VIDEO: Destruction of San Antonio’s Bird Island

Pole saw being used to remove nests at Bird Island last week. For a video summarizing the first three days of destruction, see below. Images/Video: Greg Harman

City relies on dubious air strike data and public health threats for mass eviction of protected migratory birds.

Greg Harman

Walking in the morning with the sound of the highway behind us, Wolfi’s eyes leap after a flittering in the utility lines. It’s a still and misty morning. The tight-knit parcel of “city birds,” the spritely sparrows and rock doves that populate the hidden niches of our ‘hood, are sleeping in. But Wolfi’s startled expression tells me that at least one lone actor is about.

The creatures of the air are a fascination for this 10-month-old.

I should take him to see the Bird Island, I think, without thinking. Just as fast as the thought arises does a recollection follow of the island’s destruction. The once-thriving, raucous rookery, home for thousands of birds—birds who have returned year after year for decades—has been converted into a moonscape.

The nests have been removed, most of the trees slashed, even the ground has been raked clean. There’s nothing at Bird Island to show him but wild nature under assault.

Left: Bird Island on Tuesday, December 3, 2019; Right: Bird Island on Thursday, December 5, 2019. Images: Greg Harman


Related: “In Praise of Nuisance Heronries, Part One” By Marisol Cortez


In our few months together, these trips to Elmendorf Lake on San Antonio’s West Side–with its watercourse of walking paths, its playscape, and the riotous eye candy that fills Wolfi with such wonder–had become a regular rhythm of our lives, all stitched together by the guttural croaking and cawing of elegant avian life.

Days into the City of San Antonio’s intentional campaign of displacement, the snowy and great egrets, cormorants, and irregular herons who call Bird Island home still return each night, searching for shelter. Hawks nestle along the edges of the island, laying low, with interest. Instead of nests, however, these wading birds find Parks Department employees waving laser lights in an effort to prevent the birds from staying or, heaven forbid, rebuilding.

Witnesses have already spotted flashing pyrotechnics in use. And the Parks staff—assisted by the USDA and others—are only going to ramp up their deterrence until the birds have pushed on.

Day One: Stringing a berm around the island and collecting nests. Image: Greg Harman

As narrated in the video at top, the violence began Tuesday, with targeted nest collection and skirting of the island with a brown berm to prevent material from slipping into Elmendorf’s rich blue-green waters. Local Audubon staff and volunteers agreed to cart the nests back to Mitchell Lake on the Southside, in the off chance they can reconstruct a habitat that attracts the birds to a new location.

On Wednesday, City workers chopped down the rest of the nests and just about all other organic matter, packing it all into dumpsters and trash bags.

On Thursday, there was little left for the workers to do but rake the sore earth and haul the piles of white trash bags from the island—before disposing of their own white rompers and respirators.

Egret nests removed from Bird Island on to be relocated by Bexar Audubon members to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center on San Antonio’s Southside. Image: Greg Harman

Over the last few years, birds have been under assault across the city’s public spaces and greenways. As at Elmendorf, Brackenridge Park-dwelling birds, and the families who come to enjoy them, have been subjected to chemical bird deterrent sprays, one emitting from atop an aged playscape where children run inside an invisible grape-flavored fog. While bird advocates have decried the Brackenridge spraying before it was discontinued, a similar spraying program at Elmendorf was deployed before it became public knowledge.

The Bird Island displacement was delayed for some months to give the targeted cattle egrets time to fledge their young and migrate away for the season. While local birders confirmed that nearly all  of the hundreds of cattle egrets had pressed on, many babies remained.

Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation reported they have taken in as many as 56 fledgling birds.

Not all of them have survived displacement, WRR representatives told Deceleration.

“The cormorant who passed away yesterday had arrived on the 4th,” said Ava Donaldson, WRR’s spokesperson. “He weighed 130g, had mild dehydration and no injuries. He was cared for at our San Antonio location, but sadly passed away likely due to the stress of captivity and trauma of being taken from his parents.”

Here is video of a juvenile cormorant WRR staff are helping in hopes of eventual reintroduction into the wild:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Related: “In Praise of Nuisance Heronries, Part Two” By Marisol Cortez


Joint Base San Antonio’s Egret Management Plan justifies destruction of the rookery by complaining of the threat to air traffic and supposed damage being done to the environment at Elmendorf Lake Park.

So what is the reality of bird strikes at Kelly Field?

According to US Federal Aviation Administration statistics, Kelly has experienced three strikes on commercial planes since 1990, with only one—blamed on a turkey vulture—resulting in damage. In this case, a Boeing commercial airplane was impacted. The non-damaging impacts involved unknown birds, one listed as “small,” the other as “large.”

Gallery of images from Bird Strike Committee USA.

The City of San Antonio reports an average of 50 strikes per year at Kelly Field, without distinguishing whether any resulted in damage. Only eight birds over all those years have been identified as cattle egrets. Even here is a yawning caveat, best expressed by the Public Affairs Office of the 502nd Air Base Wing.

