When asked about Popular Island, a retired farmer who’s not a government fan said, “Poplar Island is a government program that works.”
The island, about a mile off the west side of the St. Michaels/Tilghman Island peninsula, was 1,140 acres when it was first surveyed in 1847. By the 1990s, the island was down to nearly four acres, about the size of four worn down football fields. It had eroded away; the natural progress of many islands in the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1994, the state and federal governments were dealing with how to better handle dredge material in the Bay’s channel. In the old days, they’d dig out the channel and put the material elsewhere in the Bay. That caused problems. It messed up oyster beds and crab habitat. Boating channels shifted. Birds were disappearing, finding other places to stop on their migration routes.
Officials came upon a plan: use that dredge material to create an island where boaters, crabs, oysters and birds were used to having an island. That island, Poplar Island, is currently under construction.
Work to rebuild the island started in 1998. When creating an island, you can’t just pile up dredge material. It would wash away in the next storm. So, it’s being built like a puzzle; corners first, then sides and – finally – filling in the middle.
Poplar Island is in the shape of a banana. The outside of the island, about 30 acres, are going to be forest. The inside of the banana, the eastern half, will be tidal wetland. That’s the lowest section and that’s where the first pieces of the puzzle are finished.
Approaching the island by boat, it looks like a low sandy beach with a cluster of tall trees in the middle. Those trees are actually the privately-owned Coaches Island. Off to the side is an even smaller island with a house, also privately owned, called Jefferson Island. Both are wrapped inside the banana’s curve and are believed to be a part of the original Poplar Island, separated by erosion. The guides say there are no plans to join them to the new island.
But back to the banana puzzle. The pieces of the puzzle are called “cells.” The first cell was completed in 2003. The last won’t be finished until 2030-something. Each of the five wetland cells is being tailored to a difference species of bird. Some types are taking to it more quickly than others. The stories of how they’re enticing the birds are both funny and an “oh wow” moment.
The wetlands have more than a half-million grasses planted by hand, mostly volunteers. But not all the grass was planted. One of the more interesting tidbits is how native grass from sunken parts of the original island was found growing where no grass was planted.
The new island will be lower than the old island. The original Poplar Island was home to some 100 people at its peak, filled with farms and forest. And the tour guides have entertaining stories about the people who lived on the old island.
The new island is mostly marsh and will be a wildlife sanctuary. Nearly 200 species of birds are expected. They’ve confirmed 28 nesting so far, along with muskrats, mice, white tail deer (that swim to the island for a visit and swim back to the mainland).
It’s gradually becoming a migration stop for many birds, so the different seasons will feature different birds and native terrapins (turtles). During nesting season, the island in one of the marsh cells is covered with double-crested cormorants, orange beaked birds with long necks often seen standing with wings spread wide.
The project is funded by the federal government and the Maryland Port Administration. And they provide free tours that are fascinating for both adults and children.
The island is a construction site with heavy equipment in continuous use, so tours must be planned well in advance — days not hours — by calling the Maryland Environmental Service. A maximum of 24 people per tour. And tours stop during the winter months, November through March.
You catch the tour boat, which is also the shuttle boat for workers and equipment, at Napps Narrows near the bridge to Tilghman Island. Poplar Island is about a mile from Tilghman Island, a 15 minute boat ride. The only way to get there is by the Maryland state work-boat called the “Terrapin.”