Jim Fraser has been studying Virginia’s seabirds for more than 30 years, so when he says the state’s largest and most diverse seabird colony is at risk, we should take action.
Late last year, the Virginia Department of Transportation paved over a 40-year-old nesting site for an estimated 25,000 seabirds on an island in the James River along the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) on Interstate 64.
Unless a quick fix is applied, the number of seabirds will likely plummet and some species may disappear from the state altogether.
VDOT hired Fraser, a professor of wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, to study the best solution for the birds as preparations began for the $3.862 billion tunnel expansion.
Rather than create a new island as Fraser and others recommended, VDOT paved over the site.
Without a place to lay their eggs, the birds might end up roosting at a nearby naval air station, a deadly hazard should they get sucked into jet engines.
The birds’ future is even more precarious because the Trump administration weakened the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 2017, all but ending punishment for bird deaths from “incidental bird takes” or destruction of nests.
The American Bird Conservancy and others rightly are horrified by this decision because of the already precipitous decline of birds. Three billion have disappeared from North America since 1970.
It will be difficult for the Virginia colony to find a good alternative. There are no other nearby islands in the James River. Birds prefer islands because they are generally free from predators.
Time is not on their side. Royal terns will return in late March, expecting to find a sandy beach.
But it’s not too late to correct this travesty. Public pressure can help. “What we’re pressing for is to put gravel down on top of the pavement,” Fraser said.
This would be a relatively cheap way to re-create the nesting site this year and give VDOT time to mitigate the destruction by building an island from all the material that will have to be dredged to expand the tunnel.
The nesting site is critical for gull-billed terns, listed as threatened under the Virginia Endangered Species Act, and the Virginia colony of royal terns, which nest almost exclusively on the island.
Fraser urges citizens to attend the next meeting of the Commonwealth Transportation Board at the VDOT Central Office, 1401 E. Broad St., Richmond, on Feb. 19 at 10 a.m. to help plead the case for the birds.
Those unable to attend can contact Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine at (804) 786-8032 or email email@example.com before the Feb. 19 meeting to have their comments heard.
Citizens can also submit comments to the Norfolk District Corps of Engineers, which still has to sign off on the project, with subject line CENAO-WR-R NAO-1994-1166 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for an island.
Just a few years ago, the destruction of such a critical nesting site would have been unconscionable. We need to let officials know it still is.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.