Partnering with Pilots: Celebrating Seabirds’ Allies in the Sky

Partnering with Pilots

In 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright brothers changed the world forever by building and flying the world’s first airplane, a “flying machine” that flew 120 feet and reached an airspeed of 34 mph before falling back to earth. To engineer such a machine, the brothers and others before them took inspiration from birds, studying the physics of bird flight and the behavioral methods used by birds to control flight once in the air. Yet a century later, in an ironic twist, birds within a particular group — the seabirds — have become vulnerable to disturbance from the very machines they inspired.

Airplanes, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (e.g. drones) approaching too close to seabird colonies can disturb seabirds through their loud noise and even just their physical proximity. When such disturbances are repeated or severe, they can affect the conservation, recovery, and long-term health of an entire colony by elevating stress levels in seabirds and making them more vulnerable to the already stressful conditions they naturally endure — harsh weather and an unpredictable food supply. Disturbing seabirds results in other and perhaps less obvious risks. When birds are flushed from their nests, their eggs become exposed to the elements — to cold and windy weather — and to predators, such as gulls and ravens.

For this reason, the Seabird Protection Network (Network) is proud to be partnering with local pilots who are doing their part to protect seabirds by reducing disturbance and spreading wildlife-friendly practices throughout their community. Among our most active partners is Gretchen Kelly, the manager of the Half Moon Bay and San Carlos airports. Over the past several years, Gretchen has shared our conservation messages with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pilots. In addition, through her leadership, Network staff have had the opportunity to attend the pilot briefing at the Pacific Coast Dream Machines event for the past several years. Our presence at the briefing gives us the opportunity to remind pilots about sensitive wildlife areas and to encourage pilots to fly at or above 1,000ft AGL in such areas. We are excited to announce that this year, because of Gretchen’s efforts as well as those of the other pilots participating in Dream Machines, there was not a single aircraft disturbance to the nearby Common Murre seabird colony on Devil’s Slide Rock. This is a first for this particular colony, so here at the Network we are definitely celebrating. Thank you, pilots!

Other pilots, such as those of the California Highway Patrol (CHP), Coast Guard Auxiliary, Gnoss Field Community Association, as well as local members of an Overflight Working Group of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, have also teamed up with the Network to find common ground regarding seabird protection. Sgt. Steve Neumann of CHP was recently featured in a film created for the Seabird Protection Network in which he discussed his efforts to avoid disturbing seabird colonies (see the video here). Working with Sgt. Neumann allowed us to express our understanding that rescue missions and human safety should always take precedence during flight operations, but also to explain why it is so important to avoid flying low over seabird colonies in less pressing circumstances. Other pilots, too, such as Ken Mercer, Patrick Scanlon, and Rebecca Joseph (see photo above), have shown their support for seabirds by committing to “fly at or above 1,000 feet AGL for safety and wildlife.” If you are interested in making this pledge, please contact us at 415-970-5244 or California.Seabirds@noaa.gov.

Conservation works best when it is grounded in community participation, stakeholder engagement, and mutual understanding. As such, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with pilots who are eager to share their viewpoints and hear ours. The Network wishes to extend a heartfelt thank you to the pilots along our coast, for your efforts, partnerships, and overall involvement in seabird protection. Seabirds are the most threatened group of birds in the world, so it is comforting to know that they have you as their allies in the sky!

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