Thursday, 21 May 2009

Birds in the flightpaths

The occurrence of flocks of geese simultaneously getting minced up in both a plane’s engines was considered very unlikely, but this is what happened as a US Airways plane took off from New York in January. Miraculously, the pilot landed the plane safely in the Hudson River, but the incident raised concerns about the risk of bird strikes worldwide. The outcome of bird strikes is always fatal for the birds and might not be so fortunate for passenger safety. The incident helped to put the kybosh on London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new airport in London’s Thames estuary. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) puts the Thames Estuary in the top five internationally important sites for birds in the UK and tens of thousands of migrating birds would be at risk if a new airport was built there.

Birds that are considered to endanger flights are likely to be moved or destroyed. BAA (British Airports Authority) was concerned that flocks of whooper swans might be a safety risk at Glasgow Airport. During the winter the birds, which can weigh up to 15 kilos, migrate from Iceland to live at Black Cart Water, which is near the runways. These birds were relatively lucky as the roosting area is protected by law. The whooper swans are a protected species living on a site of special scientific interest. Unable to move or destroy the birds, the airport operates dedicated 24 hour bird patrols. Other ways to keep birds away from the runways include chemicals on the grass to remove nutrients that would attract them, and playing the sound of distressed birds through loudspeakers.

There was a reprieve for 800 crows nesting in woods near Manchester Airport. The crows are living right under a flightpath, but have been there for over 300 years without being considered a risk to passenger safety. Yet in April the crows were due to be culled, as they were reported to be ‘commuting’ between the golf course and the airfield. The cull was postponed after hundreds of people signed a petition opposing it.

In 2008, birds at Belfast Airport had not been so lucky. Canadian and Greylag geese nesting in the park alongside the runway were raising safety concerns after 16 bird strikes were reported in a year. The Environmental and Heritage Service deemed the geese to be ‘feral’ birds, in contrast to the migrating species that only visit the airport area in winter, so the geese’s eggs were destroyed by pricking them and dipping them in oil. At Inverness Airport a gull nested and laid eggs on a car roof in the long-stay car park. The RSPB reported this was the first incident of this kind, but not particularly surprising if the car had been there a long time as the gulls like to nest on a flat surface. The nest and eggs were destroyed in adherence to the airport’s bird strike policy.

I’ve not got any photos of birds near airport runways, but these are some geese landing, elegantly, at Watermead Park in Leicester, where birds are as safe as they can be these days on this protected site.

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