Government that works for the people, while still serving industrial development, and insuring ecological accountability is not the norm today. But Virginia is turning the tide on this trend cooperating with Governor Ralph Northam, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the American Bird Conservancy and the Audubon Society to create an ecological solution to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) expansion. They have garnered support from President of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Mike Parr, Barbara Fried, McGuire Woods, and many volunteers to create a habitat for the single largest seabird colony in all of Virginia. They are converting Rip Raps Island’s parade ground to suitable nesting habitats for seabird colonies while still completing the (HRBT) to ease congestion in the I-64 corridor between Hampton and Norfolk in southeastern Virginia. The expansion was needed since an average of 88,000 and up to 100,000 vehicles: commuters, military, tourists and residents use a corridor originally design to service only 6,000 vehicles a day. The new corridor will be able to service 6,300 vehicles per hour.
At the direction of Governor Ralph Northam the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) was tasked with creating a new habitat on Rip Raps Island to support single largest seabird colony in all of Virginia. 15,000 adults and 10,000 chicks during the nesting season are estimated to be present on the island. 80% of Royal and Sandwich Tern nesting occurs in Virginia so this habitat was critical to the birds survival. The island also supports 10% of the state-threatened Gull-billed Tern breeding populations and over 10% of the Common Tern, Black Skimmer, and Laughing Gull breeding populations in Virginia. The other nesting seabirds making this their new home are Herring and Great Black-back Gulls. Seabirds are generally long-lived but produce fewer birds than other birds; they invest more time in raising their young so this project stems the decline of these seabirds.
Cooperation to build this new island habitat was the name of the game. To create this artificial island on the former Rip Raps Island parade grounds barges covered with a sand/gravel mix were anchored in the embayment between South Island and Rip Raps Island. Biologists used “social attraction” techniques to lure the birds to these new locations. The DGIF teamed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through dredging built a permanent artificial island for nesting. The DGIF also insures that new regulatory laws protect these migratory seabirds.
The complex of bird species nesting on the island is indeed impressive and is the result of a combination of factors, including an absence of predators, an abundance of forage in the surrounding waters and the availability of suitable habitat resulting from management efforts carried out by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) under careful guidance from the late Ruth Beck, Professor Emeritus, at the College of William and Mary and more recently from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).