Wildlife expert tasked with clearing birds from pilots' flight paths

Marcus MacHemehl creates no-fly zone for birds at SA airport

SAN ANTONIO – After a month in theaters, the blockbuster movie "Sully" has raked in more than $130 million worldwide. It chronicles the extraordinary January 2009 landing by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger on the Hudson River after flying into a flock of geese and losing both engines of his Airbus A320.

Sullenberger and all 155 passengers and crew survived. This has put interest on the lengths airports take in keeping birds away from aircraft. The San Antonio International Airport is one of only three Texas airports with wildlife biologists specifically charged with the task.

With a backdrop of planes taking off and landing, Marcus MacHemehl arrives to work at 5 a.m. to search out flight plans of a different kind.

From 11 vantage points for five minutes at a time, the wildlife biologist, employed by San Antonio International Airport, studies and stays a step ahead of the birds. He catches up to 50 birds a year around the 12-mile airport perimeter with his homemade Swedish goshawk traps, which is a large cage containing pigeons as bait and a snapping trap door to catch predatory birds.

MacHemehl practices catch-and-release and relocates great horned owls, Swainson’s hawks and red-tailed hawks 75-100 miles from the planes and their engines.

"I caught a possum one time,” MacHemehl said.

Instead of attracting fowl, the former wildlife ranch hand is tasked with creating a no-fly zone.

"Planes aren't falling out of the sky, but you know there is, any time you get into a plane, there is a risk,"
MacHemehl said.

MacHemehl said 90 percent of his job is prevention, which means clearing trash and making sure people don't feed the animals. He even goes as far as keeping the grass short.

There are impediments, such as nearby Salado Creek and McAllister Park, which attract birds and are just a short flight away.

MacHemehl isn't too concerned, though, as the types of large birds that brought down Sullenberger's jetliner aren't common in South Texas. He said the fact is that without large bodies of water, there usually aren't large birds around.

"It would take a pretty big bird. Anything is possible," MacHemehl said.

The migration season is coming up and it's up to him to make sure all pilots’ skies are free and clear.

"(In the) last two weeks, we had a couple, quite a few, hawks,” MacHemehl said.