By Mary Maushard
Christmas lingers well into spring at Poplar Island in Talbot County, and the birds and wildlife there welcome it.
What they welcome are the cozy homes and nesting spots amid the drying branches of discarded Christmas trees. Piled high to create a mound, the evergreens offer small cavities amid the prickly branches that often provide ready-made nests.
Because Poplar Island is still being rebuilt with dredged material from shipping channels, it does not yet have mature growth for nests and wildlife in all areas. That’s where the Christmas trees come in. “The trees do provide some cover, at least in young wetland cells, until the shrub community develops,” said Peter McGowan, a biologist on the Poplar Island Management Team for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The remnants of original Poplar Island would not have provided much nesting bird habitat,” added Michelle Osborn, Lead Environmental Specialist for the Maryland Environmental Service (MES) on Poplar Island.
For more than a dozen years, area residents have repurposed their Christmas trees to benefit wildlife on Poplar. The journey starts with the Easton Public Works Department, which collects the trees at curbside and takes them to Tilghman Island, where Phillips Wharf Environmental Center provides temporary storage and docking for transport. Watermen pick them up for the last part of the journey.
This year, about 150 trees were collected, Osborn said.
Employees of MES and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services pile the trees within the island’s newly restored wetlands. Mallards, red-wing blackbirds, various sparrow species, northern harriers and short-eared owls use the brush piles for perching. Muskrats, meadow voles and mice seek cover in them, as do some snake species, said McGowan.
The black duck population — once almost nonexistent — is also increasing. McGowan attributes this not so much to the Christmas trees as to the quality of habitat now on the island.
“The shrub community and high marsh have become well established in many of the older wetland cells, providing excellent nesting cover for black ducks, which, unlike their close relative, the mallard, are very sensitive to human disturbance and require more isolated areas for successful nesting,” he said.
In the 1990s, Poplar Island eroded to about five acres from the 1,140 acres that existed in the mid-1800s. By depositing the sediment dredged from approach shipping channels to the Port of Baltimore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Port Administration have restored more than 370 acres since 2001. When it is finished, Poplar Island will have more than 1,700 acres for birds and other wildlife. Already, more than 230 species of birds have been sighted there, as well as deer, otters, muskrats and other mammals.