Some local activists are raising concerns about the use of drones on island beach parks, arguing the increasingly popular devices can cause distress to migrating and nesting birds.
Drone use already is highly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, but amateur drone operators, hoping to capture aerial views of the island, might not realize the effects their hobby can have on the local bird population, said Kristen Vale, Texas coastal program manager with the American Bird Conservancy.
“I’ve seen particularly at East Beach, people flying their drones over the nesting birds,” Vale said. “It spooks them. A drone is hovering over them. It scares them.”
Nesting birds fly away and leave their eggs exposed to potential predators, Vale said.
“Even if they have chicks, it causes the chicks to hide and run away and they get displaced from the parents,” Vale said.
It might be time to develop regulations regarding use of drones in Galveston beach parks, Vale said.
A Galveston Park Board of Trustees committee on May 9 discussed the possibilities of rules or a public information campaign concerning drone use, but there’s still much research to do, spokeswoman Jaree Fortin said.
The park board manages island beaches.
“It’s really early for us to talk about it,” Fortin said. “We want to minimize risk to wildlife.”
The park board needs to look into what it can regulate and what rules would be relevant to protecting birds or other animals, Fortin said.
Generally, drones can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator, according to federal administration regulations.
With Scholes International Airport on Galveston, a drone operator would be within 5 miles of the airport for most central parts of the island. Stewart Beach, East Beach and much of the West End are outside that radius.
Local municipalities can use zoning to regulate where drones take off from and land, federal administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said.
“They can’t regulate any aspect of flight, only the ground where they take off and land,” Lunsford said.
The airspace is all under federal oversight, he said.
There are not any city-imposed regulations on drone flight beyond the extensive federal rules, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
The Galveston County Audubon Group is concerned about potential harmful effects of drones on wildlife, but hasn’t studied the issue, Chairman Greg Whittaker said.
As drone use becomes more popular, people need to become more aware of the effects the technology has on birds, said Richard Gibbons, conservation director at Houston Audubon.
The nonprofit owns some property on the island.
Drones aren’t allowed on the organization’s property, Gibbons said.
“People want to get all of those shots that they weren’t able to get with a land-based point and shoot camera,” Gibbons said. “It’s disturbing to birds that are trying to rest.”
Drones agitate migrating birds that use Galveston areas to rest, sometimes after three full days of flying, Gibbons said. That rest is extremely important for birds, he said.
There are responsible ways to operate drones, but flying drones over large groups of birds or nesting birds disturbs the wildlife, he said.
Whether new regulations are implemented, Gibbons hopes people will start to learn to respect birds on island beaches, he said.