NEWPORT NEWS, VA. -- One of the state's leading bird experts fears a pair of rare peregrine falcons will abandon a nest aboard an idle cargo ship in the James River Reserve Fleet if two nearby ships are moved.

Mitchell Byrd, an ornithologist and biology professor at the College of William and Mary, said the nesting site aboard the Marine Fiddler likely will lose its appeal when the two ships that flank it are moved.

One of the ships, the Lauderdale, is to become an artificial reef in Florida when it is sunk, and the other, the Cracker State, is to be scrapped.

"Imagine cutting down all the trees around a tree where a bald eagle is nesting. It would totally change their environmental habitat," said Byrd. "It's the same with these falcons. If there was only one ship out there with nothing beside it or if strange surroundings were introduced, that would not be attractive to the falcons."

Daniel Hurt, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he plans to ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to stop plans for the ships' removal. The department is responsible for the fleet.

"These falcons have been so successful where they are," said Hurt. "It wasn't that long ago . . . that the peregrine was believed to be extinct east of the Mississippi."

The federal Endangered Species Act prevents the Marine Fiddler, one of 98 military ships in the reserve fleet, from being moved as long as the birds nest there.