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URI, DEM monitor duck habitats at proposed wind farm site

SOUTH KINGSTOWN—Scientists from both the University of Rhode Island and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) have teamed up to monitor the habitats of sea ducks which may be affected by the wind farm being developed off of Block Island. Both groups, along with a number of other agencies, have implanted satellite transmitters in sea ducks which will monitor their movements and help scientists understand the locations where they live and sustain most frequently.

“Our group is charged with doing boat-based surveys of the coastal waters,” said Scott McWillams, Chair of the Department of Natural Resources Science at URI. “What the information doesn’t tell you is where the birds are from and what habitats they are selecting. You really don’t have a complete sense of where the birds like to hang out.”

Working in November and December, McWilliams and colleague Professor Peter Paton set up a series of nets in order to capture the common eider, a species of sea duck, in locations throughout southern Rhode Island’s waters. DEM biologist Jay Osenkowski assisted the URI scientists, capturing adult females only, 26 in all, and releasing the male eiders.

“We set the nets up in the dark [before dawn], put decoys around the nets, and hope that we picked the right spot based on previous scouting efforts,” said McWilliams. “There’s usually a lot of action early in the morning before the birds can see the nets well. Female ducks have all the power,” said Paton. “They’re the ones who pick the nest site, and the males follow them there. That’s why we are only tracking females.
Their survival is what is important when monitoring populations.”
The scientists will collect data on the eider’s migratory movements and breeding areas, particularly in the winter months, for a year. That data will be analyzed and imported to the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (OceanSAMP), a comprehensive reference document which holistically details the ecological, recreational, cultural, and economic resources of the Block Island and Rhode Island Sounds, approximately a 1,500 square mile area.

“What is exciting about the SAMP process is it is prescribed to include regular public meetings so that the science gets disseminated immediately and we can get feedback from different interest groups,” said McWilliams. “That informs the types of science that gets done. From a scientist’s point of view, [The OceanSAMP provides] an interesting way to apply our results to active management decisions.”

The OceanSAMP, which was federally approved in 2011 and developed among multiple stakeholders over a two year period, will hold the data about common eiders so that Deepwater Wind, the developer of the Block Island wind farm project, will understand the potential impacts wind turbines may have on the local marine environment, and where they can place the massive structures.

“The primary negative effect of building off-shore wind facilities is that they displace animals from certain areas,” said McWilliams. “If we know ahead of time, we can avoid putting structures in these spots.”

“Wind energy has been touted as a renewable resource with much less impact on the environment, and that can be true, but if we don’t pay attention to where we put them, there can be negative consequences,” he added. “[The Block Island wind farm] is a unique opportunity to have one of the first wind farms in North America to go up, and when you do that, you need to be aware try to inform the decisions people are making about where to put wind turbines.”

Initial background research on the effects of wind turbines on avian habitats was gathered from the experiences of scientists in Europe, where a number of wind farms have been constructed and the impacts on bird populations are more visible.

“We’ve directly communicated with some of the scientists about their assessments in Europe,” said McWilliams. “The difference there is that they’ve actually had [wind turbines] in the water to assess impacts, whereas for us we are anticipating those impacts.”

“One of the major takeaways from working with our European colleagues is that birds will avoid the wind farm areas seeing them as obstacles,” he added. “The work done in Europe has helped to focus our work here, and now we can anticipate where the wind turbines will displace the birds.”
URI and DEM’s research has been conducted in partnership with the Sea Duck Joint Venture, a collaboration of various wildife agencies in from both the United States and Canada. Associated organizations include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.