First-Ever Coastal Bays Waterbird Status Report Created

OCEAN CITY — Audubon, Maryland-DC, in partnership with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, will release the first-ever “Maryland Coastal Bays Colonial Waterbird and Islands Report” in downtown Ocean City, Saturday, April 27 from 4-5 p.m. at the Marina Deck restaurant. The event will take place during the 24th Annual Delmarva Birding Weekend and follows a two-hour birding tour in the bays behind Ocean City and Assateague. Local, state and federal elected leaders will be on hand for the release.

Audubon’s report summarizes the current status of colonial waterbirds and their nesting islands in Maryland’s Coastal Bays. Iconic species of terns and skimmers that define the essence of Ocean City and Assateague birdlife are in serious decline because the islands they depend on for nesting are rapidly eroding. In the past 25 years, more than 120 acres of islands have disappeared. Few of the islands that supported nesting colonies in 1985 remain today. Moreover, human-induced disturbance is also taking its toll on the birds.

Since 1985, black skimmers have declined by more than 95% in Maryland, and in the past 16 years, common terns have been reduced by 90% and royal terns by 78%. All three of these species are now listed as endangered by the State of Maryland.

Like skimmers and terns, wading birds, including herons, egrets and ibises, also suffer from island disturbance, erosion and sea level rise. As a result of these factors, more than 95% of all wading birds in the coastal bays now breed on just one island, South Point Spoils. The report includes information on their current status.

First Ever

An adult royal tern and juvenile are pictured on Assateague Island. File Photo

In the past, the coastal bays ecosystem was very dynamic with periodic breaches on Assateague Island and Ocean City providing new sand and sediment which naturally maintained islands in the bays. However, such breaches no longer occur, and eroding islands now simply disappear.

In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) completed the Ocean City Water Resources Study, which proposed using dredged material to restore nesting islands lost to erosion in the coastal bays. Nourishment of the state-owned Skimmer Island behind Ocean City near the Route 50 Bridge was a state-private partnership project undertaken annually from 2011 through 2014. Skimmer Island has not been nourished since 2014 and is quickly eroding away.

From late 2014 through early 2016, the USACE did channel maintenance dredging that created or restored four islands in the coastal bays. Despite the best efforts of state and federal agencies, most of the rebuilt islands have again suffered from erosion and severe storms. At the event on Saturday, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and the Audubon, Maryland-DC will outline their initiatives. To save these iconic species, substantial resources are needed, officials maintain.

To combat island loss, a coordinated effort is needed to identify more opportunities for rebuilding islands using dredge spoil from boating channels. Rebuilt islands and existing islands need to be protected from erosion without compromising the habitat conditions required by sand-nesting birds. The use of artificial nesting structures for island-nesting birds should also be explored.

To reduce human disturbance, agencies currently post nesting islands each summer with ‘No trespassing’ signs, and informational signs are placed at boat ramps and other public places to educate boaters not to disturb nesting birds. However, increased enforcement and more public education, especially of tourists, is needed.

To reduce the impact of depredation, control of owls or other birds of prey visiting the islands may need to be considered. Helping nesting birds to maintain large colonies can allow the birds to defend themselves from gulls. And creating additional nesting islands away from the Ocean City area would reduce predation impacts by spreading out breeding populations.