by Joshua Maloni
A dogfight between the Village of Lewiston and local environmentalists is starting to yield tangible results.
Buffalo Ornithological Society President Thomas O'Donnell, the Buffalo Audubon Society and Region 9 of the state Department of Environmental Conservation have all unequivocally said model airplanes pose a threat to birds nesting in the 20 acres of habitat on the upper plateau by Artpark. The Village Board of Trustees reinstated the Niagara Sunday Fliers' privileges to fly planes above village recreation space (next to the habitat) at its July 5 meeting.
"Any bird in the nesting process (with eggs) would likely abandon with any regular flight of these planes overhead. I.e., if they were just in the process of building a nest, they would leave the area and go elsewhere," said the DEC's Connie Adams in an email. "If they had chicks, the adults would leave the area for the duration of the flight time. I.e., the chicks or eggs would be exposed to sun and elements. An exposed chick will die within 15 to 30 minutes if the weather was as warm as it has been this summer. An egg will last slightly longer, but no longer than an hour. Then the embryo would die."
O'Donnell said model airplanes "would probably tend to have a greater impact" on the birds than, say, concert crowds walking by on Artpark nights, because "birds tend to look up in the air for predators."
"The birds would view the planes as an aerial predator, much the same as they would view a hawk. ... The noise would also frighten them," Adams wrote.
In similar situations, where habitat is situated near recreational space, kite flying has even been prohibited so as to not disturb the birds, said members of the Lewiston office of the Buffalo Audubon Society.
On July 5, Niagara Sunday Fliers' representative Joe Macaluso asked the Village Board to allow his group use of the plateau as a backup when members can't use the under-construction Reservoir State Park. He said he spoke with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and was told birds don't nest during the summer when the model airplanes take flight and probably wouldn't nest in an area that hosts concerts and Independence Day fireworks.
Following the board's decision to welcome the model airplane group back, a debate ensued between Mayor Terry Collesano and two men actively involved in restoring the grasslands to their current state: Niagara Frontier Entomological Society founder Dr. David Cooper and Bob Baxter of the Niagara Heritage Partnership.
The latter made calls and sent emails to Niagara County reporters protesting the board's decision. Cooper's email chain also extended to Adams and Nancy Smith, stewardship manager of the Western New York Land Conservancy.
Moreover, Cooper questioned just where Macaluso received his nesting timetable.
When asked by this reporter, O'Donnell said, "We have 200-plus members. No one is allowed to speak without the permission of the Buffalo Ornithological Society." He said birds nest through August, which Buffalo Audubon concurred.
Cooper, himself a former president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, called the board's pro-Fliers vote "a Lewiston disgrace in the making," and wrote "Our ground nesting habitat development there took years to bring about and cost many thousands of dollars, largely from Niagara County's environmental fund. We have had great success in attracting four of five species of birds to it, which are of 'special concern' across North America because of loss of habitat (a place to live and breed). We also have recorded and confirmed by experts in the field two unusual species of butterflies heretofore unknown in Niagara County.
"We had previously provided the former mayor of Lewiston (Richard Soluri) ... with a massive portfolio of expert opinions on the negative impact of flying model aircraft upon ground-nesting birds on the project. He advised the Niagara (Sunday Fliers) they must go to alternative sites to practice their hobby. They are now back with the very same permission request that was denied several years ago.
"Mayor Collesano was sadly unimpressed by my presentation of these data to him in a meeting."
In response, Collesano said, "There's two groups. They both have concerns. I don't think one is infringing on the other."
He said the Niagara Sunday Fliers promised, "they would stay within the confines" of the village's land.
"We're conscious of (not infringing on the habitat). We don't want to infringe on their rights," Collesano said. "We don't want them to bother (the fliers), either."
He contends Artpark crowds are a bigger burden to birds.
Following the July 26 Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, Collesano said up to 7,000 people walked the plateau.
"They weren't walking on the paths - they were walking in that (habitat) area," he said. "I think I would be more concerned about that than about a couple of electric planes flying over the area."
As part of the agreement wherein the New York Power Authority deeded the 40-plus-acre plateau to the Village of Lewiston almost a decade ago, the municipality was contractually required to use the land for recreational purposes. Depending on which side you ask, almost 25 acres was earmarked for habitat so as to secure grant money. Cooper and Baxter both wrote letters supporting the village in that endeavor.
Soluri and the Board of Trustees asked the Niagara Sunday Fliers to leave the plateau in 2005, following a vigorous debate on the model airplane group's potential impact on nesting. Collesano is the only trustee still in office from that board.
Back then, Michael F. Burger, who is currently with Buffalo Audubon, wrote Copper and said, "Grassland birds nest, roost, and forage on the ground and are very susceptible to human disturbance. Model airplanes would be expected to disturb the grassland birds on the site, because of their size and shape, the altitude and pattern at which they are flown, and the noise they create. Furthermore, people flying and retrieving model airplanes would disturb grassland birds if they walk through habitat to retrieve planes that have landed in the grassland habitat."
Burger also noted a determination from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicating model airplane flying was not a compatible use at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern New York.
"Flying airplanes over the grassland restoration area would negatively impact any songbirds nesting there, perhaps to the point of keeping them from nesting," Adams said. "Any flying of planes should be limited to the time period from Oct. 1 to April 1. That way the field is able to be used by nesting and migrant birds.
"The fliers have typically used the fields near the reservoir at Reservoir State Park. I feel allowing the (Lewiston plateau) fields to be used by fliers is incompatible with encouraging the use of the field by grassland nesting birds. If they were going to endorse use of the field in this manner, then it was pointless to plant and manage for grassland and grassland nesting birds. I think flying remote-controlled planes over a nesting bird may well be considered harassment of a migratory bird species, which is against both state and federal law."
Cooper said, "I made it clear (to the mayor) that we do not condone his plan, we are adamantly against it and advise him not to do it."