The nature of the dunes on Amelia Island

  • Orange gaillardia joinS many more native flowers blooming in the dunes right now. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Orange gaillardia joinS many more native flowers blooming in the dunes right now. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

It seems like I am never at a loss for something to write about. Even in my mostly stay-at-home lifestyle now, things cross my path and the next thing you know, I have a topic. This week’s topic began with an email from Frank Hopf, who learned about invasive kalanchoes in our dunes from one of my columns and wanted me to identify one he had found. But I’m not an invasive plant specialist. Luckily, I know someone who knows. I passed this email on to Kathy Russell, a Fernandina Beach Parks & Recreation Department employee who heads up the exotic invasive plant removal efforts for the city. 

Soon enough, Kathy, Frank and I met up with South Fletcher Avenue homeowner Maria Mazursky and traveled across the dunes on her walkover to look at the plants.

It turns out that Frank has a new business, Dune Science Group LLC, and for months now he has been helping Maria restore the dunes behind her house by planting native dune plants and removing exotic invasive ones. Sure enough, there were kalanchoes and exotic asparagus fern among the vibrant patches of native yellow-flowering partridge peas, orange-flowered gaillardia, white-flowered beach morning glory, sea oats, prickly pear cactus, and who knows what else. I enjoyed looking at the native plants, but I was also happily distracted by the butterflies and bees flitting around, adding movement and grace to the scene.

Frank has also done a lot of restoration work on Maria’s property at the edge of the beach itself. They proudly showed us rows of new sea oats planted there to protect the dunes. The neighbors on both sides have also planted sea oats, and now that the invasive kalanchoes and asparagus ferns have been spotted, no doubt they will begin to remove them from their properties as well.

This is conservation in action, folks, with contributions from the private sector making positive changes. Congratulations to one and all for their efforts. Maybe more South Fletcher homeowners will read this and start their own conservation efforts.

But I am primarily a zoologist, so it is animals that most appeal to me. In this regard, the dunes of Amelia Island are also rewarding. Gopher tortoises roam these dunes, munching on the plants and living in the deep burrows they construct that also provide shelter from the heat for a host of other animals. Since Frank has been working in this section of the dunes, he and Maria have become familiar with Mr. and Mrs. Spock, the names they gave to two resident gopher tortoises often visible when Frank is gardening. Maria has been sending us all photos of the deer that shelter under a nearby walkover and wander the dunes in mornings and evenings. The deer in the photo with this column is named Bambi, of course. She reports seeing a rabbit too, aptly named Bugs Bunny. Maria says she is still waiting to see Wile E. Coyote, but it won’t be long, I imagine. The suburban coyotes in our midst just love to eat bunnies.

Although not many of us are fortunate enough to have the dunes, a private walkover, and the ocean in our back yard, the coastal dune habitats are still there for easy viewing by all. If you walk out on any of our public beach accesses, across the dunes, take time to stop and look around before heading to the beach. This time of year, the flowers are blooming, the butterflies and bees are active, and the gopher tortoises may be out and about. You might find deer tracks, rabbit tracks, and tortoise tracks around the dunes so you can see their travels. To actually see the deer and rabbits, you might have to walk out at dawn or dusk. Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, in these hot summer months that is the best time to visit.

If you want to know more about exotic invasive plants on our island beaches, you can get an up close and personal view on Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 9 a.m. Kathy Russell is leading a volunteer crew that will be removing invasive Russian thistle from a beach area. More volunteers are welcome. To find out more and to participate email Kathy at and she will be happy to sign you up. Have fun!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.