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Shoal Creek Sanctuary
Clarke County, Georgia
33.888°N 83.303°W

Here we outline the development of a new sanctuary in Clarke County, Georgia. Our purposes are to protect native plants, insects, and wildlife along Shoal Creek, as well as to make a healthier environment for humans living nearby and downstream.

Shoal Creek, showing eroded bank

Lake on Blue Heron Drive

Stream above Shoal Creek dammed by beaver

Privet removal along Shoal Creek

Clarke County
Clarke County is in the heart of northeast Georgia's Piedmont region. It contains the cities of Athens and Winterville and is home to the main campus of the University of Georgia. With only 121 square miles, Clarke is the smallest county in Georgia. Its population of 127,000 live in a mix of urban to rural areas at an average density of over 1,000 inhabitants per square mile. Shoal Creek is one of two large creeks that drain eastern parts of the county into the Oconee River, which flows southwards into the Altamaha River and eventually the Atlantic.

Discover Life study site
Since 2010 Discover Life has run the Blue Heron study site in Clarke County to document nightly changes in the long-term abundance and seasonality of insects and other creatures. This site at 275 Blue Heron Drive is on 23 acres of largely forested land along Shoal Creek. It is part of the larger sanctuary. To date we have taken over 340,000 photographs at this site's porch lights, documenting a healthy, rich diversity of over 1,365 species of moths and butterflies and numerous other species, including many beetles, aquatic insects, spiders, and frogs (see Mothing, Invitation to join Discover Life's Mothing project, and results). Unlike other sites around the world that have recently reported alarming decreases in insect communities over the past few decades, the insect populations at our Blue Heron site have been relatively stable and not shown a general decline. It is notable that the Blue Heron property is exposed to almost no pesticides, whilst most of the sites reporting insect declines have probably been exposed to considerable amounts of chemical toxins.

Blue Heron study site along Shoal Creek
Dawn, 2 January, 2019

Conservation Easements
In 2019 Discover Life and the Oconee River Land Trust started developing the Shoal Creek Sanctuary (see maps below). The core of the sanctuary is the 224 acre Falling Shoals Conservation Easement, which is legally overseen in perpetuity by the land trust. It also includes the 23 acres in our Blue Heron study site. If we gain support from owners of 45 surrounding properties along Shoal Creek, eventually we hope to protect a total of 470 acres in conservation easements within the sanctuary.

The proposed sanctuary is on both sides of Shoal Creek
from Old Lexington Road in the north to Belmont Road in the south.
Click on either map to enlarge it.

Our key goal for the sanctuary is to improve human and environmental health, primarily through an educational campaign to reduce pesticide use in the creek's watershed. Furthermore, by also removing invasive species, planting native ones, reducing light pollution, and restoring a floodplain and other habitats in the sanctuary, we will protect piedmont biodiversity and species interactions within the plant-insect-vertebrate foodchain, thus protecting birds, frogs, and other insectivores that are threatened by pesticides that can severely reduce their food supply. Through community engagement, research, long-term monitoring, and active, chemical-free land management, we will also improve pollination and other ecosystem services provided by the green space. The benefits will include better water quality in Shoal Creek and downstream, both from lower chemical runoff from the watershed and by re-engaging the floodplain to capture silt from the creek.


  • Active land management
    In order to protect functioning ecosystems and the benefits that they provide to our health, we must do more than designate land as parks, conservation easements, and other types of legally protected areas. Legal protection is only a first step in successful land management. Depending upon its level of enforcement, it may or may not stop land-use threats, such as logging and the conversion of natural areas to agriculture and housing. Without boots-on-the-ground management that monitors and responds to changes in biotic and abiotic variables, legal protection alone will fail over the long run. We must actively manage land to protect its biodiversity and environmental health.

    Unfortunately only a small fraction of existing parks and legally protected areas now adequately monitor environmental changes. It is a policy disgrace that there has been almost no long-term monitoring of insects across North America during the past few decades. Until alerted by a German study largely done by volunteer naturalists, we collectively failed to detect the alarming widespread insect decline across much of the continent. Sadly, it now seems that the pervasive use of chemicals in many areas around the world, particularly the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, is having a massive detrimental impact on non-target insects and creatures that feed on them.

    Without minimizing the importance of regional and global environmental risks, such as from air pollution and climate change, we propose to tackle local threats in the Shoal Creek Sanctuary. We will focus our educational outreach to reduce pesticide and light pollution and manage properties to recover former natural habitats and promote native species.

  • Property owners and community participation
    The sanctuary will be a voluntary association of private landowners. We will respect their rights and privacy. We will restrict sanctuary visitors to the core Falling Shoals Conservation Easement and discourage them from trespassing on all other properties.

    In exchange for joining the association, we will teach best practices and help participants better manage their land for their health and that of the environment. Particularly in the sensitive areas of the riparian zone along Shoal Creek and the streams feeding into it, we will (1) encourage everyone to reduce chemical use so that there is no runoff of pollutants into the creek, (2) minimize light pollution that disrupts insect and bird navigation, and (3) manage their vegetation through mechanical means rather than herbicides to discourage invasive species and promote native ones. As resources and volunteer time permit, we will provide owners with organic seeds and seedlings of local native plants and help them manage their vegetation.

