Vented Methane at Landfill Burns Birds

By Brenda Flanagan

The images break your heart. Kestrels — small birds of prey — their wings and tails torched, some burned down to the skin.

“It hurts me. Hurts me in here,” said Chris Takacs.

Audubon member Takacs — an avid bird photographer — took a picture of a kestrel burned by flying through a virtually invisible flare emitted by a pipe. It vents flammable methane 15 to 20 feet into the air at Kingsland Landfill, nonstop — a continuous 1,700-degree vortex created as the gas from decaying garbage burns off, unseeable except for shimmering heat unless you look at it after dark. Takacs took a video. He caught the burned kestrel in his photo, says it was grounded.

“Severely burned on two wings and severely burned in the tail. There was almost two-thirds of the feather gone. This bird could not fly. We watched it run around and jump to catch grasshoppers,” Takacs said.

“When you have even their feathers burned, you have to consider it a dead bird. They might not die at that instant but if they can’t hunt, if they can’t migrate — anything that hinders that — you have to consider that a bird that’s not going to survive the winter, unfortunately,” said Don Torino.

Torino heads the Bergen County Audubon Society. He says they found four burned kestrels around the landfills in North Arlington last month, don’t know how many they missed. But it’s prime kestrel habitat, located in the Meadowlands near DeKorte Park. Not that kestrels are the only birds burned by the methane flare.

“In the past you had burned ospreys, rough-leg hawks and they’re just flying right through it — whether they’re hunting, whether they’re chasing each other, whatever they’re doing — and they just fly right into the heat,” Torino said.

They have no idea it’s there?

“No, they don’t,” Torino said.

American kestrels are a threatened species in New Jersey. This one’s named Ollie — an orphan who lives in Millington at the Raptor Trust, where burned birds lucky enough to be found get hospitalized and rehabbed. It can take a year to regrow charred feathers.

“Birds that are really, really badly burned may have some damage all the way down the feather shaft and into the follicle or maybe it burned their skin and the feathers don’t regenerate properly. And then we have some tough decisions to make: is this bird going to be viable in the wild ever? Sometimes it takes two full years for a bird to regenerate,” said Raptor Trust Executive Director Chris Soucy.

The landfill’s owned by New Jersey’s Sports and Exposition Authority, which said in a statement, “NJSEA is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Department of Environmental Protection to develop an appropriate and effective interim solution to this matter.”

It “…hopes to negotiate a contract with a company for methane collection that would result in the elimination of the need for a flare at the Kingsland Landfill.” Until then, it’s a deathtrap for unsuspecting birds.

“I have a friend who has grown tired of taking photographs of birds with burned tails and burned wings,” Takacs said.

Bergen Audubon met this week with the Sports and Exposition Authority, which assured them they’re moving on this issue as soon as possible. This is high season for kestrels in the Meadowlands. Unfortunately it’s a dangerous place for them to be.