After taking over Fort Wool, seabird colony at Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel to get its own island
- Written by Katherine Hafner
- Category: Local News
- Published: 15 May 2023
Cars traveling on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel whizz past Fort Wool, while construction on the major expansion project continues.
But you can’t hear any of that on the island fort over the cacophony of seabird shrieks.
Constructed more than 200 years ago, Fort Wool is now a nesting site for thousands of birds that have made themselves quite at home.
Visitors can spy them circling the area and settling on the old watch tower and other perches. You can also certainly smell them, the natural result of an island covered in guano and foraged fish.
Royal terns, laughing gulls, black skimmers and more stop here each spring before migrating south.
But the fort was always intended as a temporary home. It was a last-minute solution a few years ago to save the birds when HRBT expansion began – one that proved successful, to the state’s relief.
Federal and state officials are now working on a $10 million plan to build a permanent island for the birds.
The saga of the HRBT colony
Seabirds started nesting at the HRBT’s South Island more than three decades ago, said Becky Gwynn, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
Up to 25,000 birds go to the island each year.
No one knows exactly why it’s just an attractive spot for them. Gwynn said an abundance of fish and lack of predators are probably among the reasons.
It’s “pretty remarkable when you think about the volume of traffic and the activity that goes on there,” she said. “It seems to be a place that has other reasons why those birds want to be there.”
South Island was paved over when the expansion began, now used as a construction staging area.
That drew outcry from environmentalists concerned about losing habitat for the colony, prompting a plan from then-Gov. Ralph Northam to relocate it to Fort Wool, which is connected to South Island by a narrow rock jetty.
The fort was built in 1819 to protect the region from the British “and other would-be invaders of the era” following the War of 1812, according to the city of Hampton.
Presidents Andrew Jackson and John Tyler both used it as a summer retreat.
Hampton operated the fort, which was decommissioned in 1953, as a public park until a few years ago when it was determined to be in too bad of shape for visitors.
To migrate the seabird colony, officials first had to adapt the island.
That included removing signs and vegetation on the island and decommissioning an American flag.They also brought in sand to coat the island and installed erosion control barriers around it.
Then they coaxed the birds over, using decoys and speakers blaring bird sounds.
The group succeeded despite operating on a tight timeline, Gwynn said.
“We did not have too much difficulty luring the birds,” she said. “It was really a nick of time kind of project.”
Virginia DWR wildlife manager David Norris heads out to Fort Wool, also known as Rip Raps Island, once a week to check on the birds.
On a recent morning, he pointed out the black crest that marks the royal terns, the trademark squawks of laughing gulls and the awkward gait of some oystercatchers.
Pelicans stood stoically atop an old fort battery while terns gathered in a group watching over their precious eggs.
Norris gestured to strategically-placed small black boxes – traps for rats that roam the island.
Officials also periodically oil the eggs of predator birds, like herring gulls, so they never hatch, Norris said.
After all that work, why move the colony again?
Fort Wool simply isn’t big enough, said Kim Koelsch, project manager for the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is leading the undertaking.
Officials currently use three barges off the island as a sort of overflow parking for the birds, which costs the state $3 million a year.
The land itself is about an acre – 10 times smaller than what the Corps now aims to build.
“They’re so congested on those areas that they aren’t thriving like they should be,” Koelsch said. “So we’re trying to have a new location that actually allows them what they need biologically.”
Congress recently appropriated $200,000 for the project.
The Norfolk District is working to narrow down 28 potential locations for the new island, which will be made out of locally dredged material.
It’s looking for a spot that’s low on predators and close enough — within about 13 miles — to the original nesting site that the birds don’t get confused.
Koelsch said they hope to have a draft plan by the end of this summer. Construction would likely start in late 2025.
Officials say they don’t yet know if Fort Wool, which is owned by the state, will eventually reopen to the public.
Some species, including royal and sandwich terns, nest almost nowhere else in Virginia, Gwynn said. The HRBT area also represents about half of all nesting for black skimmers and common terns in the state.
“The importance of this area to nesting success in Virginia is super high,” Gwynn said.
Chelsea Weithman is a research program manager with Virginia Tech’s Shorebird Program, which is contracted to monitor the colony. She said it’s a unique group of species.
“The sheer number of the birds out here always surprises me and delights me. It is unusual,” Weithman said.
The birds show up for the season around April, and their chicks start hatching a couple months later. When they leave in the fall, she said, it happens quickly.
“There'll be lots of very loud noises, birds flying everywhere. And then in just the span of a week or two, it will be very quiet.”