In Praise of Nuisance Heronries (Part Two)

elmendorf lake

Elmendorf Lake: Birds at dusk. Image: Richard Vasquez

Bird-dispersing chemical warfare comes to the Westside’s little Aztlan, our ‘place of herons.’

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Click here for part one, a dispatch from Brackenridge Park.

Marisol Cortez

Roosting together on a mid-March Sunday evening, the birds of Bird Island sound collectively at times like croaking bullfrogs and at times like a pen of snorting pigs, with the occasional canine bark. Bird Island is what it sounds like: a small terrestrial mound rising from Elmendorf Lake, a shallow, serpentine waterway formed by the upstream damming of Apache Creek. Before recent City clearcutting stripped the island of most of its vegetation, it was covered with an understory of green as well as a few taller trees whose branches have hosted generations of migratory waterbirds.

Snowy Egrets at Bird Island. Image: Kamala Platt

In her many years of watching the island from season to season, local environmental justice writer and activist Kamala Platt has spotted various species of egret and heron, but also Cormorants and the occasional Caracara.

Having spent part of her childhood in eastern India where Cattle Egrets are common—as they are in much of the world, a global migration out of their native Africa that has followed the expansion of cattle ranching, clearcutting, swamp draining—Platt was delighted to stumble across Bird Island when searching for a neighborhood to settle in. Last year she published a piece on the personal and wider cultural meanings of egrets and herons to Westside and watershed senses of place, seeing in the birds a beacon of homecoming.

Aztlan, after all, ancestral home of Chicanos and Mexicanos, means “place of herons.”

Unlike Brackenridge, bird conflicts at Elmendorf Lake Park have had at least a veneer of public input. In fact, it was at a February public hearing about Bird Island that Platt, who sits on the City’s Westside Creek Restoration Oversight Committee and Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee, crossed paths with Alesia Garlock, in attendance that night to speak out against bird mitigation at Brackenridge (see part one of this feature, “A Park With No Birds.”)

Like Garlock, Platt and other Westside neighbors had been working to protect the herons and egrets at Bird Island, now the only known rookery remaining in San Antonio, from a mitigation campaign at Elmendorf.

Images by San Antonio photographer Richard Vasquez.

 

The official rationale for mitigation at Bird Island is less hazy than at Brackenridge, but again comes down to the nuisancery of Cattle Egrets, which similarly predominate the rookery at Elmendorf Lake Park. District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales has accused the birds of befouling the lake with smelly droppings; the city’s Public Engagement Officer Ashley Alvarez has stated that they can spread E. Coli and Histoplasmosis.

Birds and Planes

The more serious objection, however, comes from Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA), which oversees two nearby military installations and views the birds as a flight risk to the aircraft buzzing around the bases. According to Bexar Audubon Society, JBSA made this determination following a 2013 case in Wichita Falls in which an egret brought down an Air Force training plane (the pilot ejected safely).

While there have been a few high-profile cases nationally of bird strikes causing aircraft damage or even loss of human life, quantifying the real risk of Bird Island specifically is more difficult. JBSA has provided various numbers in various public fora: 50 wildlife strikes (birds plus other critters, ostensibly) per fiscal year at Kelly Field since 2010; 92 bird strikes at San Antonio International Airport and Stinson Municipal Airport in 2018.

The only figure that seems directly pertinent is the number reported by the city for the number of bird strikes specifically at Kelly Field since 2010, which is eight, or approximately one per year.

Birds and planes cross paths at sunset, when the Cattle Egrets return to Bird Island en masse from Covel Gardens Landfill nearly 10 miles to the southwest, where they spend their days grazing for choice morsels. Along the way, they pass over the runways at JBSA Lackland and Kelly Field at Port San Antonio.

From Bird Island to Kelly AFB to Covel Gardens. Image: Google Earth

On our mid-March visit to Bird Island, I was able to see the Cattle Egrets fly in one evening. I’d imagined the arrival of a single huge cloud of birds, but I was surprised to see them arrive in orderly waves: that night, I counted nine separate contingents of about 50 birds each, flying in from the west and touching down on the island a little after 7 p.m.

