These three “windows in time” illustrate my experiences with Poplar Island, the largest “beneficial use” dredged material disposal project undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in concert with the Maryland Port Administration.
First Window – 1996
An 1880 community of nearly 100 residents farming the land or harvesting oysters and fish, a post office, sawmill, general store, schoolhouse — these images flash through my sleepy brain as I slowly pilot our 18-foot privateer on this cool, foggy May morning in 1996. We had launched from the Tilghman Island public boat ramp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and were headed toward little Poplar Island. Yet the scene I expect to find is a far cry from 1800s I had imagined. What had happened in the intervening years to reduce the island to the few uninhabited remnants I know await us?
We are conducting a wildlife reconnaissance on Poplar, about 4 miles northwest of Tilghman, and a pinch more than 15 miles southeast of Annapolis. The three of us, wildlife biologists based at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Laurel, MD, are beginning a large cooperative project involving what would soon develop into the largest and most costly U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “beneficial use” project in the country.
From the boat ramp, we head west, cruising under the Knapp’s Narrows drawbridge, past the silent hulls of tired oyster workboats, a colorful mix of pleasure powerboats and a forest of sailboat masts.
As the captain of our little craft, I am always apprehensive about boating in waters with which I am unfamiliar. Luckily, the gray-green surface of the Chesapeake Bay this morning is mercifully placid, unlike many days in the spring. The channel is well-marked and the fog starts to dissipate, so we have no trouble crossing the 4-mile stretch of open water.
Thirty minutes later, we approach the first of four small remnant islands, which make up the so-called “Poplar Island” only about a football-field length west of a larger, privately owned island known as Coaches (formerly “Coaches’ Neck) Island. A third private, smaller island, Jefferson Island, lies just to the north about three-quarters of a mile from our landing spot.
In Capt. John Smith’s day, Poplar, Coaches and Jefferson may have all been one large island of about 1,500 acres. Sharing the fate of many other Bay islands, most of Poplar Island’s 1,140 acres (estimate ca. 1850) have been claimed by the dual forces of erosion and sea-level rise.
My co-worker Dan Stotts grabs the small anchor and chain, hops over the gunwale, splashing into the sandy shallows of the southernmost remnant island. Dan buries the anchor while Greg Gough, one of our newer young recruits, and I get out, then pull the bow of the boat up on the sandy berm as the tide would soon be rising.
The three of us grab our binoculars and a spotting scope and proceed up the shoreline, noting any wildlife or signs thereof. The island, or what is left of it, is less than 300 feet long and perhaps 25 feet wide at its widest. It sits only about a foot and a half above mean high tide, with a few grasses, some dying shrubs and a dead pine tree, lying prostrate.
We walk only a few steps when a majestic osprey springs straight from the ground; upon closer inspection, we spot its large stick nest wedged among the tangle of old pine roots. The nest’s two owners circle high overhead, protesting with squeaky, high-pitched voices. The nest embraces two large mottled eggs.
We keep walking, flushing two mallards on the far end of the island. We discover one nest with eight pale eggs nestled in down feathers in a clump of grass. Dan remarks that about a decade ago, while accompanying his father, Vern Stotts, the former Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist, more than 10 American black duck nests were found on the Poplar remnants. None are found this day.
The second little island we boat to, only about 150 feet away, is in even worse shape. At about one-tenth acre, it is little more than a sand pile with one large dead tree lying mostly in the water and a few remaining shrubs.
One hundred adult double-crested cormorants suddenly burst into flight. It must be a good colony site; guano-covered nests are clustered on the sand, at the base and on top of the stump and along the wider branches.
From the tiny clump of shrubs just beyond the downed tree we see 10 white heads peering at us. As we draw closer, the heads transform into elegant snowy egrets lifting into the westerly wind, squawking their discontent.
The other two northern islands offer little new information beyond a few more mallard nests in dense grass. As we finish our survey and climb back into the privateer, I watch the incoming tide lapping at the fringes of grass with the nests less than a foot out of reach. I comment, “Only the strong survive!” But Greg smiles, replying “Or only the stupid remain! In a year or two, this island will be history.” But history is about to go down a different path.
