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Better siting of turbines saves bird lives

A birder’s feelings toward wind energy tend to fluctuate, Bill Evans of Old Bird Inc. told the Cayuga Bird Club during a Monday, Oct. 12 talk at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He showed a hand-drawn line of peaks and valleys in graph form, which documented his personal journey on the subject of wind power turbines. The vertical axis ranged from “1”—equal his highest esteem for wind turbines—down to zero—meaning“no way.”

“You go all the way up to 1, because wind is green energy,” he said. “Then down, because turbines kill birds. Then up again, because it’s not that many, and down again when you hear more evidence it kills birds.”

Evans, who has spent his life studying nighttime migration calls and has worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said that he now fights for safe siting of wind turbine projects.

“When you think about the possibility of the planet becoming a Venus-like hell, I’ve come to the conclusion [wind] is one of the better options that are out there,” Evans said.

Evans said he began working on wind turbines’ impacts on birds in 1994, when he went up to the Tug Hill plateau and studied the Niagara Mohawk project, the first turbines in New York State. Developers started calling and Evans started reading more environmental impact statements and critiquing them—sometimes on his own, and sometimes as a consultant. He’s worked for both developers and those fighting against new wind farms, but says that the information disseminated in the media is “probably 95 percent erroneous.”

“A lot of people may not want a wind project where they live,” Evans said, “and when they try to fight it and it goes to a hearing, they put out a lot of misinformation. They say ‘This will kill thousands of birds,’ and that’s not true.”

The worst example of poor reporting Evans offered was a 2007 article in The Nation that argued as wind turbines grow larger and more efficient, they move more slowly and do less damage to migrating birds and bats.

“That’s an illusion. With the size of them, they look like bucolic things going around,” Evans said. “The blades are still cutting through the air at 200 kilometers an hour.”

Bird fatality rates are calculated on a fatality per turbine, or fatality per megawatt produced basis. Surveyors lay out grids with the center at a turbine’s base and walk 50 or 100 or 200 meters outward to check for dead birds on the ground. Scavenging and surveyor efficiency is checked by laying out dead birds on the grid and seeing how often the surveyors, or the vultures and raccoons, find them.

Evans is currently most adamant about keeping wind farms away from the shores of the Great Lakes. In Canada, he says, data has “gone dark” in recent years and the shoreline projects are multiplying. There’s money from tar sands looking to get into green energy, and in any fight against a project, the standard to stop it is “serious and irretrievable harm,” Evans says, which is tough to show with the natural limitations of survey data. He’s been using the example of purple martins in Canada, an easy species to count because they nest in birdhouses, and one whose population has been declining steadily in recent years. It’s particularly tough to show harm in cases of “poor species resolution”—when a species doesn’t have much of a population in an area, it’s going to be more unlikely they are found in ground surveys for fatalities.

“If Canada builds along the whole lakeshore it will be harder and harder for us to hold back the tide down here,” Evans said. “There’s really not any one wind project that affects population. It’s a cumulative effect … there are places where bird clubs need to rise and attack.”

Here in Tompkins County, Evans said he was initially skeptical of the Black Oak project, since he’s seen so many wind farms started up by a small group and then sold to a larger concern. He created a survey not asked for by the DEC to see if the loon migration that people watch for at Taughannock Falls would be affected by the new wind turbines on Connecticut Hill in Enfield. The loons passing through number in the thousands.

“Those going south, maybe five to six thousand now, they’re going straight south,” Evans said. “They may get a loon or two killed, but the bulk of the Taughannock flight happens to the east.” Connecticut Hill is west of Cayuga Lake.

To learn more about Evans’ work, visit oldbird.org.