There were calls of “Glossy Ibis flying right to left”, “Bank Swallows on the bank”, “nesting Black-necked Stilts on the mudflat”, and “beware the large looming crane ahead”. The later sighting was not of the avian variety, but rather a gigantic towering long-necked machine. We birders were visiting Poplar Island, an active island construction and restoration site on the Chesapeake Bay.
I’ve previously described the disappearing islands of the bay, succumbing to rising water, sinking land, and erosion. This has been going on for eons, but man is now fighting back on a massive scale. The Poplar Island Restoration is an attempt to recreate this island in a sustainable fashion using dredge material from the shipping channel. Hopefully the resurrected historic site will become a beacon to naturalists and local flora and fauna, as well as an environmental laboratory for future projects. It is a work in progress but has already achieved much of these goals.
William Claiborne surveyed Sharp’s Island, now gone, and Popeley’s Island, later renamed Poplar’s Island, in 1627. Early English settlements had mixed results with an Indian massacre occurring in1637. The British used the islands as a base when they invaded the Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812. In the mid 19th century Poplar Island, along with the nearby Jefferson and Coaches Islands, were over 1100 acres in size. In 1847 an entrepreneur sought riches in the trade of black cat fur, populating the island with hoards of black cats. Watermen delivered fish daily to support the herd. All was going well until the winter when the bay froze over and the cats all escaped over the ice, their fur intact.
By the early 20th century there were 100 residents on the island living on several farms. A school, church, post office, and sawmill graced the small community. In the 1930’s and 40’s the democratic party built a hunting and fishing retreat center on the adjacent Jefferson Island, visited by presidents FDR and Truman. But by now the retreating shores were evident and the island’s fate unsure. You can read “Poplar Island, My Memories as a Boy” by Peter K. Bailey to appreciate the life of the islanders in this era. “The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake” by William B. Cronin describes a similar process throughout the bay and contains fascinating pictures of the shrinking land.
By the 1990’s the island was only 4 acres of several small islets, barely breaking the surface. Someone, looking for a site to deposit dredged material from the shipping channel, had the bright idea to restore and recreate Poplar Island. This was not a simple task, but rather a complicated bureaucratic, engineering, and environmental feat attempting to restore habitat without damaging existing wildlife. It became a joint effort of the Army Corp of Engineers, Maryland Department of Transportation, and Maryland Environmental Services (MES).
The first step was to construct containment dikes of rock and sand to shape the various habitats of the restored island. The goal was to create marshy wetlands as well as drier uplands. Initially the plan was to restore the 1847 footprint, but given the success of the project, the target size was increased to 1715 acres.
I’ve visited the island three times over the last several years and marvel at the progression. MES proudly sponsors a free guided tour of the site on a seaworthy boat and air-conditioned bus. Visit their website for more info; http://www.poplarislandrestoration.com. My trips were sponsored by birding clubs and the itinerary was tailored for birders. Bring your binos, scopes, bug spray, and sunscreen. Others may visit to inspect other fauna and flora, or even the engineering feat itself. There are several quonset huts along the dirt roads that describe the entire endeavor.
Ebird now list 240 species of birds seen on the new Poplar Island. There are 34 nesting species reported including the American Oystercatcher, Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egret, Least and Common Terns, and Black-necked Stilts. The island is popular with waterfowl in the colder months. On one recent winter day a total of 15,000 birds were counted. Other fauna are also returning, with Diamond Back Terrapins thriving. Deer frequently swim over from the mainland to join in the party.
I’m attempting to picture my trip to Poplar Island 25 years from now. I’ll be 92 and probably still have my same binoculars, (they’re guaranteed for life). The restoration will be complete. The cranes, earth movers, and bulldozers will all be long gone. The island will be crisscrossed with a few hiking/biking trails, I hope, with some strategically positioned benches and viewing stands. There may even be a small harbor and slips for docking a few pleasure craft. I’ll limp from the wetlands to the uplands to once again check out the birds. I will have a smile on my face as I survey Poplar Island one last time, the gem of the Chesapeake, a plan wonderfully conceived and executed by many folks for the lasting enjoyment of friends and fowl for generations to come.