Former federal employee Gloria Almaraz questions JBSA’s risk assessment for Bird Island based on visits to both landfill and Port San Antonio at Kelly Field to observe egret flight paths for herself. Reiterating comments made at a public meeting of the Westside Creek Restoration Oversight Committee on May 21, she stated:

Initially we were told there would be up to a thousand birds, egrets, that would be flying back and forth across the runway creating havoc. That’s not true. I’ve been out there by the flight line several times in the evening right before dusk to see exactly what is the situation, how many birds, and where do they cross the flight line. There were nights when the birds did not fly over the flight line, they just continued flying north[.] …

And the number of birds is small. They fly in small flocks. For the three to four times I was out there, I would say the biggest number of birds I observed was maybe 50 to 70. Also, for the times that I’ve been at the flight line at dusk, only once have I seen one aircraft attempt to land at the same time that the egrets were flying close to the runway. Their paths did not cross, and there was no accident.

None of this is to minimize the potential for catastrophe, but simply to underscore one of the points raised by Stan Senner, vice president of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society: that while “in general, there is some legitimacy to concern about bird strikes,” questions of risk and risk mitigation require research and evidence-based responses. And while the City and JBSA have now publicly detailed their risk assessment methodology and specific plans for bird mitigation, these details were made available only recently, after the Westside Creek Restoration Oversight Committee excoriated the City at a May 21 public meeting for its lack of transparency around the scientific data used to justify mitigation plans (not to mention the plans themselves).

As Almaraz stated at that meeting, this lack of transparency has contributed to a feeling among “the majority of us who went to the first meetings and continue to be concerned about this problem” that “there’s a hidden agenda out here. And the City and military are not open to letting us know what is going on, what is the reason for the egrets being targeted.”

Noise advisory posted briefly before eggs were found in one of the nests. Image: Greg Harman

According to Bexar Audubon Society, the City and JBSA, at the recommendation of the USDA Wildlife Services and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, settled on their mitigation plan by early February 2019. As at Brackenridge Park, this first involved stripping the canopy on Bird Island by 70 percent of its foliage and removing horizontal tree branches so as to discourage nest building. A second phase would deploy loud noises and bright lights during evening hours—“lasers, pyrotechnics, spotlights, predatory bird calls”—as a means of dispersing birds.

Having participated for many years in the Great Backyard Bird Count, Platt knew that the Cattle Egrets in recent years had begun nesting as early as mid-February, placing these mitigation measures on a legal collision course with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. She also knew that although cattle egrets may predominate the island’s avian population, Bird Island is host to numerous other species, including Snowy Egrets and other rare/endangered birds.

And as a member of the Westside Creek Restoration Oversight Committee, she knew as well that federal funds had been committed to the work of creek restoration in part “on the basis of restoring the creek habit for migrating birds”—an intention seemingly counter to the city and military’s bird dispersal plan.

Platt also learned from National Audubon that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act had been weakened under the Trump Administration, placing the Bird Island situation in a legal grey area. As Senner at National Audubon explained:

“Under the long-standing application of the MBTA, harassing migratory birds per se is not illegal, but if doing so causes abandonment of nests or eggs or deaths of nestlings, it was illegal. … As you may know, the Solicitor’s office in the Dept. of the interior issued new guidance on ‘incidental take.’

“It is no longer illegal to engage in an activity that happens to ‘take’ a migratory bird (i.e., kill a bird or destroy nests and eggs) if the intent of the activity is not to kill the bird. For example, they could say they are thinning the trees on the island and it is too bad if they happen incidentally to destroy a nest with eggs because it was not their intent to destroy the nest, only to remove the tree.

“Audubon and others are trying to get this legal opinion changed back to the way it was, but any day now Interior will proposal a formal rule making to codify this interpretation in regulations.”

The city and military announced their mitigation plan officially at a public meeting held at OLLU on February 11 (“Join us to learn about the hazard that cattle egrets pose at Elmendorf Lake Park,” reads the flyer). Here Platt would cross paths with Garlock and learn about the spraying at Brackenridge; she would also present a resolution she had penned, backed by the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, called “Resolution on Cattle Egret Mitigation in Elmendorf Lake, February 2019.”

In light of the birds’ deep history in the region and inextricable relationship to other heron and egret species, this resolution demanded “that current and planned mitigation be halted immediately and appropriate protection and ecological and civic procedures be studied, discussed, and developed in an open and transparent process toward maintaining ecological balance and the well-being of all involved.”

In fact, at that February 11 meeting, Platt observed “almost complete community/environmental … opposition to the military’s proposed ‘harassment’ of the birds,” as did the Express-News in an article from February 12 (“Residents Push Back Against City Plan to Move Birds from Elmendorf Lake on San Antonio’s West Side”).

As at Brackenridge, much of this community opposition is driven by an undercurrent of suspicion that the city’s bird removal schemes portend a more sinister desire to remove Westside neighborhoods and residents, especially in light of recent plans to expand UTSA’s downtown campus—raising the ever-present threat of liquidating the nearby Alazan/Apache Courts (see a recent article in the smartly named San Antonio Heron).

