Usually fated to the wood chipper or just discarded into landfills, Christmas trees are providing shelter and nesting areas for Chesapeake wildlife as biologists find innovative ways to use the evergreens.
Roughly 250 trees were hauled on boats to Poplar Island, a 1,140-acre reconstructed island in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile east of Tilghman Island.
Once a vacation haven for wildlife, Poplar Island had been slipping away at a rate of more than 13 feet a year as a result of the rapid erosion brought on by sea level rise and land subsidence. The Poplar Island Restoration Project, started in 1998, is using dredged material from Baltimore’s shipping-channel complex to restore 1,100 acres of wetland and upland habitat within the historic island footprint of 1847.
The project has several goals: find a place to put dredge spoils from shipping channels, recreate an island once swallowed by the Chesapeake Bay and provide various wetland and upland habitats for wildlife. A primary focus of the project is to provide suitable habitat for ground-nesting colonial waterbirds such as common terns (Sterna hirundo) and least terns (Sterna antillarum). The project also aims to attract nesting colonial waterbirds such as egrets and other heron species. Both these bird groups are dependent on island habitats that are predator-free for successful reproduction.
Tons of dredge material have rebuilt the shape of Poplar. At present, the island is quite flat with both low and high marsh complexes, but there are few shrubs or trees. Until shrubs and other woody plants take hold on Poplar Island, strategically placed Christmas trees will provide both cover and nesting sites for wildlife.
It is hoped that the debris piles placed in the newly created wetlands will be used by American black duck and other bird species.
In addition, biologists recently screwed trees into driftwood stumps that had been placed in the ground a few years ago. This will help provide the structure that snowy and cattle egrets and other heron species require to nest successfully.
The trees are also expected to provide habitat for other wildlife including songbirds, reptiles and small mammals.
A target species for the project is the American black duck (Anas rubripes). The elusive American black duck is not black at all; its plumage is predominently a dark, mottled brown. Hens and drakes are almost identical in appearance, with the males being slightly darker. American black ducks are closely related to mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and are often mistaken for females of that species. Both species hybridize readily.
The black duck is one of North America’s wariest waterfowl, and few surpass it in prestige among hunters throughout the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways.
Primarily a species of eastern North America, the black duck is found east of the Great Plains and south of the tundra. Black ducks migrate through the Chesapeake Bay region, as well as overwinter and breed here.
Small islands and isolated marshes that are relatively safe from predators and human disturbance are the last stronghold for American black ducks nesting in Chesapeake Bay. Only a few, small, nesting islands remain.
Habitat lost to erosion and development is a continuing concern in the decline of breeding populations in the Chesapeake Bay. A significant amount of shoreline nesting areas have been eliminated by housing developments, shoreline erosion controls, and the filling and draining of wetlands. Sturdy, offshore hunting blinds, where American black ducks used to nest, are much less prevalent.
Meanwhile, sea level rise and erosion are continuing to claim the remaining islands that black ducks favor for nesting in the Chesapeake Bay.
Biologists will monitor the tree use on Poplar Island’s wetlands to see if black ducks use the new areas for nesting.
Free tours of Poplar Island are offered year-round, Mondays through Fridays by the Maryland Department of Environment. Starting in Talbot County. Visitors take a boat out to the island and tour the island by bus. They will see how the island is being rebuilt as well as hear about the history of Poplar and its future use.
To arrange a tour, call MDE’s Chrissy Albanese, an environmental specialist and tour coordinator for Poplar Island, at 410-770-6503.