Second Window – 2002
By the time of my next boat trip out to Poplar in summer 2002, an enormous transformation had taken place. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration had begun planning a large disposal site for materials dredged from the Bay’s navigation channels. After many legal hurdles were overcome, the acquisition of Poplar Island was finalized by the MPA in 1998. With the passage of major funding bills by Congress and state of Maryland, the restoration began in late 1998.
Stakeholder meetings involving the public and more than 20 planners, engineers, physical and biological scientists and managers, and a host of administrators consumed months of time before actual “dirt-moving” began.
Because the Corps designated the project as a “beneficial use project,” it required the restoration of fish and wildlife habitat in addition to serving as a depository for the approximately 38 million cubic yards of materials dredged from shipping channels. Accommodating the various biological goals, including fish, shellfish, birds, terrapins and aquatic grass habitats — all within realistic engineering and cost constraints —proved challenging.
After much debate and compromise, the final design called for a 1,140-acre stone-armored perimeter dike that reproduced the 1847 “footprint” of Poplar Island. Within this, a series of sand cross-dikes would be constructed to provide an estimated 570 acres of upland habitat to maximize dredge capacity on the western half of the island, while the eastern half (570 acres) would be dedicated to tidal saltmarsh wetlands.
Within these acreages, the area would be divided into smaller (20–40 acre) “cells” to allow for iterative construction and material placement over the 20– to 25-year project period. The low-elevation wetland cells were slated to consist of 80 percent low marsh and 20 percent high marsh. (It was later recognized that, with sea-level rise, these areas would no doubt change over the next several decades — nothing remains “fixed” in the Chesapeake for long!)
The wildlife task force, of which I was a member, was charged with developing a list of bird species for restoration and plans for their habitat. Waterbirds were the focus, with common and least terns, snowy egrets, American black ducks and ospreys making the final list.
On this steamy June day, my co-worker, Peter Osenton, Nicole Berondeau, a young volunteer at Patuxent, and I motor across the 2 miles from Lowe’s Wharf to what has grown in three years from a dwindling few acres of sandy remnants to a riprap-armored island of 1,140 acres. As we tie up our small powerboat at the large dock and walk up the ramp, we stand in awe at the sight. Miles of sand and dredged materials surround a series of large cells that will become wetlands during the first phase of the filling. Later, more than 30 million cubic yards of dredged material will transform the western cells into woody uplands, about 25–30 feet above the high tide line.
At this point, though, it is hard to envision how the “final” project will look. The only vegetation to be seen are some areas of planted upland grasses along the dikes, some salt-tolerant shrubs and a few imported trees placed near a wetland cell recently planted with salt marsh grasses. This 30-acre experimental wetland cell is about the only place where we get a glimpse of what the future wetlands will look like, with its healthy expanse of spartina, or cordgrass.
In several areas around the perimeter dike, front-end loaders, cranes, excavators and haul trucks rumble about, generating plumes of dust. We spot three trailers in the distance housing the operations personnel, a mix of busy people planting vegetation in a second wetland cell, and hard-hatted workmen examining some drainage control mechanisms. Others operate boats or drive pickup trucks to a number of island locations. The activity levels are a stark contrast from what we saw on Poplar in 1996.
We spend the next three hours with Brad Fruh, our Maryland Environmental Services host, cruising around to all of the recently created waterbird nesting habitats. Some are tiny sand islands in the middle of the future wetland cells. On these created “habitat islands,” we find almost 400 common terns nesting at three sites, with some feeding small young. Seventy-five or 80 least terns are nesting on another small sand island in the southern part of the project area, also within a future wetland cell.
Of particular interest is the scraggly looking small “remnant island” in Cell 1, the only remaining member of the original Poplar Island. It still has a few shrubs on it, and within those, we discover 60–70 snowy egrets with young. In the barren open part of this little remnant are crowded “cheek-to-jowl” more than 120 double-crested cormorants and about 100 large gulls attending nests. They are mostly herring with some great black-backed gulls mixed in.