Unlike nearly all local reporting, JBSA’s media arm put the actual contribution from Elemendorf in context:

In addition to daily aircraft traffic, JBSA also is a major corridor for migration between North and South America. Peak times for the birds are early morning and right before sunset. “The wildlife hazard to flying is relentless,” [Bryan] Wilmunen, [502nd Air Base Wing aviation safety program manager], said. “It’s persistent. It’s never going to go away.”

Later the same article states:

The species most commonly involved include doves, meadowlarks, grackles, bats and falcons. Vultures often cause the most damage because there are groups of them that swarm around any carcasses near the airfield.

And cattle egrets?

Even D5’s Councilmember Shirley Gonzales and D10’s Clayton Perry, in an opinion piece for the San Antonio Express-News, were forced to cite an accident at Wichita Falls, Texas to call out cattle egrets by name. The one local strike they cite as emblematic of the risk posed by Elmendorf’s birds was caused by an unidentified species.

Yet, the pair write, to not dismantle the long-lived rookery is to risk the Air Force packing up and moving away from San Antonio:

“As Military City, USA, we should endeavor to respect their concerns, remain their strong partner and ensure they aren’t forced to find other cities to safely train,” Gonzales and Perry wrote in September.

This cry echoes another whisper campaign recently spearheaded by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, which warned area business owners that Valero Energy Corporation would flee the city if San Antonio passed a climate action plan.

We killed the island, and we passed the plan, and the problem of growth remains.

But if for some reason the Air Force is tempted to work with Perry and Gonzales in the future to find the land beyond birds, this map of waterfowl flyways across North America may be useful.

Flyways of waterfowl in the United States via Researchgate.


See: “Elmendorf Egret Eviction: Open Letter to Shirley Gonzales” by Kamala Platt


What are the most costly birds in the Western United States, according to the Air Force? (Spoiler alert: It’s not cattle egrets.)

Most costly bird species in the Western United States. Courtesy of the Air Force Safety Center.

According to the FAA (PDF), reported bird strikes have increased seven-fold since 1990, very likely due to rising air traffic and better reporting. New strike reporting software was rolled out in 2014, the same year the Sandy Wright / Richard Dolbeer Excellence in Strike Reporting award became a thing. Meanwhile, over the last few years, the number of “damaging strikes” has declined, at least on the civilian side, from six percent to 4.5 percent.

Compared to JBSA’s 50 strikes per year, the San Antonio International Airport has reported 1,317 strikes since 1990—about 73 strikes per year—with 15 listed as “serious.” Of the birds identified by size or species, only two are “large,” a category that would include egrets (alongside many other species).

Meanwhile, officials from Stinson Field on the city’s Southside, which lies alongside the major migratory corridor of the San Antonio River, reported just ten wildlife impacts to the FAA since 1990. The only impact resulting in damage was blamed on a “domestic dog.”

Last week, the City of San Antonio delivered notification to Elmendorf Park neighbors about the destruction of the Bird Island rookery after most of the damage was already done:

City of San Antonio advisory distributed to neighbors of Elmendorf Park on the city’s Westside.

So, despite a limited number of demonstrated egret strikes at Kelly and zero support for City Council messaging around the Air Force packing up and leaving the City over, essentially, a single rookery five miles away from the airfield, the City continues to warn that Elmendorf’s birds pose a “severe hazard” to military and civilian aircraft.

Westsiders have not been impressed.

As local columnist Elaine Ayala wrote in June:

Residents said they were given short notice of the public meetings. Despite that, about 50 showed up, they said. Several said officials seemed shocked by the turnout and were taken aback by the negative reaction to their mitigation plan.

And as Deceleration wrote of those two February meetings, “[Kamala] Platt observed ‘almost complete community/environmental … opposition to the military’s proposed “harassment” of the birds … .'”

Additionally:

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.

These developments give credence to the conspiratorial bent of some public commentary. As stated by Gloria Almaraz at a May meeting of the Westside Creek Restoration Oversight Committee, the lack of transparency on the part of the City and Air Force 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.”

Some park neighbors wonder have suggested that the island is coveted by the city for more glamorous park amenities, possibly a land bridge similar to that at Hardberger Park. But it is hard to imagine that continued economic development at JBSA is not another motivation. Toward the close of the community conversation about Elmendorf, such as it was, KENS5 reported on the pending arrival of hundreds of new jobs at Kelly:

Boeing has secured a contract with the U.S. Navy to upgrade hundreds of its Super Hornet jets. The deal will bring up to 500 jobs in San Antonio. …

“It’ll take up to 10 years to work all the airplanes. We anticipate about 400 to 500 Super Hornets rolling through,” said Joe Galloway, San Antonio site leader of Boeing Global Services.

While it’s unlikely that Boeing would bring Elmendorf evictions onto the bargaining table, it would fit the personalities of Perry and Gonzales to volunteer the destruction of Bird Island as an incentive.

