Birds make a home on bay bridge-tunnel

Loss of natural habitat brings birds to island in the Chesapeake

October 03, 2002|By Phyllis Speidell | Phyllis Speidell,THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

NORFOLK, Va. - Gulls wheel and cry overhead as 80,000 vehicles or more drive through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel daily.

Ten feet from the traffic, black skimmers, terns and gulls nest in a protected world.

Unseen by most Hampton Roads residents, the birds settle on the tunnel island, hatching their young and fighting for survival. The island holds the largest common tern colony in Virginia.

Ruth Beck, an ornithologist from the College of William and Mary, said 2,483 pairs of common terns and 92 pairs of black skimmers, resplendent in their tuxedo coloring, are nesting there this season.

Since 1980s

Since the 1980s, the terns and skimmers, displaced from many of their natural beach habitats by development, have flocked to the bridge-tunnel island and deposited three to four eggs in each nest scraped out of the sand.

The river-bottom stone and sand that were an expedient cover for the bridge-tunnel island 30 years ago have lured them; they prefer a barren nesting area of sand, gravel or shells with minimal vegetation.

The bridge-tunnel is the only Hampton Roads crossing that draws thousands of state-protected birds - a distinction bridge operations superintendent Harold Nelson said is a mixed honor.

"They fly at you, they poop on you and even peck at you," said Ken Carlisle, a bridge patroller.

Beck calls the bird droppings a "blessing from the gulls."

"I don't need those kinds of blessings," Nelson said.

He has outfitted his staff with large golf umbrellas. He cordoned off nesting areas between April and September and enforced a 5-mph speed limit on service roads to protect wandering chicks.

Bridge workers expect the birds to nest in the most unexpected places, including towers holding traffic cameras.

The workers' signature one-handed wave, stirring the air above their heads, is not a secret Virginia Department of Transportation salute - it is a ploy to ward off a gull attack.

"Watch out near the blue Route 64 sign," Carlisle warns, knowing from experience where the nesting birds are prone to attack.

Before the shorebirds were protected by the state, bridge workers tried scaring them off with automatically timed noise cannons.

But the birds were found perching on the cannon barrels, fluttering back after each blast.

The colony is not all peaceful now.

Two years ago, laughing gulls and several other gull species invaded the bridge-tunnel refuge when their Eastern Shore nesting areas were flooded by spring storms, spoiled by development and threatened by a growing fox and raccoon population.

Weeds draw gulls

Although Beck leads a squad of volunteers in a spring weeding of grasses and small shrubs, the relatively mild recent winters have encouraged thistle, sorrel, foxtail and pokeberry bushes, perfect gull shelter in the nesting area.

The gulls arrive early, well before the terns and skimmers, and stake out their territory, feeding on the eggs and chicks of the later-arriving birds.

Visitors are forbidden on the bridge island during breeding season.

Their presence startles the terns and skimmers, which fly off their nests, leaving the mottled marble eggs and fluffy gray chicks vulnerable to swooping, hungry gulls.

"The birds chose this place, and we have to accept the fact that they are here," Nelson said.

"It is a balance of public safety and the welfare of the birds," Beck said.

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