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The New Residents Of A Vanishing Island

Tom Pelton

It was a late Saturday afternoon, and I was on the Chesapeake Bay, on a peninsula of land called Taylor’s Island, about 15 miles southwest of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I dragged my kayak across slabs of concrete beside the road and then launched into the Little Choptank River. Blue crabs were dense in the nooks between the rocks, scuttling away when I dipped my paddle into the waters.

As the sun slid lower on the horizon, I headed out across the rippled, olive-green surface toward a tuft of trees rising from the waters, about a half mile out. Fish jumped. An osprey circled and then dove.

My destination was James Island. Settled by the English in the 1600’s, James Island was once a 1,300 acre expanse of forested land -- a fishing and farming community with 20 homes, a school, store, and Methodist church.  But it was abandoned to rising sea levels in the 1910’s. James Island is one of hundreds of Chesapeake Bay islands that have been consumed by rising sea levels driven by climate change.

As I approach, I see that James Island has been shattered and is now seven tiny islands instead of one.  One of the remaining fragments is an island no larger than a couch, with a scraggly pine tree twisting up from it and cormorants perched on the branches.

I paddle over a fallen tree and drag my boat up onto the shore of the largest island, which is only about 100 feet long and 30 feet across. Just offshore, a pair of wooden pilings rise at an angle from the shallows, perhaps the remnants of an old dock. It’s the only remaining evidence of buildings or any human habitation here.

I push my way through thorn bushes and reeds to explore the tiny island, which has rapidly eroding clay cliffs and a few dozen loblolly pine trees.  I find something amazing: A dense growth of flowering bushes called groundsel trees, and clustering on their silvery blossoms are scores of monarch butterflies.  The beautiful orange and black creatures are everywhere, flitting between the flowers and drinking the nectar.

Increasingly rare on land because of the over-application of herbicides, monarchs have found a temporary respite here on this disappearing island during their annual migration south.  

Groundsel trees, which are stocky-looking shrubs that thrive in the Chesapeake’s salty wetlands, turn out to be an ideal food source for the monarchs’ migration because they blossom so late in the year – in September and October, just when the monarchs most need nourishment.

A little farther on, I find a large nest formed from salt meadow hay beside a fallen tree.  In the nest are two huge eggs – off-white, about three inches long, two inches wide. They appear to be brown pelican eggs, a hypothesis supported when I see a pair of pelicans soar across the water offshore.  The eggs appear to be dead, this being October and far beyond hatching season.

But there are also more nests in the grass, and their existence here is telling: James Island is no longer home to any humans, because of the rising seas caused by global warming.  But it is now home to pelicans, a tropical species that never lived or nested in the Chesapeake Bay until recently, when warming temperatures allowed them to move north into Maryland from their native Florida and South Carolina.

Climate change is quietly changing the landscape all around us, even the inhabitants of our vanishing islands.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.