GARDNER – With millions of dollars invested, Mount Wachusett Community College is conducting studies to make sure its twin wind turbines are for the birds, not against them.
The college erected two 396-foot, 1.65 megawatt wind turbines this year as part of its efforts to improve its environmental footprint. It also wants to make sure that in seeking to produce green energy, it does not significantly affect wildlife in the area.
MWCC Professor Tom Montagno and a group of five students from the natural resources program are hoping to put those concerns to rest by studying the number of birds and other creatures killed by the turbines. They have been going out a few times a week scouring staked-off areas around the two turbines looking for dead birds.
Live birds are easy to find at the college. It is a favorite hangout for a large flock of Canada geese and a healthy population of song birds. So far, no dead birds have been found, but Mr. Montagno said the students have discovered five dead bats.
The bats were found at various times during the past two months and were likely killed individually.“I’m really not surprised,” he said, “August through September are their migrating months. These are the times I would expect to see them.”
Wind turbines have what may be an undeserved reputation as bird killers, according to Mr. Montagno, who teaches natural resources at the college.
“I think it is something of a red herring,” he said.
Opponents of turbines have cited a dramatic number of hawks, golden eagles and other raptors killed in the Altamont Pass in California. One of the largest wind turbine farms in the world was set up in the pass beginning in the 1980s, and there are now about 4,800 turbines operating there.
Studies in the 1990s found there were 1,000 raptors killed annually in the pass. The numbers of bird deaths have been cited over and over by opponents of wind turbines, including those opposed to Cape Wind, the large offshore wind energy project proposed for Massachusetts.
But most of the studies conducted for projects around the state and the country have not found significant impacts.
Lisa Capone, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said post-construction bird studies have been conducted on most large scale projects around the state in recent years.
A study in 2006-2007 at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay to determine the effect of the turbine on plovers, found no plovers killed and only four dead birds in the search area. Of those, an osprey was identified as having been killed by the turbine and possibly a laughing gull.
Kate Plourde, of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said contracts were recently awarded to the New England Aquarium and the College of Staten Island to study migratory patterns and habitat usage data of bird and marine mammal populations off the coast of Massachusetts, with an eye toward future wind energy development on the outer continental shelf.
Mr. Montagno said a major factor in the Altamont bird kills is the wind farm’s location.
“They built those turbines in a raptor corridor where the raptors go to hunt,” he said. “It should not have been located there.”
Contributing factors to the death toll were also the height of the turbines. Many modern turbines are 200 feet tall or taller. The older turbines in the Altamont Pass were about 60 to 80 feet tall and the blades reached lower to the ground, killing some of the birds as they were swooping down to catch prey.
The Mount Wachusett Community College study is a follow-up to studies conducted prior to erecting the turbines. In federally funded projects, studies are required prior to construction to determine if the turbines could interfere with bird migration routes. The post-studies look at impacts resulting from the project.
Mr. Montagno said Mount Wachusett Community College decided to conduct its survey on its own, rather than hiring outside professionals. It will serve as an adjunct to the science courses offered at the college.
It is working with consultants Curry & Kerlinger LLC of McLean, Va. The company has conducted extensive studies of wind turbine wildlife impacts. One of its studies determined that using a blinking light on the top of the turbine to warn aircraft, rather than a constantly burning light, would significantly reduce the number of bird strikes.
The project also has a technical advisory committee made up of representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Federal permits were also required to collect the birds, Mr. Montagno said.
“We’re hoping after it is completed to have it published,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for the students to work on a project like this.”
The students include Michael Crowley, Jeremy Abel, Joe Berube, Andrew Navaroli and Jason Wing. Mr. Montagno said they go out in pairs and search the entire area within about a 60-foot perimeter of the turbines, looking through the grass for any dead creature.
Once they find one, he said they mark the spot with a global positioning system and photograph the carcass. They then put on rubber gloves, take a plastic bag and turn it inside out, pick up the bird, pull the bag up around it and seal it after placing a label inside. Back inside the school, they fill out data forms, including such information as the weather, amount of precipitation, height of the grass and other relevant information.
At times, what they see is not what they get. To verify accuracy of the collections, the ground is sometimes seeded with a dead bird or two or possibly a tailless mouse the students could mistake for a bat. The seeding is done to see if students are careful in their searches.
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