The Birds: Nesting Impedes Construction In Virginia

Aug 24, 2019
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Work crews in Virginia are preparing for that state's largest construction project, but they have an unusual obstacle - 25,000 seabirds are nesting on their staging area. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports that bird lovers have a surprising solution in mind.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: On many summer days, there's a 6-mile backup waiting to cross the Hampton Roads Bridge and Tunnel that link coastal cities and the nation's largest naval base.

PAULA MILLER: We have a hundred thousand vehicles going through the tunnel along this corridor on a daily basis during peak travel periods.

HAUSMAN: Paula Miller is with the Virginia Department of Transportation, the agency supervising construction of a new tunnel, two new bridges and a wider road. There's just one problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

HAUSMAN: The island where construction crews must begin work, parking equipment and digging up an area the size of a football field, is home to a massive colony of gulls and terns, according to Virginia Tech professor Jim Fraser.

JIM FRASER: It's by far the largest colonial seabird nesting colony in Virginia. We estimate somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 birds nesting there, and then when those birds have chicks running around, there can be as many as 25,000 birds on that little, tiny island.

HAUSMAN: En route to visit a colony, Virginia Tech professor Sarah Karpanty explains the birds feel safe on islands isolated from predators like raccoons and foxes.

SARAH KARPANTY: They can clean out hundreds of nests in a night or two.

HAUSMAN: They go after the eggs, the babies?

KARPANTY: All of the above.

HAUSMAN: And the 17-acre island is surrounded by waters rich in fish that feed the birds and their hatchlings. This fall, the gulls and terns will migrate to Central and South America, but when they return in the spring, Fraser says, they may find construction workers and heavy equipment everywhere. And he worries they'll end up in traffic - a problem already occurring on occasion.

FRASER: There was 10 accidents in one year because of birds landing on the road. And then people hit the brakes at 65 miles an hour, and then the next thing you know, you've got a pileup. They'll be more of them probably in the traffic out there when they're trying to figure out what to do, and they will no longer have their old nesting site.

HAUSMAN: There's been so much development on the East Coast that there aren't many suitable areas left for the birds. And Karpanty says their numbers are already falling.

KARPANTY: The gull-billed tern is actually listed as threatened under the state endangered species act. Also, there is a species called the royal tern. Virginia is the northernmost part of its nesting range.

HAUSMAN: Can't they just fly south to North Carolina or South Carolina?

KARPANTY: There are areas further south along the coast that do host large colonies of nesting seabirds, but likely, many of these colonies are at their capacity. An area can only hold so many birds.

HAUSMAN: So the state asked Virginia Tech what to do, and the two professors suggested Virginia build the birds their own island.

FRASER: North Carolina has been building islands for birds for decades. And so when we were faced with this problem, we said, what's the best way to solve this? And we looked and looked and looked for a suitable island down near the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. And there are none. So if there are none - you know they'll use them - the obvious solution is to build them.

HAUSMAN: They figure it would cost several million dollars, compared to the total project cost of 3.8 billion. Under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the regional transit authority building this project could've been told to replace lost habitat. But the Trump administration says it won't enforce penalties in cases like this. As for the state of Virginia, its regulators say they don't have the authority to make anyone build an island for birds.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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