I joined Rio Tinto five years ago, initially as a haul truck operator. In early 2015 a role came up in the Environmental team and I decided to try something new. I love the outdoors, and the role also gave me the opportunity to put my college biology study to good use.

My typical day starts at 6:30am. I usually head straight to the computer and record results from our daily air quality monitoring, which is a key requirement of our operating permit.

Pond patrol

Once the reporting is done, I head out to the operation’s tailings and reclamation ponds. These contain the leftover materials from processing borates, and contain arsenic and other substances which can be harmful to wildlife.

I usually make two or three trips to the ponds each day to check equipment, monitor key environmental targets such as air quality and water levels, and record wildlife in the area. We have around 700 to 1,000 birds visiting our ponds every month, and during migration season we can spend up to six hours a day recording and tracking birds.

A day in the life: Larry Fealy A day in the life: Larry Fealy
Larry Fealy at Rio Tinto’s Boron Operations in California

About Boron Operations,
California

About Boron
Operations, California

Rio Tinto’s Boron Operations produces nearly a third of the world’s supply of borates, and is one of two world-class borate deposits on the planet.

Rio Tinto’s Boron Operations produces nearly a third of the world’s supply of borates, and is one of two world-class borate deposits on the planet.

Borates are used in a wide range of products we use in everyday life, such as insulation, laundry detergents and other household cleaners, and the glass used in smartphones, tablets and other electronic displays.

Image: Rio Tinto's Boron Operations, US.

I want to keep getting better at it and save more birds

Part of my job is to protect birds and other wildlife against any impacts from the mine. We have set up both man-made fencing and natural foliage to help create a barrier between animals and the mine, and we use remote-controlled planes to deter birds away from the ponds.

Not all birds that visit the ponds get into trouble, but unfortunately some may become distressed and require rescue. This could be because they linger in the ponds and are affected by the toxins in the water, or become immobilised when borate and sulphate residue crystallise on their feathers. We call this ‘salting’. This is a particular problem in the summer months when the ponds hold a higher level of borates suspended in the water, and birds are more likely to be seeking a cool retreat.

Saving feathered friends

One of the challenges we face when rescuing birds is they view us as predators and will try to evade capture. So, in the case of waterfowl, their first response is to either dive under the water or swim away.

I got to thinking that if we had a remote-controlled boat with a catch net, we could more easily capture and help the distressed waterfowl. So, with the support of my team, I designed and built a watercraft that we now use to rescue birds on the ponds. It’s something I’m very proud of. There was a lot of testing and modification along the way – my wife tells people she didn’t see me for months. I was a carpenter for 20 years before I joined Rio Tinto, and I think those skills really helped me with this project.

Once we’ve rescued the birds we take them to our specially designed wildlife rescue centre, which has equipment to wash, treat and stabilise injured wildlife. The last two birds I saved were in a bad condition when I took them to the rescue centre. But you can see that the more you wash them, the better they feel and they start fighting you – which is a good sign.

I love my job. I come to work every day and have the opportunity to rescue birds and see them safely released back into the wild. They are what inspire me. I want to keep getting better at it and save more birds.

We’re continuing to fine-tune our bird-rescue programme. Last year we saved around 95 birds, but since then we’ve moved our rescue centre closer to the ponds and we expect to be able to save more as a result. Having it close to the ponds allows us to get the birds washed and hydrated more quickly, which increases the chances of a full recovery and quick release.

I finish work at 3:30pm, and spend my evenings with my family who are my other source of inspiration. In fact it was one of our regular hobbies – building and playing with radio-controlled planes – that gave me the idea for the bird-rescue boat.

Above all I’m inspired by my 19 grandchildren, who encourage me to be a better person and role model every day.

HMS Rio Tinto

HMS Rio Tinto

Larry’s specially designed watercraft features an on-board camera, two water propulsion systems, two fans, and a 60cm wide by 60cm deep net to quickly and easily capture stressed waterfowl.

Larry’s specially designed watercraft features an on-board camera, two water propulsion systems, two fans, and a 60cm wide by 60cm deep net to quickly and easily capture stressed waterfowl.

The on-board camera uses first-person video, so Larry sees what is in front of the boat and can manoeuvre it as needed. The net can drop up to 45cm below the water surface – which is deep enough to capture most distressed water birds.

"I can home in on a bird even if it's a quarter-of-a-mile away. I can do whatever I need to do to get in position to lift the bird out of the water."

To date, Larry’s remote-controlled boat has a 100 per cent success rate in rescuing birds in trouble – a significant improvement on the previous method of using rowboats and nets.

Image: Larry Fealy’s remote-controlled bird rescue boat.