NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Worried about maintaining security, officials of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel have declared three of its islands off-limits to bird watchers as of April 1.
Birders rushed to protest the decision, which was made administratively last week but will be reviewed by the commission that oversees the facility at its meeting Tuesday. By Monday, the commission office had received hundreds of faxed letters protesting the move, a spokeswoman said.
The islands, which provide a rest stop for East Coast migratory birds, are important to bird watchers because they often see species they don't see elsewhere, several enthusiasts said.
"We totally sympathize with them," said Lucius J. Kellam III, chairman of the commission and the bridge-tunnel's interim executive director. Kellam, who was the one who decided to close the islands to bird watchers, said he invited bird watchers to present their case.
But he added, "Our number one task is to assure security of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel," which he described as a "sensitive transportation link with the military in Hampton Roads."
Kellam said the bridge-tunnel installed gates several months ago to restrict access to the three islands. Bird watchers were allowed in, but facility officials became increasingly uncomfortable with the exemption as the nation operated under an elevated security alert.
Kellam noted that one island is open to the public, so bird watching is not banned altogether on the bridge-tunnel.
"If they are closing down the islands for security purposes, then why are they keeping one open that everybody can go to?" said Paul Mocko of McLean, who runs an Internet listserv for bird watchers where the bridge-tunnel decision has been a hot topic since the end of last week.
Mocko, who prefers the sightings in the late fall and winter on the bridge-tunnel, said the island that is open to the public is the "least birdy" because it is closest to Virginia Beach and is lighted and noisy.
Rather than a security risk, bird watchers can be an asset to homeland security, said Denise Ryan, who lives in Washington, D.C., but pursues her hobby in Virginia.
"Because we are out there and we have binoculars, we have cameras, we have cellphones," she said, "we could actually help."