Airport bird dog back on the job

Mayday, Augusta Regional Airport's bird-chasing border collie, is back at work after a large lump was removed from her leg about three weeks ago.

Tina Rhodes, Mayday's handler and caretaker, said the mass turned out to be benign but it was enough to scare her into having it removed and tested. Her dog, Precious, died of a similar mass several years ago, she said.

"It reminded me of the tumor my personal dog had before she died," Ms. Rhodes said. "It was huge, like a big knot. Thankfully, it wasn't cancerous, but it worried me."

Ms. Rhodes said the surgery couldn't have come at a better time because 11-year-old Mayday does most of her work in the spring and summer. When the weather warms, flocks of egrets and starlings attempt to nest in the tall grasses around the airport's runways and can be a hazard to the airplanes as they take off and land.

In the winter the airport's main avian concern shifts to the thousands of blackbirds that pass over in the late afternoon. Since they pass directly over the airport instead of trying to nest in the runways, Mayday can do little to keep them away, Ms. Rhodes said. Instead, the airport officials have been working with the Richmond County Utilities Department to limit the desirability of the nearby wetlands.

That's a two-fold process. The utilities department deploys a special boat to flatten the tall grasses the blackbirds like to nest in, and the airport uses fireworks to scare the flock from the airfield, according to Diane Johnston, the airport's marketing director.

"What we're trying to do is train them to go back over the Savannah River, which is where their path was before," Ms. Johnston said. "By doing that, what we hope to do is change their migratory path back where it used to be."

In the meantime, Mayday has been able to scale back her work schedule in order to heal. Ms. Rhodes said she has been recovering quite quickly.

If something should happen to Mayday, Ms. Rhodes said, she is not sure she would get another dog. As the airport's wildlife management agent, the decision falls on her, and it's one she doesn't want to have to think about just yet.

"As far as I'm concerned she is still working," Ms. Rhodes said. "It's kind of a hard question for me to ask because she is like a person. To plan a funeral for her while she is nowhere near death is hard. I just love her."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.