But despite Team Eviction’s dubious factual support, despite community resistance, distrust and anger, and despite the subservient political posturing of politicians, no concerted, full-fledged community engagement process arose to explore alternatives to displacement.

For instance, given that USDA’s APHIS is known for its harsh approach to all human/wildlife conflicts, was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ever consulted on possible alternatives, such as adaptations at the landfill attracting the birds? (Vanessa Kauffman, USFW Public Affairs Specialist on migratory birds, did not respond to Deceleration calls.)

Likewise, how has radar been used to track and respond to bird traffic? We know weather radar picks up the missions of bats emerging seasonally at Bracken Cave without problem. While it’s unlikely to outperform anything in the US Department of Defense’s arsenal, perhaps even already being employed at Kelly, technology around bird tracking has gotten really, really good with the continued rise of wind power.

Birds tracked by radar over a 24-hour period. Image: USFWS

Likewise, was it ever publicly disclosed where “concerns” about odors from the island originated? With the community—or within the City of San Antonio?

Amid all the public-health handwringing by non-specialists, one self-described (immunocompromised) retired infectious disease specialist delivered the following message to D7 Councilmember Ana Sandoval on the subject of Elmendorf:

Letter from former infectious disease specialist responding to the proposed destruction of the Bird Island rookery. Public Records.

What have been the experiences of other “bird rich” cities, including New Orleans and Washington, DC, and any resulting mitigation efforts?

Though the Elmendorf eviction campaign has been promoted as entirely humane, the experience of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation shows it hasn’t been damage-free.

Among City staff, this has been clear from the start as well. Here’s a typical call-and-response released to Deceleration by Open Records request:

Talking about “feces and carcasses” at the City of San Antonio.

Perhaps it is too late to raise these questions (again). Perhaps the public sentiment is that this plumed ship has sailed. But the damage at Bird Island is not complete. The planned “harrassment” by lights and canons can be put on pause.

In fact, doing so would offer the community a rich opportunity to discuss what the values of our recently adopted Climate Action & Adaptation Plan should mean for our relationship with urban wildlife—particularly for rare ecological gems such as Elmendorf, which until recently was, potentially, the only thriving rookery in the city.

So, this is a message offered to our City leadership—to displacement boosters like Councilmembers Gonzales and Perry and potential interveners like Mayor Ron Nirenberg and D6 Councilmember Manny Pelaez (who distinguished himself as the one elected leader who spoke powerfully of the need to defend global biodiversity on the day of the October 17, 2019, climate vote).

It’s also a question to all of my neighbors, on the Westside and around the city. It is a question about who we are. It is a question of what I’m going to tell my son. And you yours.

We must ask ourselves and each other why, in a period of global ecological collapse, the City of San Antonio continues to war with our non-human relatives on a far-from-proven pretext—apparently in a habituated fear response over the (imagined) loss of more warplanes to service.

The destruction, erasure, and occupation of wild spaces is an age-old story. But it’s not one we should continue to accept. It’s not one the planet can anymore tolerate. And, yes, we can do things differently.

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The video dispatch at top summarizing the Bird Island displacement draws on a number of unique livestreams first broadcast on Facebook. As they were posted there:

ONE: TUESDAY AM: City of San Antonio – Municipal Government attack on Bird Island begins. A removal of a handful of nests to transport to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center takes place. City staff say, unofficially, that maybe … just maybe … some birds will follow the nests. This is a day spent preparing the island for major destruction to follow. Here I stumble upon and interview Kamala Platt who is documenting the activity from the far side of the lake.
https://www.facebook.com/deceleration/videos/443154823065647

TWO: TUESDAY AM: Overview of Tuesday activity that involves, actively or in oversight capacity, the City of San Antonio Parks & Recreation Department, Texas Parks and Wildlife, United States Air Force, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others.
https://www.facebook.com/deceleration/videos/565738060890073

THREE: WEDNESDAY AM: Serious demolition work begins on the island ecosystem by City of San Antonio – Municipal Government. Chain saws obliterate the understory and dozens upon dozens of nests are destroyed and removed. The larger Cypress trees remain.
https://www.facebook.com/deceleration/videos/2371109273152785

FOUR: WEDNESDAY PM: The birds return after day of foraging afield to find no nests to return to. They congregate on branches and on the ground in groups. As I’m recording, I notice COSA Parks staff using a green laser to harass the birds further.
https://www.facebook.com/deceleration/videos/529754904285054

FIVE: WEDNESDAY PM: As dark comes on, we are watching the green laser sweep the birds on the island. Lasers are phase two. In the future (we read in the San Antonio Express-News today, harassment will include drones … which have been spotted already … and noise harassment/pyrotecnics … and shiny balloons, and more.) As succinctly summed up by one community watchdog, these technologies are in effect the “bombing of Bird Island.”
https://www.facebook.com/deceleration/videos/2876253165740933


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