Florida Keys News
Sunday, November 25, 2012
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For the love -- or dislike -- of birds
Turkey vultures back, but not in force

A few singed feathers are all that remain of the bird whose untimely demise caused a short power outage early Monday on Big Pine Key. The fact that it was big enough to short the line, however, suggests it might have been a turkey vulture, flocks of which are currently passing through the Keys during their annual migration south.

Of these many thousands of birds, some choose to stay in the island chain during the winter months, and are a familiar sight as they circle the skies, scanning for the carrion that makes up the bulk of their diet.

"I have no idea what kind of bird hit the line," said Keys Energy spokesman Julio Barroso.

"There usually isn't much evidence left in this kind of case. When a bird sits on a line, it's usually OK. It's not grounded. But if a wing strikes another line when they're trying to take off, they're grounded and that's what causes outages. It's not a frequent occurrence. It's the first bird strike in a long while that I can remember."

And the buzzards are here -- they are making their presence known. But are there more or fewer than in years' past?

"Ah, every year is the worst year ever," said flight instructor Nikali Pontecorvo of Key West Seaplanes, which flies out of Key West International Airport.

"They're a pain in the butt, but it's just part of flying in Florida. You have to keep your eyes open when you go to land. I'm not a ornithologist, but it's just one of things where you forget how bad is was until you go through it again."

Pontecorvo said the airport has its own way of dealing with the rapacious raptors when they get too close to the airport.

"It's kind of like a glorified bottle rocket," he said of the loud pyrotechnic devices used to warn the bird away.

But Monroe County Director of Airports Peter Horton said they haven't had to resort to using them any more than usual, so far, this year.

"They come in at the end of October and stay until about March," Horton said. "When there are too many, we 'bird-bang' them.

"We disperse birds with pyrotechnics. But we've actually seen fewer buzzards this year than in years past."

Due to their location, the Keys are at least a temporary home to all kinds of winged wonders, making a focus on one particular variety as a nuisance somewhat disingenuous.

"We have a problem with birds in general, with seagulls, etc., on the pier," said Naval Air Station spokeswoman Trice Denny, referring to the bird-dropping encrusted Navy Mole Pier, where docked cruise ship passengers get their first look at Key West. "That's kind of a cleanliness issue out there. We have sprinklers to try to chase them away. We use the same techniques out at the Boca Chica airfield.

"It is an issue, but with birds in general, not just the turkey vultures."

Still, due to their sheer numbers, these birds of prey can't help but be a large part of the problems which occur when civilization runs up against nature.

By one count, that of two researchers with the Florida Keys Hawkwatch organization, some 5,714 turkey vultures were counted in the skies over Curry Hammock in one day, Oct. 30.

"The turkey vultures are kind of an anomaly, in that they're not all migrating," said Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue Animal Care Director Peggy Coontz. "Some of them will be spending their winters here.

"It seems to me that the population is very similar to what I saw last year.

"As for patients, we're about at the same numbers of turkey vultures we got last year."

For the time being, at least, residents of the Keys might be well advised not to look up into a "kettle" of circling vultures, as there's no telling what they might end up eyeing.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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