Virginia’s largest seabird colony is a tiny island dominated every spring by tens of thousands of nesting royal terns, laughing gulls, black skimmers and more. The sight of so many birds harkens back to a prehistoric era when their dinosaur ancestors ruled. But the colony isn’t in some remote corner of the Commonwealth. In fact, during the summer months over 100,000 drivers pass the colony every day on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

“It’s mind-boggling how tolerant to disturbance [the birds] are out there,” said Ruth Boettcher of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), after a visit to the colony this summer.

On Fort Wool, situated about halfway across the Bridge-Tunnel, the piercing calls of so many birds easily drown out rush hour. The high volume of traffic hasn’t hampered the ability of tens of thousands of royal terns and other birds to successfully hatch their eggs and raise their young.

Hundreds of birds stand within the sandy interior of Fort Wool.
Roughly 25,000 birds nest on Fort Wool, with the majority being royal terns and sandwich terns. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

In the early 1980s, seabirds started nesting on nearby South Island, the manmade chunk of land where the Bridge-Tunnel dives underneath the James River. But in recent years an expansion of the roadway displaced the colony’s habitat as the 2020 nesting season rapidly approached.

The fate of the colony remained in limbo until the middle of February of 2020, just weeks before birds would start returning in early April.

Then, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a mandate that nesting habitat be created on Fort Wool. The mandate also called for barges to be placed next to Fort Wool to provide additional habitat.

Boettcher described a rapid effort, getting contractors to replace trees and grass with sand, where seabirds can lay their eggs. DWR partnered with Virginia Tech’s shorebird program to put out decoys and sound systems playing tern calls to attract seabirds, and to monitor the site.

“The royals showed up right away,” Boettcher said. “As soon as we had that sandy substrate down on Fort Wool, bam, they were there—along with a couple hundred pairs of sandwich terns.”

Barges were in place a little later, by mid-May. Within a couple days, Boettcher said they were seeing common terns using the barges.

She estimated that well over 90% of Virginia’s royal terns and all of its sandwich terns nested there this year.

Other species using Fort Wool include laughing gulls, snowy egrets and just a handful of American oyster catchers, herring gulls and great black-backed gulls. Common terns, black skimmers and gull-billed terns all nest on the barges.

“Overall, I think all the numbers are larger than they were last year,” Boettcher said.

Climate impacts Virginia’s seabirds

The rise of South Island and now Fort Wool as Virginia’s top nesting site for seabirds contrasts sharply with the declining success of birds at other important nesting sites on Virginia’s much less populated Eastern Shore

“They're low-lying islands, they're pristine in nature, but they're highly susceptible to frequent tidal flooding and storm events,” Boettcher said. “We're seeing a lot more flooding events in the marshes. So where wading birds nest, where seabirds nest, they’re just getting inundated.”

As rising sea levels and land subsidence consumes islands around the Chesapeake, and storms become more intense in a warming climate, birds are struggling to adapt.

“It's leading to reduced production of young, and so we're starting to see just overall declines for a number of these species,” Boettcher said.

This year, Virginia’s coastal nesting sites took a hit from a heavy storm over Memorial Day weekend, and then again from the remains of Hurricane Elsa.

“We've had a historical colony in Chincoteague Bay and it was not there this year, because of probably the Memorial Day storm.” said Boettcher, who pointed out that some of the loss was made up by royal terns moving to another coastal island.

Besides the sandwich tern, every species nesting on Fort Wool or the barges has been designated a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Virginia. The gull-billed tern is a state-threatened species.

Terns nest on open sand and must constantly protect their eggs from the harsh summer sun, so buoys mark a restricted zone around Fort Wool to keep boaters from straying too close and disturbing the colony. Intensive management also helps avoid vehicle collisions. But the upside of having a nesting colony so close to humans is that there are more opportunities to appreciate wildlife. Boettcher and others at DWR stay busy with outreach, and work to bring the birds to people online.

“I think people are psyched to see this,” said Boettcher, who pointed out that it was the people who protected the birds in the first place.

“One of the main driving forces behind the mandate that was issued by Gov. Northam was the birding community and just the public outcry that we need to do something for those birds.”

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