Conservationists take a lesson from Huck Finn
As day breaks on a hazy August morning, Virginia’s barrier islands rest lightly on the horizon. Through a peach-colored dawn, they seem to float on the coastal bays they shelter. It’s not yet six o’clock and Alexandra Wilke, a coastal scientist with The Nature Conservancy, is headed to one of the southern islands to check on a late brood of piping plover chicks.
A federally endangered species, the plovers nest on pebble- and shell-covered beaches within reach of the sea and whatever predators happen to be prowling the area. A prolonged nor’easter in early May wiped out the plovers’ first nesting attempts, but eight plover couples and 27 pairs of another shorebird of conservation concern, American oystercatchers, successfully re-nested on the island to which we’re headed.
Wilke (Alex to friends and co-workers) guides her skiff northward through Magothy Bay near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. She or her colleagues make island trips daily during the birds’ breeding season (April to August), an intense period when the lives of biologists who monitor coastal bird populations are not their own—as I came to appreciate when I tried to reach them. Twelve-hour days are not uncommon.
A few private homes and a handful of fishing shacks on stilts still dot Virginia’s barrier islands, but nearly every one of these fragile, shape-shifting strips of beach and cordgrass are protected now—some by governments, some by easements, but most under the stewardship of The Nature Conservancy as part of the Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve, a 50-mile stretch of unparalleled coastal wilderness. As manager of VVCR’s migratory bird program, Wilke oversees habitat so vital to nesting and migrating birds that it’s part of something called the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
“It’s a voluntary network of important shorebird sites,” she explains as we thread a salt marsh-lined channel. “It’s completely non-regulatory, but it’s a celebration of how important this place is.”
VVCR comprises about half of what’s known officially as the Maryland-Virginia Barrier Islands Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. An unbroken, mostly undeveloped strip of naturally dynamic land masses sculpted and re-sculpted over the years by tides and storms, the islands host hundreds of thousands of shorebirds annually. The coastline seems sultry and serene on this morning—deceptively so, because these are the front lines of an ongoing struggle for species survival.
To casual observers, the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore seem lousy with waterbirds: terns that dive for baitfish, gulls that strut the boardwalk in search of handouts. From spring to summer, these and other “beach birds” make their homes and babies along the same shores that beckon humans. But for some, it’s a precarious existence.
Rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten nesting grounds from here in southeastern Virginia to Assateague Island at the Maryland-Delaware line and beyond. So do coastal storms that have grown more frequent and more intense with global warming. Predators such as raccoons, foxes, owls and gulls devour eggs and even young chicks. And then there’s us; our beachcombing, our dogs, our surf fishing, our boat wakes, our litter, our penchant for hardening coastlines—all have the potential to disrupt or destroy bird colonies.
Wilke guides the boat past terrain barely above sea level. Though there’s little evidence around us, there were houses, hotels and hunting lodges on these islands less than a century ago. That all changed on another August morning nearly 90 years ago, when the un-named hurricane of 1933 lashed the mid-Atlantic coast. In less than 24 hours, the storm inundated islands, leveled an entire town, wiped out fisheries and ended the islands’ era as a tourist and sporting destination.
These days, Virginia’s more than a dozen seaside islands and adjacent lagoons host other visitors: shorebirds such as plovers, oystercatchers, whimbrels and dowitchers that probe mud flats and beaches for insects and small mollusks; colonial waterbirds including gulls, terns, skimmers, cormorants and pelicans that dine on fish in near-coastal waters; and wading species such as herons, ibises and egrets that forage in muddy and marshy areas closer to shore.
We reach our destination, Myrtle Island, a speck of land that the ocean shaved from neighboring Smith Island two centuries ago. Wilke anchors the skiff and we step ashore. Most of Myrtle’s piping plover and oystercatcher chicks have fledged, but she wants to check on a three-week-old plover and its parents. She sets up a spotting scope a respectful distance from the nest area. In no time, Wilke spies the chick’s fluffy head rising about a low dune. Sandy gray in color and plush as a little stuffed toy, the chick is—scientifically speaking—adorable.
Some Of Virginia’s At-Risk Island Birds:
By monitoring the number of chicks each nesting shorebird pair produces, scientists can set goals for stable populations—a challenging task. Shorebirds are among the nation’s most threatened species. According to the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, 31 of 57 U.S.-breeding species are at grave risk, including piping plovers (“endangered”), oystercatchers (“greatest concern”) and another seasonal visitor, whimbrels (“high concern”).
Myrtle Island, like many of its part-beach, mostly-marsh neighbors, is migrating westward due to sea-level rise and coastal storms, which erode beaches and smother adjacent marshes. Computer modeling by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science shows Myrtle has retreated at an astonishing 22 feet per year since 1852, losing about 44 percent of its area and, likely, its sand volume. Thousands of acres of critical barrier island habitat have vanished, scientists estimate.
