Can natural history and national history co-exist?
This past spring, thousands of sea birds built nests on Fort Wool – a property owned by the state. Visible from the staging site for the Hampton Bridge and Tunnel Project's staging site, you can hear them chattering, and ornithologists say this was probably a record year for reproduction as the birds – some of them rare or endangered – built nests, laid eggs and hatched chicks. But not everyone is celebrating.
"Ft. Wool as an historic site was green with trees and we had boats coming and going. Now it’s full of sand, the trees are mainly gone, and in nesting season there are tens of thousands of birds flying in a frenzy around the fort," says Michael Cobb, the retired curator of the Hampton History Museum and author of a book about Fort Wool.
The military base, dedicated in 1827, sits next to Ft. Monroe – the two installations guarding Hampton Roads Harbor against attack by foreign powers. Cobb helped get Ft. Wool opened to the public in 1985. In the early history of this country, he says, slaves were brought to this harbor from Africa, and during the Civil War some escaped to Ft. Wool, which was occupied by the Union Army.
"Enslaved people coming out of the Norfolk/Portsmouth area in small boats, often at night, came up to this island — a very perilous crossing — and asked for asylum," Cobb says.
Named for after John Ellis Wool, an early commander of Ft. Monroe, this eight-acre installation was also used to guard the coast during World War II when some feared the Germans might attack.
"We need to have the WWII-era tower, it’s the only one in existence now, preserved. We got a $50,000 grant from the General Assembly to have plans drawn up. Also, the 19th century casemates need to be stabilized."
But that work can’t happen with the birds in residence, and Cobb fears the man-made island itself is sinking.
"The weight of the sand and other factors are causing damage to the fort. + Time is not our friend. We need to address the preservation of Ft. Wool as soon as possible."
The state has promised to restore Ft. Wool to its original status as a historic site, but that’s unlikely to happen until Virginia finds another spot for the birds. At the Department of Wildlife Resources, Deputy Director Rebecca Gwynn says the state is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on plans to build an island and relocate the birds.
"And our current projected completion date is the end of calendar year 2025," she says.
Normally, this could take many years, but there’s money in the infrastructure bill passed by Congress – enough to pay 65% of the estimated $11 million it could cost to use material dredged by the Army Corps to create new wildlife habitat.
"We think there are some great opportunities to be able to not only provide an island that benefits the sea bird colony but also provides really quality habitat below the water for marine fisheries that we find in Chesapeake Bay," Gwynn explains.
She says Virginia is not the first to undertake a project of this kind.
"I’m aware of several projects in North Carolina, and one of the projects we really have been looking at as a model is in the mouth of Charleston Bay."
Even so, she’s hearing from many other states interested in what Virginia hopes to do, and she can tell them that making a new home for sea birds has been productive here.
"Working with our colleagues at Virginia Tech through its shorebird team, we have been monitoring the number of chicks that are hatched for each of the species, the number of nests that are there, the number of adult birds that are there."
Those numbers are as high or higher than they were before work began on the bridge and tunnel complex.
Michael Cobb notes the fort used to attract 200-300 visitors a day before the birds arrived, but now it’s off limits, and in any event he says, you might not want to spend time there until cleaning crews have made the place appealing to people again.
"If you’re on a boat nearby you can smell it down wind for sure," he jokes.
Cobb is hopeful the state can, in fact, begin luring the birds to their own island by 2026 – using decoys and broadcasting gull and tern calls to attract them and employing dogs to chase them away from Ft. Wool. For that to happen, the state will need to find nearly $4 million – its share of the cost to build an island.
The Army Corps of Engineers will hold a public hearing on the new island Wednesday, August 17 at 6:30 p.m. in the Ft. Monroe Recreation Center, and you can share your views or asks questions by writing to Gina.M.Datolo@usace.army.mil. For more information, go to:
This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.