Peregrine falcons are one of the world’s fastest birds. They can reach more than 300km/h as they stoop on prey, knocking it out of the air to feed on it where it crashes to the ground. Peregrines are listed as rare across Australia and vulnerable in Victoria.
The disused cliff faces of the Mount Fyans quarry near Mortlake in western Victoria is considered such a unique and important nesting site it was gazetted under the Wildlife Act 1975 as one of the state’s first Wildlife Reserves.
Volunteers with the Victorian Peregrine Project have been monitoring the site since 1995.
Similar to other birds of prey, peregrine falcons are relatively long-lived, with low reproductive rates and low population density.
According to the federal Department of the Environment and Energy, these factors, combined with the fact these raptors are at the top of the food chain and limited by their prey, make peregrine falcons particularly vulnerable to human impact.
When the Dundonnell wind farm was proposed to be built nearby, peregrine expert Victor Hurley was asked by bird enthusiasts to assess the significance of the Mount Fyans site. After preparing a detailed report, Hurley suggested a 5km buffer between the nest site and the nearest turbine.
When considering the Dundonnell proposal Moyne Shire Council, as owner of the Mount Fyans land, had the opportunity to demand a buffer, which would have killed off most of the project, but it elected not to do so. Instead the council asked state planning authorities to consider the falcon report, a spokesperson tells The Australian.
Construction of the $560 million Dundonnell wind farm is under way and some of the 80 turbines, reaching 198m into the sky, will be built within a few hundred metres of the nesting area.
The planning approval says the company must “record the activity of peregrine falcons in and around Mount Fyans Wildlife Reserve, including fatalities, and whether they continue to use the reserve for habitat and breeding”.
Dundonnell wind farm owner Tilt Renewables did not respond to queries from The Australian yesterday about its plans for the falcons.
Hurley says his concern is mostly for young peregrines, which are particularly susceptible to wind turbines. “The buffer would be to give them some warning these things were in the landscape,” he says.
But about the same time the Mount Fyans report was being written a two-year-old adult male peregrine falcon was found dead after colliding with a turbine blade at the Mount Mercer wind farm about 30km south of Ballarat.
Hurley says the finding demolishes a lot of preconceived notions that peregrine falcons would be less vulnerable than some other raptors. But for environment groups the fate of the Mount Fyans peregrines has failed to rate much of a mention.
The impact of wind farms on birds is well known but has been largely downplayed until the alarm was raised by former Greens leader Bob Brown over a proposed new wind farm development on Robbins Island, northern Tasmania.
Brown said “besides the impact on the coastal scenery, wind turbines kill birds. Wedge-tailed eagles and white-bellied sea eagles nest and hunt on the island. Swift parrots and orange-bellied parrots traverse the island on their migrations.” He listed the species of international migratory, endangered and critically endangered shorebirds that use the wetlands for half the year. “For which of these species will the wind farm be the thousandth cut?” he asked.
Chauncey Hammond, who represents the family owners of the island site, said it was inevitable that wind turbines would kill birds. “I don’t think any bird kills are OK,” Hammond said. “Realistically, as with cars and tall buildings, there are deaths.”
Federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale told the ABC the Robbins Island proposal would be subject to a proper planning process.
“The Greens are very strong supporters of renewable energy and understand that coal is the central problem when it comes to climate change and we have to transition away from coal to renewable energy,” Di Natale said.
But he added: “Even the strongest supporters of those projects wouldn’t say that every single site is suitable. You wouldn’t put offshore wind farms on the Great Barrier Reef or solar panels on the Opera House. You have planning laws, an appropriate planning system, you assess each proposal on their merits.”
But AGL’s Macarthur wind farm in Victoria is a good example of how expert reports can be wrong and conditions difficult to enforce.
Local farmer and bird lover Hamish Cumming has been raising the alarm for almost a decade. In September 2014, he wrote to all federal MPs: “The AGL Macarthur wind farm is slaughtering raptors at an alarming rate and no one seems to care, especially the Greens.” He asked Brown for help: “Dear Bob, I think the Greens in Victoria (and nationally) have forgotten what they are supposed to be protecting,” he wrote. “They refuse to help me make AGL adhere to their permit conditions just because they are a wind farm.” Cumming says he got no reply.
When the Macarthur wind farm was approved, AGL estimated it would kill two birds per turbine a year. However, post construction monitoring showed the project was killing 13.4 birds per turbine a year, more than six times the pre-construction estimate. The AGL permit application claimed a raptor kill of three a year across the wind farm, yet a post-construction report estimates a kill of 430 raptors a year, 30 per cent of bird deaths at the wind farm.
The same discrepancy is found in pre-construction estimates and post-commissioning records for bats. For brolgas the wind farm was supposed to have a net zero impact. The report by Matthew Wood found the breeding pairs of brolgas have dropped from seven down to two in the first four years.
In addition to the adult population drop of 12 brolgas, there have been no successful breeding attempts, and at least two deaths of chicks when turbine noise forced adults to abandon their nests.
