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Ingesting the Madison airport birding scene

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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During this stretch of the winter, when the landscape around us seems to settle into a muted exhaustion, it’s comforting to remind yourself that life is still putting up a fight. I got my own reminder this past weekend, thanks to a friend who’s recently gotten really, really into birding. Apparently local bird watchers have been excited about sightings of snowy owls near the Dane County Regional Airport, so on Sunday we pulled off on the shoulder of Highway 51, by a field just north of the fenced-in runway area.

We didn’t see any owls, but we did get to spot what was either a rough-legged hawk or a northern harrier. (The people on-site who knew more about birds than I do could not quite agree.) Through my friend’s binoculars, we watched it perch atop a bright orange pole for a bit, then swoop down and begin the leisurely process of disemboweling some poor varmint with its beak. 

I hadn’t realized that DCRA is something of a hotspot for observing birds of prey. “I would guess it has to do with the openness that is associated with airports. It’s not like we can have a lot of close buildings or urban area around our 1,200-acre airfield,” says Lowell Wright, the airport’s noise abatement and environmental officer. “We do have abundant food sources around here for them,” Wright adds, pointing out a local population of voles, mice, and other small rodents that occupy the grassy and woody areas and farm fields around the north side.

Wright enjoys spotting wildlife as much as anyone, but “I don’t always like to see it at work,” he says. If there’s a bird in or near the airfield, Wright has to assess whether it poses a threat to safe aviation. A bird getting “ingested,” in Wright’s terminology, can destroy a plane’s engine and/or damage its fuselage. Ideally, Wright is able to trap birds and go release them somewhere safer—which is what he’s been trying to do with the aforementioned snowy owls this week. If a bird is getting dangerously close to the runway, airport workers will try to harass it with lights, sirens, and pyrotechnics (“kind of like bottle rockets,” Wright says), and can kill it if other measures don’t work.

Despite these efforts, the occasional bird still gets sucked into a plane engine at DCRA, including some truly precious species. “We’ve had strikes from snow buntings this time of year,” Wright says. “We have the only recorded whooping crane strike in the United States that happened here a couple years ago. That was one of the experimental flocks that came out of Necedah. We had one that was struck by a plane at 8 o’clock in the dark.”

Wright is aware that local birders have their eyes on the airport and its surrounds. He notes that this is a good time of year for spotting rough-legged hawks, which usually start to leave the area in March.

(Rough-legged hawk photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)


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Photo by Lindsey Rothrock.

Photo by Lindsey Rothrock.

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