Ocean City’s $400M bridge proves perilous to seagulls

Posted: July 28, 2012

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - The $400 million Ninth Street Bridge opened to much acclaim in May but has since taken a deadly toll on a familiar Shore citizen: The seagull.

The birds are dying by the dozen on the bridge after perching on a railing near a new fishing pier, likely because of winds that draw them crashing down into traffic after they take off for the pier, according to the Ocean City Humane Society.

Since July 1, 38 herring gulls have been removed from the shoulder of the northbound lanes headed out of Ocean City on the Route 52 Causeway, said Bill Hollingsworth, executive director of the society.

All but eight were dead on the roadway, and of the injured, only two could be released. The rest died or were injured so severely that they had to be euthanized, he said. More likely were removed from the roadway before the society got involved, officials said.

"You can't go out there any day without seeing dead birds at the side of the road," said Hollingsworth, who reported the phenomenon to police this week after becoming convinced it was not storm-related.

"There's some kind of wind current, when the birds try to fly off the bridge itself they're being sucked right back down to the roadway," he said. "What concerns me is it might hit somebody's car and they might lose control."

The gulls caught up in the bridge deathtrap are not the laughing gulls that steal curly fries on the boardwalk, but larger herring gulls that hunt and fish for their food, said Angela Coyle, manager at the Humane Society, who was caring for a seagull with a possible broken back taken from the bridge Friday.

"It's horrible," Coyle said. "They want to get to that fishing pier. There's no way to have foreseen this."

The imperiled birds are those that congregate on the northbound railing of the flat midsection of the bridge, just before the final bridge into Somers Point, attracted to that spot apparently by the new fishing pier, situated across the four lanes of traffic, lower down and alongside the southbound span.

Hollingsworth said he had observed the birds flying up from the railing and getting caught up in wind that essentially stalls them and sends them down into traffic. There is a fairly steady stream of low-flying bird traffic across the bridge toward the pier at that point.

Friday morning, as traffic streamed into the resort in the other direction, Hollingsworth and two coworkers from the society scooped up three dead birds - one just recently killed - and an injured one from the northbound shoulder.

The injured seagull was being kept at the shelter to be examined by a veterinarian, said Coyle. She said that the bird's wings were intact but that its feet and the virtually immobile way it was holding its body suggested that its back was broken.

"His wings are perfect," she said. "His legs are curled over."

Ocean City Police Capt. Steven Ang said police were aware of the problem and had been working with the Humane Society and the state Transportation Department to find a solution.

He said no accidents or damage had been reported. He said the birds "appeared to be suicidal birds," a slightly different theory from the Humane Society's.

"They are sitting on the rail and they fly off into vehicles," Ang wrote via e-mail. "They take off from the railing, apparently going after a food source, and fly into the paths of moving vehicles."

Tim Greeley, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said that all proper environmental and wildlife permits were secured prior to construction and that the impact on the birds was unforeseen.

He said the state had no plan "to make any alterations or adjustments or add anything further to the contract to address this issue," but would work with the Humane Society to come up with a possible solution.

"We are aware of it," he said. "There's a very large contingent of birds, and they have noted a number of incidents with birds getting hit and dead birds being along the causeway side.

"The fishing piers certainly serve as a point of interest for these birds that did not exist before this project," he said. "That's most likely one of the causes of why they're ending up where they're ending up."

The Humane Society people say they think one possible remedy would be netting or spikes on that one section of the bridge railing to prevent the birds from landing there.

Greeley said the state would seek a solution because of the possible danger the birds pose to traffic.

"You never want to give short shrift to the plight of animals, and when you're factoring in that it could be a safety concern for motorists, certainly that's a high priority," he said.

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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