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Counterterror efforts limit bird-watchers

Rules tightening across the nation

WASHINGTON -- When Ned Brinkley was renovating his bed-and-breakfast in Cape Charles, Va., four years ago, he racked up nearly $9,000 in toll fees for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel -- the quickest way to get to the nearest Home Depot.

But there was a benefit to crossing that 17.6-mile stretch so many times: He was able to stop along the way to look at birds, a favorite pastime for 34 years.

Over the past four decades, bird-watchers have flocked to the four man-made islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where at least 350 different species have been spotted. ''It's probably the single most popular birding site in the mid-Atlantic," said Brinkley, who edits the journal North American Birds.

But nowadays it isn't as easy or simple for birders like Brinkley to do what they love. At popular birding sites across the country, they are facing stricter regulations -- in some cases being required to hire a police escort -- as authorities beef up national security.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been subject to increased government restrictions and scrutiny at airports and elsewhere. That bird-watchers have become a target is somewhat surprising, since all they do is ''walk quietly through the woods," as Brinkley put it.

But those woods are often around military bases, wastewater management plants, and dams -- places where government authorities fear that terrorists disguised as birders could lurk or strike.

And the equipment they carry -- binoculars, telescopes, and cameras -- can make birders look suspicious at first glance.

Since they have ''sophisticated gear and [are] looking at things not normally photographed by the common citizen in this area, they may be stopped and asked a few questions," said Lieutenant Jamie Rickerson, chief of port operations at the Coast Guard station's marine safety office.

Birding at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel used to require only an annual permit that was easily available via mail, telephone, or fax; about 800 were distributed annually. To enter any of the three northern islands, which are not open to the public, a birder would only have to show the permit, a photo ID, and vehicle registration. The southernmost island, which has a restaurant and a fishing pier, is open to the public.

''Anyone could stop [on the islands]. We had no idea who was on the islands and who was not," said Clement Pruitt, director of operations and chief of police for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

But earlier this year, after Virginia's Department of Transportation determined that the ventilation buildings on each of the four islands were poorly secured, fences were erected around the buildings, and the three northern islands were closed to all but employees.

''We discovered that we had areas of concerns; we didn't have enough safeguards around our ventilation buildings," Pruitt said.

Bird-watchers reacted angrily to the closure of the islands, and a committee -- consisting of members of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission, Bridge-Tunnel staff members, and local birders, including Brinkley -- was formed to come up with a new access policy.

Their decision, made June 14, allows bird-watchers back on the islands, but with many more restrictions. The spontaneous stops that Brinkley would make on his trips to Home Depot, for instance, are now prohibited.

Under the rules, which took effect Friday, individuals or groups of no more than 15 people will have to arrange their visits in advance and pay $50 an hour to be escorted by an off-duty police officer. Upon arrival, all birders must provide photo identification and vehicle registration. Their belongings and vehicles may be examined at check-in and at any time during the visit. ''These sorts of national security issues seem to be intruding in ways one would never have expected. You expect airline security. You don't expect it when you go birding. Who knew you'd have a police escort?" said Perry Plumart, director of conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy.

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