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Donít blame the birds, volunteer birdwatchers say

By Lu-Ann Fuentes-Bajarias
Posted at 09/12/2012 8:38 PM | Updated as of 09/14/2012 2:32 PM

MANILA, Philippines -- Birdwatchers on Wednesday waded in on the debate on whether an avian sanctuary near Manila's airport should be closed.

A recent bird strike that hit a Philippine Airlines flight as it was about to land at the Tacloban City airport has renewed public discussion on whether the 2007 proclamation establishing "a critical habitat and ecotourism area" within the Coastal Lagoon of Las Piñas and Parañaque risks the safety of airline passengers.

The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) led by president Mike Lu pointed out in a press conference that several airports around the world "actually do co-exist well" with sanctuaries and large bird populations close to them, including London Heathrow and Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport -- which are among the world's busiest.

According to the birdwatchers, there shouldn't be a debate between aviation safety and birdlife.

“WBCP holds the safety of airline passengers paramount of course. All we’re saying is that there is no evidence that the critical habitat is in any way connected with any bird strikes in Metro Manila. Neither airlines nor airport authorities have given us any information on species, whether the bird strike happened during take off or landing, or what time of year, or whether they are migratory or resident birds,” Lu said.

The club’s records chairman, Danish ornithologist Arne Jensen, has worked for 11 years as "Bird Strike Advisor" for the authorities of Copenhagen airport -- the largest in Scandinavia -- which is located next to two major bird sanctuaries.

Jensen's assessment is that closing the bird sanctuary will pose "a greater danger" to people than keeping it.

"There are more than 100,000 wetlands birds in Manila Bay moving daily in every season. If a sanctuary within their migratory path suddenly disappears, they will scatter even more to areas nearer the airport where they may pose a danger,” he said.

Jensen instead recommends that the Ninoy Aquino International Airport establish a bird strike committee to develop various bird strike adaptation and mitigation strategies required of each bird species.

Possible steps he cited from experience are: runway sweeps before every takeoff or landing; a comparative study of fly paths and elevations between birds and airlines; removal of waterbirds-attracting open waterways within NAIA; increased eastwards takeoffs away from Manila Bay; banning on breeding and feeding of feral pigeons in Taguig, Las Pinas, Paranaque, and Manila; and making public all data on bird strikes for facts-based analyses on the best adaptation practice.

“Who stands to gain from closing a sanctuary?” asked the club’s conservation committee member Atty. Ipat Luna. “Not the Filipinos. The Coastal Lagoon is the only remaining part of Manila that shows, to anyone willing to rediscover it, the mangrove-lined coasts that used to be Manila.”

The sanctuary’s provisions currently protect the critical habitat from massive reclamation proposals that will destroy the mangroves, salt marshes and tidal areas that allow breeding, feeding and roosting for marine and terrestrial wildlife.