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No Nest Zone: Low-Tech Method Keeps Threatened Birds Away From Navy Runways

A low-tech method is saving a threatened species of bird from getting sucked into jet engines at the Naval Air Station Key West airfield on Boca Chica Key.

Least terns like to lay their eggs on light-colored gravelly areas like beaches, because their speckled eggs blend in and are invisible to predators.

That was causing problems at Naval Air Station Key West, where the runways used by $70 million FA/18 Super Hornet jets are lined with light-colored gravel pathways.

“If you’re walking along the gravelly path of the runways or taxiways, if you’re really not paying attention, you will step on an egg,” said USDA wildlife biologist Rosamaria Gonzalez. “They’re so camouflaged.”

Gonzalez works at the Key West airfield as part of the Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard — or BASH — program. Her job, she says, is “saving birds and planes.” Every day she checks out the airfield and scares off the herons, egrets and ibis that show up there.

But least terns were determined to use those pathways that looked so much like the beaches they naturally nest in. In 2011, there were six bird strikes recorded at the field.

Credit Rosamaria Gonzalez / USDA
Every year the gravel pathways next to the runways at Naval Air Station Key West get painted dark green to discourage least tern nesting.

Gonzalez noticed that the birds were not nesting in the darker-colored areas of the airfield covered with mud and grass. So she decided to conduct a test, using dark green turf paint to cover the gravel areas in part of the airfield.

“From where we painted, there was a line where we finished painting and on the other end was just left normal. They started nesting all on the light colored stuff and left the green part alone,” she said. “It worked perfectly.”

Since 2015, NAS Key West has been applying the paint every spring before the tern nesting season. It washes off by fall.

“It’s been zero bird strikes since then,” Gonzalez said.