Eagle safety collaboration

golden-eagle-courtesy-audubon-rockies

Golden Eagle. Photo courtesy of Audubon Rockies.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Collaboration could keep eagles safe.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, while researching the wind energy/eagle issue, I learned about new technology that could help eagles survive encounters with wind farms.

IdentiFlight uses stereoscopic cameras to detect and identify eagles in flight far enough out to shut down a turbine, preventing a deadly collision.

The idea that cameras hooked up to a computer can learn to “see” eagles, using machine vision technology, is as remarkable as the collaboration behind it.

It starts with Renewable Energy Systems, started in 1982, and now a global company in the business of designing and installing as well as developing wind energy projects.

I spoke with Tom Hiester, vice president of strategy for RES Americas, whose office is in Broomfield, Colorado.

He said RES is funding the development of IdentiFlight and will own the rights to the technology and sell equipment. Other wind companies concerned with avoiding the fines for killing eagles will be the customers.

RES is working with Boulder Imaging, a Boulder, Colorado, tech company specializing in industrial precision applications.

Initial testing of the IdentiFlight system was done through the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its testing facility, the National Wind Technology Center, is south of Boulder on 300 acres up against the foothills, where the wind can be ferocious. Companies, universities and government agencies come to test their turbines for reliability and performance.

Machine vision requires training the computer. In this case, it needed to see how real eagles fly. A golden eagle and a bald eagle were brought in from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where birds of prey are rehabilitated. They also happened to be the mascots for Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. You can see a video at www.energy.gov/eagles.

Hiester told me they have found that eagles are more susceptible to collisions when hunting. Their heads are down, eyes concentrating on the ground. Machine vision has to identify a moving object as an eagle at 1,000 meters to give the appropriate turbine the 30 seconds needed to shut down.

This summer, IdentiFlight is getting tested by a third party selected by the American Wind Wildlife Institute. AWWI was organized about eight years ago. Half its partners are a who’s who of wind energy companies. The other half are national environmental organizations such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as wildlife managers represented by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and scientists represented by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One of AWWI’s interests is minimizing eagle deaths. They expect to publish and share what they learn. Besides detecting and deterring eagles from wind turbine collisions, they are also looking at lead abatement (lead shot in carcasses left by hunters will poison eagles because eagles often eat dead animals), reducing vehicle strikes (by removing dead animals along roads), and improving the habitat of eagle prey species.

AWWI science advisors include Dale Strickland of Cheyenne. His environmental consulting firm, Western EcoSystems Technology, has studied wind and wildlife interactions across the country for a number of years.

AWWI selected the Peregrine Fund to conduct the testing. The Peregrine Fund, established in Idaho in 1970 to protect and reestablish peregrine falcon populations, also works now with other raptors around the world.

The test site is Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Casper. In general, Wyoming has more eagles than other states, and some of our topographic features that cause strong wind also concentrate eagles.

For the test, IdentiFlight cameras have been set up on a tower with a 360-degree view. When motion is identified as an eagle, and velocity and proximity figured, human researchers in an observation tower confirm it. In the future, the system would be totally automated and the identification of an eagle would trigger the shutdown of the turbine in the eagle’s path. IdentiFlight can also be used to survey for eagles on prospective wind sites.

Hiester said the number of eagles actually killed by wind turbines is minor. There are more deaths from other causes. But as more and more wind projects are built, that could change, especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of wind and a lot of eagles.

Most other bird species flying through wind farms don’t have the federal protections that eagles do. IdentiFlight won’t do much for them unless they fly alongside the eagles. Hiester said that thermal imaging techniques could help identify them and bats.

Hiester has been invited to share the results of this summer’s IdentiFlight trials the evening of January 17, 2017, at the meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, which is expected to be held at the Laramie County Public Library.

