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Islands at bay: rising seas, eroding islands, and waterbird habitat loss in Chesapeake Bay (USA)


Like many resources in the Chesapeake Bay region of the U.S., many waterbird nesting populations have suffered over the past three to four decades. In this study, historic information for the entire Bay and recent results from the Tangier Sound region were evaluated to illustrate patterns of island erosion and habitat loss for 19 breeding species of waterbirds. Aerial imagery and field data collected in the nesting season were the primary sources of data. From 1993/1994 to 2007/2008, a group of 15 islands in Tangier Sound, Virginia were reduced by 21% in area, as most of their small dunes and associated vegetation and forest cover were lost to increased washovers. Concurrently, nesting American black ducks (Anas rubripes) declined by 66% , wading birds (herons-egrets) by 51%, gulls by 72%, common terns (Sterna hirundo) by 96% and black skimmers (Rynchops niger) by about 70% in this complex. The declines noted at the larger Bay-wide scale suggest that this study area maybe symptomatic of a systemic limitation of nesting habitat for these species. The island losses noted in the Chesapeake have also been noted in other Atlantic U.S. coastal states. Stabilization and/or restoration of at least some of the rapidly eroding islands at key coastal areas are critical to help sustain waterbird communities.

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We thank the following field support personnel for their assistance with Chesapeake Bay waterbird surveys over the years: in Maryland, J. S. Weske, J. McCann, and many volunteers; in Virginia, M. A. Byrd, T. Bidrowski, R. Boettcher, A. Duerr, B. Paxton, and A. Wilke. For assistance with GIS analyses, we thank E. Laube, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, D. Richardson, University of Virginia, and in Maryland, L. Hennessee and the Maryland Geological Survey’s Shoreline Change Program. A. Wickline and P. Willey from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation provided comments on habitat changes on Great Fox Island. Constructive comments on earlier drafts were received from J. McCann, M. Haramis, R. White, and A. Wilke. N. Ketchner, at the UVA Scholars’ Lab, provided statistical assistance. Funding for waterbird surveys over the years has been derived from many sources including Pittman Robertson Funds, Chesapeake Bay and Endangered Species Tax Checkoff Fund, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.

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Correspondence to R. Michael Erwin.

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Erwin, R.M., Brinker, D.F., Watts, B.D. et al. Islands at bay: rising seas, eroding islands, and waterbird habitat loss in Chesapeake Bay (USA). J Coast Conserv 15, 51–60 (2011).

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