Paw patrol guides seabirds to safer nesting area
As construction work was set to begin on the $3.8 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, the Virginia Department of Transportation noticed a roadblock — thousands of royal terns and other nesting seabirds at South Island were in the way.
Their solution? Leave it to the dogs.
Since February, a pack of 20 trained border collies have patrolled the island, redirecting seabirds to a new, safe nesting ground at Fort Wool, an island off the coast of Norfolk, to avoid getting caught in the construction staging area. Rebecca Gibson, owner of Charlotte, North Carolina-based wildlife control company Flyaway Geese brought her trained dogs to the island after being approached by VDOT.
When the project started, two handlers and three dogs were working during daylight hours, shooing away as many as 3,000 seabirds per week. Two weeks in, VDOT approached Gibson asking her to increase the paw power and bring in 20 trained dogs and 10 handlers to patrol the island in shifts 24 hours a day.
“The dogs have been very effective in convincing the birds that they need to be somewhere else,” Gibson says.
Handlers keep border collies safe — and dogs are equipped with reflective vests and protective goggles and boots to protect against sun, sand, asphalt surfaces and weather.
“Nothing in my 23 years of doing this prepared me for the activity level … on the island,” Gibson says. “The dogs have really had to adapt to it as well.”
Because it takes up to three non-viable nesting seasons (February to September) for birds to change their migratory patterns, Gibson’s pack will return each season for the next five years or so.
“The border collies have been a great addition to the team,” says Carissa R. Agnese, environmental compliance manager for Hampton Roads Connector Partners (HRCP), the joint venture handling the project’s design and construction. “The dogs have been … performing an outstanding job keeping the birds safe and the HRBT construction moving forward.” (HRCP consists of Dragados USA Inc., Vinci Construction, Flatiron Constructors and Dodin Campenon Bernard.)
“It’s really important … to understand that the use of the dogs is very humane. There’s no harm to the birds,” Gibson says. “To me, knowing that everything is about the safety of the animals … to convince them to be somewhere else is the best thing at this point.”