“They’re actually rolling over the marsh,” Wilke says of the islands’ retreat—bad news for shorebirds that require beachfront living. “If you’re an oystercatcher or a plover you need an open, sandy place to nest,” she says. “And piping plover access to good substrate where they can feed is huge.”
The Maryland-Virginia coastal islands support populations of piping plovers, oystercatchers and federally threatened rufa red knots, all of which migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. In addition, salt marshes in the coastal bays host an estimated 40,000 whimbrels, “possibly 100 percent of the eastern population,” according to the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network’s website.
Most of Virginia’s barrier islands (accessible only by boat) are open to the public for low-impact activities such as birdwatching and hiking. Through outreach, The Nature Conservancy educates visitors about the birds’ presence and how to keep from harming them. (Hard-to-spot plover nests, for example, can be trampled by anyone who strays above the tideline.) Islands where birds nest are posted with warning signs.
The outreach is neither heavy-handed nor punitive. The conservancy and its various state and federal partners want citizens to appreciate what a treasure they have. “There are birds that come here that just left South America,” Wilke says. “That’s where whimbrels and oystercatchers are ambassadors.” One of the conservancy’s most popular events is Whimbrel Watch, an annual citizen-based count of the birds conducted from the mainland.
“They stop here for three weeks to gorge on fiddler crabs and in late May they leave,” Wilke says of the birds, which travel 3,000 to 4,000 miles nonstop. “On the big flight nights, you watch hundreds and hundreds.” One year, whimbrel-watchers here counted more than 8,000.
After temporarily losing my footwear in knee-deep muck returning to the boat, we push off in search of American oystercatchers, a species close to Wilke’s heart and one on which she’s done award-winning research. (The birds were the subject of her master’s thesis at the College of William and Mary.)
If you’re a migrating shorebird, Virginia’s coastal lagoons must look like the Everglades North—expanses of green marsh bound up in twisty tentacles of clear-blue water. After 20 years at VVCR, Wilke knows these neighborhoods. Drifting up an island creek, she soon finds dozens of black-headed oystercatchers standing atop a mud flat, waiting for the ebb tide to expose their signature meal. As they’re wont to do, many perch on one leg.
Large and strikingly marked with vivid, orangey-red bills and yellow eyes, American oystercatchers seem to be doing well in coastal Virginia, particularly here. A 2018 state-wide survey documented a 13 percent increase in breeding pairs since 2008, with a 26 percent increase in the barrier islands alone, where more than 500 pairs are now breeding. The birds’ primary threat, island predators (mostly raccoons and foxes), has been managed through trapping programs, Wilke says.
On the other hand, piping plovers are on the decline for reasons unknown. (Unlike oystercatchers, plovers nest only on barrier islands.) The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources estimated just 183 breeding pairs were present in 2021. Regional biologists are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to unravel the decline’s possible causes.
Shorebirds aren’t the only beach birds at risk along the Virginia-Maryland coast. Colonial waterbirds—fish-eating species that nest in large colonies or rookeries—are impacted too. They may not be as adorable as plovers, as celebrated as migrating whimbrels or as iconic as oystercatchers, but time is running out for three breeding waterbirds on Maryland’s endangered species list: black skimmers, common terns and royal terns, whose numbers have declined between 80 and 95 percent since 1985.
Citing anticipated sea level rise and ongoing erosion of islands on which the birds traditionally nest, the scientific journal Waterbirds warned back in 2007 that “resource managers should investigate any promising, even potentially novel, approaches taken to benefit seabird populations.” The remedy of choice? Restoring eroded islands with dredge spoils, a practice called nourishment. From 2013 to 2015, four such islands were created. Without renourishment, three have totally eroded. The other will be gone within a year.
Dave Brinker, a longtime ecologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was a coauthor of the Waterbirds article. “I’ve spent 30-plus years of my career here watching these things disappear,” he says of the islands today.
And as the islands go, so go the birds. Take common terns, a medium-sized tern that nests near water on loose sand, shell or pebbles. In the 1980s, 2,500 pairs were breeding in Maryland, 1,500 in Chesapeake Bay and the remainder in coastal bays. By this decade, the total was just 500 to 600.
Several years ago, Brinker and conservationists with the Audubon Society and the Maryland Coastal Bays Program hatched an innovative (some would say oddball) solution to habitat erasure. They Huck Finned a raft covered in broken clam shells, stuck tern decoys on it (complete with a come-hither soundtrack of bird calls), towed it into a coastal bay south of Ocean City and invited the birds to roost. Twenty-three pairs nested the first year, when the raft was launched belatedly. And 155 did so in 2022, when the raft was enlarged and deployed at the start of nesting season.