    After we have recruited land owners and established the sanctuary, we will reachout to schools within the county and local residents in the surrounding neighborhood bordered by Old Lexington, Morton, Belmont and Whit Davis Roads. There are hundreds of homes in this area, including those within the Bar H Estates, Olde Lexington Gardens, Old Lexingtion Trace, Waverley Woods, Falling Shoals, and Shoal Creek Farms subdivisions. We will encourage them to manage their properties in a similar fashion.

  • Hunting
    Eastern Clarke County has a high density of deer that are detrimental to many native plants. Hence, we encourage legal deer hunting to reduce their feeding pressure. We intend to continue leasing the Falling Shoals property to deer hunters. We will discourage hunting for other species, most notably turkey, coyote, beaver, and squirrels, which play desirable ecological roles.

  • Visitor safety
    To minimize hunting accidents during deer season, we will restrict access to the property so that hunters have exclusive access on particular days and that land managers, researchers, volunteers, and invited visitors can be there more safely on other days.

    In addition to possible hunting accidents, there are two other serious threats to visitor safety. We warn visitors that there are many deer ticks in the area, some of which are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. John Pickering has had the misfortune of getting Lyme disease twice from ticks on the Blue Heron study site.

    There is also a danger on the Falling Shoals property of falling into the deep, uncovered manholes of the drainage system along the graded, unfinished roads.

  • Limited access
    For safety reasons and so as to maintain the area as a primitive nature sanctuary with low human activity, we will not permit general public access. Instead we will encourage use and enjoyment of the Falling Shoals Conservation Easement by scheduling supervised visits on days when nobody is hunting. We will give naturalists and others opportunities to help us monitor and manage species on the property, hosting supervised events such as a Christmas bird count, a deer hunt for veterans on Veterans Day, and volunteer service days, such as for students on the MLK holiday. We will also schedule guided walks with property owners and their guests to hike the Falling Shoals property.

    We will not build new trails. Within the Falling Shoals property, we will encourage visitors to use the existing network of roads or follow natural features in the landscape, asking them to have as low an impact as possible and not wear new trails.

  • Research
    A key component of successful land management is doing research to understand biotic and abiotic interactions in the system and monitoring changes in them over time. We plan to facilitate University of Georgia researchers and other experts working in the sanctuary to gain the knowledge that we need to better manage it. Our plans include

    1. Inventory: We plan to inventory all the species on the property, our goal being to document 5,000 species in the next decade. Our initial focal groups are plants (349 species), moths (1,341), butterflies (27), bees, ants, dragonflies (10), soil arthropods, spiders, lichens, fungi, birds (38 species), and other vertebrates. We will make our checklists and more detailed data publicly available in the above links and our albums.

      We are planning events to add to our inventory, including a bioblitz this coming spring, 2020. Dates and details to follow. If you would like to join us, please contact John Pickering.

    2. Monitoring: We will continue our long-term insect monitoring in the Blue Heron study site (see trends since 2010). This will warn us if taxa of either aquatic or terrestial insects start to decline.

      With help from Frog Watch, Audubon, and other volunteers, we plan to start other long-term monitoring projects, including

      • using microphones on smart phones to record changes in singing insects, frogs, and birds;
      • taking monthly point counts of birds;
      • camera traps to document mammals and other wildlife;
      • measuring levels of insecticides, herbicides, and silt in Shoal Creek and its feeder streams.

    3. Pollination: In 2019 Amy Janvier, a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia, started to compare bee diversity and abundance at different sites in the sanctuary and surrounding neighborhoods. A focus of her study is to determine how pesticide use in different lawn care practices affects bees.

    4. Beetles: In 2020 Clayton Traylor, another entomology graduate student, will start running an insect trap to compare wood-feeding beetles in the sanctuary with other forest stands in the area.

    5. Privet removal: Much of the floodplain along Shoal Creek was covered by a dense understory of invasive Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense). These trees were so large and dense that you can even see them in the 2017 aerial photograph below. They are the light green area covering approximately 17 acres in the left half of the photograph.

      In 2019 we started developing best practices to control privet without using herbicides. In our first experiment we chainsawed approximately 2,000 mature privet trees. We are now monitoring their survival based on their size and how and when we cut them. We hypothesize that trees cut twice, once at waist height in May - July, and then again at ground level in October - November will have higher mortality than in other cutting treatments.

      Pile of pulled privet.
      17 February, 2020

      In a second experiment we are uprooting countless seedlings and smaller trees. Starting in March 2020 we plan to seed plots that we have cleared of privet with Virginia Wildrye (Elymus virginicus) and River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). We will measure how well these native grasses establish and compete with the privet and Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), another invasive species that covers much of the floodplain.

