Recently retired career field biologist and college professor Michael Erwin, Ph.D., penned a scientific memoir, Birds, Beaches, and Biologists (2023, Austin Macauley Publishers, NY), chronicling a lifetime of teaching and field research in such exotic locations as Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname. But the book’s final chapters focus on Erwin’s decade-long dedication to the ongoing Poplar Island reclamation project here on the Chesapeake Bay.
Officially titled the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island, the reclamation effort has evolved into a model “Beneficial Use Project.” It is now the largest of its kind globally. It also reflects successful cooperation and coordination between Federal, State, and local organizations.
The interagency team includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Maryland Department of Transportation/Maryland Port Administration (MDOT/MPA). The University of Maryland (UMD) and University of Virginia (UVA), where Dr. Erwin ended his over 40-year research career, also played important roles.
The history of Poplar Island goes back to well before colonial times. By the mid-1800s, surveys showed that the island was around 1,200 acres; by 1900, there were nearly 100 residents. Besides several farms, the island had a post office, a church, and a school. Erosion was already taking its toll, and by the 1930s, it had been reduced to about four acres of “drowned wetlands.” By the 1990s, Poplar Island seemed doomed to extinction.
In 1996, the Maryland General Assembly passed a declaration stating that “all material dredged (from Baltimore Harbor) must be placed within a confined area or be beneficially reused.” A Poplar Island Research Group – a consortium of federal, state, local agencies, and non-government organizations — produced an Environmental Impact Statement that recommended using dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor to reconstruct Poplar Island as it was first surveyed in 1847. By 2000, environmental scientists like Dr. Erwin began researching the impact of the added dredge material on wildlife on and around Poplar Island.
What remained of Poplar Island was a little more semi-submerged marshland (aka, drowned wetlands) and mudflats that came and went with the tides. Using sand, rock, and stone, engineers built over 35,000 feet of dikes that created containment cells. At present, there are 20 cells. Water was discharged from these cells and dredged material was pumped in. After settling for several years, the remaining soil was graded to create a habitat that would be conducive to wildlife nesting and migratory resting areas. This is where the observations of Dr. Erwin and other scientists became so vital.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Dr. Erwin began working on Poplar Island by serving on a committee focused on project planning and design. In 2003, Dr. Erwin received funding from the USACE to serve as the USGS scientist to assist with designing upland and wetland wildlife habitats as well as monitoring wildlife populations – particularly rare species of waterbirds. For example, the arrival of the American Oystercatcher at Poplar Island has been a notable recent visitor to the Chesapeake Bay.
In the years since, waterbird species of concern, such as Least Terns, Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilts, and Tricolored Herons, have begun nesting at Poplar Island. Ospreys have nested in good numbers along with Herring Gulls. In winter, rare Short-eared Owls have been seen. Since the Poplar Island Project began, researchers have identified over 250 species of birds, including close to 40 nesting species.
Dr. Erwin’s years of field monitoring observations greatly influenced construction decisions for the island. Ultimately, construction decisions were made in no small measure based on Dr. Erwin’s years of field monitoring. It was here that he met and became associated with St. Michael’s own Jan Reese. During both field monitoring and habitat planning meetings, Dr. Erwin remarked that “Reese’s vast knowledge of the Bay’s natural history” proved extremely helpful to him and other researchers at Poplar Island.
For Dr. Erwin, the Poplar Island Project was the longest as well as one of the most challenging projects of his career. “I had a reputation as an expert in the design and monitoring of key species using coastal habitats. It was challenging coordinating and working with the variety of engineers, administrators, and research scientists on the numerous upland and wetland decisions that were ultimately made.” In particular, the numbers and variety of colonizing, nesting, and hatching success of coastal waterbirds – many declining species – was an important highlight for Dr. Erwin.
“As far as the future of Poplar Island, there is an ongoing need for natural resource monitoring and management,” stated Dr. Erwin. “Continuing public tours and education to make sure the island remains a wildlife and fisheries magnet – not to mention a dredged material depository – will be an important component of the ultimate success of the Project.”
Dr. Erwin retired in 2012, including from the Poplar Island Project, but he stays in touch with others he’s worked with and mentored even today. Construction and restoration, as well as monitoring and wildlife management at Poplar Island, is scheduled to continue until 2040. It should be noted that a similar project at James Island is just getting underway based on the Poplar Island model that he was instrumental in establishing.
“In the near future, we need to continue to assess and limit the degree of predation there – especially focusing on nesting birds,” said Erwin. “We should continue limited public tours, scientific research, and education visits to keep everyone aware of the invaluable wildlife and fisheries magnet that Poplar Island has become.”
Dr. Erwin has dedicated more than 40 years to wildlife research, management, and conservation. As reflected in his memoir Birds, Beaches, and Biologists, Erwin’s career should inspire us to restore and sustain our delicate ecosystem. Poplar Island is a model example of how mankind can turn the tide and, particularly in the Chesapeake region, help reverse the ongoing loss of unique island habitats.
Matt LaMotte, a native of the Eastern Shore, has a diverse background. He grew up in Baltimore but spent much time in Easton and Chestertown. After college, he returned to the Mid Shore and worked in insurance and finance while raising his two sons. He then pursued a teaching and coaching career in independent schools across different states. In 2018, he chaired the History Department at Sts. Peter and Paul High School in Easton before retiring in 2021. Matt is now focused on conservation, outdoor education, and staying engaged with local and global affairs.