OCEAN CITY - The city's airport was planning to attack its growing geese problem even before an airplane struck two birds and crashed in the marsh last month.
Nobody was hurt in the July 4 accident, but the Lancair Columbia plane's propeller and landing gear were severely damaged when they smashed into two Canada geese waddling across the base of the runway.
The impact was so violent that one of the plane's tires sailed into the marshes, where it was never seen again, said Bill Colangelo, the airport manager.
"We looked. We searched the length of the runway but couldn't find it," he said.
The pilot from Lancaster, Pa., was landing at the airport at about 10 a.m. when the plane struck an adult goose and a nearly grown gosling that wandered out of the nearby reeds into the path of the approaching plane.
A collision with a flock of geese caused US Airways Flight 1549 to ditch in the Hudson River in January. Until July, Ocean City had never witnessed a bird strike.
Colangelo said the airport recognized in the spring that the larger resident population of Canada geese posed a potential hazard to air traffic and began making plans to remove them.
Across New Jersey, aircraft collided with wildlife 1,113 times in the past five years, including 33 collisions with Canada geese, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In its preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Ocean City in the July 4 accident for not having a wildlife fence between its runway and the wetlands bordering Peck Bay. The report also identified 30 resident geese near the airport.
Colangelo said he will add fencing in the airport's capital plan next year, even if it is just the low, plastic kind used to keep diamondback terrapins off causeways in Cape May County. This fencing would be tall enough to keep the goslings off the runways, he said.
The airport has always had a close relationship with waterfowl because of its waterfront location. Its runway is parallel to the adjacent municipal golf course, which was shared by an equal number of duffers and geese Tuesday.
Gulls use the ample runway space to break open clams, and cleaning up broken clamshells is a daily chore at the airport. A resident red fox patrols the marshes behind the airport.
Across the road on Bay Avenue sits the Howard S. Stainton Wildlife Refuge, which likewise attracts innumerable shorebirds and waterfowl year-round. This refuge is especially popular with Atlantic brant, a small goose common to southern New Jersey's barrier islands.
Airport staff ruled out using noisemakers to scatter the birds.
At the Cape May County landfill, employees shoot fireworks and sporadic cannons to keep gulls away from nearby Woodbine Municipal Airport. But Colangelo said the airport's bayfront neighbors would object to the intrusion.
The plywood German shepherd silhouettes the airport posted - which swiveled in the wind like a dog chasing its tail - kept the geese away for a month until the fowl realized the two-dimensional cutouts posed no danger.
Colangelo contacted the wildlife manager at Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township, who volunteered to help Ocean City with its geese conundrum.
The airport tried harassing the birds by shooting them with paintball guns, but that barely ruffled their feathers, he said.
The airport also stopped trimming its perimeter fields like a golf course fairway. Instead, the maintenance crews were advised to let the grass grow 10 inches high to discourage the geese, Colangelo said. This measure did not prevent the geese from meandering out of the marsh reeds onto the runway on Independence Day, he said.
Despite their abundance locally, Canada geese are a federally protected species. Finally, in June, the city acquired permits to shoot the birds.
The details of the hunt were planned with precision, Colangelo said. The goal was to target geese nearest the bay where any stray birdshot would fall harmlessly into the water, Colangelo said.
But when the day arrived for the hunt, the geese vanished.
"Wouldn't you know it, there wasn't one goose at the airport or the golf course," Colangelo said. "We couldn't find a one."
Colangelo said he is looking into getting a second hunting permit that would allow city police to shoot the trespassing birds if necessary.
Police spokesman Lt. Steven Ang said that is probably a bad idea.
"I know it was something that was being considered. But there have got to be other ways," Ang said.
"Ocean City is a resort community. There's a soccer field nearby, a golf course, Ocean Reef Condominiums. On three sides you're surrounded by homes. You're in a populated community. I would prefer they explore other options."
One such idea is to catch and relocate goslings before they can fly, Colangelo said.
But the long-term solution might be fake grass.
The airport installed a test section of plastic turf near its runway in 2004. The turf was advertised as a maintenance-free alternative to sod with the added benefit of making geese unwelcome. The birds do not like the tactile sensation of the prickly plastic.
Colangelo said, indeed, he has never seen any geese on the square of turf in the past five years.
The airport will investigate the costs of laying turf on both sides of the runway, particularly on the western marsh side frequented by ducks and geese, Colangelo said.
In the meantime, airport employees regularly patrol the runways in a utility truck to shoo away any geese that wander too close. Colangelo said this is a time-consuming but effective technique for now.
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Aircraft in New Jersey have struck wildlife 1,113 times between March 2004 and March 2009. Here are the top offenders by species:
Animal New Jersey nationwide
European starling 88 874
Killdeer 54 1,081
American kestrel 50 1,057
Mourning dove 47 1,648
Mallard 38 222
Other animals struck by planes in New Jersey include:
Bald eagle 1
Domestic cat 1