The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, and is a complex ecosystem that encompasses a wide range of habitats that support more than 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals. The Bay is also a very productive habitat, producing over 500 million pounds of harvested seafood each year. Some Bay habitats, particularly shorelines and submerged aquatic vegetation, are in critical need of restoration. Five different habitat types are being created at Poplar Island. Not only will these habitats support a diverse assemblage of plants and animals, but some of the habitat types to be created include those that are most sorely needed in the Bay.
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- Create bare/sparsely vegetated islands to provide nesting habitat for birds
- Create/enhance vegetated islands to provide nesting habitat for birds
- Create/enhance tidal wetlands to provide fish and wildlife habitat
- Restore quiescent water habitat in Poplar Harbor to promote submerged aquatic vegetation recovery
- Create remote and diverse island habitat
Upland habitat is land that is rarely or never inundated by water. Upland habitat supports the growth of grasses, shrubs, and trees, and provides habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. As the upland habitat planted on Poplar Island matures into forested areas, the trees will stabilize soils, provide food/nesting/shelter habitat, and clean the air by absorbing or trapping particulates and nitrogen. Forests covered 95% of the Bay's watershed prior to European settlement in the 17th century. Today, less than 60% of the forested area remains. Trees in the watershed are dominated by a mixture of southern pines and northern hardwoods, so this type of mixture is being planted at Poplar Island.
Salt Marshes (High Marsh and Low Marsh)
Salt Marshes are wetlands that are comprised of salt tolerant grasses and experience periodic flooding by tides. Low marshes are regularly flooded by tidal waters, whereas high marshes are irregularly flooded, and when flooding does occur it is due to strong winds or exceptionally high tides. Salt marshes provide critical habitat for juvenile fish and shellfish, waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, mammals, and a variety of invertebrates, including shrimp, fiddler crabs, marsh crabs, and marsh periwinkle. Estuarine marshes, including salt marshes, serve as nurseries and spawning grounds for many commercially important fish and shellfish species, such as striped bass, menhaden, summer flounder, bluefish, oysters and blue crabs.
Tidal flats are unvegetated wet areas of mud or sand that do not contain rooted plants, and are subject to tidal flooding. Tidal flats occur along the shoreline of the Bay, and typically border marsh areas. Tidal flats are comprised of a mixture of silt, clay, and organic material. Although not vegetated, tidal flats provide habitat for a variety of invertebrates, which serve as a primary food source for many Bay shorebirds, including oystercatchers, terns, gulls, and plovers. Inhabitants of tidal flats that live in mud/sand include tiny roundworms that live in the top two inches of silt, various species of bristle worms, and burrowing clams that extend their siphons to the surface. Other invertebrates live on the surface of the tidal flat, such as fiddler crabs and mud snails.
Poplar Island also includes unvegetated shell beaches and nesting islands. This type of habitat provides nesting areas for shorebirds such as the federally-endangered Least Tern.
Large rocks have been used to armor the dike surrounding Poplar Island. Not only do these rocks protect Poplar Island from erosion, but the areas of exposed rock that are fully submerged or tidally submerged will be colonized and used as habitat by invertebrates that attach themselves to the rocks, such as bay barnacles, sea squirts, and mussels. Eight submerged rock reefs have also been constructed at the northern end of the island to provide fisheries habitat.
Shallow Water Habitat
Shallow water habitat is aquatic habitat less than 6 feet deep. The shallow depth of the water permits light to penetrate throughout the water, which enables plants to survive in both surface waters and at depth. Shallow water habitat in the Bay contains three important plant communities: phytoplankton, benthic algae, and submerged aquatic vegetation. In addition to plant communities, shallow water habitat contains swimming organisms, called "nekton" (e.g., finfish), and "benthic" (bottom-dwelling) organisms (e.g., oysters, clams, worms).
To date, five mammals have been observed on Poplar Island – beaver, white-tailed deer, river otter, raccoon, and house mouse. Note that these mammals were not introduced species as part of the restoration efforts, but already occurred on the nearby islands.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Three species of reptiles and amphibians have been observed on Poplar Island including northern water snake, diamondback terrapin, and Fowler's toad. The early success of the terrapins on Poplar Island has been very promising since shoreline development in the Bay has threatened terrapins' nesting habitat.
Management of Wildlife Resources on Poplar Island
As the Poplar Island restoration process begins, the control of invasive and non-native species to the Island is essential to the success of the project. Species that have already required some control measures include the common reed and mute swan.