Poplar Island’s Restoration Project “For The Birds” – Part I

Located two-thirds up the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland, is Poplar Island, an environmental island restoration project in the making, literally for the birds.


Wait-listed since early this year, I was fortunate to be called last minute with an opening for an August 5th and then again September 20th birding tour on Poplar Island.  I said yes both times without hesitation!



First a brief history of Poplar Island…..


In 1637, Poplar Island was the site of an Indian massacre.


During the War of 1812, it was a base camp for the invading British fleet.


In 1847, Poplar Island had boasted more than 1,100 acres.


In the early 1900s, the island supported a thriving community of about 100 residents, several farms, a school, a church, a post office, and a sawmill.


By the 1920s, Poplar Island’s landmass had fallen victim to extensive erosion, destroying the community’s life and forcing residents to leave the island.


In the 1930’s, after Poplar Island had separated into three islands, it created Jefferson Island on which a private hunting retreat was built, bringing vacationers that included Presidents FDRoosevelt and Truman and other prominent politicians.  The retreat burned down in 1946.


By the 1990s, all that remained of the original island were about four acres of small clusters of islets, rising just above the surface of the water.  Poplar Island’s disappearance was imminent.


With the ban on dredged-material dumping in the Atlantic Ocean and after subsequent extensive studies, a Chesapeake Bay Ecosystem Management Agreement was signed in 1994, committing to use clean dredged material from Baltimore’s shipping channels to restore Poplar Island back to its approximate 1847 footprint of 1,140 acres.


This would create a year-round Chesapeake Bay paradise for the birds as well as an important stop-over for the Atlantic Flyway.


Shortly after the first dredged material was placed in Spring 2001 on Poplar Island, egrets, terns, herons, eagles, terrapins, and other wildlife began immediately using the beginnings of the newly restored island home.


Poplar Island “Under Construction” (some photos from my visits, others taken from our boat this summer)


In 2007, Congress authorized an expansion of 575 acres, to a new total of 1,715 acres of remote island habitat that would now consist of 776 acres of tidal wetlands (including low marsh & high marsh habitat, bird nesting islands, and open water ponds) as well as an upland portion of 829 acres.


Drone Imagery of Poplar Island                                  Poplar Island “habitat cells” being created
(photos courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)


Poplar Island – July 2019
(photos courtesy Moffatt & Nichols, project engineering firm)


Poplar island 03 July 2019

Latest construction imagery of proposed new habitat
(photo courtesy http://www.poplarislandrestoration.com)


The Army Corps of Engineers says with the proper funding, the project at Poplar Island will be completed in 2044.


It is estimated the final project will contain about 68 million cubic yards of clean dredged material.


That’s equivalent to filling over 14 Mercedes-Benz Superdomes with material.


As of 2019, construction of almost 300 acres of wetland habitat has been completed, providing a home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.   Many other acres are ongoing and thriving.


Scenes from my two visits to Poplar Island


Poplar Island wildlife highlights to date:

19 species of amphibians, including a thriving Diamondback Terrapin population with as many as 1,600 terrapins hatched onsite in a single year.


20190920_112931-1 92019

Diamondback Terrapin – two weeks old


In 1996, there were 10 documented bird species.
In 2012, there were over 170 documented bird species.
This year to date there are now 246 documented bird species.


Since 2005, recycled Christmas trees are delivered each year during February/March to provide additional valuable habitat, especially for the island’s targeted American Black Duck.


In 2018, 307 Common Tern and 330 Least Tern pairs were counted.  A total of 607 tern chicks were banded.


This year there were 34 nesting species such as Osprey, American Oystercatcher, Glossy Ibis, Snowy Egret, Least Tern, Common Tern.


This year there were 20 Osprey nests, yielding 54 chicks.


Last winter’s bird census reported over 15,000 birds in one day.





