Mainland Boat Dock – 21548 Chicken Point Road, Tilghman, MD 21671 (410) 729-8200
Poplar Island is one of those must-see birding destinations in Maryland. The island is an environmental restoration project located in the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland, due west of Tilghman Island. Along with Hart-Miller Island, Masonville Cove, and Swan Creek/Cox Creek, Poplar Island is primarily a man-made terrain built of material dredged from the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore Harbor, and has become one of Maryland’s outstanding shorebird sites.
Formally named the “Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island,” the project has become an international model for the beneficial use of dredged material. The habitats on and near the island include dredged material impoundments; mudflats; brackish marshes; rock jetties; and the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. As a birding destination, Poplar Island is famous for its shorebirds, and also offers great views of waders, waterfowl, gulls, and terns. See “How to Visit” below.
In the 1800s, Poplar Island was about 1,100 acres in size and supported a human community of farmers, fishermen, and village business owners. But over time, the people began leaving because the island was subject to severe and increasing erosion. By the 1990s, the island was reduced to several small clumps protruding above the water, with a total area of only about 4 acres.
Today, the land area of Poplar Island has been significantly expanded through an ongoing project using dredged material collected from the Chesapeake Bay’s shipping channels leading to the Baltimore Harbor. The restoration is being carried out through a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Maryland Port Administration, and the Maryland Environmental Service (MES); MES performs day-to-day operations on the site.
The original Poplar Island restoration project was planned to bring the island back to it’s size of about 1,140 acres in the 1800s. However, the project has been expanded, and a new area on the north end of the island will bring it to a total of 1,715 acres. The final island will consist of approximately 776 acres of tidal wetlands, including low marsh and high marsh habitat, bird nesting islands, and open water ponds, plus an upland portion of approximately 829 acres.
How to Visit:
The island is not open to the public, and docking of private boats or landing from kayaks or canoes is not permitted. There is only one way for birders to visit, and that is through free birding tours offered by MES. Birders take an MES boat to the island in the morning and are driven around the island in a comfortable, air-conditioned tour bus, with frequent stops to get out and look at birds. The MES tour guide knows where the birds are and the group works together on identifications. There are no foot-trails, and the only walking involves short forays from the bus to good vantage points. The boat will take birders back to the mainland in early afternoon.
MES schedules about eight of these birding trips each year and announces the dates via an email to the MD Birding Community Google group, or one can contact MES via email@example.com to request the dates, which generally range from mid-April through early October. The announcement of the scheduled dates is usually made in December for the following year and MES will start accepting reservations, via email and phone, on a specified date in January. It is essential to choose your desired dates and sign up promptly because the limited number of seats go quickly.
Over 245 species have been reported on eBird from Poplar Island. There are separate eBird hotspots for nearby Coach’s Island and Jefferson Island, both privately owned but viewable from Poplar Island. Although there are no public tours of Poplar Island in the winter, we have knowledge of the wintering birds there from reports made by the biologists employed on the island.
eBird reports include 33 species of waterfowl, including all the expected species for the Chesapeake Bay, such as Canvasback and Redhead, but also a smattering of sea ducks, including Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, King Eider, and Long-tailed Duck. Some species can be found year-round, or nearly so, including large numbers of Mallard and American Black Duck, plus Ruddy Duck and all three scoters.
Rallids typically found on the island include Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Coot, and Common Gallinule.
Poplar Island is truly remarkable for its shorebirds, with 36 species, reported: essentially all the shorebirds that can reliably be found in Maryland plus a couple of rarities. Black-necked Stilts breed on the island, and American Avocets can be present in large numbers during post-breding dispersion. Regularly occurring plovers include Black-bellied, American Golden-, Semipalmated, and Killdeer, and there have been several reports of endangered Piping Plovers, but they are not regular. Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and Hudsonian Godwit sometimes appear. Small numbers of Purple Sandpipers may be on the rock jetties from fall through late spring. White-rumped, Buff-breasted, and Baird’s Sandpipers turn up most years. Ruff has been reported. Other expected shorebirds include the peeps (Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers ); Ruddy Turnstone; Red Knot; Stilt Sandpiper; Sanderling; Dunlin; Pectoral Sandpiper; both dowitchers (although Long-billed is less frequent); Wilson’s Snipe; Red-necked and Wilsons Phalaropes; Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers (Solitary being less frequent); Willet (making their presence known with noisy calls); and both yellowlegs.
Twelve species of gulls have been reported: the regulars are Herring, Great Black-backed, Ring-billed, Laughing (summer), and Bonaparte’s (winter). Lesser Black-backed Gull is almost regular. Rarities include Sabine’s, Black-headed, Franklin’s, California, Iceland, and Glaucous. Terns are also featured, with Common, Forster’s and Least nesting on the island. Other regularly occurring terns include Caspian, Royal, and Black; and there have been rare sightings of Sandwich and Gull-billed. Black Skimmers can occasionally be seen skimming the waters of the Bay.
