than other species. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restricts nesting to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina only.
GHC students were able to observe the storks, as well as other bird species that migrate to the marshes during the early spring. They stayed at Crooked River State Park, and after working all morning to clear brush, the group enjoyed a picnic lunch and toured the old paper mill site around the rookery, leaving inspired by the way nature had reclaimed land once occupied by industry.
Later they were also treated to a private viewing of Crooked River’s Nature Center, hiked the park’s nature trails and biked through the park enjoying tree draped with Spanish moss along the river banks. On the last day of their trip, they toured the eastern side of the Okefenokee Swamp and hiked the Chester Homestead trail. The day ended with a local seafood dinner in downtown St. Mary’s.
Participating students included Brittney Caffee, Joseph Slay, Victoria Haney, Daniel Castillo Matthews, Amy Deavers, Kaylee Cohen, Tatiana Smithson, Rachel King, Edwin Whitworth, Mickey Mealor, Tony King, Meagan Williams and Adam Slonecker. Advisors Devan Mize Rediger and Stacy Brown and student life coordinator Megan Youngblood also traveled with the group.
Students also wrote papers about their experiences on the trip. Below are comments from two of them.
The 2013 Green Highlands Service Trip to Crooked River State Park was beyond what I expected. Not only did we get the opportunity to meet some great people, but we also were able to learn a lot about the environment, aid in helping park rangers, and get in touch with nature.
For our service project, we assisted park rangers in clearing a pathway, in order for the rangers, along with researchers from National Geographic, to study and examine the beautiful wood stork. The wood stork is a species of birds that are only found in two areas of Georgia. The rangers of Crooked River State Park are currently trying to preserve their habitats, so that they might continue to breed and live in that area. It gave me a delightful feeling to know that I was able to help out in safeguarding these amazing creatures. Being a Biology major, I found all of the wildlife extremely fascinating. The park rangers were very informative and told me a lot of interesting facts about what their job entails. This gave me a better idea as to where I might want to go with my career. The park itself was amazing! We hiked and biked on a few trails and were able to see some amazing scenery.
Being involved in any club is a wonderful way at getting plugged-in, but Green Highlands makes me feel like I am making a difference in the world. Overall, this service trip was a great experience! If given the opportunity, I would definitely go again!
The Green Highlands service trip was one I will remember for a lifetime. As members of Green Highlands, we found ourselves thrown back in time and wandering down the right path. Many spices of unique flora and fauna of the south eastern coast lands were observed as we trekked down white sandy paths into emerald groves of palmetto bushes. The inlet bays of the St. Mary's River curved in and out of sight and past the thick old growth of the great evergreen cypress trees nestled in the Maritime Forest. Old oaks hung with Spanish Moss that caught cool moist sea breezes from the adjacent Atlantic Ocean, conveying a sense of tranquility. At night, we gathered around a blazing fire pit that attracted all manner of curious gusts and whipped the smell of s'mores around us. Armored armadillos and ground tortoises along with wily raccoons roamed close to the cabins sniffing for scraps, unaffected by our activities.
Later, down on the Okefenokee, we got to enjoy taking in the sites of the swamp. We were first greeted on our trip down the river by soft-shelled turtles and the most elegant species of bird like the Red Shoulder Hawk. I remember seeing the wide eyes and big smiles of all my fellow students reflected in the tannic acid water of the swamp as they took in the scenery of an untamed land. Alligators soaked up sun rays on the banks, complacent to our gawking eyes. Noting our role as Green Highlands members, we observed the carnivorous pitcher plants while they captured and subdued unfortunate insects and the sprouts of lilies poked their flower heads above the tannic water surface.
For the end of our journey, we met in the old town of St. Mary's and celebrated the triumphant trip along with our shared stories of the sights we had seen. Settling into the local menu, most students took the experience a step further by indulging in Gator tail bites, or a fresh Gator burger taken straight from the bay and put onto the grill. Many talked of a return journey; some even spoke of more daring adventures to come. However, all left happy and satisfied with the knowledge and experiences we were able to bring back home. I, Adam Slonecker, feel proud to have been a part of such an educating and fulfilling experience