Jackson County

Guess who’s living on Quicksand Island off the Pascagoula mainland

Royal terns and sandwich terns are nesting on New Round Island by the thousands. The newly formed and dangerous island is off limits to humans.
Royal terns and sandwich terns are nesting on New Round Island by the thousands. The newly formed and dangerous island is off limits to humans.

A new and dangerous island — still technically in the construction phase — has suddenly turned into home for a tremendous colony of shorebirds, the largest in Mississippi.

New Round Island, also known as Quicksand Island because its soft middle is so dangerous, has attracted thousands of nesting shorebirds — black skimmers, an assortment of terns and some gulls.

The great thing is, because the island is legally off limits to humans and is too new to have predators, the chicks are thriving.

The latest round of nesting has been black skimmers, but the 1,100 Royal terns before them have been successful in bringing up 504 chicks.

There are hundreds more. In June, biologists counted 2,000 Sandwich tern nests. In all, there are more than 3,000 nests for seven species of shorebirds.

The island has a great beach. It is a sand berm built seven feet high to encase a boggy middle. The berm is designed to hold tons of wet dredge material brought in from offshore to create 122 acres of island. As the material drains, the island solidifies.

They call it New Round Island, because it sits just to the north of Round Island, which has been eroding for more than a century.

Contractors for the state DMR built the sand berm and then finished filling New Round Island in February, prompting the state to send out a warning to boaters that the white sand beaches, though attractive, were hiding a deceptively soft center that has the consistency of quicksand.

Humans have been warned off. But within months, nesting shorebirds discovered it and claimed it as their own.

There are so many nests and chicks on the island that Audubon’s biologists had to tread carefully during two recent trips to document them.

“It’s breathtaking,” said Bryan White with Audubon Mississippi’s Coastal Bird Stewardship Program. “It’s almost overwhelming. Even being a biologist, it’s stressful being around that many birds, when you could step on a nest or a chick.”

In some areas they are nesting only inches apart.

The biologists are allowed there, but federal and state law prohibits anyone else. It’s illegal to disturb nesting shorebirds.

There’s already some vegetation growing on the new island, grass and low greenery on the berm, and that’s where the larger terns and laughing gulls are nesting. Others are nesting in open areas.

The nests are on the top of the berm, seven feet off the water. The height helped protect the colonies during Tropical Storm Cindy this summer that killed so many least terns on the mainland beaches of Biloxi and Gulfport.

“It’s very exciting,” said Abby Durrah, with the bird stewardship program. “It’s a real bonus for Mississippi. We don’t have a colony like that anywhere else in the state, in our own backyard. A lot of these species are experiencing decline. Any little thing that can help is good, and certainly they seem to be doing well on the new island.”