Milkweed species were planted to assist the Monarch butterfly’s fall migration flyway path.  In 2016, the island became registered as a Monarch Waystation.  In 2018, the island became registered with the Monarch Watch tagging program, and captured/tagged 408 Monarchs on site.  They are in the process now of tagging this year’s migrants.



Don’t you just love this restoration project?  It is a successful win/win for the State of Maryland and the birds and other wildlife of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Flyway!


If you’d like to read into this restoration project more extensively, the link is www.poplarislandrestoration.com.


And now on with some of the birds.  Between the two visits, I photographed 10 new ‘lifers’.  I actually saw several other new birds but missed capturing them with an identifiable photo, so no count for me.  And that’s okay, they’ll be out there for me for a future day.  🙂


With these next bird photos, I’ll include five of my new ‘lifers’ and save the other five ‘lifers’ for a Part 2 post along with the rest of the birds.


As my beginning photos showed, we were escorted in a white air-conditioned bus and taken to different “habitat cells” that appeared to be “bird active” in the previous days by workers and researchers.  As we bumped along our “sediment” road, at times someone would holler “stop”; and we’d halt to view and photograph birds through the windows.  So you’ll notice some of my photos have a hazy/foggy/glare look, being shot through the bus window.


Juvenile Bald Eagle with a meal


Bus comes up on same juvenile Eagle (shot through bus window)




Bank Swallow (shot through bus window and new lifer #1)


Seaside Sparrow (new lifer #2)


Short-billed Dowitchers (shot through bus window and new lifer #3)



DSC_3645-1 92019

Turkey Vulture (shot through bus window)


American Avocets


Black-necked Stilts (new lifer #4)


Semipalmated Sandpipers (new lifer #5)


Whew!  Thank you for hanging in there with this long post!  I hope you enjoyed reading about this outstanding, ongoing environmental restoration project of Poplar Island.

Stay tuned in couple days for Part 2 with my other five “lifers” and some other birds captured.



49 thoughts on “Poplar Island’s Restoration Project “For The Birds” – Part I

  1. Wow! What a formidable project! The potential is enormous and perfect for all kinds of birds and just around the corner from you. Your photo gallery is very illustrative as much as your narration. I never heard of the island before I have to admit. Thank you for all the information, my friend. 🙂

    • I love hearing about restoration projects for wildlife and wanted so bad this year to try to get on one of the birding tours on Poplar Island. When I got called, HJ, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas! 🙂 You’re right, the potential is enormous. This project is being studied as a plan for other locations internationally. I am glad you enjoyed reading about this, you’re quite welcome! 🙂

    • I was quite enthralled to finally see the work in progress first-hand instead of the years we boated around the island, looking at it from a distance. John, I knew I’d have a blast if I got to go one day, and boy did I ever! 🙂

  2. I have never said this before and would have never thought I would but that is a really cute little turtle. And no, that is not all I got out of all these fantastic photos and super interesting restoration story. Congrats on your 10 new lifers!

    • Isn’t he? 😉 There were a bunch of them (what are turtles called collectively? hmmmmm….) in a large fish tank at the education building/restrooms. I had left my camera on the bus so only had my cell in my pocket to use. Thank you, David, the restoration project was amazing to see first-hand and getting the lifers made it twice as nice! 🙂

  3. Great to see the restoration program working Donna, and again great photos of the wildlife there! The photos are similar to ours with the birders, they are all older people, we so need to attract the younger generation.

    • Thank you, Ashley, it was truly an amazing trip for me, and I felt super-lucky to get the second call/invite. Seeing and walking the island was truly wonderful, the wildlife looked to be happy at home. 😊 We did have a young, late 20’s fella on one trip, but you’re right, more young need to go and get excited with something like this in their ‘backyard’.

