About 150 turtles crawled onto the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday in search of beaches to lay their eggs, delaying dozens of flights, aviation authorities said.
The slow-motion stampede began at about 6:45 a.m., and within three hours, there were so many turtles on Runway 4L and nearby taxiways that controllers were forced to move departing flights to another runway.
"We ceded to Mother Nature," said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airport.
Workers from the Port Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were scooping up turtles and moving them across the airport, he said. Flight delays averaged about 30 minutes, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
The migration of diamondback terrapin turtles happens every year at Kennedy, which is built on the edge of Jamaica Bay and a federally protected park. In late June or early July, the animals heave themselves out of the bay and head toward a beach to lay their eggs.
The peak of the turtle trouble usually lasts a few days, Marsico said.
Several pilots, some of them stifling chuckles, began reporting turtles on Runway 4L just as the morning rush hour was beginning at JFK, according to a radio recording posted online at LiveATC.net.
"Be advised 30 feet into the takeoff roll, left side of the centerline, there's another turtle," called the pilot of American Airlines Flight 1009, a Boeing 767 that had just taken off for the Dominican Republic.
"There's another one on the runway?" asked the controller.
"Uh, well, he was there," the pilot said as the big jetliner climbed into the air.
American 663, a Boeing 737 headed to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found its way to Runway 4L blocked by three of the roving reptiles. After ground crews removed them, the plane taxied into takeoff position, received clearance -- and was promptly blocked by more turtles.
By midmorning, the turtles were chronicling their adventures through a joke account set up by someone on Twitter.
"So Steve was like 'Frogger is cool. Let's try that.' 12 hours later and here we are," the "turtles" tweeted, referring to the 1980s video game in which a frog tries to cross a busy highway.
For aviation officials, wayward wildlife is a serious concern at JFK and nearby LaGuardia Airport, which both sit on shorelines populated by geese, turtles, ducks, frogs and other animals. In January 2009, a U.S. Airways plane bound for Charlotte, N.C., was forced to land in the Hudson River after it hit a flock of birds and lost power in both engines. All 155 passengers and crew members were rescued.