Another Successful Year for Virginia's Relocated Tern Colony

Back in 2019, when construction on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT) threatened the seabird colony on South Island — Virginia's largest seabird colony — ABC and partners urged action. And Virginia's government delivered: After consulting with multiple stakeholders, new places for the birds to breed were put in place, just in time for the 2020 spring nesting season.

Virginia's Department of Wildlife Resources (DNR) took the lead in creating a safe breeding environment at nearby Fort Wool, including laying down sand and gravel. Substrate-covered barges were also moored nearby. Returning birds were drawn to the new site with decoys, along with loudspeakers that broadcast the sounds of a seabird colony. These social attraction measures were deployed by Virginia Tech biologists, funded in part by American Bird Conservancy in partnership with the National Audubon Society.

Gull-billed Tern. Photo by Kathryn Carlson/Shutterstock

Gull-billed Tern. Photo by Kathryn Carlson/Shutterstock

By late spring 2020, thousands of birds were at the new colony site. Data analysis revealed that the “class of 2020” included 10,000 to 20,000 adult Royal Terns and approximately 5,200 chicks at Fort Wool, along with 200 to 275 adult Sandwich Terns with 100 to 140 chicks, hundreds of Laughing Gulls, and a few Common Terns. On the nearby barges, researchers counted more than 650 adult Common Terns with nearly 600 chicks, at least 140 adult Black Skimmers with at least 105 chicks, and a single pair of state-threatened Gull-billed Terns with two chicks.

Fast forward to 2021. The colony was again teeming and included 11 adult Gull-billed Terns, four of which were on eggs on one of the barges. Virginia DNR's Meagan Thomas reported that "2021 was an incredibly significant year as it was the first time we've seen birds (i.e., Royal Terns, Common Terns, and Black Skimmers) which were banded as chicks on South Island not only make the journey back, but also nest on either Ft. Wool or the barges."

Thomas continued, "Additionally, based on Virginia Tech's early investigations of the data, 2021 appears to have supported as many, if not even more nests than what we documented during the 2020 pilot year."

For more updates: please visit Virginia's Department of Wildlife Resources website, where DWR's Meegan Thomas has been writing monthly blog posts (both informative and entertaining) about the colony's status.

ABC is grateful to Barbara Fried for supporting this project and to McGuire Woods for their assistance. We also thank the many volunteers who worked on this effort, and the Commonwealth of Virginia for its decisive actions to help sustain the colony.

Howard Youth is ABC's Senior Writer/Editor.