Eagles and wind energy

2016-8Golden Eagle courtesy Audubon Rockies

Golden Eagle. Courtesy Audubon Rockies.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pondering how much eagles can take”

 

By Barb Gorges

Just when we thought eagles were safe (bald eagles were taken off the threatened and endangered species list in 2007) we discover that golden eagle numbers are still down.  And there are plans to build a massive wind farm in Wyoming which will take the lives of both bald and golden eagles.

I should have written a column about this earlier so you could send your comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but I was sidetracked by spring migration.

However, staff at Audubon Rockies, and their counterparts at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society, have written extensive comments backed by science and experience.

The Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) is developing the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry/Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. It is located on 500 square miles in Carbon County, southcentral Wyoming, where there is some of the best wind in the country. It will be the largest onshore wind farm in the U.S.

PCW is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on improving siting for turbines and has reduced the projected take to 10-14 golden eagles and 1-2 bald eagles per year. The definition of “take” is death incidental to industry activities.

The projected take numbers also account for the eagles that will live because PCW will retrofit 1,500-3,000 power poles per year for eagle safety. Eagles’ large wingspans can cause their electrocution when they perch on poles and they touch two electrical hotspots at the same time and cause a completed circuit.

PCW is applying for an eagle take permit for the first half of the development. It is voluntary, but good insurance. PCW saw a competitor without a permit get hit with a $1 million fine for killing eagles.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of updating the eagle take rule. It will probably apply to the second half of PCW’s development, the other 500 turbines.

The update would give wind power companies across the country 30-year permits, to cover the expected lifespan of a windfarm, rather than the current five years. However, Fish and Wildlife proposes a review every five years.

Audubon Rockies concedes that PCW needs some assurance that they can operate for a longer length of time that will make the investment worthwhile—they can’t get investors if there is a possibility eagle deaths will shut down part of the development after the first five years.

However, there are concerns. In the proposed rule update, any monitoring done by the company would be considered proprietary and not be required to be available to public scrutiny. Audubon feels more transparency is needed on what is happening with our eagles.

And there needs to be more flexibility to manage the windfarm/eagle interactions as more eagle research is done. We don’t know yet how eagles will deal with the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre development. It’s not just the spinning windmill blades, the tips of which can travel 150 mph. Eagles also collide with the transmission lines and towers.

Because it takes eagles five years to reach sexual maturity, we know their populations can’t quickly bounce back like rabbits.

The site of PCW’s Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project is gorgeous. The thought of developing it is heartbreaking. But the company has done a lot of work and spent a lot of money studying the wildlife problems. They deserve clear answers from the federal government on what they can and can’t do.

Eagles are just one of the items addressed in the draft environmental impact statement for the wind farm. Other wildlife, including bats and songbirds, are affected too.

By the end of the year, we will find out how Fish and Wildlife will react to public comments not only on Chokecherry/Sierra Madre, but also the proposed update of the eagle take rule.

Does clean energy have to come down to this? Do we have to fill Wyoming’s open spaces (they are not empty spaces) with industrial clutter? Why didn’t the coal companies spend millions on cleaner power plant emissions research instead of on litigation at every turn?

Why does alternative energy, specifically wind and solar, have to follow the old centralized, mega-production model? I still think disbursed [“distributed” is the frequently used term] power production would be better, safer—less of a target for troublemakers.

In comparison, look at how Mother Nature spreads oxygen-producing plants everywhere. Even where natural or man-made catastrophes have stripped the vegetation, it doesn’t take long for another little oxygen-producing factory to take hold.

Plus, wouldn’t you like to park in the shade of a solar panel while shopping at the mall? Adding solar panels to our rooftops and choosing energy efficient appliances will not only cut our personal utility bills, but in a way, save eagles in the future.

Note:

See http://powercompanyofwyoming.com/ for more information about this wind energy project.

Here are the Bureau of Land Management documents: http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/documents/rfo/Chokecherry.html. The project is located in the “checkerboard” area, where  1-mile square areas of public land managed by BLM alternate with those owned privately.

Check the Audubon Rockies website for updates: http://rockies.audubon.org/.

Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

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Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

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My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

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Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

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Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

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A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

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This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

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A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

2016-7Bioblitz1 Barb Gorges

Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Caught up

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Barb GorgesDear Cheyenne Bird Banter Followers,

The good news, from my point of view, is that I am finished archiving past Bird Banters, Bird of the Weeks and Roadside Attractions.

The good news for you and me is that the Wyoming Tribune Eagle will continue to run my freelance Bird Banter columns monthly. The columns will continue to be archived here after they are published in the paper.

Thanks for being a reader. I’ll have something new for you soon!

Barb

Photos: Snowy Range, Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming, July 8, 2016, by Barb Gorges. Flower: Alpine claytonia, 2 inches high.

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Alpine claytonia - Barb Gorges

 

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Expedition Island

18-Expedition Island

The city of Green River, where the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the Green River, became the departure point for many river adventures. Expedition Island commemorates them, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s in 1869. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 7, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Expedition Island commemorates historic Green River adventures.”

By Barb Gorges

Starting out as a stage station on the Overland Trail, the town of Green River became a division point on the Transcontinental Railroad and the jump off for many expeditions down the Green River.

William Ashley descended the Green in 1825, during the fur trapping era, but in 1869, just after the railroad was completed, John Wesley Powell wanted his trip to be a scientific survey. After him came attempts at navigating the river in a paddlewheeler, speed records, women steering their own craft and commercial float trips, before the river was dammed at Flaming Gorge.

The historical interpretive signs along the path around Expedition Island are worth reading, but after a long, probably hot drive, you and your family will appreciate the free splash park more. Afterwards, you can retire to the shade with something cold from the concession stand.

At the entrance to the footbridge on the other side of the parking lot, check out the map of local pathways that connect several local parks and natural areas.

Expedition Island Park

Directions: I-80 Exit 91, south on Uinta Dr. (State Hwy. 530), right on 2nd St.

Open: Year round, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Splash park open 10 a.m. 8 p.m. Memorial through Labor Day.

Admission: Free.

Address: 475 S. Second East

Phone: 307-872-6151

Web site: http://www.cityofgreenriver.org

Attractions: splash park, changing rooms, playground, concessions, picnicking, shade, historical interpretive signs around the edge of the island. Also, Green River Park and Tubing Channel.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Point of Rocks

15-Point of Rocks

Recent restoration of the Point of Rocks Stage Station makes it easier to visualize pre-railroad days. Ruts to the left of the building mark the route of the Overland Trail. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published August 18, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Overland Trail relay stage station is a precursor to the truck stop.”

By Barb Gorges

The rocky cliffs rise high above the convenience store at the Point of Rocks exit, located on the north side of I-80. Stop there for gas, food, water and the restrooms since the original stagecoach stop has been out of business for over 100 years.

When you’re refreshed, cross under the Interstate and explore the precursor to the truck stop.

Imagine the hustle and bustle in the years before the railroad arrived. Around the barn, now only a sandstone foundation, new teams are being hitched to stagecoaches, and many passengers and supplies are transferred to wagons for the trip north to the gold mining districts.

Ben Holladay bought the overland mail delivery contract, but in 1862, the U.S. government asked him to find a safer alternative to the Oregon Trail across Wyoming. Even after the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868, the Overland Trail continued to be used, even as late as 1900.

The Overland Trail continued west, on to Ft. Bridger, Salt Lake City and California.

Point of Rocks Stage Station State Historic Site

Directions: I-80 Exit 130, south, then west on frontage road about ¼ mile, then south over railroad tracks.

Open: Year round.

Admission: Free.

Address: Point of Rocks

Phone: 307-332-3688

Web site: http://wyoparks.state.wy.us

Attractions: self-guided tour. No visitor amenities.

Time: Allow 1 hour.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet breeding?

Ruby-crowned_Kinglet-wikipedia

Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 19, 2016, “New bird on the block singing, maybe breeding.”

