At the mouth of the Hampton Roads harbor, a success story unfolds. It’s told through legions of beating wings, swirling around an old fortress like specks in a snow globe.
Just months ago, this 25,000-bird colony — one of the most important gatherings of endangered migratory seabirds in Virginia — seemed doomed.
Every spring for decades, terns, skimmers and gulls have headed for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. On the gravely ground of the facility’s southern island, they hatched their next generation, isolated from mainland predators, surrounded by waters rich with food.
But last winter, while the birds were away in warmer climates, the colony’s nesting site became a construction zone for the $3.8 billion tunnel expansion. Pavement was poured across the entire island to accommodate equipment, leaving the birds destined for trouble this spring. Upon arrival, they’d be forced to scatter to the winds, where their chances of raising young would dwindle.
Alarms sounded in birding and environmental communities. Pressure mounted in Richmond. In mid-February, the governor announced a plan to transplant the displaced colony to an adjacent island: Fort Wool, a centuries-old sea fort that hangs off the southern island like a kidney.
Sounds simple enough. Both islands are manmade, off-limits to the public, similar in size — 10-15 acres — and even connected by an earthen causeway.
But the birds had long given Fort Wool the cold shoulder. No matter how crowded the South Island became, they’d squabble for a spot there rather than nest just next door.
No one knew how to change all those hard-wired bird brains. No precedent could be found for shifting an entire colony. The clock was ticking, with birds typically reporting in mid-May from as far away as Florida. Adding to the challenge: the coronavirus pandemic, which was ramping up and complicating everything, including coordination between the army of agencies, academics and advisers who scrambled to salvage the critical nesting season.
But the feathered cloud over Fort Wool today testifies to triumph. Westbound drivers can see for themselves as they near the tunnel chute. Below all those circling, fishing parents are thousands of chicks squawking for dinner.
“So many times, environmental stories go the other way,” said Mike Parr, president of The American Bird Conservancy, a D.C.-based nonprofit. “The latest data says 3 billion birds have been lost in the past 50 years from the North American population.”
In a world with plenty of bad news, here’s something that’s going right.
“Very rarely does it turn out like this,” Parr said. “It’s nice when you get a win. It gives hope. On so many fronts.”
The key to wooing the colony to Fort Wool: build an even better bird boudoir than the South Island once was.
Step one: make the most of the privacy that could be offered.
Even before the new tunnel project, the HRBT island was busy with Virginia Department of Transportation workers maintaining and operating the tunnels.
At Fort Wool — a nationally registered historic site dating to 1816 — crumbling conditions have rendered the ruins unsafe for human visitors. Now, it’s heavily posted: No trespassing. Bird sanctuary.
“We can limit disturbances here,” said Becky Gwynn, a biologist with the state’s Department of Wildlife Resources, formerly the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
To give the newspaper a recent look-see, Gwynn and fellow biologist Steve Living nudged a boat up to Fort Wool. Up close, the din of colony chatter is overwhelming, echoing off casemates. The air is musty with the ammonia-laced odor of droppings.
“Smells like what you’d expect from thousands of fish-eating birds,” Living said. “It’s oddly gratifying.”
Living was in charge of making Fort Wool more appealing. Colony breeders like these do their nesting on open ground, preferring a 360-degree view to detect threats. Trees, weeds and grass were removed. Bait was set to kill off rats — suspected to be one reason the birds had always steered clear. Openings to bunkers, batteries and buildings were sealed. Barges were leased, outfitted with rails and anchored to increase open space. An enticing blend of sand and gravel was spread.
To make it all irresistible, decoys were scattered and sound systems installed, pumping recordings of colony chatter into the sky. Coupled with hazing on the South Island — most effectively, border collies to run off the most stubborn returnees — the birds got the word.
“We did a lot to make the South Island not as desirable, and they created the candlelight and wine and romantic music,” said Rob Cary, chief deputy commissioner of VDOT, which has agreed to pick up the $2.2 million tab.
At least eight species have now set up shop on Fort Wool, six of which are considered endangered, threatened or in need of conservation. Dark-winged black skimmers. Terns — common, sandwich, gull-billed and royal, with their distinctive, spiky black caps. Gulls — herring, great black-back and laughing, named for their ha-ha calls.
VDOT has taken heat for plunging ahead with paving without a mitigation plan in place for the colony. But in 2017, the Trump administration issued a new interpretation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act , rolling back punishment for construction-related bird deaths or nest destruction.
Still, the agency says it spent three years exploring rescue ideas that went nowhere. Too impractical. Too expensive. Too many roadblocks.
Matt Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, said the state stepped in because the feds didn’t.
“VDOT just wasn’t getting the direction they normally would have,” Strickler said. “It was something the commonwealth of Virginia has never had to do before. But this kind of work is necessary if the environment isn’t going to die a death by a thousand cuts.”
The finishing touches were laid in the nick of time.
“Birds were landing and exhibiting courtship behavior as the last contractors were pulling out,” said Gwynn, the biologist.
Things are better at the HRBT too, where birds once collided regularly with traffic around the tubes, even causing accidents. VDOT folks on the South Island also are getting a break. Thousands of nesting birds aren’t easy to live with.
“They could be pretty aggressive,” Cary said. “People literally had to wear raincoats because birds would kind of attack them — with poop. It was an everyday occurrence for people working there.”
Cary said some birds would fly over carrying oysters, then drop them on employees’ cars to break the shells: “Windshields got cracked all the time.”
Fort Wool isn’t a long-term solution. The fortress itself takes up so much room that even with added barges, nesting habitat is tight — a mere 2 1/4 u00bd acres. There also are concerns that the concentration of bird droppings might accelerate corrosion of the historic structures.
The ultimate goal: create another artificial island in the vicinity, a process requiring years of study and permitting. Boring for the new tunnel will exhume tons of material, but it won’t be suitable. Drilling additives contaminate such spoils, VDOT confirmed, relegating them to landfills. Instead, an application has been filed with the Army Corps of Engineers to use dredge from future channel deepening.
If a new sanctuary becomes reality, the birds will have to pack up again. At times, colonies will do that on their own. When the HRBT birds adopted the South Island in the 1980s, they were thought to have come from Fisherman’s Island on the Eastern Shore — abandoned in the face of too many predators. But relocations like that are gradual, requiring years for a colony’s numbers to recover.
At least now there’s a blueprint for luring the whole gang in the right direction. Counts have tallied more birds at Fort Wool this year than on the South Island last year, even with more limited space.
With bird habitat shrinking just about everywhere — development, sea-level rise — the project is being hailed as a model, demonstrating what’s possible.
The single largest seabird colony in Virginia has been saved at the 11th hour.
“I have to admit I was a doubter,” said Ruth Boettcher, a coastal biologist who’s been monitoring the colony for years. “I didn’t think Fort Wool would work. It’s awesome that I was wrong.”
Joanne Kimberlin, 757-446-2338, email@example.com
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