  4. Hello Donna,
    What an experience! And thank you so much for sharing about the history of Poplar Island. Despite its sad history (for both humans and wildlife), it is wonderful to see the pendulum swinging again in the right direction – of course thanks to the efforts of many people. At risk of sounding over-emotional, reading stories like this gives me some hope for “humanity.” And of course how exciting it must have been for you to make not just one but two trips to this amazing location. I am happy for you, and of course in awe of your images. And twice happy you could spot some “lifers” too 🙂 ❤

    • Thank you, Takami, I had the best time, and I cannot believe, twice! I felt it was like Christmas, waiting to go the next morning. Most of the ‘birders’ were pro (I’m amateur) and really were there ‘working the count’ seen with their scopes, then moving on. Only a couple people actually had cameras. Me, I lugged my gear bag with two cameras & a tripod, I think I might have rolled a few eyes! 😅 We’ve boated around the island for the past 20 years and I’d read about its ongoing progress, but nothing beats actually being on the island and seeing it personally. When it is done, it will be quite diversified in low lands as well as high lands in the different cells created, allowing a truly diversified birding island. Yes, stay with your hope, Takami, I do! 😊

      • The way you describe some of the pro birdwatchers remind me of some of the characters from the film “The Big Year” 😀

        If I ever have the opportunity to visit such places, I would be more like you – have a camera (with some big lenses) and try to savor each moment. Of course, I can imagine it’s a fine/tricky balance because most folks might not always appreciate why and how bird-loving photographers can often be content with observing and photographing one (!) bird for hours at a time 😀 😀

        Thank you so much for your warm response, as always ❤

  5. This is a brilliant project to read about. Even in the UK there has been similar projects which goes a little way to make up for the habitat lost to housing, road building, extensive farming etc.

    • Thank you, Brian! Ohhh the butterflies, you’d have loved seeing the Monarchs everywhere. Our wonderful tour guide/bus driver kept saying sorry to them as she drove through their flying all around the bus. 🙂 I wish I could have gotten photos where they were in abundance.

    • Thank you, Reed! It was pretty amazing. Not sure your total distance but these birding tours are free, including boat to/from the island. If you go on the website I shared and click on the ‘Schedule A Tour’ button for an email opening, ask to be added to the birding email list for next year. When you get the email, you have to sign up immediately for a date, the offered dates fill within first 24 hrs. I think we were allowed to pick two dates and you can ask for two seats per date. I didn’t make getting my selected dates for this year, so I requested to be wait-listed for any date that opened. The wait list is long too, so it was pretty exciting to get the opportunity, two times to boot, so you never know! Get this opportunity and take the day before or after visiting Blackwater NWR. Hmmmmm…..sounds like a great 2-day adventure for you, Reed! lol 🙂

    • It was an absolute joy, Jane, I was on cloud nine the whole time during each visit. I honestly couldn’t wait to share this post and the upcoming nest one, but Bella & Beau’s daily journaling was keeping me busy, and then to get to go another time just overloaded my files. 😊

  6. This is so heartening, Donna! When all we hear is doom and gloom, here is a huge project that is already showing success. I love it. Thanks for sharing the good news!

    • I am so happy you enjoyed this wonderful news of wildlife success, Eliza. I’ve been busting at the seams wanting to share my experience. But Bella & Beau’s posts came first. 😊

  7. It’s so nice to hear of a success story for nature, Donna. We need many, many more Poplar Islands!
    Congratulations also on your ten lifers! You must have been floating on cloud nine!

    • I just commented to Eliza, I was almost busting at the seams wanting to share this post (and Part 2 almost done) since my first visit, then #2 visit came along, wow! You are most correct, I was on cloud nine literally for days after each visit. In my Part 2 post, I’ll mention about two more Chesapeake Bay islands that were just approved to be restored as well. 🙂 A win/win with all the dredging materials needing a place to be dumped!

  8. What a neat project and a variety of wildlife it is attracting! Your images are wonderful and narrative as always is filled with your excitement and enthusiasm. I’m so happy that you got to go on the tours!

