Despite support for Cape Wind from the Mass Audubon, which did its own research on birds in the project area, several groups have sued the Interior Department over the wind farm's approval, arguing, in part, that the turbines would be a danger to migrating birds. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hopes the NanoTag technology testing by Loring can help determine if birds are headed out to the continental shelf to feed and to migrate, said James Woehr, avian biologist with the agency's division of environmental sciences. Because the receivers only have a range of about six miles they won't be as useful further out to sea but could help determine if birds are headed in that direction, he said.
CHATHAM – Minutes after landing on North Monomoy Island, Pamela Loring had a bead on her quarry.
“That’s the second common tern we tagged,” she said about the feathered target, known as I76, resting on a nearby sandbar.
As Loring held an antenna in front of her like a high-tech divining rod, the NanoTag attached to the small black, white and gray bird allowed her to identify it among thousands of seemingly identical birds that nest on the barrier islands and shifting channels that stretch 8 miles south from Cape Cod’s elbow toward Nantucket.
Loring, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is studying the best way to track birds offshore as part of an effort by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to determine how ocean-based wind turbines may affect bird flight, habitat and mortality.
The technology lets researchers track all of the tagged birds on one frequency but identify them separately, including 600 birds and bats tagged by other researchers in the Gulf of Maine.
In early June, Loring and her partners at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured 72 common terns and 14 American oystercatchers and fitted them with the tiny $200 tags. The NanoTag’s light weight allows it to be used on smaller birds when heavier satellite tags won’t work.
Loring uses the mobile receiver as well as seven stationary receivers in the refuge and on Nantucket to track the birds. An eighth receiver rides on a Hy-Line Cruises ferry between Hyannis and Nantucket.
The two 30-foot-tall receivers in the refuge are overshadowed only by the iconic 164-year-old Monomoy Point Lighthouse. Antennas on the receivers extend at 60-degree intervals and guy lines are festooned with flapping blue and white flags to warn flying birds.
At their base, a black chest protects a solar-powered computer that records between 5,000 and 500,000 detections a week, 24 hours a day, at each site. In addition to collecting data from the receivers, Loring conducts offshore bird surveys by boat and plane.
She also tests her methods, attaching a tag to a partially frozen bird carcass hanging from a balloon towed from a boat. The macabre technique developed by Phil Taylor of Acadia University in Nova Scotia provides a more accurate representation of signal strength than testing without the carcass, Loring said.
The Nantucket Sound pilot project is designed to help researchers figure out what marine and coastal birds are doing and where they are doing it offshore, said Caleb Spiegel, a biologist with the wildlife service, which is supporting the work.
“That has a lot to do with these plans for offshore-wind facilities,” he said. Cape Wind is only one of several wind farms now proposed off the East Coast, he said.
Besides the large population of birds in the area, the eastern part of Nantucket Sound was chosen because of its geography, which allows researchers to set up a wall of receivers, and because Cape Wind is doing similar work in the western half of the Sound, Spiegel said.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is regularly visited by about a dozen bird species, refuge biologist and boat operator Kate Iaquinto said.
There were 21 pairs of American oystercatchers and 7,542 pairs of common terns nesting in the refuge this year, she said.
“In the staging area we probably have many more individuals,” she said.
Loring’s study is one of several projects tracking birds offshore.
Taylor, who is the Bird Studies Canada Chair of Ornithology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, plans to triple the tracking stations he has installed around the Gulf of Maine next year to about 150, he said.
The primary advantage of the widespread tracking, Taylor said, is the ability to follow birds during migration.
“Migration is quite risky and there’s a lot of mortality,” he said.
Understanding which routes birds take – for example across the Gulf of Maine or along the coastline – can help efforts to conserve a species, Taylor said.
“It’s very exciting because we’re seeing things that we just haven’t been able to see before,” he said. “These are answerable questions but they require a large amount of coordinated effort and funds to answer them.”
On the western side of Nantucket Sound researchers with Cape Wind are testing the NanoTags as well as acoustic technology to listen for birds, said Rachel Pachter, the company’s project manager for permitting and environmental.
Researchers are attaching the tags to semipalmated plovers and common terns as surrogates for the endangered piping plover and roseate tern, Pachter said.
“What it’s helping us to do is to understand the various technologies available to us for post-construction avian monitoring,” she said.
The company is using a receiver installed on a meteorological tower in the Sound as well as receivers in other locations, she said.
The work is separate from more than three years of bird surveys the company conducted as it sought approval from the Interior Department to build 130 wind turbines in the sound, she said.
Cape Wind received that approval in 2010 based on an environmental review that included a finding that the wind farm’s operation would have negligible to major impacts on marine birds.
Despite support for Cape Wind from the Mass Audubon, which did its own research on birds in the project area, several groups have sued the Interior Department over the wind farm’s approval, arguing, in part, that the turbines would be a danger to migrating birds.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management hopes the NanoTag technology testing by Loring can help determine if birds are headed out to the continental shelf to feed and to migrate, said James Woehr, avian biologist with the agency’s division of environmental sciences.
Because the receivers only have a range of about six miles they won’t be as useful further out to sea but could help determine if birds are headed in that direction, he said.
Woehr said the agency focus is on 164,000 acres between Massachusetts and Rhode Island which Deepwater Wind won the rights to develop last month, and 743,000 acres of ocean south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket that could be open for leasing by the end of the year.
The idea is to build wind farms in areas birds are less likely to use, Woehr said. Areas south of the islands were eliminated from potential development out of concern for long-tailed ducks and scoters, he said.
If Loring’s pilot project works, additional stations may be set up south of the refuge to determine if birds head out to sea to migrate or if, as expected, they hug the coast, he said.
European researchers have advised their American counterparts to identify species of special concern and monitor them closely before building offshore so there’s a baseline once a project is built, Woehr said.
Although migration routes don’t appear to have changed substantially in the past century, they could in the future, especially in light of climate change, Woehr said.
The European researchers suggested building some wind farms and learning from the experience, he said.
“We live with it and we learn from it,” Woehr said.
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