January 19, 2009

Birds A Threat To Antarctic Airstrips

Warm, snow-free airstrips in Antarctica have attracted some unwelcome visitors, a group of birds that are now a dangerous threat to planes.

Air traffic experts are looking for ways to scare off the south polar skuas, a large and aggressive brown seabird, without harming them.

Currently, the birds are protected by the 47-nation Antarctic Treaty, which declares the frozen continent a nature reserve.

At the British Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, about 100 skuas often gather and sit on the 3,000 ft gravel runway.

In an effort to scare away the skua, loud noises and sirens are set off and then a runway worker drives a six-wheeled vehicle up and down the runway, swerving toward any remaining birds.

"It seems to be working -- about 15 minutes prior (to takeoff or landing) we've driving up and down with bells and whistles to get them out of the way," said Steve King, a pilot and flying safety officer at Rothera.

At an Australian Antarctic base, the staff tries an alternative. They feed the birds to try to lure them away from the airstrip.

In extreme cases Antarctic airstrips can get a license to kill the birds.

Skuas are a hazard because bird strikes can down aircraft. The U.S. jetliner that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River on Thursday had apparently struck a flock of birds. Luckily, all 155 abroad survived.

This season at Rothera, no birds have been hit, but there were minor strikes last year. The skuas are attracted to the dark gravel surface that is warmer than sitting on snow.

The south polar skua often eats other birds' eggs or steals other birds' food. 

Experts say anyone who goes too close to a skua nest risks attack. They sometimes strike but usually veer off at the last moment.

"It's like someone dropping a chicken on your head," said John Loines, a skua expert at Rothera.


Image 1: The BAS Rothera Research Station, Antarctica. Courtesy Wikipedia

Image 2: A Skua at Rothera. Courtesy Wikipedia


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