AGL has disputed the methodology used to calculate total bird deaths and challenged the findings on brolgas. But AGL’s executive general manager group operations, Doug Jackson, says the company completed intensive post-construction monitoring in 2015 in line with its approval conditions.
The company continues to record all deaths of birds and bats found during maintenance activities. Any deaths of threatened species – there have been two – are reported to the state government.
Jackson says the results found “the Macarthur Wind Farm had not had a significant impact on the local bird and bat population and had not caused the displacement of brolgas”. Further action appears unlikely, not least because confusion reigns over who should be responsible for enforcement.
A spokesperson for Moyne Shire Council says it is a state government responsibility. But Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has written to Cumming, saying: “Moyne is responsible for enforcement of the planning permit.”
Meanwhile, AGL has been given a tick for doing the reports.
Plea for help
Cumming has been relentless in his efforts to establish why permit conditions have not been met or enforced. In October 2017 he wrote to Friends of the Earth campaigner Cam Walker asking if his organisation would help make AGL adhere to its permit.
“The permit was granted on certain rules and conditions that would supposedly protect the birds and bats from slaughter, AGL do not appear to be adhering to the permit, nor are the authorities making them,” Cumming wrote. “When one company breaks the rules, it gives the whole industry a bad name.”
After Cumming followed up in February last year, Walker responded: “Hi Hamish, sorry, we have lots going on and (it’s) been hard to focus on this one.”
He added: “I need to talk with the minister’s office this week so I will ask them where they are at with the permit compliance issue.”
Cumming is still waiting for the update.
Walker says he raised the issue with the minister’s office, the department and a researcher but decided Cumming was “just playing politics”. “At the time I was confident that in that instance, the wind farm operator was taking their responsibilities to birds seriously,” he tells The Australian.
Cumming has a similar story with the Greens. In May 2016 he raised the alarm with Greg Barber and then federal Greens leader Christine Milne but did not get a reply then either.
Cumming’s complaint was that consultants were telling farmers to drain the wetlands illegally so brolgas would not return to nest.
According to Cumming, 11 wetlands were illegally drained but neither Moyne Shire nor the state Environment Department did anything about it.
He says consultants were telling local farmers who wanted to host turbines in the future to destroy the wetlands and habitat areas now so there were no questions asked when later proposals in the area reached the environment effects statement referral stage. Cumming suppled photographs of the wetlands being drained.
“The Greens are condoning the destruction of wetlands, native vegetation and species destruction, just so wind farms can be built in areas where they should be excluded from,” Cumming wrote.
“When I asked you about this, Greg, you saw nothing wrong with it either. You supported the wind farm company’s proposal and supported the wind industry consultants reports and recommendations. Well, I ask you now, after three more wetlands have been illegally destroyed, so yet another wind farm proposal can be put forward in brolga habitat, do you still support wind farms being built in these areas and do you still support consultants advising farmers to destroy the wetlands so that the wind farm permits will have an easy passage through the planning system?”
Cumming says he received no response from Barber, who quit the Greens in Victoria in 2017 amid a furore over bullying and sexual harassment.
Walker says he is “looking forward to The Australian being equally concerned about the black-throated finch”, which is threatened by the Adani coalmine in Queensland.
The peregrine falcons, it seems, can look after themselves.
Key research on turbines questioned
The wind industry quickly knew it had a bird problem when California’s Altamont wind farm started shredding 70 golden eagles and 1200 other raptors each year after it began operations in the early 1980s.
Altamont Winds supported research by Benjamin Sovacool from Vermont Law School that found wind turbines, compared with fossil fuels, were not such a problem for birds after all.
Sovacool’s research is widely quoted, including by Simon Chapman, the public health official who has fiercely defended wind farms against complaints over noise.
Chapman admits wind turbine blades kill birds and bats, but says their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low.
He cites the Sovacool research that wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for about 0.27 and 0.6 avian fatalities per gigawatt hour of electricity while fossil-fuelled power stations are responsible for about 9.4 fatalities per gigawatt hour.
Sovacool is clear that his research was in response to an emerging or actual consensus within the wildlife community that wind turbines are “environmentally calamitous”.
But many of the avian deaths in Sovacool’s study from fossil fuels result indirectly from climate change, whereas those from wind energy and nuclear power are from collisions with equipment and contamination of land and water from uranium mining.
The study takes no account of the mining and fossil fuels used to produce the wind turbines. Nor does it differentiate between species, which the author concedes.
And while it highlights the number of birds killed by cats, the research fails to say how building wind turbines could stop this from happening. Or acknowledge that power lines, a big killer of birds, are used by wind farms as well.
One thing that is clear from the study of actual bird deaths from wind turbines is that raptors such as eagles and hawks make up about 30 per cent of fatalities.
The experience in northern California is an 80 per cent decline in golden eagles numbers with none nesting near the Altamont facility, although it is a prime habitat.
The old-style Altamont turbines are being replaced with newer models. The inconvenient research here is that bigger turbines can have a bigger impact on birds.
[via Stop These Things]