The Island that Almost Vanished...

...is Slowly Reappearing

Story by Ken Burton, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Heavy machinery is used to mold dredge material and create habitat on Poplar Island. USFWS photo.
Heavy machinery is used to mold dredge material and create habitat on Poplar Island. USFWS photo.
CBFO biologist holding a snowy egret hatchling. USFWS photo
CBFO biologist holding a snowy egret hatchling. USFWS photo

There was a time when pirates sailed past it. In the 1700s, it was a backdrop for Revolutionary War naval skirmishes. It once supported a small town, with cattle, a post office and a school. That was before Poplar Island, located in the Chesapeake Bay 34 miles south of Baltimore, began to disappear.

Today, Poplar Island is back, and better than ever: in the 1800s, it amounted to around 1,000 acres. By 1990, erosion had cut the island into three separate chunks of land and squeezed it to less than 10 acres. Today, thanks to a successful restoration effort led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it has returned to 1,140 acres and may grow by another 570 acres before the project is finished.

Using soil dredged from the Baltimore shipping channel, workers are steadily rebuilding the island and restoring its habitat. When work on Poplar Island is complete, half the acreage will be turned into wetlands and half, uplands – complete with trees. The island will be maze of smaller islands, ponds, channels and marshes. Some 40 million cubic yards of dredge material will be protected by 35,000 feet of containment dikes.

Jason Miller, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis (CBFO), is focusing on two parts of the newest version of Poplar Island: submerged aquatic vegetation and wildlife management.

Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), also called bay grass, supports a diverse community of fish, shellfish, invertebrates and waterfowl. Miller spends a lot of time monitoring the return of submerged vegetation in Poplar Island’s tiny new harbor. Many of the plants are returning on their own, while a partner group from Anne Arundel Community College has pitched in and helped with seeding, adding a bit of insurance.

Miller, who works in close partnership with the Corps,
travels regularly to the island to keep track of construction and to keep track of what kind of wildlife is already being drawn to this premier habitat restoration effort. Ospreys, egrets, terns, herons, eagles, double-breasted cormorants, black ducks and other wild fowl have already discovered an enlarged Poplar Island, unfazed by workers and heavy equipment that move and shape the dredge material that is bulldozed onto the island from barges. Diamondback terrapins are nesting in large numbers on the island, predominantly along the sandy beaches of the southeast shoreline. Last year there were approximately 185 known nests, accounting for more than 1,000 hatchlings.

When the Baltimore shipping channel is being dredged, barges operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to move 2 million yards of fill, from September through March of each year. The work began in 1998 and Scott Johnson, the man who manages the project for the Corps, estimates that work won’t be finished until 2020, at a total cost of about $400 million, with 75 percent of the cost borne by the Federal government and the remaining 25 percent, by the State of Maryland.

CBFO biologist Jason Miller erected snags to provide habitat for nesting egrets and herons on Poplar Island. USFWS photo
CBFO biologist Jason Miller erected snags to provide habitat for nesting egrets and herons on Poplar Island. USFWS photo

What’s new at Poplar Island ?

  • On June 23rd, fifteen employees from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge planted vegetation as part of a 33-acre wetland cell restoration. The National Aquarium in Baltimore arranged this planting, however, numerous conservation organizations provide volunteer opportunities to help restore Poplar’s vegetation. Eventually, about 570 acres of wetlands will be created on Poplar Island.
  • CBFO biologists erected snags to provide habitat for nesting egrets and herons.
  • After witnessing a very low fledging rate for common terns, Miller set up a night-vision camera system on a tern colony to examine predator interactions and incubation behavior. Footage from the solar-powered system documented the effects of night-time great-horned owl depredation.
  • A project using decoys to attract nesting snowy egrets was successful again this year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey estimate that 125 egrets or more will fledge the colony this year, an increase from 2004.

For more information:

Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District
http://www.nab.usace.army.mil/projects/Maryland/PoplarIsland/index.html