A sprawling swatch of wildlife-rich marsh and smaller upland property at Kiawah Island were preserved in March by a donation and sale totaling 1,155 acres, which with other contributions protect all lowlands entering the barrier island.

In first quarter 2018, the Kiawah Conservancy doubled its footprint of properties set aside from development. Area residents formed the organization 21 years ago.

The environmental protections include a "generous" donation of 1,150 acres from Kiawah Partners, master developer of the 10,000 acre island. The inter-tidal lowlands, known as the Kiawah River Marsh East tract, are bordered by the island and Kiawah and Stono rivers.

Separately, five-acre Little Rabbit North, shaped like a finger, extends into the marsh between Mingo South and mainland Kiawah Island, according to sale backers. The exact price was not made public, but the property exchanged hands at "substantially below market value," according to the conservancy.

Kiawah Partners also turned over 720 acres of Kiawah River West marshlands and property on Mingo North last year. The combined lands "provide habitat for a wide variety of at risk, threatened and S.C. Department of Natural Resources "highest priority" species, the conservancy says.

Dominating the Marsh East parcel is smooth cordgrass interspersed with mud flats and natural oyster bars. Some high marsh areas feature sea oxeye, saltwort, black needlerush, slender glasswort, salt grass, salthay and marsh fimbry, the conservancy points out. "Sparsely vegetated" open salt flats bare slender glasswort and salt grass. Tidal creeks bisect the intertidal marsh that stem from the main branch of the Kiawah River. Hummock islands, strips of forested ground rising above a marsh, scatter throughout the marsh yielding salt shrub thickets, maritime forests or both. The salt shrub thicket includes high marsh plants, groundsel tree, yaupon holly, seaside goldenrod, saltwater false willow, sea lavender and marsh elder. The hummocks' forested portions are made up of loblolly pine, cabbage palmetto, Southern red cedar, live oak, wax myrtle and greenbrier. The Marsh East tract also takes in an important ecological fringe at the transition zone of the marsh and larger island maritime forests.

Hummocks, high marsh, intertidal marsh, tidal creek and salt shrub thicket habitats set within Marsh East support a multitude of wildlife including wading birds, shorebirds, furbearers and "secretive" marsh birds. Decaying plant material in the marsh serves as the basis of the estuarine food chain, supporting recreational and commercially important species such as shrimp, blue crab, oysters and varieties of fish. Island hummocks provide habitats for songbird migrants as well as seasonal and stopover wildlife. The habitats also can support rare and endangered species such as the clapper rail, yellow rail, white ibis, whimbrel, American oystercatcher, royal tern, little blue heron, wood stork and American bittern — all listed as highest priority via S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Other species include the great egret, MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow, black-bellied plover, tricolored heron, brown pelican, willet, greater yellowlegs, bald eagle, semipalmated plover, snowy egret, Carolina chickadee, sora rail, spotted sandpiper and great blue heron.The wood stork is listed as a federally threatened species. At-risk species for Charleston County which could occur in the Marsh East habitats include MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow, Monarch butterfly, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, black rail and Godfrey’s privet.

Rabbit North, a piece of a hummock island bisected by the Kiawah Island Parkway, provides key habitats for unique and at-risk species, the conservancy notes. "By purchasing Rabbit North for conservation, the Conservancy has ensured that an additional 19 dwelling units will never be constructed at the entrance to Kiawah Island, and this special habitat will be maintained into the future," it says.

GPS information collected in the past 11 years indicates "bobcats regularly utilize the property." The town of Kiawah Island’s "Bobcat Management Guideline" indentify two “important bobcat areas,” used for daytime resting cover, as well as places to move through the salt shrub thicket on the perimeter of Rabbit North. Other likely residents includes white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums and rodents as well as painted buntings, cedar waxwings, Carolina chickadees, and red-bellied woodpeckers. The federally at-risk monarch butterfly forages there, and groundsel trees are a food source for migrating and overwintering butterflies.

Rabbit North contains marsh edge and hummock island plants, such as black needlerush, sea ox-eye daisy, southern red cedar and live oak as well as Southern magnolia, laurel oak, loblolly pine, slash pine and pignut hickory in its upland areas. Understory plants include Hercules club, partridgeberry and an abundance of coral bean.

Dedicated to preserving Kiawah Island's natural areas, the conservancy to date has preserved 47 properties totaling more than 2,255 acres of pristine barrier island habitat.

In February 2017, the Conservancy achieved the national recognition of Land Trust Accreditation, showing a commitment to professional excellence.

The Kiawah Conservancy "envisions all citizens of and visitors to this area enjoying the natural habitat, wildlife and unique beauty of Kiawah Island for generations to come." Go to www.kiawahconservancy.org.