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Blackpoll Warbler kill at wind farm

The massive Laurel Mountain Wind Farm, near Elkins, West Virginia was just opened officially with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, but it’s already making news in a most ungreenfriendly way. Word is leaking out regarding a massive kill of migratory songbirds that took place about two weeks ago at one of the turbine farm’s installations. According to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, 484 birds perished after striking a structure associated with this twelve mile string of 61 mountaintop turbines. Most of the birds were Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpolls are champions of long distance migration, breeding to the northern limits of the boreal forest in Canada, Alaska, and in the northeastern lower states, mostly in New England. Their migration is an epic journey that spans much of the Americas, with the birds ending up in South America where they overwinter.

Not all the facts seem to be out yet – and I’m not sure why it took two weeks for this tragedy to come to light – but it appears that the birds were NOT killed by being pureed after flying into a spinning turbine. As the farm was just officially dedicated TODAY, I’m not sure that the turbines were even fired up and spinning two weeks ago.

Apparently a bank of bright lights that are used to provide illumination at a substation were left on overnight during cloudy, low-visibility conditions. The birds became disoriented by the lights – a common occurrence with brightly lit structures – and perished after flying into the building. Even though it apparently was not the turbines themselves that caused this disaster, it should serve as a red flag. Large numbers of songbirds migrate along Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ridges, and clearly lots of birds pass through the Laurel Mountain turbine gauntlet. Future occurrences of this type should be avoidable by merely turning the lights off, at least during peak migratory periods. But it is a huge open question as to whether birds will still strike the spinning turbines at night. I hope that someone conducts diligent monitoring at this farm to determine whether this kill will prove to be an isolated incident, or if indeed we have another Altamont Pass on our hands.

Industry, environmental groups, and politicians alike are rushing pell-mell into the supposedly “green” wind industry. Ohio is one of the front lines, as many a plan is afoot to site turbines along, and in, Lake Erie. And Lake Erie is one of THE major migratory corridors for birds in the Great Lakes region. I think that sites do exist where wind turbines probably will not cause much, if any, bird or bat mortality. But it is becoming increasingly demonstrable that some of the best locations for harvesting wind are also major migratory pathways for birds, and wind farms and birds mix about as well as oil and water.

Poorly sited wind farms are akin to fracking the air. The collateral damage to migratory animals can be unacceptable in terms of outright kills. But another factor that is seldom written about involves the terrestrial fragmentation that comes with the installation of these facilities (this includes fracking, too). Access roads must be carved into forests or Great Plains prairie, large footprints must be stamped out for the physical facilities, and towers and wires strung or buried to transmit the electricity. Individually, it is hard – maybe impossible – to prove ecological damage caused by a single turbine installation. But add them all up and we start to instigate death by a thousand cuts, at least for some species.