Todd Katzner, Ph.D., a professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, is heading up research into ways to protect one of the world’s grandest birds from wind turbines.
The golden eagle attains wingspans of up to nearly eight feet and can weigh as much as 14 pounds.
Less common than the bald eagle, the golden spends at least part of its year passing through Pennsylvania during its fall and spring migrations between its breeding grounds in northeastern Canada and its winter range along the Appalachian Mountains into the Deep South.
That instinct may be getting the majestic bird into trouble with so-called “wind farms,” clusters of wind turbines.
The turbines are typically set up on the high ridges of Pennsylvania’s mountains, which is right in the way of the eagles’ migration route.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind turbines kill few birds compared to other human activities, representing about one for every 10,000 birds of all kinds killed annually by hunters, house cats, and collision with plate glass windows, among other threats.
“However, wind farms need to be sited and operated appropriately to avoid and mitigate excessive bird kills,” said a statement on the organization’s website (http://www.awea.org.) No spokesman from the organization was available for comment.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Amanda Witman wrote in an e-mail that the wind energy industry has struck an agreement with the state
game commission, which required “specific monitoring for wildlife presence and mortality and mitigation measures from wind farm developers.”
She also said that, so far, there have been no documented eagle kills in Pennsylvania from wind farms.
Katzner’s consortium of scientists and conservation groups has started using radio telemetry and automatic still and video camera setups baited with road-killed deer to discover the areas where the birds are most concentrated. Some of those cameras are set up in an undisclosed location in the Tuscarora State Forest.
The photos can be stunning. The bait draws more than eagles. Spotted so far have been coyotes, raccoons, spotted skunks, once thought to be rare, and even a fisher, a large member of the weasel family once extinct in Pennsylvania but re-introduced through a captive breeding program.
Photos from the Tuscarora camera site can be seen at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tuscarora-State-Forest/156162057781514.
Katzner said the eastern population of the golden eagle is much smaller than its western counterpart, and that might make it more vulnerable to environmental threats such as wind turbines, among others.
“The idea is to study where they go and how they move,” Katzner said. “The radio telemetry and camera trapping will help us to get a sense of the distribution and abundance of these birds.”
He said that the Golden Eagle Project has a network of sites strung out along the Appalachians from Maine to Alabama, with up to 20 sites in Pennsylvania alone. Most of the sites are on public land, in state parks and game areas, with a few on private properties.
“They have to be in fairly remote areas,” he said. “The eagles need some privacy and quiet.”
Gerald Feaser, a spokesman for the state Game Commission, said that in the not too distant future, anybody with an Internet link will be able to watch the eagles and other wildlife.
“We will be broadcasting live through a remote camera,” he said. “We will be installing the camera and then broadcast it through the http://www.wildearth.tv website. We’ll have our own page on there.”
Feaser said the commission will have a second site up within a couple of weeks at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lebanon County, so viewers can check out the snow goose migration. That, too, will be available on the wildearth site.
The golden eagle does not nest in Pennsylvania, Feaser added.
“It is primarily a migration species here,” he said.
Wind energy is a growing factor in Pennsylvania. According to one wind energy group, (pawindenergynow.org) and DEP, there are about 100 wind turbines already at work in the state on 19 wind farms.
The same group estimates that about four percent of the state’s land area has the combination of good winds and a lack of obstacles, such as zoning and population issues.
The bad news is that much of that area is in the eagles’ north-south aerial highway from their winter homes to their breeding areas in northeastern Canada.
DEP’s Witman said that the wind farms are mostly to be found on the mountain ridges in Somerset, Cambria, Adams, Fayette, Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Wayne counties.
Katzner has written that the eagles’ main corridor is roughly 30 to 50 miles wide through the region. The aim of the Golden Eagle Project is to create maps of areas of “relative risk” to eagles and other birds to help developers of wind power locate turbines with the risks to the birds reduced as much as possible.
The Golden Eagle Project is funded in part by Pennsylvania State Wildlife Grants through the Game Commission and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, among others.
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