Loons (Common and Red-throated) and grebes (Pied-billed, Horned, and Red-necked) are regular; Eared Grebes are occasional drop-ins durng migration. Northern Gannets are regular in winter, and there is one incidence of Brown Booby being seen offshore; Brown Boobies have been increasing visitors to the middle and upper Bay. Brown Pelicans are numerous on or near Coach’s Island and flying up and down the Bay. There are occasional reports of American White Pelican, but these are unexpected.
Poplar Island is also well known for its waders. There is a rookery on the island, hosting Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Cattle Egret. Black-crowned Night-Herons can be found near an old barge, and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are sometimes present. American and Least Bitterns nest in the marshes, as does Green Heron. Glossy Ibis can almost always be found, and Tricolored Heron, another southern species that appears to be extending its range northward, is becoming more regular.
Bald Eagles and Osprey are present in large numbers, and Northern Harriers are frequently seen. Other resident raptors, for all or part of the year, include both vultures; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks; Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks; and American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. There are sporadic sightings of Barn Owl, and Short-eared Owls and sometimes Snowy Owl show up in winter.
With so much water, Poplar Island is a great place for swallows, with all the expected species for Maryland. Among landbirds, notables include Marsh Wren and Seaside Sparrow, which breed on the island. Winter residents include American Pipit; Snow Bunting; and Field, White-crowned, Savannah, and Swamp Sparrows. Migrating sparrows have included Nelson’s; Lincoln’s; and Vesper.
Given the lack of forested habitat on Poplar Island, warbler sightings are more sporadic, but Common Yellowthroats breed in the marshes in large numbers; Palm Warblers use the rock jetties during migration and can be numerous; and Yellow-rumped Warblers overwinter.
Gravel lot at mainland boat dock.
The tour bus and boat CANNOT accommodate wheelchairs. ◾ Programs and projects at Poplar Island include environmental education trips for school children; a terrapin restoration project in partnership with schools; Christmas tree recycling and habitat creation for nesting species, especially American Black Duck; Monarch Watch tagging program; a new butterfly garden near administration trailer; a banding program for Least Terns and other birds. ◾ The local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society is the Talbot Bird Club, which offers field trips and meetings with informative presentations, all free and open to the public.
Episode 2803 of Outdoors Maryland from Maryland Public Television includes a segment called “A Tern in the Tide,” about the habitat restoration on Polar Island and the establishment of nesting colonies of Ospreys, Common Terns, and Least Terns. Footage shows biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Program and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center conducting monitoring of the colonies on the island. Other segments in this episode are “Degrees of Action,” about the Adventuresports Institute at Garrett College, which trains guides for whitewater, rock climbing, and everything in-between, and . “The Invasive Chase,” about efforts to track and control the invasive Snakehead fish.
From US Route 50 near Easton: Take MD Route 322 westbound for approximately 2 miles, then turn right to go west on MD Route 33. Follow Route 33 for about 22 miles, through St. Michael’s (watch speed limits) and then go over the Knapps Narrows Bridge onto Tilghman Island. On Tilghman Island, turn left at the first street on the left, which will take you east on Chicken Point Road. The MES land base office is the third house on the left, at #21548. There is a sign at the driveway; turn left into the driveway and proceed to the parking area behind the house, using a marked space if possible.
After parking your car, follow the stone path from the parking lot to the pier. A big boat called the Terrapin will be there to pick you up at the predetermined time. There is a portable toilet behind a small privacy fence at the back edge of the parking lot.
Talbot County: Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Talbot County Side) ◾ Black Walnut Point Natural Resources Management Area ◾ Claiborne Landing ◾ Mill Creek MOS Sanctuary ◾ Pickering Creek Audubon Center
Caroline County: Adkins Arboretum ◾ Choptank Marina ◾ Daniel Crouse Memorial Park ◾ Idylwild Wildlife Management Area ◾ Martinak State Park ◾ Skeleton Creek Road & Bethlehem Road ◾ Tuckahoe State Park (Caroline County)
Dorchester County: Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge ◾ Cambridge – Bill Burton Fishing Pier State Park (Dorchester County Side) ◾ Cambridge – Great Marsh Park ◾ Cambridge – Oakley Street ◾ Cambridge – Sailwinds Park & Visitor Center ◾ Chesapeake Forest – North Tara Road ◾ Elliott Island Road / Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area (Eastern Section) ◾ Hooper’s Island ◾ Taylor’s Island
Queen Anne’s County: Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center – Horsehead ◾ Conquest Preserve ◾ Ferry Point Park ◾ Matapeake Clubhouse & Beach / Matapeake Fishing Pier & Boat Ramp ◾ Terrapin Nature Park ◾ Tuckahoe State Park (Queen Anne’s County) ◾ Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area