Invisible flame burns birds in flight over New Jersey

LYNDHURST, N.J. - Soon an invisible flame should be killing or singeing fewer birds as they fly over the Meadowlands, a wetlands area in northeastern New Jersey.

Officials have started to install a giant cage-like structure about seven stories tall around a flame at the closed Kingsland Landfill. The cage is expected to prevent raptors and other birds from accidentally flying through and getting singed or incinerated.

“It feels good that they’ve listened and are finally doing something about it,” said President Don Torino of the Bergen County Audubon Society, who has complained for years about the problem to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority that oversees the landfill here. “There were no other methods out there that they could copy."

The agency had asked for advice from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and other experts. Most were stumped, but Public Service Electric & Gas workers recently came up with the design for a giant cage around the flame that burns off methane vented from the landfill, where waste decomposes underground.

“It certainly will help with the bigger raptors,” Torino said of the structure. “Small birds might still be a concern. But it’s certainly better than where we were.”

The sports authority recently paid the utility $65,000 to install eight telephone poles, each 75 feet high, to create the frame for the cage.

"We are performing the work for NJSEA at cost," utility spokeswoman Brooke Houston said.

Regulations don't allow Public Service Electric & Gas to donate labor and materials, she said.

Next will come bids for a chain-link fence to be installed from the top of the poles about 20 feet down. The cage won't have a roof because officials didn't want to encourage birds to land above the flame, said spokesman Brian Aberback of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

“The authority’s hard work has helped contribute to the comeback of birds and other wildlife in the Meadowlands region, and their health and safety is of paramount importance to us," said Wayne Hasenbalg, the sports authority's president.

Red-tailed hawks, ospreys and kestrels — a small hawk with declining populations that is considered threatened in New Jersey — were among the birds found with singed wing or tail feathers. Some were taken about 30 miles away to the Raptor Trust in Millington, N.J., for rehabilitation, but most birds need a year or more to regrow feathers.

Birds with injured tail and wing feathers have a tough time hunting for prey and are not likely to survive migration as winter approaches, according to Chris Soucy, director of the Raptor Trust.

Despite seeking out consultants and other experts to address the issue, the sports authority was stymied in part because there isn't a national standard for how to protect birds from being injured or killed in such flames.

Many of the methods already being used across the USA to reduce the problem call for the stacks to have intermittent flames, not flames that burn constantly, as in the Meadowlands. Consultants had suggested everything from mechanical modifications of the stack to an additive that makes the heat visible to birds.

“If this were a simple problem, something would have been done about it a long time ago,” Torino said.

Ultimately, the sports authority set out to design a structure that birds would want to avoid, such as a building, Aberback said. Even with the structure partially completed, officials have not seen birds approach it.

"The deterrent will appear to birds as a solid building, which will discourage birds of all sizes from flying near it,” he said.

Methane flares at all landfills pose dangers to birds, experts said. Raptors are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and landfill operators could be liable for up to $15,000 for each injured bird.

Sports authority officials have said they ultimately would like to contract with a company to capture the Kingsland Landfill methane for industrial use, eliminating the need for the flare.

This past fall the sports authority cut down trees around the flame to make it less attractive to birds that like to perch while searching for food.

The problem is worse during migration season when smaller birds are attracted to the grassy habitat, Torino said.

Unlike larger hawks and other raptors, many of these smaller birds do recover from their injuries. Torino said he has seen small savannah sparrows, a threatened species in New Jersey, get burned and then drop helplessly into the vegetation.

The project should be done in September, Aberback said. The final cost won’t be known until then.

“I just hope they can finish the project before the fall bird migration starts, which isn’t that far away,” Torino said.

Follow James M. O'Neill on Twitter: @JamesMONeill1

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