An island rises from the Bay

Today we are hearing from Peter McGowan, environmental contaminants biologist at Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

In the 1600s Poplar Island measured about 2,000 acres. In 1874, roughly 1,140 acres remained. When I visited in 1994, less than 10 acres had lasted.

1847 map of Poplar Island (right) that was used as the design footprint for the restoration’s project construction outline.

Poplar Island was a rapidly eroding island complex in Chesapeake Bay, a few miles south of Annapolis, Maryland. The island lost substantial land (13 feet/year) due to erosion, subsidence, and sea level rise over the past 400 years. This is a common theme for Bay islands to this day. I found myself on one of the few remnants of the island as part of a team with USFWS, U.S. Geological Survey, and The University of Maryland working to identify possible stations to monitor the upcoming Poplar Island restoration project – still years away from starting.

The Poplar islets were free from human disturbances and provided excellent nesting habitat for waterbirds, including snowy and cattle egrets, little blue heron, and American black duck. It was also my first encounter with an osprey nest located on the ground, indicating a lack of mammalian predators. Little did I know that ospreys would later become a focus of my career from 2000 to present…

Ospreys, AKA ‘fish hawks’ are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species.

Ospreys are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species that were once in trouble along with other fish eating bird species. Their populations were severely impacted by the pesticide DDT and its resulting harmful effects on reproductive success. Banning of the chemical and conservation efforts have brought these birds back to the Bay. An estimated 10,000 pairs of ospreys currently nest in Chesapeake Bay, a far cry from the 1,450 pairs in the 1970s.

Poplar Island is now an international model for island restoration. Over 1,140 acres of remote island habitat have been restored, thanks to a dredged material project funded by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Port Administration. The island will feature more than 1,700 acres of tidal wetland and uplands, benefitting fish and wildlife with an emphasis on nesting waterbirds when completed in 2043.

Comparison of Poplar Island before restoration construction vs. construction stage in 2011

I am the lead wildlife biologist for the Poplar Island project and my team is responsible for the all wildlife management activities on the island, including installing and repairing osprey nest platforms before the spring arrival of the first ospreys.

To date we have installed more than 24 osprey platforms on the island, a number of which enlisted the help of volunteers including the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, during the past 5 years, two Eagle Scout projects involved osprey platform construction for Poplar Island.  This February our team installed seven new platforms on Poplar Island and are anticipating when the “fish hawks” will first arrive, which will mark the beginning of our 2017 monitoring season. Stay tuned for updates including a webcam link overlooking an active nest!



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