Security concerns at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel have prompted officials to propose a ban on bird-watching from most of the 20-mile span between the Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach, and distraught birders are waging a phone and fax campaign against it.
Some birders call the area the "Serengeti of the East," because of the large and unusual mix of birds drawn to the 40-year-old bridge-tunnel, which is flanked by the Chesapeake Bay on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Birders have had unusual access to ocean birds because they can park on four manmade "islands," one at each end of the two, mile-long tunnels where the span dips beneath the bay.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is popular for its large mix of birds and four manmade "islands" for viewing. Birding requires permits, however.
(Steve Earley -- The Virginian-pilot)
"It's like you took the rocky sea coast from Maine and put it into the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary on the continent," said Ned Brinkley, 40, editor of North American Bird journal and proprietor of a Cape Charles bed and breakfast where many of the guests are birders on their way to the bridge.
Lucius J. Kellam III, chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel Commission and interim executive director of the bridge-tunnel, said the commission proposed the ban after state transportation officials had advised it to no longer allow parking or pedestrians on three of the four islands because of the span's vulnerability to terrorist attack. The islands were built to anchor the tunnels and house huge ventilation buildings.
The bridge-tunnel connects the heavily populated Hampton Roads area with the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, cutting out nearly 100 miles of driving through Washington and Baltimore.
"We have people going in and out at will, and we don't know who they are," said Kellam, whose father spearheaded the bridge-tunnel project. "It's a decision we struggled over. We didn't want to do it, but as managers, we felt it was the prudent thing to do."
People still would be able to stop at the island closest to Virginia Beach where there are fishing spots and restaurants. But they would no longer be able to obtain permits for the islands more popular with birders, which they do now by showing a driver's license. Eight hundred people hold one-year permits, said Lorraine J. Smith, spokeswoman for the bridge-tunnel district.
Birders with permits used to check in with officials at the toll booths at both ends of the bridge-tunnel. But three months ago, at the suggestion of state and federal homeland security officials, officials erected gates at three islands, and now maintenance workers let in permitted bird-watchers.
The proposed ban would have to be approved by the 11-member commission, and Kellam said he is open to suggestions of other ways to boost security. Commissioner Wanda J. Thornton, who is chairwoman of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said she was "not a happy camper" at the prospect of turning birders away.
"Unless something is wrong that I don't know about, I'm not voting to stop the birding," she said.
Last summer, an Annandale man was detained for 10 days after authorities spotted his wife filming the Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- the much shorter span between Annapolis and Maryland's Eastern Shore. But Smith and Kellam said there have been no security problems on the bridge-tunnel.
The proposed birding ban gave rise to desperate online conversations on birding Web sites. Some proposed suing the state, which features birding on the bridge-tunnel in its tourism literature, while others suggested groveling to local security officials. Many said the proposal was typical of an overanxious nation.
Gene Burreson, a professor of aquatic animal health at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said he has been birding in Virginia for 30 years and never had any trouble until this year, when law enforcement officials stopped him twice in one morning, though not at the bridge.
"I have mixed emotions. I think it's unfortunate that our freedoms are being impinged upon. Bird-watchers aren't going to do anything," he said.
"But I suppose it could be a strategic thing."