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New Islands Provide Much Needed Habitat - May 31, 2015

    This summer there will be some new additions to our coastal bays. Since the winter of 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program have partnered with other organizations and volunteers to add four new islands throughout the coastal bays. These new islands will be the first ones created in the coastal bays since the Hurricane of 1933 initially carved out the Ocean City Inlet, and hopefully they will restore some much needed habitat.     

    After the storm of 1933 created the Ocean City Inlet, and the Army Corps of Engineers stabilized it, we saw the natural formation of 29 small islands throughout the coastal bays. These tiny islands were created as the inlet shifted the way water moved in the bays, resulting in the natural accumulation of sand and other sediment in certain areas. Humans helped to build these islands up as well; stabilizing the Ocean City Inlet and other navigational channels resulted in lots of dredge spoil and sand, which were pumped onto the newly burgeoning islands to help them “grow”. 

    For years after their creation, the islands provided amazing nesting habitat for dozens of species of shorebirds, ideal areas for horseshoe crabs to mate, terrapins to nest, and more. Unfortunately, sea-level rise, human development, and time have all worked together to wash away many of these small islands, leaving only three of the original 29 islands still above water. 

    "They were a great waterbird resource in their hayday, until they disappeared," Regional Ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Dave Brinker said. Referring to one of the three surviving original islands created in 1933, Brinker stated, “This islands maybe got five years of life left before it's gone. Every storm that comes in here batters it. It was a waterbird colony for years, but they won't use it for nesting anymore.”

    These disappearing islands have created problems for many shorebirds coming back to nest in the coastal bays. As the birds come back year after year, the islands continue to shrink and disappear under the waves, leaving smaller areas for nesting. Human development has also significantly altered the amount of nesting habitat available for these birds. Places like Ocean City would have offered prime nesting habitat, however with all the development that has taken place the birds can not safely nest there and must find other suitable areas.  

 

    For some of these birds, these tiny, uninhabited islands are the only available nesting habitat in the state. Royal Terns and Black Skimmers primarily nest on the open, sandy areas of these uninhabited islands and rely on isolation from humans and predators to help ensure nest survival. Both the Royal Tern and Black Skimmer are endangered species here in Maryland and without these islands to nest on, we could see them disappear from this area forever. Thankfully, through hard work and dedication, we are finally adding four new islands to our coastal bays. 

 

    "I've seen a lot of islands disappear in the coastal bays and the Chesapeake Bay in these 30 years of working," Brinker said. "Our hope is things like these new islands might stabilize shorebird populations above zero, and keep some type of residual population here.”

 

    The new four new islands created by the Army Corps of Engineers and their partners are scattered throughout the coastal bays. One island, called Collier Island, was created in the area called the Thoroughfare in Assawoman Bay, while another island called Robbins Marsh was created just northwest of Public Landing. Two more islands were created near the Verrazano bridge, simply called 14 for the more Northern island, and 12 for the more Southern island. 

 

    The newly formed islands are mostly created from dredge spoil, collected from harbors and navigational channels throughout the coastal bays. Once the dredge spoil is collected, it can then be moved to the necessary area for distribution. The dredge spoil is added onto the island via a process that mixes the sand with water and then pumps the sand-water mixture through tubes onto the island.

 

    The new islands are still very plain, comparatively speaking. While the older islands had some vegetation and cover, the new islands look like barren sand bars, poking out of the bays. Vegetation has yet to colonize these new habitats, so right now they still look like mounds of sand, muck, and shells however as time progresses, we can expect to see some plants, like Spartina, growing there. 

    

    The current lack of vegetation and shade is not an issue to many shorebirds, as Black Skimmers and Royal Terns actually prefer to nest on the open, sandy areas. As the vegetation grows on the island, the shade and cover will provide excellent nesting habitat to many other species, like herons and egrets. 

 

    After months of planning and hard work, the newly created islands are finally ready to play host to their first avian visitors and hopefully provide nesting habitat for years to come. 

 

    “Islands are an important feature in coastal lagoon systems and unfortunately, due to sea level rise, and shoreline hardening these features are disappearing,” said Roman Jesien, Science Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. “We are very excited about the Corps’ recent activities to restore some of our lost islands and it is a great example of federal, state, and local partnerships working together to benefit our bays.”    

 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 


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