  9. Pingback: Poplar Island’s Restoration Project “For The Birds” – Part II | Photos by Donna

  10. What an amazing experience. I love to read, hear & see about wildlife refuges. When I had some money, I was a regular donator to the Peregrine Fund.

    What is that picture, just above the white flower? Remnants of a road? Dock?

    That Terrapin was so cute. And, the surprised fish was amusing. I love seeing birds I have never heard of.

    It’s a shame what has happened to the island. I suspect that, if we don’t do the same with our outer banks, they will disappear. Highway 12 is constantly being battered.

    • Thank you very much, Vic. In the photo you question, they are old barges. The white bird is a Cattle Egret.

      We have camped several times in the Cape Hatteras vicinity and have seen the constant work it takes just to keep the sand off up and down Hwy 12 and the rebuilding of dunes that endure batterings. The Outer Banks is too beautiful to lose. I hope we get to return there next year.

      • Ah. A barge. Thank you. I couldn’t tell.

        Cattle Egret. I wonder if they got that name due to behavior?

        How expensive is it to camp there? I haven’t been to Hatteras Island since I was a child.

        • Yepper. Cattle Egret hang around cattle and forage around them. I’ve seen them many times standing on the back of a cow, pretty funny. They do that to eat ticks off the cows. The cow never seems to mind either. lol

          We always stayed at Camp Hatteras Campground (next to KOA), last time was October 2015, I pulled my receipt up, it was $67/night full hookup on the Sound side. Now you have me curious, so I just pulled up their present rates for October and the same site we had in 2015 is now $91/night. If it were during the summer, this year it was $130/night. 😲

          • OMG! That is hilarious and cute, all at the same time. Reminds me of the little birds that pick the teeth of the alligators (crocodiles?).

            Goodness. It’s not cheap in the summer. It’s not exactly cheap in the winter…anymore. But, that’s Hatteras Island and much of our coast…outrageous. I grew up going to the coast, all the time…Carolina Beach, Wrightsville, Topsail, Atlantic Beach, Morehead… As a teen, I could go to the beach in the middle 80s for a week and live on $100. My dad’s side of the family had a place in Myrtle Beach, too. That was the gathering place every summer from the late 60s thru all of the 70s. Curiously, I’ve never made it to Roanoke Island, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills or Kitty Hawk. I was just never that far north. I did make it down to Knotts Island when I was living in Virginia Beach 2001-2002. LOL!

  11. A pure delight to read about the restoration project here, Donna. And your photos are fantastic. I especially like seeing the milkweed and monarchs. Thanks for the great news.

    • Thank you, Jet, I am glad you enjoyed the series. We boated around Poplar Island well before the restoration started when there was no ‘island’, just shallow waters. It has been amazing to see the island ‘regrow’ while passing it by year after year. Oh, the Monarchs were everywhere, it was beautiful! Our bus driver/tour guide apologized to them left and right as they swirled and flew right in front of us as she drove slowly. 🙂

  12. Donna, this is incredible! All the different birds you saw were such a wonderful example of what a wildlife refuge can provide. Thank you for sharing this amazing trip and all of the information about it. Peter and I definitely want to do this trip next year – we had too much on our plate this summer and fall to be able to predict when we would be available. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Susan, I told you, you both would like this. 🙂 Of course, cruising around the Artic for a couple weeks beats Poplar Island any day! 😉 Your photos have been awesome!

  13. Fabulous success with the return of the birds, I hope man’s efforts to restore this magical place continue to make strides. Very nice bird captures, Donna, and thanks for sharing the sketches and photos of the plans—interesting to see the overall project.

  14. What a delightful venture and opportunity for you! Thank heavens for news like this to counter all the other stuff going on in the bird world. This is so marvelous that folks care enough to offset at least a bit of the damage we’ve done to the environment. Yay, to your lifer list!

    • Thank you, Gunta! I am glad you had a moment to go back to the Poplar Island posts, I knew you’d enjoy seeing this restoration project. I had the most fun, I was on cloud 9 for days! 😊

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