Lakenheath harbors, protects endangered species

A stone curlew stands over its nest on the airfield at RAF Lakenheath, England. The birds are endangered, and three pairs of the birds call the airfield home. (Courtesy photo)

A stone curlew stands over its nest on the airfield at RAF Lakenheath, England. The birds are endangered, and six pairs of the birds call the airfield home.

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- A massive fence, around-the-clock patrols, military working dogs, gate procedures and security areas are here to protect people, high-dollar assets - and ... the stone curlew.

The stone curlew is a strange, rare summer visitor to southern England according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Web site. It's a crow-sized bird with a large head, long yellow legs and relatively long wings and tail.

It's also considered endangered and protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, and messing with them could land a violator with a fine of up to £5,000 and a prison sentence of up to six months.

"I found out about stone curlews being on base 10 years ago," said Tim Cowan, RSPB stone curlew project officer in the East of England. "At first there was one pair, and then two, and then three pairs - out of a national population of two or three hundred. That's one or two percent of the total population, which is very significant. The exciting news this year is that three pairs have become six. In the course of a year, the stone curelew population has doubled here."

"It's incredibly surprising that they are there," he said. "They are a very timid species, they dislike any sort of human disturbance, and tend to shy away from built-up areas. Flying on the air base is very a-typical, it's not the type of place we would ever think to find them."

He continued saying, "they probably came here at night to feed and became familiar with the aircraft and learned if they came close to the runway they would be safe and away from people. Over the years, they've became braver and realized that the type of disturbance here is fairly predictable and quite safe."

Birds near the flight line is nothing new for the Air Force; it's commonplace to see programs designed to ensure a safe relationship between both birds and their mechanized, high-powered, human equivalent. Unlike other birds, the stone curlew presents little hazard to aircraft here, because they mostly run around on the ground and hide from humans.

"I can name half a dozen birds that are more of a threat than that little guy is," said Master Sgt. Lyle Gillogly, 48th Fighter Wing Flight Safety NCO in charge. "There's slim to no chance of them being ingested into an aircraft engine because they're pretty timid, and the sound scares them away. Further, their habitats are on the overruns versus the active taxiways, where it's busiest."

The two birds, one mechanical and one natural, do their best not to bother each other. While one leaves the base daily, training to ensure freedom's future, the other lives on to ensure the prosperity of their endangered species.

The base itself is designed to protect both birds.

"They have a fence line all around the base, they have security forces, Ministry of Defence and an environmental team all here to protect them," said Malcolm Buxton, 48th Civil Engineer Squadron environmental manager. "They're not that stupid to work out where the best protection is, but sometimes, I do wonder whether they're stone curlews or stone deaf!"