Governor Vows to Protect Migratory Birds in VA

Feb 15, 2020

Birders are celebrating today, after Virginia’s governor announced migratory species would be protected by state law. 

The decision came after the Trump Administration said it would no longer honor the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  And the Department of Transportation paved traditional nesting grounds as part of the Hampton Roads Bridge and Tunnel expansion.

During nesting season, about 25,000 royal terns and other seabirds make their home on Virginia's South Island.
Credit Virginia Tech

Each spring, thousands of gulls, terns and other seabirds have laid eggs and hatched babies on South Island – part of the Hampton Roads Bridge and Tunnel Complex. When the Department of Transportation paved the island in preparation for the state’s largest construction project, bird lovers were alarmed and contacted a political insider for help.

“We put together a nice coalition – a seabird action team,” says Bill Leighty, former  chief of staff for Governors Warner and Kaine.

“We had regular conference calls and shared documents and  turned out en masse to the meetings that were necessary to get the folks to do the right thing.”

The right thing, he says, is to create new habitat for the birds, and that’s what Governor Ralph Northam says will be done.  Before migratory sea birds return from South America, crews plan to rid the island of rodents that eat eggs and perches for birds of prey.

“They will cut down the trees on the island," he explains. "There are a lot of rats on the island that need to be gotten rid of, but they’re going to do it right away for this breeding season coming up in April.”

They’ll also station wooden sea birds on the island and play bird calls so returning gulls and terns are drawn to their new home. 

Hausman also reported on this development for NPR:

Bird lovers are celebrating a big win in Virginia, where the governor is defending migratory birds that no longer enjoy federal protection. The first to benefit is a colony of 25,000 sea birds that have nested on one island for decades. Last fall the state's department of transportation paved it. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.

Governor Ralph Northam says the state will protect migratory birds the way a federal treat once did.
Credit Virginia Tech

Each spring, flocks of gulls, terns and other seabirds nest on Virginia’s South Island, located next to a busy highway and tunnel complex that connects cities along the coast.  The state plans to expand the roadway and add new tunnels, so last fall, after the birds headed south, crews paved six acres for use as a staging area.

The news alarmed Jim Fraser, a professor of wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech.

“Our sea birds have been declining for 25 years – 60% since 1993,” he said.

That’s because people keep developing islands where these birds like to nest – far from predators but close to their food – fish.  Fraser and other bird lovers called a political insider – William Leighty – former chief of staff for two governors – who was happy to help organize the opposition.

“I am quite an avid birder," he explains. "I served nine years on the American Bird Conservancy’s national board.”

Letters and e-mails poured in and crowds showed up at public meetings to demand protection for the birds.  That used to come from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – a law the Trump Administration says it won’t enforce.  Professor Fraser called on the state to build the birds their own island, and late last week Governor Ralph Northam stepped in – designating a five-acre site near South Island for gulls, terns and skimmers. Now, says Fraser, some home improvements are needed to get rid of rodents that eat eggs and to eliminate perches for predators.

“Right now there are trees and other things that would discourage sea birds, and I guess they’re going to take the trees down.  The other issue that has to be dealt with is the place is crawling with rats.”

Fraser hopes the birds be attracted to the new habitat by decoys and recorded bird calls when they start returning to the area next month.