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Clearing the air


Jeff and Myla

by June  Rich
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
e-mail:jrich@newspress.com

    The county has tried lightning firecrackers to scare them away; they've flown toy planes and helicopters near them by remote control.
    At other landfills, workers even set out stuffed sea gulls, contorted in positions of distress, to warn birds not to feed there.
    None of the methods was particularly effective, until Jeff Diaz, the county's new falconer, showed up for work last week at the Tajiguas Landfill on the Gaviota coast.
    Previously, thousands of gulls fluttered about the irresistible 100-foot-wide open face of garbage at the landfill, treating the yucky heap of waste like an all-day buffet.
    Now, perhaps a hundred gulls circle the garbage, but they are far, far up in the air, keeping a wary distance from Mr. Diaz, his border collie, Max, and his three falcons, Isis, Nyla and Seth.
    "They are so hungry," Mr. Diaz said, of the gulls.  He wears a brown camouflage hat and orange construction vest.  "Unless they're eating smelt on the beach, they're not getting a meal out here."
    Why all the trouble?  DNA tests have shown that gull poop is the main contaminant at the county's most polluted beach, Arroyo Quemado, just east of the landfill.  The county is anxious to quash concerns that the landfill pollutes the ocean, even by attracting the gulls.  It wants to convince the public to prolong the landfill's life another 15 years until a new dump site is found.
    Mr. Diaz, 41, stands on a bumpy, bare expanse of dirt above the garbage 10 hours per day, six days per week.  He doesn't take breaks- neither do the gulls- and eats cold cuts out of the cooler in his truck.
    He typically flies one bird at a time, though on a recent afternoon Seth sat loosely tethered on a perch 100 feet away while Isis flew free around the canyon, eventually landing on Mr. Diaz' truck.
    Isis watched as the gulls slowly dropped lower and lower toward the garbage.  Her head bobbed up and down excitedly between her shoulders for a few minutes, just watching.  Finally, a few gulls flew too low for the falcon's comfort- she dove into their midst.
    Like confetti, the gulls scattered into the sky above her, eventually disappearing altogether.
    The falcons don't eat the sea gulls- they are trained just to chase them, and to eat when Mr. Diaz gives them food.
    "I have to admit, I'm amazed.  This has been much more effective than we anticipated," said Mark Tautrim, operations manager at Tajiguas.
    Asked about the ultimate effectiveness of the program- do the falcons really stop the gulls from pooping in or near the ocean?- Mr. Tautrim said, "Our prime responsibility is to keep the gulls out of the refuse on site, for there not to be a food source in this area."
    Mr. Diaz has been employed on a trial, one-month basis.  He makes $50 per hour, a lot of money if his contract were full-time through the year, but he said that wouldn't be necessary.
    Mr. Tautrim agreed: "We wouldn't have approved a $150,000 bird program for the landfill."
    Sea gulls, by nature, are organized: They typically follow the lead of an "alpha" gull, a scout that goes in first and indicates when it is safe to land.  They pass on learned behaviors to their offspring.  Eventually, the county hopes that, with occasional reminders from the falcons, the gulls will just stop coming.
    On Mr. Diaz' first day, swarms of confused gulls kept trying for a taste of the garbage throughout the day, provoking the falcons.  By contrast, far fewer were hanging around late this week, and most kept their distance.
    Mr. Diaz' experience has been similar at other jobs, most recently in his contract with the Air Force, which had a pigeon problem at Plant 42 in Palmdale.
    "The guano was a big mess," he said, noting that he still has the contract, but doesn't need to be on-site all the time.  "And there was a runway, so they really just needed me to clear them out of there."
    In the year since he took up professional falconry services, under the name "Ronin Air," Mr. Diaz has also worked to get rid of European starlings on blueberry farms and at vineyards near Paso Robles.
    He believes he is the only landfill falconer in California (he knows one in Washington), and possibly one of about two dozen falconry bird control services around the country.  They are most commonly used to keep runways clear when airplanes are taking off.
    He started his own business about a year ago, with the realization that he was uniquely suited for the work.
    He is single, without children, and doesn't mind picking up and moving for a job.  He can spend the time necessary to care for the three birds, which entails a lot of face-to-face contact- sometimes all three sleep on a perch next to his bed- and meticulous care.  He flies them 300 days per year.
    To fly them year-round, through their normally inactive, molting season, he has to monitor their weight rigorously, with a digital scale and by feeling their musculature.
    Why does he do it?
    "There's no affection between the falcon and the falconer," he said.  "Most falconers say they do it to watch the flight, the pursuit.  It's just an amazing thing.  I love to watch their flight.  When your bird goes up in the air, part of your heart and soul goes with them.  No matter how bad your day is, part of you is up there flying with that bird."


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