Trip To A Reborn Land: Poplar Island

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Yesterday, Ginger North and I led a Delaware Nature Society trip to Poplar Island, MD.  This is not your run-of-the-mill island, rather it has been reborn from the water, and is a wildlife mecca created by human engineering.  Located in the Chesapeake Bay near Tilghman Island, Poplar Island 100 years ago was 1,100 acres in size, was farmed, had woods, and permanent human residents that hunted the land, and fished nearby waters.  Since that time, erosion whittled away at the island, until only about 5 acres were left in the 1990’s.  It was almost gone.

In 1998, a brilliant project was started to effectively and environmentally dispose of clean dredge spoils from the Chesapeake Bay shipping channel…to re-create the island with the muck pumped from the bottom of the Bay.  The original shape of the island was outlined in a rock barrier to prevent further erosion, the interior of the island was divided into cells, and the pumping began.  In the end, 555 acres will be vegetated upland, and 555 acres will be tidal wetland habtitat.  Studies are being conducted to make this two-mile-long island even bigger!  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Port Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Maryland Environmental Service are working together on this huge project.

Our guide shows us where we will go on Poplar Island, an amazing re-creation of an island that was almost lost to erosion.

The boat trip to Poplar Island took about 20 minutes.  In the distance, we could see what looked like a construction site on the water.  Dirt, rock, trucks, cranes, and other machinery were operating in the distance.  Clouds of gulls swarmed above the island, and more cormorants than I could count lined a nearby pier.  We disembarked and our tour began.  After a brief introduction, we boarded a bus to drive the dirt roads and hear about the island’s creation.

One of the large habitat cells at Poplar Island.  This one isn’t finished, but it will become beautiful tidal marsh.
We enjoyed the 20-minute boat ride to and from the island.

We passed cells that were in various stages of completion. Some cells are open water, some are drying spoil, and some are finished and vegetated tidal marsh, teeming with life.  Raised areas have been created for nesting Least and Common Terns.  A rookery area has been created and is used by nesting egrets and herons.  Over 1,000 Double-crested Cormorants nest on another sandy raised area in the marsh.  We saw more than I could count on our visit.  Gulls by the thousand roosted on the island.  Large flocks of waterfowl like Green-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, and Black Duck fed in the exposed pools.  A huge diversity of shorebirds, from the tall, elegant American Avocet to the tiny, dirt-colored Least Sandpiper fed in the impoundments, marshes, and on drying soil.  Migrant raptors like Northern Harrier and Sharp-shinned Hawks hunted the open grassy areas.  Several Bald Eagles played in the sky above the island.  Dozens of Monarch butterfly swarmed around one bush.  You get the picture…this place is completely alive with wildlife…and the project won’t even be finished until 2029…for the meager price of $1.2 billion.

This cell is finished tidal marsh. An old barge is located in the middle of it and is used by nesting and roosting terns and gulls.
Bald Eagles circled above Poplar Island, and the two-mile-long man-made island was absolutely a birder’s paradise with thousand and thousands of gulls, shorebirds, waders, and waterfowl.

If you are interested in the full bird list from our trip, click here.  The Delaware Nature Society is going to arrange a birding trip to the island in 2013.  To view an interesting video about the island, visit this website: http://vimeo.com/37958136.

We will be back!

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