Located in Jasper County at the mouth of the Savannah River, across the river from the Georgia town of Tybee Island, the refuge was created under an executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 as a breeding area for migratory birds and other wildlife. It began as a one-acre oyster shoal, Oyster Bed Island, which was used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for harbor dredge disposal. The refuge-enabling legislation granted control of the one-acre Oyster Bed Lighthouse Reservation to the U.S. Coast Guard, with the Corps of Engineers retaining soil deposition rights. On February 17, 1960, the lighthouse tract was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. In the late nineteenth century the island was the site of a quarantine station for the city of Savannah and a residence for customhouse officials.
The refuge’s acreage has expanded due to dredge disposal activity related to river and harbor improvements. This refuge is primarily managed for the benefit of migrating and nesting shorebirds and is closed to the public. Visitor use is not compatible with the nesting, feeding, and resting use of the small refuge by birds. Sandy portions of the island have only sparse vegetation, while more stable areas may support eastern red cedar, wax myrtle, salt cedar, and groundsel bush. Least terns, black skimmers, and Wilson’s plovers have nested on the soil deposits, while brown pelicans, gulls, terns, and many other species use it as a resting area.