Monday, November 17, 2014

Sandy Point sees a different kind of activity

By Beth Sullivan
Early this past week, while a giant blast of frigid air descended on the mid west, we were graced with a lovely respite, days in the 60s , sun and a few last days to pretend winter was not on its way.
Two of us intrepid (crazy) Avalonia Stewards decided to paddle out to Sandy Point. The breezes were light and the water was still warm, and there was a lot of activity to check out on the Island.
A calm, warm, grey November day.
All last spring and summer we kayaked together to search for Horseshoe crabs and tag them. Then we waited for shorebirds to arrive: Piping Plovers, Oystercatchers, and Terns. We watched them build nests, counted eggs, helped set up roping and signs to protect their fragile beginnings. We thrilled with every report from the USFWS stewards who reported fledglings. We also tried our best to educate the people who also love the island as to why it was so important for us to dedicate our time and energy to protect this special little piece of land and its inhabitants.
Dredging map of the navigation channel
On this November day there was different activity on the island, and we needed to check it out. This time it was barges and pumps and generators and other heavy equipment that we wanted to watch. In a joint effort by the Army Corps of Engineers and with oversight by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the navigation channel north of the island and around the western tip is being deepened. Over years of storms and winds, and high tides removing the sand, the center part of the island has diminished in height. There are times during super high tides in the spring, it completely over-washes. If there are nesting birds in that area, they are lost. Depending on the timing, they may not try and attempt to re-nest. It is the sand that the island has lost, that has filled in the channel.
Hurricane Sandy changed the contour of Sandy Point

Deepen the Channel- Raise the Island

This effort is not just about deepening that channel, but also restoring height to that lowest portion of the island. As the big barge maneuvers its way slowly along its course, it pumps huge volumes of water and sand through a large diameter pipeline, that extends more than half the length of the island: all the way to the low over-wash area. After only a few days and nights of work, there are mountains of sand piled high in the area. Other machines move and spread it out. The operators of these machines are working around the clock, bright lights illuminate the site though the night. There is a short window of time to complete the effort so that the habitat was not disturbed during the fall migration of shorebirds or the spring movements of horse shoe crabs.
Main barge with massive pumps sends sand and water back to the island

Rough Weather Work

In less than three months, months that can be the most brutal, weather-wise, the channel will be dredged, sandy soils re-deposited and spread and the island readied for the return of its inhabitants. The added sand may not make much difference to the Horseshoe crabs, but by late March and April when the first shore birds arrive, some of the Plovers will seek sandy dunes where there are grasses and shrubs to partially protect their nests. But others of them, and the Oystercatchers, and especially the Least Terns, will find a higher ground, open sand, and hopefully more safety from being washed away during high spring tides. We will continue to depend on the USFWS stewards and monitors, to protect and preserve the island, and we, Avalonia stewards will await the spring activity before we head out again.
Newly filled areas are being visited by opportunistic gulls; before long it will be Piping Plovers visiting.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan. Maps from USFWS.

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