Thursday, May 24, 2012

Decoys lure birds to safety on Maryland's Poplar Island

The word "decoys" brings to mind images of turkey, waterfowl and other hunting. But on Poplar Island, decoys are used for a different purpose--to attract shorebirds to new places for nesting.

The last known nesting colony of common terns in Maryland is at Poplar Island's Paul S. Sarbanes Ecological Restoration Project. Common and least tern nesting sites have become rare in this part of the Chesapeake Bay because of changes in sea level, habitat availability and climate.
Placing decoys
Chris Guy positions the decoys, which are mounted
on rebar stakes to anchor them securely in the sand
on the habitat islands. Photo credit: Ann Tihansky
At the site, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created sections of habitat where the tern eggs and chicks blend safely into the background. Unfortunately, the terns were also attracted to active construction zones, complete with large trucks, bulldozers and steam rollers that put them in harm’s way.

To solve the problem, biologists Pete McGowan and Chris Guy and biotechnician Robbie Callahan from the Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, are using decoys and audio recordings of active tern colonies to lure the birds away from construction zones to nest on the specially-created habitat islands.

“We want to give the terns a successful nesting season while allowing restoration construction to continue uninterrupted,” McGowan said.

Volunteers are also a big part of this effort. In a visit to the site, Eileen Sobeck, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks and the Department of Interior’s representative on the Chesapeake Bay Task Force, experienced firsthand the labor intensive process of making and painting the tern decoys. She volunteered to paint all of the decoys for the 2012 season and recruited her 82-year-old mother Katie and her 18-year-old daughter Emma to help.

“My mother is something of an artist and has always been handy with crafts,” Sobeck said. “She actually painted all but a few dozen of the least terns. And those last few were painted by my daughter, Emma. My role has been limited to picking up and dropping off boxes of decoys, spray painting the base coat and putting on the final clear sealer.”
Katie Sobeck paints the finer details on
a least tern decoy for use in a USFWS
Poplar Island nesting project.
Photo credit: Eileen Sobeck.
Together, they finished about 200 decoys, said biologist Chris Guy. “These decoys have been critical to relocating common and least terns to safe areas on Poplar Island.”

The decoys were placed in prime nesting habitat in April, ready to lure birds arriving for nesting season this past month. 

The restoration project is supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Port Authority and uses material dredged from the Port of Baltimore shipping channels to restore the island and provide habitat areas that existed in the 1800s. Besides terns, the ongoing restoration on Poplar Island has created a variety of shallow water habitats for bay grasses, crabs and fish, with marsh and upland habitats for colonial nesting birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

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