  • Habitat restoration
    We plan to manage Shoal Creek Sanctuary to speed the recovery of its habitats from considerable historic and recent human disturbance, invasion of exotic species, and loss of native ones. The aerial photograph below is from 1938, over eighty years ago, and shows the magnitude of some of this disturbance. It is centered on the Falling Shoals Conservation Easement, with farm terracing in its center. The Blue Heron study site, with its (dark) mature forest, is the adjacent property to the east across Shoal Creek.


    Source: Clarke County Historic Aerial Imagery (athensclarke.maps.arcgis.com)
    Blue lines show current property boundaries.

    Current day LIDAR surface features

    Source: Mike Wharton, Sustainability Office, Clarke County
    Black lines show current property boundaries.

    Click on images to enlarge them.

    We need to restore five habitat types in the core of the sanctuary. Our tentative goals for them are

    1. Flood plain: considerable privet removal, replant with native species, restore historic water flow and wetlands.
    2. Riparian forests: remove invasive plants.
    3. Slope forest: thin trees, burn, control Autumn Olive, plant native shrubs and wildflowers.
    4. Upland forest: restore Shortleaf Pine/Post Oak community with considerable thinning and controlled burns.
    5. Open areas: plant bee-friendly species; cover manholes along roads.

    After surveying and inventorying each of these habitats, we will develop detailed management plans for each with the help of experts.

    Close up of changes to the Falling Shoals floodplain and forested Blue Heron study site. The floodplain is unforested in 1938, forested in its northern part in 1951, and fully forest by 2017, with much privet at its southern end. The new lake that appears in the lower right was built around 1990 when the Shoal Creek Farms subdivision was developed.
    Source: Clarke County Historic Aerial Imagery (athensclarke.maps.arcgis.com)
    Click on images to enlarge each.

  • Invasive plant removal
    Invasive plants growing in the sanctuary include Chinese Privet, Autumn Olive, Japanese Honeysuckle, Japanese Stiltgrass, Chinese Holly, Mahonia, Jerusalem Cherry, Nandina, Yellow Flag Iris, and Wolffia. We propose to experiment with different methods and find suitable ones to control these invasive plants without herbicides, such as glyphosate. Our methods will include manual and mechanical cutting and using fire in controlled burns. After considerable success manually removing Yellow Flag Iris from around the lake at the Blue Heron study site, we have started to tackle Chinese Privet, the most serious invasive species growing along Shoal Creek and in its floodplain.

  • Planting local varieties of native species
    After removing invasive plants, we propose to replace them with species native to Clarke County. Sam and John Pickering have started an organic native plant nursery on a 4 acre tract within the Blue Heron study site. This nursery will help provide seeds and seedlings of local native plants that we wish to encourage in the sanctuary. These will include trees (Walnut, Sycamore, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Shumard Oak, Cherry Bark Oak, Black Gum, Persimmon, American Holly, Possumhaw), shrubs (Spice Bush, Sweet Shrub, Sparkleberry), grasses (Switch Cane, River Oats), and deer resistant wildflowers, many of which will promote native bee diversity. Our botanical advisors will choose which species to plant in the different habitats and help us collect and grow local genetic stock. The nursery is an organic one and does not use any pesticides.

  • Broader perspective
    In May, 2018, Discover Life and the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation held a workshop entitled, "Biodiversity, Ecology, and Conservation Thinking Session." The meeting spawned the concept of building a Global Biodiversity SHIELD. We see the Shoal Creek Sanctuary as a site in SHIELD, showcasing how we can integrate research, land management, and community outreach to improve human and environmental health.


  • John Pickering, Discover Life -- pick@discoverlife.org -- 706-254-7446


  • Botany: Heather Alley, Steve Bowling, Julie & Mack Duncan, Bobby Hattaway, Nancy Lowe, Albert Meier, Sam Pickering, JP Schmidt

  • Fungi: Sam Landes, Bill Sheehan

  • Bees: Sam Droege, Amy Janvier

  • Other arthropods: Dac Crossley (mites), John Douglass (moths and butterflies), Michael Draney (spiders), Jim Porter (butterflies), Brian Wiegmann (flies), Don Windsor (beetles)

  • Vertebrates: Peter Alden (birds), Scott Connelly (frogs), Bob Crabtree (mammals), Bud Freeman (fish), Mary Freeman (fish), Todd Pierson (salamanders), John Willis (birds), Richard Wrangham (primatology)

  • Ecology: Chris Canalos (terrestrial), Jackie Mohan (biogeochemistry), Amy Rosemond (aquatic), Mike Wharton (invasive plants)

  • Outreach: Stella Guerrero (Clarke County schools), Steve & Nancy Moorman (Shoal Creek Farms subdivision), Bob Sync (Shoal Creek Farms subdivision)

  • Other: Michelle Dove (Falling Shoals), Doug Haines (legal), Laura Hall (Oconee River Land Trust), Rick Rosemond (hunting), Stevn Scurry (historian), Becka Walcott (Discover Life website), Kevin Weick (Polistes Foundation)

Updated: 19 February, 2020
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