Egrets fish in the ponds, swallows hunt mosquitoes, big green iguanas sun themselves on the runway, a colony of feral cats lives nearby, and annual swarms of land crabs take over the North Sound side of the runway. The airport on Grand Cayman fights a daily battle against wildlife, trying to keep the birds and other creatures out of the way of airplanes as they land and take off.
Veterinary students and professors from St. Matthews are starting a new study on the ecosystem in and around the airport in an effort to keep wildlife out of the way of Grand Cayman’s air traffic, the Cayman Islands Airports Authority’s chief safety officer Andrew McLaughlin said during the annual CIAA Hazardous Wildlife Working Group meeting Tuesday.
The last major incident involving a bird strike at Cayman’s airports was in October 2009 when a Cayman Airways plane taking off for Miami hit two egrets, with one being sucked into the left engine. The flight had to be aborted and the plane landed safely back at Owen Roberts International Airport.
The most well-known bird strike incident outside of Cayman was earlier that same year, Jan. 15, 2009, when a flight from New York to North Carolina ran into a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines before making a dramatic – with no loss of life – landing in the Hudson River in New York. The “Miracle on the Hudson” made international headlines, bringing new public attention to the problems when planes and birds get in each other’s way.
After the October 2009 incident on Grand Cayman, airport officials teamed up with students at St. Matthews to study the wildlife at the airport and work on ways to control it. A new study with the veterinary students will begin next month to look at the entire ecosystem and how to make the airport less attractive to animals that can damage planes and disrupt airport operations, said St. Matthews professor Brendan Lee.
“It’s an entire ecosystem,” Mr. Lee said, so you can’t remove one animal without impacting other plants and animals in the area. Remove swallows from around the airport, for example, and the mosquito population would explode.
He said students will work with professors and airport staff to study how to alter the habitat at the airport to control the birds and other wildlife that consider the airport part of their territory. He said in the past, 12 to 15 students have participated in the study and he hopes for the same number this time. These types of wildlife studies can get expensive for even small airports, but the veterinary students will “provide the manpower” to track the behavior of animals at the airport, Mr. Lee said.
He said students will observe birds, iguanas and other animals at different times and use their findings to help the airport continue to update its wildlife management plans.
The airport uses an air canon to scare away flocks of birds. To chase away or capture iguanas sunning themselves, however, security officers have to go out onto the runway. One security officer at Tuesday’s meeting said there were so many land crabs earlier this year that he was shovelling them into 50-gallon plastic containers and giving them to people.
Ideas to help control the airport’s various animal problems included better fencing to keep out iguanas and trained dogs to chase away birds. Airport operations staff have cleared brush and grasses from the fence line and around the ponds at one end of the runway, leaving fewer habitats for animals.
But the solutions to animal control continue to evolve. Mr. McLaughlin, the airport’s chief safety officer, said the airport roof is a popular spot for pigeons to roost. Airport staff put barbs around where the pigeons would spend their time, which worked for a while to deter the birds. But, he said, pretty soon his staff found the pigeons standing on the barbs.
Another problem, Mr. McLaughlin said, is with a large cat colony on the North Sound side of the runway. Apparently, that area is a popular spot for people to abandon cats and now they have taken up permanent residence behind the runway, he said.