Airport ponds too inviting for birds

Cattle egrets wander through grass at the Owen Roberts International Airport. An engineering company is currently drawing up plans to fill the ponds at the airport that attract birds to the area. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

The Cayman Islands Airports Authority plans to fill ponds at the Owen Roberts International Airport that are attracting birds and posing a threat to aircraft safety.

Canadian civil engineering company Stantec was hired in March to complete design work for upgrades to the airside infrastructure at the airport, including filling in the ponds and developing an airport drainage plan.

That design work is expected to be completed next month, and then a new bid process will be undertaken to find a company to complete the works, which also include strengthening the runway, expanding the apron and adding a perimeter road for airfield access vehicles.

Construction is expected to begin in the second quarter of 2019.

The airports authority has tried several different methods, including the use of air cannons, to deter birds from roosting at the airport, amid concerns that they could fly into plane engines.

Bird strikes are an issue that airports around the world have to deal with, and Cayman has had its share of incidents over the years, although none have been serious. In 2017, around 13 bird strike incidents were recorded by the Cayman Islands Airports Authority.

Filling in the ponds is considered to be the long-term solution.

However, according to Rhonda Verhoeven, the authority’s business development and marketing manager, in an email to the Compass, when it comes to the ponds, “it is a very complicated process as one has to consider the effects on rainwater retention and the surrounding areas and must be approached very carefully.”

These small culverts of water in the ground at the end of the airstrip, she said, “are collecting water from their surrounding areas” around the airport.

During rain, culverts at the end of the airstrip fill with water and insects come to the surface, attracting birds in search of food.

“The ponds are what we consider a natural attractant for birds and other wildlife; however, no bird strike has ever been attributed to the ponds directly,” Ms. Verhoeven said.

However, she said, an aircraft recently experienced a bird strike, with no effect on the operation of the aircraft. After landing, the aircraft was inspected for damage and subsequently continued operations for the day

She also said the largest types of wild birds that frequent the ponds are cattle egrets. However, from time to time, flocks of smaller birds, such as swallows and sparrows, are also seen in the area.

She said the natural North American migration of birds going south for the winter is usually experienced from September to December. Some of the birds return between March to May when they go north to breed.

The Cayman Islands Airports Authority has a Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Plan.

According to Ms. Verhoeven, the plan includes procedures for habitat modification, such as removing attractants like trees and seeds on the airside of the airport, as well as procedures for reporting wildlife during aircraft operations. She added that special procedures are in place to remove any hazard and notify aircrews.

The airport has considered using dogs to deter the birds. Ms. Verhoeven said the airports authority has been approached by dog trainers, but because the bird problem is so erratic – birds one day, no birds the next – they have not come up with a response that is economically feasible for a sustained operation on their part.

The use of insecticides was not being considered as a means to rid the ponds of birds, she said.

“As a responsible corporate citizen of the Cayman Islands, we are cognizant of the environment and would not be introducing any insecticide into the ponds, as it will certainly make its way to our water table,” Ms. Verhoeven explained.