Brad mentions that the cormorants had relocated from the original Poplar site to Jefferson Island three years prior, during the construction of the exterior dike around the new Poplar. This year marks their return (not welcomed by most!). Just beyond the remnant island within the cell sit five rusty old barges, brought down from Baltimore Harbor in the 1990s in an early attempt to protect Poplar from erosion. Five osprey nests perch atop three of the barges.
I take notes on other bird species along the way, including large numbers of nesting mallards, a few nesting killdeer, some protesting Canada geese nesting in the roadside grasses. They are outnumbered by herring gulls along the dikes. I note three nests of mute swans, a species of some controversy in the Bay. We are all aware from earlier restoration projects that not all plant or animal colonizers are welcome, and controlling gulls, swans, Canada geese and others will be a management task for years to come.
As we climb into our boat to return to shore, my mind is churning over what a reasonable waterbird monitoring plan would be for the future. We are working on what the plan will be for the next few years while the island is still “young,” but also have to consider longer time horizons. What additional species colonizations will occur? What will the vegetation look like in 10–20 years? How much species management (e.g., goose, swan, fox, gull control) will be sustainable?
Every restoration project holds excitement and drama. In Poplar Island’s case, it means turning a few small sandbars into a large complex of wetlands and uplands that will support thousands of migratory birds, diamondback terrapins and a host of other mammal, reptile and invertebrate species.
Third Window – 2013
I drive my Ford 150 to the South River boat ramp on this hot, mid-June morning in 2013 to meet my Patuxent colleagues, Diann Prosser and Pete Osenton, as well as several of our wildlife partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office. We load all of our equipment for the day onto the moored USFWS 25–foot Boston whaler and proceed eastward from Edgewater, MD, for the 20-mile trip across the Bay to Poplar Island. I think to myself: This is a far cry from my early days of boating across in our little 18-foot boat from Lowe’s Wharf, and I welcome the relief.
Upon reaching the dock at Poplar and tying up, I call out to Pete about the changes since 2002. “The desert sure has greened up, Pete!” Pete replies “Yeah, and the trailer city has grown from three to 10!” We eagerly unload our gear into the USFWS pickup truck and begin the routine of our monitoring mission, visiting each of the nesting areas of the waterbird species to conduct counts of adults and check the contents of marked nests.
Driving the length of Poplar in 2013, the four of us discuss how much has changed in the 14 or so years the “new Poplar” has existed. Much of the heavy construction and dike-building is done and a good deal of the island is now green. Four large wetland cells support healthy, natural salt marshes; shrubs and trees prosper; and many birds flourish. More than 400 pairs of terns are nesting this year, down from more than 800 pairs from 2004. Pete McGowan, our lead USFWS co-operator, comments, “Once we got the owls under control on Coaches Island, the terns did better.”
Predator control seems a never-ending challenge. Snowy Egrets remain about the same as in 2002 with 68 pairs, and a small number of glossy ibis are nesting within the egret colony. Ospreys have a banner year with 20 nests, and we are seeing lots of black ducks with broods, although many are hybrids with mallards.
Unfortunately, the most successful of the waterbirds are cormorants — more than 2,300 nests! The USFWS has an ongoing egg-oiling program to help slow the population growth.
Many new species have shown up over the years, and birders are thrilled to find nesting Virginia rails, black-necked stilts, one pair of black-crowned night herons, American oystercatchers (some years) and bank swallows on Poplar.
After retiring from Patuxent and transferring my component of the Poplar Island project to my able colleague, Diann Prosser, I reflect on my good fortune in having had the support of the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps, the Maryland Port Administration, the Maryland Environmental Services, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the numerous partners and volunteers over the years.
Borrowing a concept from the movie “Field of Dreams,” the restored Poplar Island has become an “Island of Dreams,” that is, build it and they will come. In this case, though, “they” refers to numerous species of birds, fish and other wildlife, not the humans that inhabited the island decades earlier.