Virginia steps up for migratory birds in the face of eroding federal protections

royal tern on a beach
A royal tern rests on a beach. Istock

As president of American Bird Conservancy (ABC), the news that a large colony of royal terns and other water birds were being displaced by the giant Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project in Virginia had me mentally preparing for another long campaign.

The potential for a lengthy effort was squarely on my mind as I stood up to testify in front of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) public board meeting back on Jan. 23. I was one of a crowd of some 70 or so concerned citizens most of whom were gathered to ask DGIF to accelerate efforts to save the bird colony. The public outpouring of concern on this topic was impressive, and ABC was grateful to the many volunteers who were eager to help. Soon after the DGIF meeting, I met with Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources, Matthew Strickler, and was impressed with the significantly different tone that was forthcoming in comparison to the dozens of prior campaigns we had tackled across the U.S. Virginia was listening, the governor was engaged, and DGIF was already at work on the problem.  

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Birds are a bit like volcanoes. They show signs of what they’ll do, but it’s much easier to predict the specifics after the fact. That’s what was on my mind as the bird conservation expert in the room when the question arose: “if we build a new habitat, will the birds definitely use it?” But all the science pointed to the strong likelihood that if the nearby Rip Raps Island — home of historic Fort Wool constructed to protect the coast after the war of 1812 — were renovated, then the tern colony would readily move house and start anew on the alternate island. In fact, almost all of Virginia’s royal terns now nest on artificial dredge spoil islands. Add a cohort of border collies to the mix — which now spend their days tearing around the old nesting colony site and scaring (but not harming) birds — hopefully in the direction of Fort Wool — and the project stood as good a chance of success as any of us could hope for.

The ensuing three-and-a-half months have been some of the most challenging in recent history for all of us, so one could be forgiven for thinking that efforts to help birds would be put on hold. But not in Virginia. The Commonwealth was as good as its word and quickly prepared the nearby island with sand for the birds to nest on, trapped predatory rats and positioned sand-covered barges to create additional nesting habitat. ABCNational Audubon, and Virginia Tech combined efforts to support the project by deploying tern decoys and a sound system broadcasting tern calls to make the site as attractive to the birds as possible.

I could barely contain my excitement when the email arrived on May 13 confirming the first royal terns exhibiting nesting behavior on Rip Raps Island. Later photographs show a robust colony of the elegant birds has since gathered on the newly arranged artificial beach there. It is hoped that in the long-term a completely new island can also be constructed from dredge spoil from the current nearby Port of Virginia shipping channel expansion project, to provide additional habitat for the displaced birds.   

Not only has Virginia stepped up to save this bird colony, but Governor Northam and his staff have introduced far-reaching measures to ensure that migratory birds are protected in Virginia in the long-term. These measures are badly needed, since in December 2017, the federal Department of the Interior issued a legal opinion claiming that the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act should no longer protect birds from industrial hazards such as oil spills, and collisions with industrial infrastructure such as wind turbines. As a result, millions of birds that would previously have been protected can now be lawfully killed in the name of industrial progress without concern for consequences.

This free pass to industry flies in the face of decades of constructive work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that has sought not to prosecute willy-nilly, but to use the law to successfully incentivize good practices — such as fitting bird avoidance streamers to fishing vessels that would otherwise hook and kill seabirds, or changing steady-burning to flashing lights on communication towers to avoid attracting songbirds that migrate at night (the majority of long-distance migrants such as warblers, thrushes and vireos are nocturnal navigators.) Thousands of these birds are killed each year in collisions with the tower infrastructure after being lured in by lights that are installed to provide visibility for pilots. While the administration claims such deaths are accidental, they are in fact completely predictable and preventable. You could not get away with leaving manhole covers off along the sidewalk to save labor costs. It’s the same principle with the bird-killing machinery of wind turbines, oil waste water pits and other hazards that migratory birds face. It should be obvious that when migratory birds can be saved at a fraction of the cost of a construction project then we have a responsibility to do that.

Virginia clearly understands this, and now seems likely to become known as one of the most bird-friendly states in the Union thanks to these welcome and visionary steps to conserve birds. Last fall, ABC was involved in publishing data that showed that North America has lost around 3 billion birds from the overall population in the last 50 years. Virginia’s efforts are exactly what is needed to begin to turn this decline around. Congratulations to Governor Northam, to Secretary Strickler, and to the leadership and staff of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Very well done.

Michael J. Parr is the president of the American Bird Conservancy.