They stand on top of Roanoke County’s highest mountain, heads tilted backward and binoculars pointed skyward, and strain to see even higher.
“Here’s something good coming through,” one of the bird counters says as a speck in the sky, a hawk, moves closer. “It’s a broad-wing.”
“There,” another says a little later. “I think it’s a raven.”
Later, the day’s highlight: “Bald eagle! Bald eagle!”
As they do every year when autumn approaches, a small group of bird-watchers gathered Tuesday afternoon on Poor Mountain to record the southern migration of hawks, eagles, falcons, ospreys and harriers.
This year’s count has a somber tone. The same winds that raptors ride might someday turn the blades of huge wind turbines planned for the ridgeline. And that, the bird-watchers worry, could reduce their future counts.
Power-generating wind turbines kill an estimated 440,000 birds a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“When I think about a hawk or eagle hatching out in a nest somewhere in the northern Appalachians, surviving the rigors of those vulnerable first weeks of life, learning how to fly, and then being driven by an instinct to migrate over new territory, it disturbs me greatly to visualize that bird and its kin being smacked from the air by a turbine blade,” said Ed Kinser, who lives on the mountain and organizes the annual bird count.
No one seems to know just how many birds might be imperiled by placing up to 18 turbines, each standing 443 feet tall, atop Poor Mountain.
Invenergy, the Chicago company behind the plans, said it will have environmental experts study the project’s effect on wildlife and other natural resources.
“We have no reason to suspect significant wildlife impact at this time,” said Don Giecek, business development manger for Invenergy.
Some of the studies are ongoing, and details have not been released.
But the people who spend several weeks every September counting birds on the mountain think they have good reason to worry.
So far this year, they have recorded more than 2,800 raptors above Poor Mountain, which is along the migratory path that can take the birds all the way to South America.
Raptors are threatened by turbines because they fly at such high elevations and tend to follow ridgelines when they migrate.
And the birds of prey are often attracted to open areas – such as those created for wind turbines – to feed and roost for the night, or perhaps spend the winter, Kinser said.
Some wind farms “have been clearly demonstrated to cause high mortality rates in a variety of raptor species, frequently as the result of inappropriate siting,” according to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, which compiles the numbers recorded by Kinser’s group and bird counters across the country.
Since Invenergy announced its plans last year, opponents have complained about turbine noise and the aesthetics of placing towers taller than Roanoke’s highest skyscraper in such a natural setting.
The impact on wildlife – bats as well as birds – has also been an issue, perhaps to a lesser degree, both in Roanoke County and with other wind farms.
The American Wind Energy Association and others who support the turbines as an alternative energy source counter that windmills account for only a small number of the birds killed by man-made objects.
Wind energy supporters also argue that building more turbines will reduce pollution that poses a greater threat to the environment.
Still, concerns about the impact on wildlife have been enough to slow the two wind energy projects closest to Roanoke.
Both cases involved bats, which according to some studies are drawn by curiosity to the giant turbines.
In Greenbrier County, W.Va., where Invenergy operates a 67-turbine project, a federal judge ordered the company to turn off its windmills at night, when bats are active, after opponents raised fears about the fate of the Indiana bat, an endangered species.
And in Highland County, the first wind farm approved in Virginia was ordered by the State Corporation Commission to monitor bird and bat kills. If too many carcasses pile up, the turbines could be forced to shut down temporarily.
The Highland County project has yet to get off the ground, and some speculate that the monitoring requirements have scared off potential investors in the $80 million project.
As for Poor Mountain, a study by the Virginia Highlands Grotto found 17 caves within 50 miles that are inhabited by either the Indiana bat or the Virginia big-eared bat, also an endangered species.
No bat caves were identified on Poor Mountain. However, the study noted that Indiana bats can migrate up to 300 miles, and Virginia big-eared bats are known to fly over ridges during their nightly feeding searches for insects.
So far, research by Invenergy has not found any federally endangered species on Poor Mountain, Giecek said.
Even so, he said, “we will be adhering to a variety of regulations” at the state and federal level.
Despite making their concerns known to Roanoke County officials, the bird watchers who gathered Tuesday said they have received little feedback.
“I don’t think we will be protected by the regulatory process,” said Annie Krochalis. “My fear is that Roanoke County just sees tax dollars, and they don’t realize the importance of the ecosystem up here.”
Should the board of supervisors approve the wind farm, the project’s impact on wildlife and its habitat would receive greater scrutiny when Invenergy seeks state approval.
The Department of Environmental Quality, which has authority over wind projects, is charged with analyzing the turbines’ effects on wildlife and natural resources and developing a plan to address them.
That process could be months away. Invenergy is still awaiting final word from the Federal Aviation Administration about the turbines’ potential risk to airplanes. After that, the company is expected to seek a special-use permit from the county under a wind energy ordinance approved earlier this year.
As the debate goes on, some people who live on Poor Mountain and love its natural setting muse at being called “NIMBYS” by city-dwelling environmentalists who support green energy.
Genesis Chapman, who joined the bird-watchers Tuesday, doesn’t mind the “Not in my back yard” label.
“If you’re not protecting your own back yard and your own community, you’re just giving lip service” to being an environmentalist, Chapman said.
Although the mountain is already dotted with cellphone, television and radio towers, its advocates say it still provides a habitat for plants and animals unlike anywhere else in the county.
As they made their case Tuesday, a bald eagle glided by overheard, banking to the left as it followed the ridgeline.
The eagle then headed southwest – in the general direction of where, someday, wind turbines may wait.