By Barb Gorges

There is a new bird on our block. It’s a loud bird. That’s how I know it is here, even though it is tiny, 4.25 inches long, and prefers to hang out unseen around the tops of mature spruce trees while gleaning insects and spiders.

The ruby-crowned kinglet, despite its name, is not a brightly-colored bird. It is mostly an olive-gray-green, with one white wing-bar. Only the male has the red crown patch and he may show it when singing, but the red feathers really stand up like a clown’s fright wig when he’s around other male ruby-crowneds.

We get a variety of small migrating songbirds in our Cheyenne yard in May: lazuli bunting, pine siskin, clay-colored sparrow, and even our first ever yellow-breasted chat this year.

This isn’t the first time for a ruby-crowned kinglet in our yard. I recorded one at www.eBird.org on April 25, 2012, and another April 24, 2015. They are usually on their way to the mountains to nest in the coniferous forest of spruce, pine and fir.

The difference this year is that beginning May 8 I’ve been hearing one every day. My hopes are up. Maybe it is going to nest. My neighborhood has the requisite mature spruce trees.

I talked to Bob Dorn May 27, but he thought that it was still too early to suspect breeding. They might have been waiting out cold spring weather before heading to the mountains. Bob is the co-author of “Wyoming Birds” with his wife, Jane Dorn. Their map for the ruby-crowned kinglet shows an “R” for the Cheyenne area, “Resident”—observed in winter and summer with breeding confirmed.

The Dorns’ breeding record is from the cemetery, where they saw kinglet nestlings being fed July 18, 1993. They also suspected breeding was taking place at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station just west of the city June 2, 1989 and June 15, 1990.

For more recent summer observations that could indicate breeding in Cheyenne, I looked at eBird, finding three records between July 3 and July 7 in the last five years, including Lions Park. There were also a couple late June observations at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and Lions Park in 2014.

I first learned the ruby-crowned kinglet’s distinctive song in Wyoming’s mountains. You’ve probably heard it too. Listen at www.allaboutbirds.org. It has two parts, starting with three hard-to-hear notes, “tee-tee-tee”, as ornithologist C.A. Bent explained it in the 1940s, followed by five or six lower “tu or “tur” notes. The second half is the loudest, and sometimes given alone, “tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet, te-da-leet.”

Those who have studied the song say it can be heard for more than half a mile. The females sing a version during incubation and when nestlings are young. The males can sing while gleaning insects from trees and while eating them. Neighboring kinglets have distinctive signature second halves of the song and males can apparently establish their territories well enough by singing that they can avoid physical border skirmishes.

Actual nesting behavior is not well documented because it is hard to find an open cup nest that measures only 4 inches wide by 5 to 6 inches deep when it is camouflaged in moss, feathers, lichens, spider webs, and pieces of bark, twigs and rootlets—and located 40 feet up a densely branched spruce tree.

The female kinglet builds the nest in five days, lining it with more feathers, plant down, fine grass, lichens and fur. She may lay as many as eight eggs. The nest stretches as both parents feed the growing nestlings tiny caterpillars, crickets, moths, butterflies and ant pupae.

Ruby-crowned kinglets winter in the Pacific coast states and southern states, but breed throughout the Rockies and Black Hills and in a swath from Maine to Alaska. If my neighborhood kinglet stays to breed, it will be one more data point expanding the breeding range further out onto the prairie.

While kinglets are not picky about habitat during migration, for breeding they demand mature spruce-fir or similar forest. Particular communities of kinglets decrease in the wake of beetle epidemics, salvage logging and fires. However, the 2016 State of the Birds report, www.2016stateoftheBirds.org, shows them in good shape overall, scoring a 6 on a scale from 4 to 20. High scores would indicate trouble due to small or downward trending population, or threats to the species and its habitats during breeding and non-breeding seasons.

As of June 13 [now June 19], the kinglet is still singing—all day long. If it is nesting on my block this summer, I must thank the residents who planted spruce trees here 50 years ago. What a nice legacy.

We should plant some more.