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Homestead ARB home to wildlife sanctuary
A 6-foot long Nile Monitor Lizard was recently spotted basking along the banks of a canal near the South end of the Homestead Air Reserve Base runway. Homestead Air Reserve Base’s proximity between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park makes for a diverse array of wildlife which calls the installation’s hundreds of acres of both woodland and wetlands home. (Photo by Ileana Burns)
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Homestead ARB home to diverse array of wildlife

Posted 6/10/2008   Updated 7/12/2008 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Erik Hofmeyer
482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

6/10/2008 - HOMESTEAD AIR RESERVE BASE, Fla. -- Is that an alligator?

No, it can't be an alligator. It looks more like an iguana on steroids!

In actuality, a 6-foot long Nile Monitor Lizard has taken up residence in the wetlands on Homestead Air Reserve Base. The wayward lizard, affectionately known as "Harbzilla," occasionally basks along the canal banks around the base.

This Godzilla-like creature is second in size only to a komodo dragon and is known for an aggressive temperament, powerful bite and a lashing tail. When asked about this wayward lizard sighting, Dr. Michael Andrejko, 482nd Environmental Flight natural resources program manager, says invasive, non-native species populations are quite common on military installations.

Seeing reptiles such as alligators, spectacled caymans, iguanas or turtles in the back reaches of the base is commonplace. Homestead Air Reserve Base's proximity between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park makes for a diverse array of wildlife who call the installation's hundreds of acres of both woodland and wetlands home.

Exotic reptiles were introduced to South Florida years ago when the former pets were taken out to rural farmland and released, or they simply escaped from their owners. The rapid growth in commercial and residential development in Homestead and Florida City has driven many birds and reptiles toward open areas such as the base, Dr. Andrejko said. 

However, Harbzilla shouldn't get too comfortable. He may soon receive a permanent change of station (PCS).

Representatives from the National Parks Service have visited the base on June 27 to determine the best way to properly remove the monitor lizard. The removal of Nile Monitor Lizards is essential because this non-native species feeds upon species native to our local environment such as birds, frogs, lizards and turtles, Dr. Andrejko said.

In additional to a variety of reptiles, Homestead ARB is bird watching gold.

The base is home to a multitude of species of birds - some permanent and some passing through - to include herons, ducks, vultures, hawks and occasional bald eagle.
However, it has also created a significant bird hazard on base that's both dangerous and costly. Birds may not seem like much of a threat, but they cause big problems if they're sucked down the intake of an F-16. High speed impacts involving birds and aircraft may cause considerable damage to include canopy loss, structural damage or engine loss. Costs associated with bird strikes amount to millions of dollars annually for the Air Force.

For the safety of air operations and wildlife, Dr. Andrejko explains that the Environmental Flight and Safety Office work with outside agencies to disperse and remove animals that could cause problems to air operations. And this is where the Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) program comes into play.

The BASH program is implemented at most Air Force bases around the world to protect pilots, aircraft and wildlife, and it's been extremely successful in decreasing bird strike incidents.

Mr. Toby Hairston, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, is assigned to the base full time to help run the program that helps safeguards air operations at Homestead ARB. After arriving here three months ago, Mr. Hairston has become very knowledgeable of the wildlife in the woodlands and wetlands on base through regular comprehensive wildlife habitat evaluations.

"One traditional way to eliminate bird and wildlife hazards is through pyrotechnics," Mr. Hairston said. "The loud noises frighten the birds and other wildlife away from the threat of aircraft. I try and steer them away from the runway toward safety in the wetlands in the back reaches of the base."

The wildlife biologist's duties also include identifying and eliminating wildlife attractants to safely fend off flocks of birds. Mr. Hairston records his findings in a working database to show patterns in the influx of animals during certain parts of the year. He also works closely with Base Operations and the Safety Office to determine the bird watch conditions that gauge the risk for pilots taking off and landing.

"The bottom line through all of the programs is improved safety for air operations and continued stewardship toward our environment," Dr. Andrejko said.

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