Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National SeashoreOver 335 Species of birds show up here at some point during the year, drawn by empty dunes, whispering marshes, and—yes—the blessed absence of pesky humans. Only 300 people are allowed on the island at any given time.

It takes 45 minutes by ferry to chug over to Cumberland Island, an undeveloped barrier isle at the southern end of the Georgia coast, practically into Florida. Considering that it’s a National Seashore, its gleaming sands are often surprisingly deserted—that is, from a human perspective. Only 300 people are allowed on the island at any given time. But from a bird’s point of view, it’s a veritable Las Vegas , a major destination on the Atlantic flyway.

“Undeveloped” isn’t quite accurate: Cumberland Island was once a sea cotton plantation and then a summer retreat for the Carnegies, and a handful of buildings are still scattered around the island, one of them being the island’s only lodging, the Greyfield Inn. But Cumberland’s been basically uninhabited for a long time, and the wilderness has closed in. The island’s roadways seem mere tunnels through a vine-draped canopy of live oaks, cabbage palms, magnolia, holly, red cedar, and pine, a maritime forest that covers 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares). An even larger portion of the island on the western side is fertile salt marsh. The abundant wildlife includes alligators, armadillos, raccoons, deer, and wild turkeys, as well as a herd of nearly 300 wild horses, who graze (some ecologists say overgraze) on the marsh grasses. Loggerhead turtles nest on its sands, as do several birds—please respect cordoned-off beach areas in season.

Cumberland’s 16-mile-long (26km) beach isn’t just a bland strip of powdery sand, like some manufactured oceanfront resort: Little meadows nestle between the dunes, creeks cut their way to the sea from freshwater ponds, and tidal mudflats glisten. All of this makes it inviting for birds. Hike or bike down to Pelican Banks, the southernmost point of the island, and you’ll be able to view black skimmers, numerous ducks, and the endangered American oystercatcher, a sleek black-and-white bird with a bright-red bill that lives here year-round. Another threatened species, the least tern, arrives on the tidal flats in late April, where it courts, breeds, and nests, hatching chicks by mid-June. Further north, along the main beach, the Roller Coaster Trail leads past dunes where gray-and-white Wilson’s plovers—endangered gray shorebirds with black-banded necks and thick black bills—build their nests. Freshwater ponds behind the dunes provide perfect nesting terrain for white ibis, herons, egrets, and the endangered wood stork, a magnificent white wader with a dark head and black-tipped wings.

In late spring and summer, birds far outnumber humans on Cumberland Island. It’s their resort—trespass with care.