Airboats help repel migrating blackbirds near Augusta Regional Airport

 

 

If the pyrotechnic screamers, bangers and whistlers don’t do the job, just call out the airboats.

That’s what the Augusta Utilities Department does each fall as part of a program to harass millions of migrating blackbirds that seem to find the city’s constructed wetlands the perfect place to call home.

“It’s very much a success story,” said Bobby Kennamer, a Savannah River Ecology Lab scientist who monitors bird movement near Augusta Regional Airport, where bird strikes are a safety concern.

The artificial wetlands, now part of Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, were designed to help purify effluent from the nearby Messerly Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The network of shallow ponds was planted with giant cutgrass, cattails and other vegetation that helps improve water quality, but also created habitat irresistible to the prolific redwing blackbird.

“We started seeing large numbers of blackbirds coming into the area, and it took a few years to find the best way to address it,” said Allan Saxon, the assistant utilities director.

Although aviation officials wouldn’t be concerned about a few blackbirds, the flocks roosting nearby grew rapidly, peaking in 2005 at nearly 15 million birds in a single night.

“What we found is that they were roosting here, then feeding in a 50-mile radius, as far south as Sandersville, and then coming back in the evenings,” Saxon said. “They prefer dense vegetation 15 to 18 inches above standing water, so it’s the perfect environment.”

The airboats, which arrived in Augusta this week, are used to flatten and crush the standing vegetation, making the area unsuitable for roosting blackbirds. Crushing the plants in the fall keeps the area nearly bird-free through winter, and the plants regrow in spring.

“We also do a little extra harassment in the form of propane cannons and hand-held pyrotechnics,” Saxon said. “We use three different kinds – screamers, bangers and whistlers – and shoot them out of a little pistol a couple evenings a week.”

The use of airboats to mash vegetation was first tried in 2005 and adopted as an annual deterrent in 2008 after trials documented its effectiveness. This year’s crew, based in Louisiana, is using five boats to flatten hundreds of acres of vegetation during its two-week stay.

The program has vastly reduced the blackbirds lured to the area, Kennamer said.

“The numbers have been driven down to a fraction of what we’ve seen in the past.”

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