‘They can be perceived as a threat,’ so drone users asked to give these birds space

This is where to see the only colony of great blue herons in Bellingham

The protected environment at the Post Point Lagoon in Fairhaven provides a habitat for the only colony of great blue herons in Bellingham.
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The protected environment at the Post Point Lagoon in Fairhaven provides a habitat for the only colony of great blue herons in Bellingham.

The city of Bellingham is asking people who plan to fly drones to capture images of the finish line of the Ski to Sea race at Marine Park to be aware of great blue herons and their colony nearby.

They’re concerned about the stress buzzing drones may cause to the birds, who have returned to their seasonal home to nest and raise their young high in the trees adjacent to Post Point Lagoon.

“They (drones) can be perceived as a threat,” Ann Eissinger, a biologist who has more than 25 years of experience monitoring great blue herons, told The Bellingham Herald.

That’s because most of the herons’ predators come from the sky, according to Eissinger, who monitors the heron colony for the city of Bellingham.

“That’s the crux right there,” she said.

The annual relay race from Mt. Baker Ski Area to Marine Park falls on Sunday, May 26, this year. It draws thousands of racers and visitors to the 93-mile race’s finish line at the park, including its beach, and Fairhaven.

The herons forage for food in the lagoon and along the shoreline near the park.

“The city’s habitat restoration group is working to limit disruptions to the Post Point heron colony during their foraging and nesting periods, which happen to be around the same time as the Ski to Sea race,” Bellingham officials said in an email.

Eissinger said drone operators should avoid the area that’s south of Marine Park between the heron colony and the shoreline.

She said what will be unique this year is that the low tide will coincide with the first arrival of the kayakers at Marine Park in the final leg of Ski to Sea.

That means the tide is going to be out and the herons will be foraging, Eissinger explained.

A great blue heron perches on a railing on the shore of Post Point Lagoon in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Heron colony history

The only great blue heron nesting site in Bellingham, the colony is on a nearshore bluff southwest of the Post Point Waste Water Treatment Plant.

The colony was first documented in 2000. It is on a strip of city land between the treatment plant and undeveloped, privately owned land.

Visitors can see the birds and their nests high up in a fenced-off stand of trees while on a graveled trail across from the plant.

Great blue herons are the largest herons in North America, with wing spans of 6 feet.

Adults have slate-gray bodies with touches of chestnut and black, as well as long necks and legs.

They look like they’re sporting black eyebrows on the sides of their heads.

Great blue herons are on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s priority list, meaning they require protective measures for their survival.

The birds return to Post Point to nest and raise their young over six to seven months, beginning in February or March — depending on the weather — and continuing to August.

Last year, there were a total of 44 active nests in the colony, and 41 produced young, according to the 2018 monitoring report that Eissinger wrote for the city of Bellingham.

That’s the highest number of nests. But the growth likely occurred because of the presence of herons from a Samish Island colony that was abandoned in 2017, according to the report.

Heron map.jpg
A map shows the great blue heron colony adjacent to the Post Point Lagoon and the city’s wastewater treatment plant in Bellingham. The yellow line represents a 197-foot buffer around the colony that is recommended by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The purple line is a 100-foot non-disturbance buffer, while the red line circles the colony’s core. The solid red dots are trees where there were active nests in 2018, and the solid green dots are previous nest trees. The flowery green/yellow dots are trees where they roost. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Increasing concern about drones

Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems and unmanned aerial vehicles, are remote-controlled.

While they have been used to help monitor wildlife by agencies such as Fish and Wildlife — they can cover a large area and it allows officials to avoid using helicopters — the growth in their numbers is a concern to biologists, who worry that they stress animals when they are misused by a public that doesn’t know any better.

“Drones continue to be of concern. In 2016, individuals flying drones were observed at Marine Park. Drones were also used in this area in 2017. Drones are considered a source of intentional harassment by WDFW if flown in sensitive areas, such as heron colonies or their feeding areas when herons are present,” the 2018 report on the heron colony states.

“Drones need to be restricted from the heron colony, associated forest buffer and foraging areas during the nesting season,” it continues.

In its email to The Herald and to Ski to Sea race organizers, the city asked that drones not be used within a 197-foot buffer around the nests, as recommended by Fish and Wildlife, or in the herons’ foraging area in the lagoon, as well as along the shoreline near Marine Park.

Ski to Sea organizers said it will use one to two drones on the course on race day and will comply with the city’s request and stay near the finish line.

Anna Rankin, race director, said Whatcom Events doesn’t issue rules to those who want to use drones during Ski to Sea or other races it organizes.

“We personally don’t have any rules with our events, and trust that the public won’t use drones in any restricted area or where it will distract a racer or cause a safety concern,” Rankin said.

A great blue heron looks down the beach at Marine Park in Bellingham, Wash., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Rules and guidelines for drone use

It’s unknown how many drones are in Whatcom County.

Widely available, they’re used by professional photographers as well as hobbyists. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration said more than 1 million drones were registered with the agency, and that number was expected to grow.

Rankin said people who are thinking about flying drones over the Ski to Sea race course should be aware of the rules.

“The use of drones on Forest Service land, Port (of Bellingham) property and at the Mt. Baker Ski Area requires permits and/or permission,” Rankin said to The Bellingham Herald. “And drones anywhere near the airport property (for the cyclocross leg) is strictly prohibited. We simply ask people to use common sense.”

To Eissinger and the city, it’s about educating the public.

“I think it helps people understand that there are places that should not be used for just fun and photography,” she said. “I try to reduce the stress on the herons as much as possible, but it’s difficult in an urban environment. There’s all sorts of things going on.”

If you’re flying drones, here’s what Eissinger advises:

“Be aware where you’re flying your drone.” Avoid areas where herons may be foraging.

“Be aware of the area and if there’s any sensitivity.” If there’s a heron flying, maneuver your drone away from it.

“Stay away from wildlife.”

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.