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Roman Jesien: New sand will nourish Skimmer Island - March 26, 2012

Skimmer Island in Ocean City is unarguably the most important barren sand nesting habitat for colonial nesting waterbirds in Maryland. It lies just north of the Route 50 bridge (on the lefthand side going into Ocean City).

Since the early 1990s, it has been the site of Maryland's only royal tern colony and has been of critical importance to breeding black skimmers as well. Both birds are on the state's endangered list.

The island is also important to nesting common terns, American oystercatcher and great black-backed gulls. A few years ago, a heronry also was developed on the most stable portion of the island that has seen vegetation growth.

In addition, Skimmer Island is the most important site for horseshoe crab nesting in Maryland.

The island formed in the late 1980s with the reinforcement of the Route 50 bridge. By 1998, Skimmer Island was approximately seven acres in size, and had become a popular clamming area.

However, since then it has started to erode. By 2009, it had decreased to 2.3 acres. As of autumn 2010, it was down to about 2.1 acres. Skimmer Island was in serious trouble.

Last year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources began a cooperative public-private project to nourish Skimmer Island with clean sand dredged from the approach channel to the Ocean City Fishing Center. A total of 650 cubic yards were put onto the island last year. Sand placement will continue this year.

This effort is primarily funded by the Ocean City Fishing Center, with minimal funding from DNR and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program which covers staff time to prepare permits, reports and monitor the project. Others involved in the project include Worcester County, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

This highly beneficial "win-win" project would not be happening without the support of the Fishing Center.

Sand placement will start this week and needs to be completed April 1 to meet restrictions on in-water work to protect summer flounder, which will be entering the coastal bays shortly after.

The contractor's first task on the project will be placing turbidity curtains and constructing a pipe to hydraulically move the material from the dredging site to Skimmer Island. Then they will begin pumping clean sand to Skimmer Island. There will be a small excavator on Skimmer Island grading the sand to final elevations designed to provide safe naturally maintaining nesting habitat for royal terns and black skimmers.

The key to natural maintenance of the nesting habitat is careful control of elevation, so nesting sites are safe from most summer storm tides, but exposed to winter storm overwash to set back vegetative succession with physical reworking and/or salt deposition in the sand from overwashing salt water.

When first placed, the material will be gray, perhaps even sometimes close to black. However, in a matter of a few days that material will lighten and will become indistinguishable from the sands of Skimmer Island. The sand is the same as that placed at Homer Gudelsky County Park, just south of the Route 50 bridge at the eastern end of Old Bridge Road in West Ocean City.

To get an idea of what the placed sand will look like, check out the park. This project is basically an effort to "design with nature" and once all work is done, there will be little or no visible sign that anything happened to Skimmer Island, other than over the winter, some additional sand accreted to the island.

This experiment in nourishing Skimmer Island so far appears to be successful. Partners are looking forward to developing a more general strategy to take sand that is accumulating in unwanted areas to areas that need sand, such as some of our rapidly eroding shorelines and islands.

Once the sand placement is completed this season at Skimmer Island, the birds will return to set up nests in mid-April. While the birds are present, it is vital that the public keep off the island. If clamming near the island, please keep in mind that people or pets walking on the island greatly disturb the birds. This causes the adults to leave their nests, which needlessly exposes eggs or young birds to the harsh rays of the sun during the day or cold at night.

For more information on the sand nourishment operation, contact Roman Jesien at the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, at rjesien@mdcoastalbays.org

Roman Jesien is the science coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.


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