Floating Islands Project Aims To Restore Bird Habitats

Floating Islands Project Aims To Restore Bird Habitats
Gov. Larry Hogan is pictured on Monday visiting the floating island project in Maryland’s coastal bays. Submitted Photo

BERLIN – Three species of endangered colonial nesting birds in the coastal bays are showing signs of rebounding thanks to an innovative floating island project that has created nesting habitat.

Three of Maryland’s state-listed endangered colonial nesting water birds, including the common tern, the royal tern and the black skimmer, have seen their numbers in the coastal bays decline significantly in recent years.

To that end, through a partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Audubon Mid-Atlantic and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), a series of floating platforms that mimic the endangered species’ natural nesting habitats have been installed and appear to be achieving the desired results.

Now in its second year, the project is providing a floating wooden-framed platform in the coastal bays as a nesting site for the endangered colonial water birds, which have seen their numbers decline a staggering 90% to 95% since the mid-1980s due to sea level rise and erosion of their natural sand nesting islands in the coastal bays. The initial year of the program was deemed an instant success with 23 pairs of common terns using the platform for nesting, making it the largest breeding colony of the species in the coastal bays last year.

On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan visited the floating islands in the coastal bays as part of his larger tour of the Lower Shore area in conjunction with the Maryland Municipal League (MML) convention in Ocean City. On the same day, Hogan announced an additional $13.5 million in Waterway Improvement Fund grants to enhance public boating access, facilities and navigation around the state including funding for several projects in Worcester and the Lower Shore.

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Audubon Mid-Atlantic Director of Bird Conservation Dr. David Curson said he was encouraged by the success of the floating islands now entering their second year, but cautioned against a complete turnaround for the endangered water birds just yet.

“The immediate success of the project is encouraging,” he said. “But the fact that the largest common tern colony in the coastal bays system last year on this small artificial island illustrates just how dire the situation is for these birds. In 2003, there were more than 500 pairs of common terns nesting at six natural colony sites in the coastal bays. Today, most of these former sites have been degraded by erosion and some have been washed away entirely.”

This year, the partnership has expanded the size of the nesting platform from 1,024 square feet to over 2,300 square feet by adding five new raft sections to the four used in 2021. The rafts are latched together in a square formation that flexes at the joints as the waves roll beneath it. The design allows the platform to safely withstand large waves and strong winds during storm events. The project partners hope the larger platform will not only support a larger tern colony, but also may attract black skimmers to nest alongside the terns.

This year, the MCBP added Archer Larned, Ph.D., to the newly-created position of coastal bird habitat coordinator to assist with the project, using funds from US Wind.

“Early signs are encouraging,” said Larned. “We will monitor the platform closely during the 2022 breading season. Remote cameras installed on the platform show about 50 common terns are already using it for roosting, and we are hoping that nesting activity will begin soon.”

Dave Brinker of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service has been monitoring colonial nesting water bird populations for over three decades. Brinker said he is encouraged by the early success of the floating island project.

“This project shows great promise in offering endangered colonial nesting birds much-needed nesting sites,” he said. “But, in order to fully recover and sustain populations of terns and skimmers in the coastal bays, it is essential that we restore and maintain former sand islands that have been lost to erosion. To achieve that, we will need a long-term strategy that allocates locally-dredged sand for island restoration.”

The DNR is providing technical assistance, materials and funding through federal grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The state provides matching funds through Program Open Space. DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said her department is happy to partner in the project.

“Addressing the population declines of these important bird species is a high priority for our department and our partners,” she said this week. “We are pleased to support innovative measures and long-term efforts to give them the best possible chance to rebound.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.