Watch CBS News

Finding a solution, a habitat from scratch, as Maryland Coastal Bays lose bird-breeding islands

Habitat from scratch helps as Maryland Coastal Bays lose bird-breeding islands
Habitat from scratch helps as Maryland Coastal Bays lose bird-breeding islands 05:27

BERLIN, Maryland – The day-long marine operation started well before 7 a.m. at the South Point Boat Ramp.

"Deployment day is always important," said David Brinker, from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

A group of workers with DNR, Maryland Coastal Bays and volunteers gather along the Sinepuxent Bay every April to deploy 18 rafts.

"This will be our fourth year," Director of Maryland Coastal Bays Kevin Smith said. "We thought it was going to work. We didn't know it was going to work as well as it did."

The rafts are joined to form a 2,304-square-foot artificial island.

"It's not (complicated). It's 1-2-3-4 up to 18 (rafts)," Maryland Coastal Bays Bird Habitat Coordinator Kim Abplanalp said. "This is the largest (raft) of its kind 2,300 hundred square feet. Weighs 63 tons."
The group deployed the raft in 2021 in response to dwindling numbers of Common Terns, Royal Terns, and Black Skimmers—state-listed endangered waterbirds.

"We're talking like 90% declines in the last 20 years," Smith said. "We've lost these islands. We've lost like 50% of our nesting islands in the last 30 years. It becomes this connected kind of collapse (of the ecosystem)."

In 2003, there were more than 1,100 pairs of the three bird species listed in Maryland Coastal Bays. By 2020, the combined pairs dwindled to 35, according to state figures.

"These birds once had all of Ocean City, all the back bays, all of this area—this was their nesting ground," said Jonathan "Mac" McKnight, the director of the Wildlife Heritage program. "While it's great, we are building this island for them every year. What we need to do now is to come up with a long-term solution for these birds."
Officials blame sea level rise, erosion, and more frequent severe storms for the loss of bird-breeding islands.

Brinker, an ecologist for DNR's Natural Heritage Program, pointed from shore to an island of dredge material made in 2014 which is essentially now washed away.

"It was about 2-3 acres when it was made. Now, what's left is no bigger than this chunk of raft I'm sitting on," Brinker said.
Land loss is evident at South Point Spoils Island

"We are on the forefront of what's happening with climate change. And, it's not happening 20 years from now or 50 years from now. It is happening now," Abplanalp said. "It would be nice if we just had islands that could do this for us, but in the meantime, we're doing this."
In the three years of the artificial breeding island, located 2.4 miles offshore in Chincoteague Bay, breeding pairs of Common terns and Royal terns have skyrocketed.

"(The raft hosted) 332 nests (last year) and the density could go up, so we're hopeful word's going to get out," raft builder Todd Peterson said.
 The island is equipped with four cameras for remote monitoring, marker lights at night and speakers to lure birds during the day. It will be in place for birds to nest through September when the nine raft pairs will be towed back to shore.
"We have the technology and the wherewithal to come up with a long-term solution for these birds. It's just a question of finding the will to do it," McKnight said "We've really honed our chops on making this island attractive to them. The trick for us now is making this island permanent."
The artificial island cost $108,381 to build.

"The investment for these birds—it's tiny on the grand scale and they are so worth it," McKnight said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.