POPLAR ISLAND - On the wettest March day since 1871, with winds howling at 35 knots, Jason Miller is decorating a sodden mound of dirt with plastic decoys.
He pounds a metal stake into glop that just days ago was beneath the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and attaches a $20 plastic snowy egret to it. He repeats this process 35 times.
If nature follows the script, real egrets will join the plastic colony, looking to carve out a small slice of prime waterfront real estate to build a nest and a family.
It seems that with egrets, the adage is true - birds of a feather do flock together - even if some of them are phony.
As workers rebuild Poplar Island from backyard-size chunks of dirt and rock to a 1,100-acre preserve, scientists Miller and Dave Brinker are hanging out the "Vacancy" sign for critters of all kinds.
"We're just at the beginning, but we're already attracting wildlife in droves," Miller says. "It's all happening much faster than we thought."
Eagles are nesting on a forested spit of land just off the island. The sandy shores have become "a terrapin factory," Miller says. All common terns in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake nest at one address: Cell 4DX - one of Poplar's six dike-surrounded cells of mud dredged from the bay, water and aquatic grasses.
"The wildlife is doing its part," Miller says as he drives along the island's rocky roads and passes huge earth-moving machines. "It doesn't seem to mind all this."
Restoring egrets to Poplar is an important step in the overall improvement of the bay, the scientists say.
"Egrets are relatively high on the food chain," Brinker says. "If they can be supported, we're moving in the right direction."
Poplar Island, just south of Kent Island and to the west of Tilghman Island, was once a respectable land mass. It had about 100 residents and a lodge that attracted prominent Washingtonians, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But like other Chesapeake islands, Poplar gradually was whittled away by erosion and rising water levels until it was less than one-10th the size of Baltimore's Patterson Park.
In 1998, federal and state agencies looking for a place to put mountains of soil dredged from Baltimore Harbor and bay shipping channels began a 20-year project to restore Poplar to its 1847 size. When they are finished, the island will have 570 acres of wetlands and an equal number of forested acres.
As the land mass grew, Miller, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Brinker, a wildlife ecologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, discussed ways to entice snowy egrets, historical residents of Poplar.
After being evicted as the island disappeared, the egrets attempted to return in 2003 only to be driven off by flocks of gulls. Brinker suggested decoys.
"We wanted to do what we could to attract a critical mass so that they posed a formidable force," Miller says. "I definitely took a lot of ribbing when the decoys arrived. People said, `Oh, you can't get real birds so you had to get fakes.'"
Using decoys as a restoration tool is not new. In the Gulf of Maine, researcher Stephen Kress and volunteers used puffin decoys to create the appearance of a welcoming, established colony. The so-called "social attraction" technique helped to successfully repopulate Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island.
The technique is being applied for birds around the world: Humboldt penguins in Peru, dark-rumped petrels in the Galapagos, short-tailed albatrosses on Midway Atoll and purple martins on the Eastern Seaboard. Scientists in Oregon even used decoys to get a colony of Caspian terns to move from a hazardous area to a safer one.
But this appears to be the first time the technique has been used on the Chesapeake Bay, Miller says.
Venturing out on the ooze last spring, Miller and biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center placed two dozen decoys on a small island within Poplar Island's new outer rim.
"It was making the best of what we had. We didn't know what would happen," Miller says, shaking his head at the thought. "It was fingers crossed."
A month later, they noticed real egrets were standing inside the ring of decoys. By mid-May, there were 24 nests, each holding two to five eggs, Miller says. By the end of the season, the tiny island within the island had added about 100 egrets to the Chesapeake Bay population.
"It's like a city. Everyone just flocks to it," Brinker says. "It's safe. The islands are like quicksand. It's inaccessible to predators and the birds seem to know it."
This year's egret city is almost inaccessible to humans, as well. As rain turns to sleet on the wettest March day in 134 years, Miller pushes a flat-bottomed aluminum boat across a milk chocolate-colored channel of water to a grassy bank to hammer the last of his decoys in place.
Encouraged by last year's success, he has increased his phony flock to 36. Miller fiddles with placement: Some decoys hunker low in the grass while others stand at the water's edge.
"From above, they spell out a symbol that only egrets understand," he says, smiling.