Kamala Platt at Elmendorf Lake. Image: Greg Harman

Platt would later pen a furious persona poem, performed at the annual Words For Birds event held at Mitchell Lake on April 28. Entitled “I Am Bird Island,” it decried, in the voice of the land,

the sanitizers and the gentrifiers [come] over—
profit over planet in their minds, self over city—
to sweep neighborhoods clean
of those of us with inconvenient truths
with ears to ground, drumming with tierra’s beat.
The joggers, the house flippers
the gentefication promoters who
disliked the egrets, disdained the broken hearted
decided to displace generations of Westside peoples and birds

For their part, community members voiced their own solutions at the city’s two public meetings, in newspapers, and in email discussion. Senner suggested mitigation at feeding grounds rather than roosting grounds, “limiting the attraction to food at places like the landfill,” and also a telemetry study that would “track where the birds nesting on the island go to feed, rest, etc.”

Robert Ramirez, co-chair of the Westside Creeks Restoration Oversight Committee, proposed the military look into the Merlin system, a radar-based technology for detecting birds near the base.

In a February 19 op-ed, former physician Mimi Emig suggested changing not the birds’ accustomed location but rather the flightpaths of the planes at Lackland, just as “Randolph [Air Force Base] adjusted its sorties for the Mexican bats at Bracken Cave,” one of the largest bat colonies in the world.

Platt, passing on a suggestion of her prairie ecologist father, envisioned the creation of a “Friends of Bird Island” group which would continue to convene neighborhood residents—minus city and military mitigators—to research ideas not just for “saving the birds” but for stewarding the long-term ecological health of Bird Island as their habitat and as community green space, defending the right of both birds and neighbors to remain in place.

“It would be good if we could find out what has/has not been done on the island,” she wrote in an email to other community members, “and also look to how healthy roosts for egrets and herons have been sustained, elsewhere, particularly in urban settings.”

Egrets (and others) fly in at dusk to Bird Island on Elmendorf Lake. Image: Greg Harman

The Heresy of Heronries

Ultimately, what seems to be required is a critical deconstruction of the very idea of “nuisance heronries,” which locates the central problematic of bird/human conflicts within the nature of birds themselves, rather than in the social and economic interests which require the destruction and fragmentation of habitat as self-evident necessity.

Cattle egrets at dusk. Image: Kamala Platt

Is the problem that Cattle Egrets are nasty, smelly birds crawling with disease? Or is the problem the cultural logic that moves mountains of post-consumer waste out of sight and mind to become attractive fodder for wildlife?

Is the problem that egrets are hazardous? Or is the problem the might-makes-right thinking that a city which prides itself on being “Military City, USA” employs in putting the arbitrary flightpaths of military vehicles before the ancient ones of birds?

Or is it the elevation of warfare itself above the right of non-humans (and many humans as well) to exist, much less co-exist?

Consider, for example, this extraordinary passage from Nuisance Heronries in Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department publication. According to the TPWD, 33 of 53 known heronries in Texas “have been considered to constitute nuisance situations.”

What constitutes an exemplary nuisance situation? Read on:

A direct relationship exists between materials deposited in heronries and increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in water beneath or in the vicinity of heronries. These nutrients often stimulate production of thick mats of floating and submerged vegetation, particularly algae and duckweed. This rapid eutrophication … concerns many fishermen because the filamentous types of algae entangle and stop propellers of motorboats and prevent retrieval of fishing lures. An example of this situation occurred in the vicinity of the Preserve Island heronry at the Koon Kreek Klub, Henderson County (2).

When Googled, the KKK turns out not to be a sly, East Texas wink-and-nod to the infamous white terrorist organization, no!—but to the fanciest country club in the Dallas metroplex (named “Secret Hideaway of the Rich and Famous” by D Magazine) where men should be able to sink a lure without the threat of nuisance herons, gawdammit!

Image: TPWD Map of Nuisance Heronries in Texas. 

The point is: The nuisance of any heronry is in large part in the eye of its beholder, and its beholder often wants to live and drive and build and fly planes all over bird places. And yet, to the city’s credit—especially in a time of legal murk in how the MBTA will be applied—an announcement circulated just a couple days after the February 11 public meeting. The Parks Department, along with the USDA, “conducted a site visit of the island at Elmendorf Lake Park and discovered three eggs in a nest.” In accordance with previous interpretations of the law, all mitigation efforts promptly ceased “until all eggs on the island have hatched and chicks are able to leave the nests.”