“I got the idea from other people who created artificial islands,” Brinker tells me. “I was pretty certain it was going to work because it had worked in other places.” Nonetheless, the concept took two years to get from drawing table to salt water. There were design issues to address; the float needed wheels so it could be towed and stored for the winter, and its 16-foot-square segments needed to flex when assembled to absorb wave energy. Bird safety features were incorporated: outdoor carpet to cover segment gaps so chicks wouldn’t fall through, little V-shaped huts to shelter chicks from the sun and plastic vegetation for habitat verisimilitude.
Two of Brinker’s colleagues—Archer Larned, a coastal bird habitat specialist with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, and Kim Abplanalp, a tern raft field assistant and contract photographer—showed me the birds’ figurative life raft. In its 2022 iteration, the 2,300-square-foot structure (roughly half the size of a basketball court) resembled a floating avian tiki bar with its ersatz beach, neon green “plants” and chick huts colorfully painted by local school kids. Mid-raft, a mast of sorts supported two solar panels that power the raft’s safety lights, bird-monitoring cameras and a playback system for tern calls. A small ancillary raft gives fledging terns a close-by practice landing strip.
The birds chattered at us as our boat approached. Both women said they get a more hostile reception during bird-banding operations, when chicks and adults are temporarily removed from the raft and banded aboard a pontoon boat. “They’re hitting us, pulling my hair,” Larned said. The adults also let fly with, shall we say, aerial emissions, so Abplanalp has learned to wear a bicycle helmet. Thanks to banding efforts in 2021, scientists discovered that 15 tern couples returned to the raft to nest in 2022.
The natural islands on which these birds once nested are mostly gone. Currently 300 to 500 pairs of common terns nest on Poplar Island in Chesapeake Bay, where material dredged from shipping channels continues to replenish the island. But when 23 tern pairs adopted the raft as home in 2021, it became the largest colony in Maryland’s coastal bays.
Waterbirds disappear within a few years from islands no longer suitable for nesting. “That’s why we’re all feeling such a sense of urgency,” Abplanalp says. “If we don’t do something [like the raft], then species will abandon the area.” Which happened to Maryland’s most endangered colonial waterbird, black skimmers.
“Black skimmers and royal terns are not really able to nest successfully in coastal bays,” David Curson, director of Maryland bird conservation for Audubon Mid-Atlantic, tells me. “Disappearance of islands is a very big part of the problem. It’s the headline issue.”
Curson and Brinker are already considering construction of another $250,000 raft, this one for black skimmers and royal terns. “Something more golf club-shaped,” Brinker says of its design, with a dogleg off the main raft to accommodate both species’ nesting needs.
As successful as the concept has been for common terns, manmade rafts (which are built largely with federal funds) aren’t colonial waterbirds’ best hope. “It’s a stopgap thing,” Larned says.
Brinker, Curson and other conservationists favor a renewed—but this time sustained—program to nourish islands with material dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others. “We nourish the beach at Ocean City periodically to the tune of billions of dollars,” Brinker argues. “Creating islands with dredge material wouldn’t cost nearly as much as beach nourishment. Maybe one million dollars every five or ten years.”
Conservationists contend that creating sustainable islands in Maryland’s coastal bays is a debt long overdue. When the 1933 hurricane inundated the barrier island at Ocean City, storm surge filled the coastal bays. As the water rushed seaward again, it carved out the Ocean City inlet. Maryland proceeded to make nature’s channel a permanent fixture by dredging it and building a jetty.
“We broke the geological process that creates small islands in coastal bays,” Brinker says. “Inlets get created by storms, then sand gets moved through the inlets to create islands. When we decided to harden the Ocean City inlet and change it, we totally changed the hydrodynamics of the coastal bays.”
“We probably need at least four well-maintained islands,” Audubon’s Curson says of spoil-built sites. Brinker envisions a hybrid approach to maintaining them, protecting their most wave-vulnerable shore with riprap while encouraging sloping beach elsewhere. But island-building has its detractors, even among environmentalists.
“They get all bent out of shape about taking bay bottom,” Brinker says. Dredging bottom disturbs submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), where crabs and small fish live. “I’m talking about a couple of acres of SAV in thousands of acres of bottom. These are endangered species,” he says of at-risk colonial waterbirds. “SAV is not listed as endangered.”
So, which stands a better chance of survival: the piping plovers of Myrtle Island’s rapidly retreating sands in Virginia, or the common terns living on a raft in Maryland’s Sinepuxent Bay? Difficult to say, but Brinker argues that when it comes to coastal birds, islands are essential habitat.
“Humans can no longer sit back and say Mother Nature can take care of herself,” he says in advocating for spoil islands. “Otherwise, we’re going to lose a lot of these colonial nesting waterbirds. The handwriting is on the wall.”