25,000 birds lose nesting site because of VDOT bridge project

HAMPTON, Va. -- Virginia transportation officials confirm 25,000 seabirds lost their nesting site of 40 years when it was paved over during a tunnel expansion project.

A department spokeswoman told The Virginian-Pilot that crews finished paving the south island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel last month, and in doing so removed the nesting area of a large bird colony.

Efforts to rehome the birds were largely abandoned after the Trump administration revised the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 2017, loosening consequences for bird deaths during construction.

Researchers think some birds will return to try and lay eggs at the bridge site, while others will fly off to find another home.

"This is the only location that the birds nest in the state of Virginia, so we feel like its a responsibility of the state to protect these birds," Terri Cuthriell, with the Virginia Society of Ornithology, said.

She and other environmental groups believe colonies of royal terns, gulls and black skimmers are at risk of being wiped out. VDOT has already started clearing out South Island, where the birds nest in the summer months; it's actually already been paved over and is being used for a staging area.

"It will not be a suitable habitat. They are not going to allow the birds to nest there," said Cuthriell.

Cuthriell believes there is a solution: VDOT needs to build a sand-topped island to which the soon-displaced birds may be attracted.

"It's been done in other states and in the Gulf and in North Carolina very successfully," she said.

Cuthriell said Virginia Tech researchers have looked into building a nearby man-made island, away from predators like raccoons and foxes.

VDOT has stated that at this time, a man-made island will not be part of the HRBT expansion project. They released this statement to WTKR:

"VDOT is committed to conducting the Project in a manner fully compliant with federal and state regulations, and the Commonwealth takes seriously its commitment to balancing the impacts and benefits of transportation projects.

Over a two-year period, VDOT worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), and other agencies to assess potential conservation measures for the bird populations that have seasonally nested on VDOT's Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel South Island Interstate Maintenance Facility. As the agencies agreed an interstate facility is not an appropriate location for such a population, the focus of the effort was to identify other nearby locations offering suitable habitat. VDOT engaged researchers at Virginia Tech to conduct an assessment that fully evaluated and vetted onsite and offset options, but all were deemed either unsuitable for the birds, unlikely to be permissible by regulatory agencies, protected as a historic property, or they posed a collision risk with local aircraft in conflict with Navy and FAA guidance.

While construction of a new island will not be undertaken directly in association with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Expansion Project, DGIF is currently engaged with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the feasibility of constructing an island for the bird population, using dredged material, in the nearby area. The financing, permitting, and timing of any such effort is to be determined.

Please know that the Commonwealth will work towards the best result possible for the birds and bird habitat in the Hampton Roads Region."

AP Wire and WTKR contributed to this report.

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