How to Recreate a Waterbird Habitat


At a conference organized by the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Michael Erwin, a Research Professor and Wildlife Biologist at the University of Virginia, described how he’s leading the massive $450 million Poplar Island restoration project that is creating critical waterbird nesting grounds on islands in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Lost to erosion and rising water levels, the islands are being restored, even re-created, at great expense in order to save valuable species in a threatened ecosystem.

The Chesapeake Bay is in “dire straits,” says Erwin. Increased pollution has caused nitrogen levels to go through the roof. With climate change, islands are rapidly disappearing, which has had an impact on native species populations and diversity. On Watts Island alone, a 35 percent loss in island territory has resulted in a 65 percent species loss. Ducks are down 62 percent, laughing gulls down 72 percent.

To restore the waterbird population on the 1,550-acre Poplar Island, an island that was fast disappearing, Erwin said there were “hundreds of meetings” to determine the “suite of species” to be selected for repopulation. To create a safe location for the species, new granite rock walls were brought in on barges. These walls provide a solid frame for adding new soil, beach sands, and 550 acres of wetlands. “The goal is restore, but it’s as much a creation as restoration site. We are creating new wetlands.”

The U.S. government required that uncontaminated soils be brought to Poplar Island. This means materials couldn’t get shipped from excavated brownfield sites in Baltimore. He said it’s a good thing “$450 million will buy you a lot of new soil.” Heavy machinery-dredged sludge is now pumped into the site. The sludge, which he described as “chocolate mousse,” is cleaner yet easy for construction workers to get stuck in. New sand was also shipped in.

A wide range of tern species have returned, but monitoring showed that their numbers dipped in the past few years. This fall in the tern population was due to early invaders, foxes and owls, which threatened nesting grounds. Erwin said some foxes had been “disposed of,” but owls may be more challenging. “Which is worse – a fox or owl?,” he wondered. In addition, diamondback terrapins also like it there.


Restoration “takes a long time.” The project is expected to take some 10-20 years. Still, the bay’s residents remain fascinated and the project’s public education campaign has yielded successes: locals, bird watchers, and conservationists are flocking to the island to witness the ongoing restoration. It’s gotten to the point where the project had to buy a bus.

Learn more about how to take a tour.

Image credit: (1) Poplar Island restoration / University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science, (2) Poplar Island tern / Trailpixie on Flickr

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