Thursday, September 28, 2017

Old Lyme, New London County, Connecticut: Drone flying near swallows raises concerns

Old Lyme — Each year, hundreds of thousands of tree swallows converge on the marshes of Goose Island in the lower Connecticut River to prepare for their migration south for the winter, with the spectacle of the swallows flying overhead at dusk drawing visitors to the river.

But this season, observers have spotted something else flying nearby: drones that they are concerned could affect the birds' migratory patterns. Observers said they have seen at least one drone flying in the middle of the flocks as they fly, and swooping down close to the reeds where the birds roost.

While there is no state prohibition against flying a drone there, both the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Connecticut Audubon Society are urging people to not disturb the wildlife.

"Whether it's illegal or not doesn't make it right and doesn't make it good for the birds, and we'd like to see it stopped," Connecticut Audubon Society spokesman Tom Andersen said about the drone flying.

Mark Yuknat, captain of the RiverQuest, said that he has seen three different drones this season. He spotted one particular drone flying four to five times within the past few weeks.

On one occasion, the birds were in their roost when the drone flew very close over the top of the phragmites, causing the birds to come up in a wave-like pattern after the drone went by, Yuknat said. On another occasion, the drone appeared to move through a column of birds on their way to the phragmites, so the column separated and half of the birds went up and half went down.

Andersen said the swallows congregate in the marshes from late August to early October, to rest and feed and build up energy and protein and nutrients to take them through their migration. 

"If they have to spend energy avoiding the drone instead of feeding on mosquitoes and other bugs and resting, that's energy they won't have to migrate, and it may lower the success of their migration," he said.

Andy Griswold, the director of EcoTravel for Connecticut Audubon Society, said that the drone is interrupting the swallows' routine, as they engage in a series of behaviors that solidifies the group's connection and communicates that it's a safe place.

"They don't get to complete these behaviors, which they have ingrained in their system for hundreds of thousands of years," he said.

He added that the drone also disrupts the experience for hundreds of people coming to the Connecticut River to observe the swallows.

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said his department received a few calls in mid-September from people concerned about a drone. A state Environmental Conservation Police officer went to check on the issue, but did not see the drone and could not find the operator.

Technically speaking, there is no state prohibition about flying drones in the area, he said, but DEEP is encouraging people to be mindful.

"We certainly encourage people to be sensitive to wildlife and bird species in all of their behavior and avoid contact and avoid disturbing wildlife and birds," he said

He said that if DEEP thought someone was purposefully disturbing migratory birds, that person could be subject to charges under federal laws. He said DEEP would work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in that case.

The Federal Aviation Administration's rules, posted on its website, include that drone owners who fly for work must register drones heavier than 0.55 pounds. Recreational drone operators also have to register drones heavier than 0.55 pounds, unless the owner is using the drone under a special rule for model aircraft.

The FAA's regulations don’t address interactions between drones and wildlife, but there may be state or local laws that do, according to a FAA spokesperson.

Connecticut has banned the launching or landing of drones on state parkland, but the state does not control the airspace above the parks, said Schain, DEEP's spokesman. However, if a person launches a drone from outside and then flies the drone over parkland, he or she would be subject to park regulations, he explained. For example, if the person violated a park regulation related to noise while flying the drone, he or she would be subject to enforcement action.

The Connecticut Audubon Society banned people from flying drones from its sanctuaries. In its 2016 announcement, the Connecticut Audubon referenced concerns that drones likely would disturb wildlife and bother visitors.

Alex Yuknat, captain of The Adventure, a riverboat, said that there has been at least one night when he saw three drones, and has since seen a particular drone on multiple occasions.

He said that while no one can say with certainty that the drone is affecting the birds' flight patterns, he too observed a drone flying a couple of feet from the reeds where the birds were, causing a wave of birds to come up and go back down.

"That was definitely harassment," he said. "It's kind of acting like a predatory bird. It's acting as if it was going to go down and eat them."

Yuknat said the island, thick with phragmites, is a safe place for the swallows to rest, but he wondered if people keep harassing the swallows, if the birds would go somewhere else.

"That's the question on people's minds: where are they going to go if they don't feel safe here?" he said.

Original article can be found here ➤

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