“If perhaps you noticed fencing going up today,” wrote Hillary Lilly, Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator for the San Antonio River Authority, “that fencing, if it is not already, will be coming down and city staff will vacate the island.”

Relo Redux

It would be nice to be able to end this second Heronries installment with such gloriously delicate bureaucratese. But as of May 2019, new twists and turns have appeared that rival the graceful neck of a love-struck egret. First, following its sudden halt to mitigation activities, the city Parks Department has started up once more, this time borrowing tactics from Brackenridge Park by installing Methyl Anthranilate sprayers on the public sidewalks that overlook Bird Island.

After public outcry and media coverage revealed that spraying had been occurring without public knowledge since May 2017, the city posted new large signs similar to those at Brackenridge, warning park goers vaguely of a “device” spraying “grape extract vapor” that “may cause irritation”–yet not disclosing the chemical substance in use.

New City signs, placed May 2019. Image: Kamala Platt

And second, the city and military have announced intentions to relocate the birds to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center approximately 10 miles southeast, even as they purport to solicit community feedback on how to remedy the bird situation via an online survey.

Bexar Audubon Society Vice-President Patsy Inglet originally proposed the idea of relocation at the city’s public hearing on February 18—or, rather, the gentle encouragement of a sort of self-deportation by moving old nests from Bird Island to Mitchell Lake at the end of the breeding season. As Inglet and Bexar Audubon President Anne Parrish explained to Deceleration, this was “a method used by Golden Gate Audubon when development removed the trees being used by a heron rookery.”

According to Inglet and Parrish, Bexar Audubon raised this idea after becoming aware in early February of “the military’s intent to take measures to move the birds from their present nesting/roosting place on Bird Island in Elmendorf Lake Park.” Audubon, in other words, caught wind that relocation was a done deal for the military (online surveys notwithstanding), and concluded that relocation, though an undesirable last resort, was better than destruction of birds or habitat—which they knew the agencies involved were within their legal right to pursue:

Bexar Audubon, of course, much prefers to induce the birds to relocate rather than to destroy them. The agencies involved may obtain a permit which would allow more drastic measures (up to and including lethal control), but both agencies have indicated they are not planning any such actions at this point.

At the same time, Bexar Audubon declined to participate in removal efforts “using Audubon members as volunteers since such activity is not in alignment with our mission statement nor that of our parent organization, the National Audubon Society”—a very polite way of saying that, insofar as their mission is “science-based,” geared toward “protect[ing] birds and the places they live” and dedicated to “responsible local action,” the city and military’s plans are none of these.

Will it work, though? Both Bexar Aubudon and Alesia Garlock have their doubts. “It is not possible to control where birds relocate,” Audubon wrote,

and often methods employed to induce the birds to relocate are ineffective. … The birds will continue to answer the urges of their instincts to nest and reproduce their kind, regardless of harassment and other deterrent measures. Sometimes birds will move to places even less desirable than the targeted location.

“The only way to ensure that the birds will not use an area for nesting is to totally destroy the habitat.”

That, of course, is not a desirable alternative. Habitat can be altered to reduce the likelihood that the birds will nest in a given area, but it usually doesn’t totally eliminate nesting and/or roosting. It does reduce the number of birds using the habitat; however, that may not be sufficient to remove the danger the birds are posing to aviation.

Garlock is equally skeptical, pointing to the apparent failures of the Bay Area relocation case suggested by Bexar Audubon as well as to the case of the Brackenridge egrets. Their historic habitat altered by the city, the birds have returned in force—this time to roost and nest and poop on sidewalks and cars. 

Platt expresses more direct frustration that no one with the City or JBSA seems open to doing research on evidence-based solutions to evidence-based problems, “only taking ideas on how to relocate.” Neither does anyone seem to be offering solutions grounded in “evidence over time”—in habits of deep and regular attention.

And she raises a crucial question about whether the idea of birds as “nuisance” would arise at all in San Antonio’s more well-heeled Northside green spaces:

I think it might be a useful speculation to think about how Elmendorf is being treated in comparison to Hardberger [Park]—would they dare to spray and canonize and use pyrotechnics at Hardberger? If not, why is it okay at Elmendorf?— the Westside Creeks including Elmendorf is the main public natural area we have on the West side. Chasing away our birds is wrong even if they are ‘protecting the birds.’

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Marisol Cortez is co-editor of Deceleration.

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Below is a visual tour of Bird Island and interview with Kamala Platt.

 

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