Dominion is still waiting for state permission to start work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but it got the green light to start taking down trees along the proposed route in January. Federal regulators considered the likely environmental impact and said the company should stop from mid-March through August to protect migrating birds, but Dominion says it needs to keep cutting.
Today marks the start of spring, but birds are already on the move from their winter homes in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. Sandhill cranes will head to Wisconsin and Minnesota, while hawks, falcons and eagles ride thermal waves through the mountains of Virginia, and songbirds prepare to nest in our forests.
This year, they found fewer spots in the trees. Dominion has been clearing a swath the width of I-64, and while the work began in January spokesman Aaron Ruby says it’s not complete.
"We’ve completed 40% of the work that we need to do this year to prepare for construction in the spring and summer, but we still have more work to do," he says.
So the company has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC to let it continue through mid-May. Ruby thinks that can be done without putting birds at risk.
“Biological monitors are going to survey all the work sites before we begin any tree felling, and if we find any bird nests we’ll place a protective buffer around those nests," Ruby explains. "We’re not going to damage the nests, we’re not going to cut down the trees where we observe inhabited nests.”
That promise does not impress ornithologists like Ashley Peele. She’s coordinating production of the Breeding Bird Atlas at Virginia Tech.
“Once the leaves are out it becomes really difficult to spot nests, and even prior to that time, if we’re talking about small species," she says. "They build pretty small nests and they tend to build them very high in trees.”
And even if trees are saved there’s no guarantee that birds will stick around as crews work nearby.
“Everything from a hawk to a small songbird is going to be potentially very disturbed by that type of activity, especially if it’s near the nesting site," Peele explains. "Research has shown that a number of declining migratory species nest within the interior of forests, and they’re very sensitive to how close the edge of that forest is to their nesting site.”
Then there are those who hatch their babies elsewhere.
“A surprising number of birds – even small songbirds – actually nest right on the ground.”
That’s Jim Nix, a Charlottesville resident who’s been birdwatching for 35 years.
“And they would be equally disturbed by any tree-cutting activity near where they are,” he concludes.
He notes that birds also need trees for food -- feasting on pinecones, seeds and insect larvae:
“Many of those larvae look like little tiny green inch worms that are way up in the canopy, and you don’t even see them, but they feed on those, and so they’re heavily dependent on the trees here.”
And finally, he argues that removing trees in the path of the pipeline opens the door to aggressive birds that are taking a toll on native species.
“Cowbirds are very reluctant to enter into intact forests, but all it takes is a road or a right-of-way for a pipeline or power line or something like that," Nix says. "Then they have access to the forest. Cowbirds are brood parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.”
Often destroying the eggs and young of smaller songbirds. Dr. Peele points out that many species are in decline as their habitat disappears, and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of that problem.
“It’s passing from West Virginia to Southern North Carolina, and the width of the swath is about 125 feet wide, " Peele says. "When you do the math on that it’s actually quite a bit of area that’s being directly impacted by the clear cutting.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates have sent a 5-page letter to federal regulators, asking them to keep the tree cutting ban in place to protect migratory birds and endangered bats. FERC has not said when it might issue a decision.