Forcing sea gulls to take flight

Redwood City man says his falcons could curb area beach contamination


Half Moon Bay Review

Jeffrey Diaz insists he knows how to rid Coastside beaches of thousands of dirty and diseased gulls.

In fact, he's personally acquainted with 14 ways to do it.

A professional falconer who owns and operates Ronin Air Falconry Service in Redwood City, Diaz is credited with saving one of the most contaminated beaches in California, Arroyo Quemada Beach in Santa Barbara County.

With help from his arsenal of 14 specially trained falcons, Diaz believes he can do the same for Half Moon Bay.

"I can make both of those beaches totally clean," said Diaz, referring to Venice and Francis state beaches, both of which suffer from a perennial infestation of gulls. "We're talking like 99.9 percent clean. That's what happened in Santa Barbara and they didn't think it could work."

The birds of prey frighten away gulls, the primary source of beach avian droppings, which pollute ocean waters and make them unsafe for human use.

"Falcons trigger the natural, predator-prey fear instinct in sea gulls," Diaz said.

Released upon the gull habitats of Ox Mountain landfill and Francis and Venice state beaches, his raptors would repel gulls congregating in those places, he said.

Without the massive food source of Ox Mountain available, the gull population would likely shrink to a smaller, healthier size. And fewer bacteria would contaminate the sand and surf along the coast of Half Moon Bay.

San Mateo County Environmental Health is interested in the possibility of using falconry, but more information is needed, said Dean Peterson, director of the county department. He has requested information about the effectiveness of falconry from the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

"From what I've seen, it seems to work and it seems to have a lasting effect," Peterson said.

The county cannot force a landfill to employ falconry or other gull abatement alternatives. The county can only offer a recommendation, Peterson said.

Both Venice and Francis state beaches have long suffered from poor water quality. Water sampling tests regularly reveal coliform and enterococcus bacteria counts in excess of state standards. The bacteria can cause infectious diseases including urinary tract and wound infections, flu-like symptoms and, in very rare cases, even death.

Allied Waste Services, which now owns Ox Mountain landfill after buying out former owner Browning-Ferris Industries, considered employing falconry services in the past. No plans have been made or contracts signed, however.

The company is first planning to use artificial scare tactics such as gun blanks and other explosions of sound. Landfill officials don't consider the gulls a problem on the site, but they may be interested in maintaining a good public image, a driving force behind ridding the landfill of the birds.

Allied Waste Systems did not return calls for comment by press time. The company has not yet submitted a gull management plan to San Mateo County.

Kathy Kefauver, senior environmental engineer for Santa Barbara County's solid waste department, which contracted with Ronin Air Falconry Services in 2002, said the beach water quality has improved dramatically since the falcons arrived. The county has since switched falconry services to an outfit based closer to home.

"In our situation it worked very well," she said. "I don't know what it would be like in other applications, but at the landfill here where we're located out in a rural area it's been very successful."

The situation she described was similar to Half Moon Bay's predicament.

Tajiguas landfill is located about half a mile inland from Arroyo Quemada State Beach in Santa Barbara County. Before the arrival of trained falcons, gulls fed at the landfill and congregated on the beach, which was routinely closed due to poor water quality.

Then, a falconer stopped by to demonstrate his birds' abilities.

"We had about 2,000 birds on the landfill and they all got up and left," Kefauver said.

"Once we had the falcons the bacteria levels dropped (at the beaches) and they were open about 90 percent of the year. Arroyo Quemado went from one of the dirtiest beaches to one of the cleanest," she said, citing an annual study from environmental group Heal the Bay.

Local environmentalists are pushing for Ox Mountain to employ falconry services. At a cost of roughly $150,000 a year, falconry services aren't cheap, however.

Jane De Lay, executive director, of Save our Shores, which is investigating the gull infestation, said her organization supports anything that will improve water quality, which is the group's primary mission.

When it came to falconry - or the introduction of any pest management tool for that matter - she hoped people would act prudently to avoid unforeseen consequences.

"We must come up with creative solutions that address the problem," she said. "At the same time we don't want it to be something that the cure is worse than the disease.

"Falconry might be the answer. There might be a lot of different solutions," she said. "It's something that you have to think very, very carefully about."

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

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Leigh Ann Maze / Review Kenny Elvin of Ronin Air holds a pair of Saker falcons. Kiddo, a female, is on the left. T.J., a male, is on the right. The trio posed above Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay as sea gulls swooped nearby.

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