With her keen eye, Isabella is a trained soldier, zeroing in on her targets as they swarm above the garbage at the Monmouth County Reclamation Center.
At just over $450,000 a year — or an average of $45,000 each — Isabella and her fellow winged predators cost Monmouth County more than some of its human employees. But no one ever said mercenaries come cheap. It’s a price to pay to keep those seagulls, which used to flock to the landfill by the thousands, at bay.
The mere presence of the 10 peregrine and hybrid falcons is enough to drive away the gulls, which feast on garbage and create a public health concern with their droppings.
Monmouth County has been using falcons at the landfill since December 2011, said Richard Throckmorton, the reclamation facility superintendent. And they initially got there almost by chance.
Gulls had been a “huge nuisance” at the landfill for some time, at the worst swarming the facility in a colony of more than 5,000. “They’d get so thick sometimes that the operators couldn’t see each other on the landfill,” Throckmorton said.
Only one gull, flying amid a handful of turkey vultures, could be spotted during a recent visit to the facility.
By late in 2011, Throckmorton had tried just about everything. He fired propane cannons that emit a bang, played recordings of seagulls in distress, shot off pyrotechnics and even flew a large helium balloon painted to look like an eyeball.
All worked — until the gulls got used to them. “It was frustrating to say the least,” he said. “After the blasts, the birds would come back and land on the propane cannon.”
But one night, Throckmorton heard a knock at the office door. “I believe my bird is here,” a woman said.
Not knowing what the woman was talking about, Throckmorton asked his staff, who admitted a falcon appeared a day earlier. They wanted it to stay as long as it could.
“The guys didn’t want to tell me about it because it was working really well,” he said.
The falcon program has now been in Ocean County for 13 years. They patrol from dawn until dusk, six days a week, weather permitting. When the falconers spot a large number of gulls, they bring out a falcon. Barnes said gulls are scared off in some cases by just the sight of the white Jeep Wranglers that carry the falcons.
“The gulls realized they could become food at any stage,” he said.