It never ceases to amaze me when I head for the lakeshore to look for birds.
I live only about a mile, as the crow flies, from the Lake Ontario shoreline. And yet it might as well be a world apart.
There are mornings when I step outside in my Greece housing tract and all is calm and tranquil. But when I arrive at Ontario Beach, the wind is literally howling in off the lake.
And that, in a nutshell, is why many birders are uneasy, to say the least, about energy-generating wind turbines.
The lakeshore is one of the very best places to look for birds because it is a key migration corridor for everything from geese to hawks to songbirds. But it is also one of the most promising places for wind turbines because of the unobstructed onshore breezes.
And so the big question: If turbines are built along the lakeshore, how many of those migrating birds will collide with them and be killed?
This is no longer just a theoretical question. The Hamlin Town Board this month faced the issue head-on. A proposed law would allow wind turbines as high as 400 feet, but also acknowledges that “wind energy facilities may present a risk to bird and bat populations if not properly sited” and requires a study of potential impacts to bird and bat populations in accordance with state Department of Environmental Conservation protocols.
This is not an easy issue for the birding community.
People who care about birds are also likely to support alternative sources of energy and energy conservation. They’ve heard the dire predictions about global warming and the possible extinction of entire bird species if we don’t reduce emissions from fossil fuels.
And so there are birders who contend that surely the benefits of using wind turbines as an alternative “clean” energy source will more than offset the loss of birds from collisions.
On the other hand, there have been some highly publicized examples of poorly sited wind turbines that have wreaked havoc with birds, especially raptors.
# The world’s largest wind farm, at Altamont Pass east of San Francisco, has caused the deaths of thousands of raptors, including red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, American kestrels and burrowing owls.
# A wind farm on the Smola Islands off the Norwegian coast killed nine white-tailed eagles in 10 months, including all of one year’s production of chicks at the colony there, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
A concern of many local birders, including myself, is this: The south shoreline of Lake Ontario produces the most spectacular spring concentrations of migrating eagles, hawks and other birds of prey in the United States.
Using beneficial southerly to southwesterly breezes as a tail wind, relying on rising thermals of air for additional lift, the raptors are pushed up against the lake, then funnel along the lakeshore rather than venture out over the relatively cold water.
Under the right conditions, these raptors can fly quite low; huge blades turning in their flight path could very well pose a risk to these birds. Indeed, one of the sites where developers have expressed interest in Hamlin is very near Hamlin Beach State Park.
The concern about wind turbines and birds is not limited to potential collisions.
In some parts of the country, hundreds of wind turbines, with miles of associated transmission lines and maintenance roads, could fragment and degrade valuable bird habitat. This is of particular concern in the Plains states, where wind turbines have been proposed on thousands of acres of habitat used by sage grouse, a declining species that is particularly intolerant of human disturbance.
Interesting, then, this commentary from John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in last spring’s edition of BirdScope:
“Do we have to choose between birds and wind energy? Amid much hot air on both sides of this debate, research is beginning to shed light. Perhaps the most important finding is that the exact site matters a great deal.
“The Altamont Pass wind farm was placed on windy slopes in an area with extraordinary densities of raptors and their prey, along a raptor migration corridor. No other wind farm in the country has come even close to the scale of bird fatalities at Altamont. Modern turbines rotate much more slowly than the original versions at Altamont, acting more like ceiling fans than Cuisinarts and greatly reducing the potential for collisions.
“At many, perhaps even most modern wind farms, bird collisions appear to be rare. Recent evidence from radar tracking shows that migrating songbirds actually see and avoid wind turbines even at night …”
Siting, then, is everything. And that’s why the mere thought of wind turbines along our Lake Ontario shoreline makes me apprehensive.
Bob Marcotte writes The Word on Birds for DemocratandChronicle.com.
24 April 2008
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