Exclusive: Turtles laying eggs on JFK Airport runway

JAMAICA, Queens (WABC) -- Why would a bunch of turtles leave their comfortable swampland around Jamaica Bay, and wander onto a busy runway at JFK Airport?

They've been using the runway to lay their eggs for several years, and in the process changing takeoffs and landings at the nation's fifth busiest airport.

It is peak departure time at Kennedy Airport with thousands bound for faraway places, and their planes thundering down the runway and into the air.

But at JFK this time of year, those jets aren't the only things on the move.

"I'm terrible at identifying aircraft. I know about three or four and that's it," said Laura Francoeur, PANYNJ Chief Wildlife Biologist.

It's Francoeur's job to keep the animals away from the airplanes at Port Authority airports.

"How many birds can you identify?" Eyewitness News asked.

"A lot," Francoeur said.

Tuesday she and her team were on the hunt for turtles.

Every July, dozens of diamondback terrapin turtles hike out of the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay and make their nests at the end of the runway, which juts into the Bay, basically, right in their path.

"We have a lot of sandy nesting soil, the airport was built on fill, we're right next to a salt marsh, so it's an ideal habitat for them, so it's sort of natural to them, but very unnatural from our perspective," Francoeur said.

One turtle decided to lay her eggs in the safety zone of Runway 4Left at JFK, and that is not a good thing if you're sitting on a plane.

Because for obvious safety reasons, a plane can't take off with a turtle is in its way.

And starting in 2009, out of the blue, dozens of turtles began making their homes there; prompting delays so bad, JetBlue at the time tweeted about it! "#Cantmakethisup."

"Why do they come here versus going anywhere else? That's more of the unknown that we're trying to figure out," said Melissa Zostant, a terrapin researcher.

Since then, Zostant, a Hofstra student, has helped research the terrapins' behavior.

She has been inserting microchips to track their movements, as the airport has installed with plastic drain tubing that's been successful at keeping many of them out, but not all of them.

As for the nests, Zostant builds cages around them to keep predators out. When the eggs hatch, the babies find their own way out, and into the marsh.

"I think it would be virtually impossible to get them to nest anyplace else," Francoeur said.

For now, everyone's getting where they need to go. Including the new turtle mother, released through the fence to find her way home.
Copyright © 2020 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.