Snow and ice still blanketed Stone Harbor Point yesterday, but the foul weather of Thursday gave way to a sunny but cold day. H4 operated on all cylinders with one excavator at the borrow site loading two trucks to dump sand onto the southern habitat. At the same time Boomer and Vicky Heun began work on the gunnel and our new habitat island on the bay side. All together they moved 180 truckloads, our best day yet.
The runnel and island are an experiment we hope will help restore colonial birds, least terns and skimmers, back to the point. The new runnel (or shallow creek or channel) began to take shape after Boomer made the first cut into the bayside waters edge on the north end (see map below).
Map of the project areas showing the two habitat and the new runnel and island
A comparison of the new runnel entrance before and after excavation.
The job brings risks. When operating a machine worth hundreds of thousands that weighs 88,000 lbs one worries about slipping into the sea. If it weren't for the frozen sand, the gargantuan machine might sink or topple when lifting the several tons of sand into the waiting all terrain dump truck. But as Boomer finished the first 50 yards, the danger lifted. The incoming tide eventually halted work for the day.
Boomer and Vicky Heun operating the excavator and dumbstruck on the new runnel
The southern habitat gradually takes form and the northern habitat is nearly complete. We began the search for shell to cover the habitats. Beach nesters prefer beach with about 20% coverage with broken shell sprinkled with the occasional whole shell to provide vital protection from wind blown sand especially important to tiny chicks. Shell can be purchased easily in Cape May and Cumberland county because of the robust clam fishery. Unfortunately we can't used recently shucked clam shell, because remnant flesh will attract predators, and most of the shell is crushed before being composted. Somehow we have to find clean whole shell to spread with the broken shell. Shell spreading should start next week.
Crushed shell for the project
Work continues today (Saturday) to help stay within our permitted time restrictions. We are being asked to be done by March 7th.
Dunlin braving the snow
A blizzard sweeps the point today, with strong northerly winds creating near white out conditions and wind chill that would cause frostbite. We can only see a few hundred feet in any direction. The sea pounds the beach with dark gray waves that would scare most people from even going outside let alone venturing out onto this isolated wind swept peninsula.
Despite this the H4 crew persists in continuing the work. This morning they started moving sand up to the dune area, about 1 mile from the borrow site located at the point of the peninsula. But the white out conditions make it difficult to unload sand on the unstable new dune. Trucks could topple. Instead they are moving sand to the lower habitat as though the wintry conditions mean nothing.
We are determined to keep on our schedule so we can be don in time for the first arriving piping plovers. With this weather it seems it won’t be anytime soon.
Ice still covers much of the ocean and bay sides of the point and the point itself remains frozen. The bird population still consists mostly of gulls, brant dunlin, sanderlings and black-bellied plovers. H4 moved 131 loads to the south habitat areas today, focusing on this short run because one of the three truck broke down. Our immediate goal is to finish taking sand from the tip of the peninsula and then finish our work going south to north ended with the dune at the northernmost end of the peninsula. This will give as much disturbance free area over to the birds as soon as possible.
The borrow area where will have already taking sand is gradually being reshaped by the sea. It is slowly turning into a runnel that we hope will be used by piping plovers and migrating shorebirds for foraging. David Mizrahi and his field team will be assessing the area through the spring and summer to determine the benthic invertebrate populations in these sand-harvested areas, so we will know just how useful they are to the birds.
Our work has entered a phase familiar to most people in construction - in the end it all comes down to labor. In this case our labor is to move sand. Each day H4 moves between 128 truckloads/day to 159 truck load/day, varying by how frozen the beach (frozen is better) and how far the sand must be moved. Yesterday the team focused on moving sand from the borrow zone at the point to the new resiliency dune at the northermost point, about 1 mile away. The trucks moved nearly 4000 tons of sand, or over 8,000,000 pounds - in one day! And we need to continue at least two more days for the dune. We will need two more days to complete the lower habitat area.
We will also need about 4 days to complete the new island and runnel, which Steve (Stockton University Coastal Research Center) laid out with survey markers yesterday. From the picture below it is hard to imagine what we will create, but we hope the birds will like it. Our plan is to create a third elevated habitat that will resist spring tide inundation and be partially isolated by a small shallow creek or runnel. The sea, now from the bayside, will wash the creek at the mid to high tides, and remain exposed during the rest of the tide. We hope it will achieve three purposes: attract colonial nesters -least terns and black skimmers- provide a partial defense against predators and create good piping plover foraging areas. As with humans, for wildlife its all about location, and this location, along the point and the bay near the inlet with all it productive shoals and fast tidal flow, should be perfect.
We could wait and see. Or we could be more active and try to attract birds to the site. We hope to work with Dr. Joanna Burger of Rutgers to help us do that. Joanna pioneered work on creating new least tern colonies in the 1980's.
H4 is using all its resources to move sand, including Vicky Heun partner and sister to Boomer and JR
Truck dumps sand at the new dune that will help protect the southern end of Stone harbor from storm inundation.
The corner flag marks the start of the runnel and the soon to be created island habitat. The bayside is still awash in 10 inch thick sheets of ice
Even with one truck disabled, H4 hauled 128 truckloads of sand to the southernmost habitat area yesterday. With a new truck in service today we should be able to finish the southern habitat today or tomorrow. We harvested about two thirds of the sand needed for this project thus far and a significant amount remains .
This is important because the central question in our project is how can to create a resilient form of the ephemeral habitat so characteristic of beach nesting and migrant shorebirds? Together they nest or roost in the same isolated sandy areas that are periodically swept by the sea. Their habitat is a delicate balance: if swept too frequently the birds will be flooded; if flooded too little, vegetation grows providing vital cover for predators.
Our approach is to create a system in which restored habitat can be easily re-restored. We will accomplish this by using the sand accreting yearly in Hereford Inlet – in recent years it equals a foot ball field block of sand 60 feet high. Much of it accumulates at the point where we now harvest sand. Our work thus far shows there is plenty of sand to restore lost habitat and enough accreting each year to maintain it.
This small sandy investment would pay off big for birds. At one time not long ago the point was home to colonies of least terns, black skimmers and common terns as well as one of the densest and most productive piping plover and oystercatcher populations in the state. At one time nearly all the red knots that migrate to Delaware Bay in May, used the point as a safe roost. Now the colonial nesters are gone, the few plovers that remain are unproductive and the roosting shorebirds of Delaware Bay seek other roosts.
Our small project has the big hope of restoring the point to its past avian glory.
All the equipment working on the point.
Phil Huen measures the depth of the excavator cut into the point. We are permitted to harvest a two foot layer of sand from the very tip of Stone Harbor Point. The sand from the area in the foreground has already been harvesting leaving, what we hope, will be a productive intertidal flat. Its proximity to the ocean should make it highly productive for the small invertebrate and fish used by the birds nesting and roosting on the point.
Third intertidal flat formed after sand harvest.