Bett, one of around 20 border collies helping herd birds at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, poses in a pair of goggles that protect against sun and sand.
Bett, one of around 20 border collies helping herd birds at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, poses in a pair of goggles that protect against sun and sand. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gibson)

To move a colony of migratory seabirds whose nesting site stood in the way of the $4 billion Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project, Virginia officials came up with a plan to redirect them to newly created habitats nearby.

To attract thousands of birds to the designated sites on barges and Fort Wool — an old island fortification built in 1819 for coastal defense — workers put down sand, set up decoys and installed a sound system playing bird calls and “colony chatter.”

“That’s where the candlelight, the wine and the romantic dinners are,” said Rob Cary, chief deputy commissioner at the Virginia Department of Transportation.

But the project overseers also needed to find an animal-friendly way to discourage the birds from coming back to their former spot on an island that’s been paved over to prepare for the massive construction project. The solution? A friendly animal.

A pack of 20 border collies has been patrolling around the clock since late February on the bridge-tunnel complex’s south island, which is turning into a construction staging area. The dogs are working in shifts and wearing protective gear to keep them safe from the elements as they carry out their unique  assignment. 

They’ll be on the island all summer, until the end of the migratory season. Because the project to widen the route across the water from four lanes could take five years, the dogs might return for another tour of duty during future migrations.

Since the whole idea is to protect the birds, officials are quick to point out that the dogs aren’t hurting them.

“The birds just fly away and the dogs kind of run around like they’re chasing a tennis ball. They’re having a great time,” Cary said Wednesday as he updated the Commonwealth Transportation Board on the state’s bird herding efforts.

Stephen Meyers, a spokesman for Hampton Roads Connector Group, the joint venture carrying out the construction project, said the dogs have played a key role in pushing the birds to the new nesting sites “without harming them or doing them any kind of ill will.”

The collies belong to Rebecca Gibson, the owner of North Carolina-based company Flyaway Geese, which specializes in keeping unwanted wildlife away from airports, golf courses, military bases and other facilities.

“Birds are very pattern oriented,” Gibson said in an interview. “And all we do day in and day out is break patterns.”

"I will say by far this is the most exciting project that we've done," said Rebecca Gibson of Flyaway Geese, seen here with two of her co-workers.
“I will say by far this is the most exciting project that we’ve done,” said Rebecca Gibson of Flyaway Geese, seen here with two of her co-workers. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)

The 25,000-bird colony of various avian species has been a part of the island since the 1980s. Because threatened species have legal protections, the springtime return of the gull-billed tern had potential to bring work to a halt on a project meant to ease congestion in one of the state’s most traffic-choked regions.

To resolve the issue, Gov. Ralph Northam put language in the state budget allowing the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to grant an interim permit to relocate the nests and eggs of threatened birds. But officials were hoping that step won’t be necessary. The language requires VDOT and its contractor to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent the birds from nesting on the island.

That’s where the dogs come in. And their work is more complicated than chasing a ball.

They follow specific routes on laps around the island with a team of handlers. If birds start gathering in one place, a dog goes to the hotspot and stays there.

The collies' protective gear includes boots that help protect their feet from long days on asphalt.
The collies’ protective gear includes boots that help protect their feet from long days on asphalt. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)

Gibson said the goal isn’t as simple as just chasing the birds off when they show up. Border collies, which the American Kennel Club calls the “superstars” of the herding world, have a particular set of skills when it comes to convincing other animals to head in a different direction. When they herd, Gibson said, they get into a stalking posture, with their heads low and tails between their legs, mimicking the look of a wolf or coyote.

“I could chase those birds with anything. I could chase them with a remote control car. I could chase them with a person,” Gibson said. “But if I want to change their thought process on what South Island is for them, I need to convince them that there’s a predator there.”

A herding collie might look dangerous, Gibson said, but they don’t have a kill instinct.

“It’s not out there hunting,” she said. “But the birds don’t know that.

So far, the bird relocation plan seems to be working.

More than 2,000 terns are already nesting at Fort Wool, according to VDOT. Officials even spotted signs of a new rookery of snowy egrets.

“They’ve all responded very favorably to this habitat,” Cary said. “From what I understand from [the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] not only are they nesting there, they’re seeing courtship behaviors. Which is a great thing.”

VDOT officials say the bird relocation plan is working well so far, attracting thousands of birds to the new habitat at Fort Wool. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)
VDOT officials say the bird relocation plan is working well so far, attracting thousands of birds to the new habitat at Fort Wool. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)

Officials seem just as pleased with the canine component.

Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine told board members she hopes some of the dogs can attend a future meeting.

“I was fascinated with the dogs and really appreciated what they’re doing over there,” Valentine said. “It’s just wonderful.”

Gibson said the HRBT project is her company’s first time working in a construction-site environment. Project managers have taken steps to make sure human workers are aware of the dogs and know why they’re there.

“I think that everybody understands and appreciates the fact that the dogs are what keep everybody working,” Gibson said. “Because they keep the birds gone.”

Gibson said the HRBT project is unique for her company because of the round-the-clock presence, the number of dogs required and the extended stay.

If she had this kind of concentrated dogpower on previous jobs, she said, “I could move all the Canada geese back to Canada.”

“They never call in sick,” she said of her four-legged employees. “They never complain. They’re never upset about going to work. They love what they do.”

"I think everybody's happy with the work the dogs are doing," said Stephen Meyers, a spokesman for Hampton Roads Connector Partners.
“I think everybody’s happy with the work the dogs are doing,” said Stephen Meyers, a spokesman for Hampton Roads Connector Partners. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gibson)