Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 in order to preserve the 438,000-acre Okefenokee Swamp. Presently, the refuge encompasses approximately 396,000 acres. In 1974, to further ensure the protection of this unique ecosystem, the interior 353,981 acres of the refuge were designated a National Wilderness Area. The swamp remains one of the oldest and most well preserved freshwater areas in America and extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west.
Okefenokee is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp now lies 103 to 128 feet above mean sea level. Okefenokee is white man's rendition of the Indian words meaning land of the trembling earth. Peat deposits, up to 15 feet thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that one can cause trees and surrounding bushes to tremble by stomping the surface.
The slow-moving waters of the Okefenokee are tea-colored due to the tannic acid released from decaying vegetation. The main outlet of the swamp, the Suwannee River, originates in the heart of the Okefenokee and drains southwest into the Gulf of Mexico. The swamp's southeastern drainage to the Atlantic Ocean is the St. Mary's River, which forms the boundary between Georgia and Florida.
The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas of non-forested terrain. Prairies cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp. Once forested, these expanses of marsh were created during periods of severe drought when fires burned out vegetation and the top layers of peat. The prairies harbor a variety of wading birds: herons, egrets, ibises, cranes and bitterns.
Wildlife abounds in the Okefenokee year-round. Sandhill cranes, ducks and other migratory birds are most numerous from November through March. Otter are commonly seen during cold weather when alligators are relatively inactive. Alligators are active in the summer and are observed sunning on banks mostly during spring and fall.
Management activities within the refuge serve to preserve the natural qualities of the swamp, to provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, and to provide recreational opportunities for visitors. The swamp's unique environmental qualities are preserved through protection, research and progressive management. Endangered species that are benefited by these management efforts include the red-cockaded woodpecker, American alligator, wood stork and American bald eagle.
In general, mosquitoes are no problem except after dark from April through October. They are rarely encountered during the daytime. Deerflies, although a biting menace at times during the summer, are not as bad deep in the swamp. There is no need to fear snakes or alligators as long as normal precautions are taken and animals or nests are not molested.
The Okefenokee Year
January -- Waterfowl: mallards, ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, coots, green-winged teal and hooded mergansers are seen in the prairies along with large numbers of greater sandhill cranes.
February -- Ospreys begin nesting. Watch for aerial courtship displays of red-tailed hawks. Brown-headed nuthatches become active. Wild turkey seek mates during the latter part of the month.
March -- Overwintering ducks, tree swallows, robins, phoebes, cedar waxwings and the greater sandhill cranes depart for northern nesting areas. Purple martins, parula warblers and eastern kingbirds arrive. Watch for the nesting dances of resident Florida sandhill cranes. Wildflowers begin to bloom as the prairies fill with golden club and bladderworts. Bass begin to spawn. Alligators are seen sunning on the banks of the water trails.
April -- Wading bird rookeries are active. Prothonotary warblers are common along the cypress-lined waterways. Sandhill crane chicks are hatching and ospreys are seen feeding their young in their high, bulky nests. Alligators bellow territorial warnings as mating begins. Many orchids and the unusual insect-eating pitcher plants are blooming. Best month for bass fishing.
May -- The endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers are viewed around their nesting colonies. Florida soft-shell turtles are laying eggs, and raccoons are just as rapidly digging up and eating the eggs. Turkey poults are seen walking in close procession behind their hen. Warmouth perch fishing is improving. Newborn fawns appear.
June -- Chorus, green tree, pig, carpenter and over a dozen other species of frogs are heard during the evenings. White water lilies and sweet-bay flowers bloom. Good bream fishing.
July -- Young herons, egrets and ibis, now fully fledged, leave the rookeries. Wood storks are observed feeding in the prairies. Red-headed woodpeckers and pine warblers are seen in pine forest uplands. Deer are best viewed in the early morning; the bucks are showing their new sets of velvet-covered antlers.
August -- Small flocks of blue-winged teal arrive. Alligator nests hatch and the young alligators may be heard "clucking" to their mother. Nighthawks and chuck-will's widow frequent the evening sky, scooping insects from the air.
September -- Fall migration begins as many different warblers move through the area. Fall fishing improves as daytime temperatures lower.
October -- Black bears are active, feeding on acorns, nuts and berries. Marsh hawks are seen gliding low over the prairies.
November -- Robins and migrating greater sandhill cranes arrive with the cool weather. Watch for the occasional bald eagle, migrating through the swamp to Florida wintering sites. With cool weather comes the traditional fall color change. Cypress needles turn a golden brown and sweetgum leaves glow a reddish hue before tumbling to the ground.
December -- Otters are seen swimming in the lakes and boat trails as alligators become less active and cease feeding. Many white ibis, egrets and herons feed in the shallow lakes and prairies.
Indians inhabited Okefenokee Swamp as early as 2500 B.C. Tribes of the Depford Culture, the Swift Creek Culture and the Weeden Island Culture occupied sites within the Okefenokee. The last tribe to seek sanctuary in the swamp, the Seminoles, conducted raids on settlers in surrounding areas. An armed militia led by General Charles R. Floyd ended the age of the Indian in 1850, by driving the Seminoles into Florida.
The Suwannee Canal Company purchased 238,120 acres of the Okefenokee Swamp from the State of Georgia in 1891. Their intent was to drain the land to facilitate logging and eventual crop cultivation. Captain Henry Jackson and his crews spent three years digging the Suwannee Canal 11.5 miles into the swamp. Economic recessions led to the company's bankruptcy and eventual sale to the Hebard Cypress Company in 1899. Logging operations, focusing on cypress, began in 1909 after a railroad was constructed into the west edge of the swamp. Over 431 million board feet of timber were removed from the Okefenokee by 1927 when logging operations ceased.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Route 2, Box 3330
Folkston, Georgia 31537
Phone: (912) 496-3331
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication