Relocating the Seabird Nesting Colony at Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

South Island hosted Virginia's largest colonial seabird nesting colony until 2020
South Island hosted Virginia's largest colonial seabird nesting colony until 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Border Collies Keep Birds at Bay at HRBT

In 2019, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) destroyed the nesting site of the largest waterbird colony in Virginia, which assembled each spring as approximately 25,000 laughing gulls, herring gulls, black skimmers, gull-billed terns, royal terns, common terns, and other species migrated back from Central and South America.

The birds had taken advantage of South Island when it was constructed 40 years earlier for the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. They moved from nesting sites on Fisherman's Island and other barrier islands because the new artificial island was more isolated from predators, and was located in the middle of the open water habitat which provided food. The common terns foraged as far north as the mouth of the Rappahannock River before returning each night to the colony.

before being paved over in late 2019, the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was home to 25,000 nesting seabirds in the summer before being paved over in late 2019, the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was home to 25,000 nesting seabirds in the summer
before being paved over in late 2019, the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was home to 25,000 nesting seabirds in the summer
Source: Google Earth (November 2015, April 2019)

The birds had not adopted the North Island because it had too much grass, which could hide predators. The Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel islands were paved, while the seabirds needed sand for their nest sites. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel islands were too small. The island next to South Island, where Fort Wool was built before the Civil War, had too many rats.

the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting habitat in 2020
the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting habitat in 2020
the parade ground of abandoned Fort Wool was covered with sand to create nesting habitat in 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Conversion of Rip Raps Island

Until 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had interpreted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as requiring protection of the nesting area. Under President Trump, the Federal agency dropped any requirement for mitigation for "Incidental bird takes." The Virginia Department of Transportation could pave the six acres and use it for construction of the new tubes of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, and could end its multi-year search for alternative nesting sites.

Within the state, however, there was a strong reaction from bird lovers and people with a general sensitivity to environmental changes. Virginia had classified the gull-billed tern as a threatened species, and 98% of the royal terns nesting in Virginia used the six acres on the south island.

the significance of the nesting site at South Island was well known
the significance of the nesting site at South Island was well known
the significance of the nesting site at South Island was well known
Source: Virginia Marine Resources Commission, permit application by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (December 21, 2020)

State officials examined various locations before determining how to mitigate the impacts of eliminating South Island as a nesting site. Craney Island, Clump Island, Grandview Beach, and Fishermans Island had too little habitat and/or too many predators.

Plans to improve habitat on Willoughby Spit to encourage nesting there were dropped after the US Navy expressed concerns about increasing the hazard of bird strikes for planes using nearby Chambers Field at Naval Station Norfolk. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) proposed building a new island as a new nesting site using dredge spoils. That could not be completed before the birds migrated back for the 2020 nesting season, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expressed concerns about impacts on fish populations from dredging more deep water habitat outside of shipping channels.

The solution to the loss of 10 acres at South Island was to upgrade 1.5 acres of habitat on Rip Raps Island in the parade ground of long-abandoned Fort Wool, and to trap rats there to protect nesting chicks.

in 2020 royal terns quickly began nesting in the new sand placed at Fort Wool
in 2020, royal terns quickly began nesting in the new sand placed at Fort Wool
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Fort Wool and Barge Artificial Habitats (May 20, 2020)

The state also provided an extra acre of habitat by placing seven barges next to Rip Raps Island, with a layer on sand on the barge deck to provide nesting sites. Construction on the south island in 2018 had forced the royal terns to nest closer than normal to the herring gulls, and the gulls had feasted on the tern chicks. Barriers were designed to keep the chicks from running off the barges and drowning.

To facilitate recovery of the gull-billed tern population, state officials also revised laws to allow for relocating nests and eggs of a state-threatened species. That allowed Department of Game and Inland Fisheries staff to move birds who tried to nest on the now-paved south island over to Rip Raps Island.

Dogs that normally prevented non-migratory geese from nesting were hired to patrol the south island and force birds to move to other places for nesting. The Virginian-Pilot reported:1

Handlers walk the border collies — Greg, Marx and Hoop, to name a few — to chase after the birds, usually in the morning and nighttime when they try to land. The company's dozen or so dogs on the island are equipped with small booties to protect their feet against the asphalt and ski-like goggles to protect their eyes against the sun.

border collies, wearing protective goggles and foot coverings, chased birds off South Island in 2020
border collies, wearing protective goggles and foot coverings, chased birds off South Island in 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Border Collies Keep Birds at Bay at HRBT

The effort, which cost the Virginia Department of Transportation over $2 million and was accomplished in just three months, was successful. Removing the vegetation had created a 360-degree view, allowing the nesting birds to detect threats. Rats were exterminated. Buildings were sealed to prevent birds getting trapped, or damaging historic structures with their droppings.

Fort Wool and seven barges in 2020 enabled successful nesting by Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gulls, Common Terns, Black Skimmers, and Gull-billed Terns to nest successfully
Fort Wool and seven barges in 2020 enabled successful nesting by Royal Terns, Sandwich Terns, Laughing Gulls, Common Terns, Black Skimmers, and Gull-billed Terns to nest successfully
Source: Virginia Marine Resources Commission, permit application by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (December 21, 2020)

In addition to making Fort Wool and the barges more attractive, the harassment at South Island by noisemakers, decoys, and dogs deterred nesting there. One Virginia Department of Transportation official noted:2

We did a lot to make the South Island not as desirable, and they created the candlelight and wine and romantic music.

barges provided another acre of habitat
barges provided another acre of habitat
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Creation of an Artificial Floating Island

after barges were installed and covered with sand, decoys were added to attract birds
after barges were installed and covered with sand, decoys were added to attract birds
Source: Virginia Department of Transportation, Fort Wool and Barge Artificial Habitats (May 20, 2020)

Moving the colony just a short distance improved the safety at South Island, since it was no longer a "bird magnet." There were fewer collisions between vehicles emerging from the tunnels and adult birds. Chicks no longer hopped into traffic, which occasionally caused drivers to make an emergency stop that triggered rear-end collisions.

The move also made South Island a more attractive location for the workers. Some birds had the habit of dropping oysters to break the shells and expose the meat. It was not unusual for employees working at South Island to discover, when their shift was over, cracked windshields on their cars. Seafood-eating birds produced smelly feces, and:3

People literally had to wear raincoats because birds would kind of attack them — with poop. It was an everyday occurrence for people working there.

Laughing gulls had created the greatest problem. That aggressive species started nesting in 2000, and dive-bombed workers regularly. A biologist hired to coat their eggs with oil to deter laughing gull nesting commented:4

Nesting terns will dive bomb and hit you with their bill. Gulls will poop on you to try to make you go away. I just try to get the people who work here to understand that it's not personal.


Source: Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, DWR Creates New Home for Seabird Colony on Fort Wool

At the end of 2020, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources filed for a permit from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to anchor 2-10 barges next to Fort Wool, for an expected five-year period. The state agency estimated it would cost $10 million to provide up to 1.5 acres of temporary bird nesting habitat between mid-March and mid-September for five years. The 2020-2021 cost was $2.2 million.

the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources sought approval to anchor up to 10 barges to provide temporary bird habitat between 2021-2026
the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources sought approval to anchor up to 10 barges to provide temporary bird habitat between 2021-2026
Source: Virginia Marine Resources Commission, permit application by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (December 21, 2020)

"Lessons learned" from 2020 included installing the barges earlier to catch the beginning of the nesting season, spreading the aggregate/sand on the barges before towing them into place, and installing wave shields to prevent nesting material from washing overboard during storms and high wind events. The Department of Wildlife Resources decided to use four larger barges in 2021, providing 50,000 square feet of nesting area compared to the 40,000 square feet on seven barges in 2020.5

side walls were added to barges to keep chicks from falling overboard
side walls were added to barges to keep chicks from falling overboard
Source: Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Tired of Netflix? Enter the World of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Seabird Breeding Colony

After Fort Wool was converted to bird habitat in 2020, tourist visits from Hampton ended. The Miss Hampton II had carried passengers for over 30 years to the island. In 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners of the 117-passenger vessel sold it to a company that moved the boat to Cape Henlopen. The last harbor tour by the Miss Hampton II was on July 28, 2021.6

Birds in Virginia

Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

tours to Fort Wool by the Miss Hampton II ended when the site was converted to bird habitat
tours to Fort Wool by the Miss Hampton II ended when the site was converted to bird habitat

Fort Wool had vegetation before being converted into a replacement bird magnet in 2020
Fort Wool had vegetation before being converted into a replacement "bird magnet" in 2020
Source: GoogleMaps

Links

as hoped, nesting seabirds moved from South Island to Fort Wool in 2020
as hoped, nesting seabirds moved from South Island to Fort Wool in 2020
Source: Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Seabird Conservation in Hampton Roads

barges between the South Island and Fort Wool provided nesting habitat in 2020
barges between the South Island and Fort Wool provided nesting habitat in 2020
Source: Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, HRBT Expansion Magazine (Winter 2020)

References

1. "Virginia now has a plan to save the state’s largest waterbird colony at Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel," The Virginian-Pilot, February 14, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/environment/vp-nw-hrbt-bird-colony-plan-20200214-lf3ezb2zfnhvnb3hqq2a7t66qe-story.html; "Virginia paved over its largest seabird nesting site during the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion," The Virginian-Pilot, January 7, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/transportation/vp-nw-hrbt-bird-colony-20200107-ag24qpimkngkvhxepuoiv2dxni-story.html; "In Virginia, a Race to Ready New Nesting Sites for 20,000 Returning Seabirds," Audubon, February 21, 2020, https://www.audubon.org/news/in-virginia-race-ready-new-nesting-sites-20000-returning-seabirds; "Besides cutting spending, Northam’s budget tackles a Hampton Roads seabird problem," Virginia Mercury, April 21, 2020, https://www.virginiamercury.com/blog-va/besides-cutting-spending-northams-budget-tackles-the-hampton-roads-seabird-problem/; "Seabirds return to the HRBT — but to a different island this time," The Virginian-Pilot, April 25, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/life/wildlife-nature/vp-nw-hampton-roads-bridge-tunne-birds-20200425-xrdy6ihnv5c2blwpvrbggoobda-story.html; "Creation of an Artificial Floating Island," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/birds/seabird-conservation-in-hampton-roads/creation-of-an-artificial-floating-island/; "Tracking the effects of habitat loss," VTShorebirds, https://www.vtshorebirds.org/hrbt; "Against all odds, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel bird colony is saved," The Virginian-Pilot, July 25, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/life/wildlife-nature/vp-nw-hrbt-birds-success-20200725-up2gokoh4veyhf2gqvndpnot7y-story.html; "Virginia in battle with birds nesting at HRBT," The Virginian-Pilot, August 14, 2011, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/transportation/article_5b2d48d5-8c91-50ea-8dfe-03e7785103fe.html; "Birds' return to Hampton Roads island defies expectations," Bay Journal, August 14, 2020, https://www.bayjournal.com/news/policy/birds-return-to-hampton-roads-island-defies-expectations/article_fff19ca6-de55-11ea-925d-07da1e386f74.html; permit application by Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, December 21, 2020 https://webapps.mrc.virginia.gov/public/habitat/getPDF.php?id=20202313 (last checked February 7, 2021)
2. "Against all odds, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel bird colony is saved," The Virginian-Pilot, July 25, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/life/wildlife-nature/vp-nw-hrbt-birds-success-20200725-up2gokoh4veyhf2gqvndpnot7y-story.html (last checked July 27, 2020)
3. "Against all odds, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel bird colony is saved," The Virginian-Pilot, July 25, 2020, https://www.pilotonline.com/life/wildlife-nature/vp-nw-hrbt-birds-success-20200725-up2gokoh4veyhf2gqvndpnot7y-story.html (last checked July 27, 2020)
4. "Virginia in battle with birds nesting at HRBT," The Virginian-Pilot, August 14, 2011, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/transportation/article_5b2d48d5-8c91-50ea-8dfe-03e7785103fe.html (last checked July 27, 2020)
5. Virginia Marine Resources Commission permit application, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, December 21, 2020, https://webapps.mrc.virginia.gov/public/habitat/getPDF.php?id=20202313; "Tired of Netflix? Enter the World of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Seabird Breeding Colony," Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, https://dwr.virginia.gov/blog/tired-of-netflix-enter-the-world-of-the-hampton-roads-bridge-tunnel-seabird-breeding-colony/; "Opinion: Using Fort Wool was the right short-term solution to protect seabirds," The Virginian-Pilot, November 27, 2021, https://www.pilotonline.com/opinion/columns/vp-ed-column-ross-0518-20210517-bivhqjjckzhlhklre6syov7ily-story.html (last checked November 28, 2021)
6. "Miss Hampton II Bids Farewell To Hampton," Peninsula Chronicle, July 29, 2021, https://peninsulachronicle.com/2021/07/29/miss-hampton-ii-bids-farewell-to-hampton/ (last checked December 31, 2022)

Maryland has also created artificial platforms to expand nesting habitat, as natural islands disappear
Maryland has also created artificial platforms to expand nesting habitat, as natural islands disappear
Source: Maryland Department of Naural Resources, Nesting Platform Initiative in Maryland Coastal Bays Begins Second Year and Nesting Platform Initiative Launched for Endangered Birds in Coastal Bays


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