On Maryland’s eastern shore, small islands used by birds for nesting are disappearing. That coincides with a steep drop in several species of colonial nesting birds in the state. But this spring, in what's being described as a ‘Hail Mary’, advocates have launched an artificial nesting platform to provide habitat for birds. Hari Sreenivasan reports from the coastal bays in Maryland.
The unofficial start of summer is here – which for many means trips to the beach, particularly as the pandemic continues to ebb in many places. But people aren't the only ones flocking to sandy environs this time of year. Late spring is when many species of coastal birds nest, taking advantage of barren beaches to lay their eggs.
In coastal Maryland, protected habitat for many shorebirds has been disappearing from climate change-related erosion and rising sea levels. This has led to a drastic drop in the population of several iconic bird species in the state, and has pushed a coalition of environmental groups and the state of Maryland to take steps to provide refuge for nesting shorebirds. This story is part of our ongoing series, "Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change."
As we head out onto the coastal bays near Ocean City, Maryland, Kevin Smith, who runs a local environmental group, and Dave Brinker, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, are on the lookout for birds.
It's mostly pelicans, from what I can see from here.
They are focused on species that congregate on small man-made islands built from dredged-up sediment.
It is habitat that has become increasingly rare in the last twenty-five years.
We went from 29, 30 islands that waterbirds could use down to three and most of them have just eroded away over time.
That loss of habitat has led to a drop in the population of some seabirds that used to be a lot more common in Maryland.
There's a few cormorant nests out there.
Oh, I see. Yeah.
In the middle. But no terns.
Common and royal terns are iconic species of colonial waterbirds, diving for fish and nesting on open beach areas. The breeding population of common terns in Maryland's coastal bays has fallen 90 percent since 2003, while the breeding population of royal terns is now completely gone.
Black skimmers, named for the way they skim the water looking for fish, have also nearly disappeared from the Maryland coast.
So it was not much of a surprise when the only black skimmers and terns we saw were life-size decoys.
They are part of an ambitious project to provide artificial nesting habitat for these birds.
Because we're down to such low numbers, we have had to take dramatic steps to provide some habitat to try and maintain common terns in Maryland. And it's almost like in football terms, the 'Hail Mary' pass. This is the last-ditch effort that we can do until we can provide sand and create more natural islands.
In early May, the platform was loaded with broken clam shells and towed out into the Chincoteague Bay in four parts. It was then assembled into a single, 1,000 square foot platform.
The roughly $100,000 project is a collaboration between the state of Maryland, Smith's nonprofit, Maryland Coastal Bays Program, and the Maryland-D.C. Audubon society.
There's the photosensor and so I put my finger over it, it should, you know, be dark and quit, right?
When we visited, Brinker was still working out some of the technical kinks with a solar and battery-powered device that plays bird calls during the day, and lights up small warning signs around the platform at night.
The social attraction concept here with decoys and sound was developed to restore puffins in Maine 25, 30 years ago and once you proved it worked with attracting puffins, people started using it for other things like common terns, royal terns.
The platform is strategically located far enough out so shore predators like raccoons and foxes can't get to it, while also being protected from waves and in a location where the platform's anchors wouldn't disturb aquatic vegetation.
It's the first time a floating platform like this has been tried out on the east coast of the U.S, and while Smith is hopeful that it will eventually attract terns, he sees it as a stop-gap solution.
I know we're not interested in going out and building these floating nesting platforms all over the place. What we'd really like to see is more of a natural habitat like these islands and be able to sustain those islands for some period of time.
To renourish and build up more natural islands in the bay would require federal agencies like the Army Corp of Engineers to dredge the bay and direct the sediment to protected islands for birds.
We spend millions of dollars nourishing the beach in Ocean City so that we can maintain that economic engine. People have a place to come and recreate, while it would only take a few hundred thousand dollars to periodically maintain islands out here, that would keep royal terns here, common terns, black skimmers and keep the coastal based system diverse, healthy. And sometimes we don't pay attention to the canary in the coal mine that wildlife can be for us.
After some tweaking, the sensor for the bird calls and lights are now fully operational.
it's doing what it's supposed to do!
The boat is packed up and untied from the platform, leaving this floating patch of shell, hopefully, for a passing tern or black skimmer looking to nest.
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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