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Consider impact on birds before wind energy on lake

Imagine the southwest shore zone of Lake Erie, extending maybe three miles or more inland, as being the tip or pouring end of a giant funnel.

[Bear with me on this one and kindly endure the preface. It’s important to understand what is at stake here in the issue of siting wind energy farms.]

The pursed tip of the funnel would stretch from Lucas County on the west across Ottawa and Sandusky counties to Erie County on the east, about 70 miles as the crow flies. Big – or maybe not so big when you consider that the mouth of the funnel might stretch across most of the southern United States.

That is how close to 300 species of birds see it, including some 3 million waterfowl and countless land birds – tiny wood warblers and such easily in the tens of millions.

The birds are, well, funneled into this region by the lay of the land, and water – namely the Great Lakes, especially Erie, which presents the southernmost water-barrier for northbound, migrating birds.

Land birds especially see that vast expanse of water out there and say “whoa!” Maybe we ought to stop and rest a mite, maybe refuel, too. The wooded beach-ridges along the beachfront in the region are tailor-made for feathered migrants looking for an avian truckstop.

Trees and underbrush to perch in, and lots of buds and insects to feed on, the latter thanks to the adjacent marshlands. The marshlands that hug Erie’s southwest coast, in turn, also are attractive to migrating waterfowl, though they hardly are intimidated by all that water next door. But the marshes have plenty of good duck food, and their ponded backwaters offer ideal resting and loafing space.

The region thus is valuable to birds, among many other wild creatures. It is not endless monocultured miles of cultivated cropland, so much corn and soybeans and wheat. It is unique, so much so that it is included in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, for example, one of only two such designated regions in the Midwest.

It has a reputation as a world-class birding venue – just check it out come spring as thousands of birdwatchers flock here from around the country and even from overseas to witness the migration spectacle.

The region also is special because of the western Lake Erie archipelago – the cluster of islands and reefs that tiptoe across the lake from Catawba Point near Port Clinton to Pelee Point, Ontario, on the north shore, and from West Sister Island, home to the largest colonial wading bird rookeries on the Great Lakes, to Kelleys and Pelee islands on the east, both about due north of Sandusky.

If you flip the aforementioned funnel around, so that the stem and tip face south instead of north, you can form a picture of fall migrations southbound. The great movements include long-distance travelers making an even more fantastic migration journey than the birds – monarch butterflies, untold millions of them, downbound from their most northerly summer breeding range in Ontario for the oyamel fir forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

The monarchs rely on the scattering of islands and northerly breezes to hopscotch across the lake. They touch water, they’re dead.

Well, way back up there at the top I mentioned wind energy farms. Great. I am all for them, rightly done. Rightly done means putting wind farms where they will do the most good – and least harm.

(Yes, we need green energy like wind and solar, and soon – now would be nice, along with lots more efficiency and conservation. But we do not need the wasteful, expensive distractions of highly over-subsidized gimmick fuels like corn-ethanol. It is nuts to burn up a powerful, portable fuel – as so many petroleum products are – to produce a lesser fuel that does not have petroleum’s wallop, gallon for gallon. I obviously am not as smart as the politicians and lobbyists who put the ethanol joke over on us. But I digress.)

Lots of solid citizens – some virtually with professional lifetimes spent in avian research along this southwest Erie shore – are trying to tell us about the importance of this precious tip of a migratory funnel.

They are saying that while we may not need to say “no” to wind energy projects here, we do need to say, “not yet.” The region, as one of those solid citizens recently said, is a last place and we cannot afford to lose any more last places in nature.

We’ve done gone and paved most of them.

Legitimate, serious questions remain for this southwest Lake Erie shore zone. It is not an expanse of open-country cornfields with nothing to distinguish it from anywhere else in northwest Ohio, or neighboring southeast Michigan, where wind farms are planned soon.

We don’t know, for example, how much migratory disturbance may be caused by the “wind-slap” from huge acreages of wind farms wrongly situated. The potential impact alone on mere monarch butterflies ought to be self-evident, and monarchs are one of a kind. How many more of those do we kill with unvetted development here – the Mexicans are diligently destroying the oyamel fir winter refuges at the other end of the line – before monarchs grace the fields no more?

Nor do we know actually how wide a safe-zone might be needed when it comes to protecting birds descending or ascending to and from migration flight-height, this when approaching or leaving the rest/refuel depots – the marshes and beach ridges. Three miles have been offered up as a prospective safe-zone figure, but that is just an opening suggestion that needs further refinement, using such sophisticated tools now available as marine sidecast radar.

Lack of deliberation often produces unsatisfactory results. The offshore wind farms in the North Sea off Denmark, for example, often are heralded as one of the paragons of forward green-think when it comes to energy.

But did you know they were sited right atop the primary feeding and loafing zone of common eiders, a sea duck, forcing the eiders into less desirable waters? Big deal, you may say. Indeed, it will be a big deal when the last duck disappears.

We have the tools. We need some time. Money too. Whether we’ll get it or whether we’ll possibly rush headlong willy-nilly into yet another environmental train wreck remains to be seen. But a yellow caution-flag is flying.