Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

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BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

Wind farm on the Belvoir Ranch

Be careful what you wish for: wind development on the Belvoir Ranch has its downsides

The prairie is green June 11, 2016, on Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch, 10 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This edition of Bird Banter was published Feb. 10, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bird Banter column for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. I wrote about cool birds seen on the ponds at the Rawhide coal-powered plant 20 miles south of Cheyenne, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/birding-the-colorado-coast/.

            This month’s topic is also connected to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.

           Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.

            The 2008 Belvoir masterplan designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.

            We know modern wind turbines are tough on birds. Duke Energy has a robotic system that shuts down turbines when raptors approach (https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/eagle-safety-collaboration/). Roundhouse needs one—a raptor migration corridor exists along the north-south escarpment along its west edge.

            But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir, 125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against the state line.

           Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.

            There are migrating bats to consider, plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.

            There are human safety and liability issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them. However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions develop nearly any month of the year.

            The noise will impact neighbors (and wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep is implicated in many diseases.

            Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.

            A minor issue is the viewshed. In Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?

            Because this wind development is not on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written into the lease.

           The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.

            NextEra held an open house in Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December 2020, before federal tax incentives end.

            It doesn’t seem to me that we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.  Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly, and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.

            At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.            

           What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.

Bioblitz participants look and listen for birds along Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch June 11, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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/.

Windmills and birds

windmill

These old windmills still pump water for livestock. Some are retrofitted with solar panels. Bringing electricity out to distant pastures would be too expensive. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 5, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Windmills safer for birds than other structures.”

2014 Update: The number of wind turbines keeps increasing, but technology has improved safety. See more recent Bird Banter columns on this subject in the category “Wind energy & birds.”

By Barb Gorges

Birds and wind farmers think alike when it comes to maximizing the power of wind. Both are attracted to places like rims and passes where wind speed accelerates. Raptors (hawks and eagles) riding thermals and migrating passerines (songbirds) are the most likely species.

Unfortunately, birds may collide with the wind turbines and their towers. However, of the estimated 100 million to one billion birds that die in collisions with man-made objects every year, only one or two of every 10,000 are attributable to wind turbines, as of 2001. Communications towers and windows are much deadlier.

Greg Johnson, a wildlife biologist for Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc., an environmental consulting firm headquartered in Cheyenne, pointed me towards www.west-inc.com, where the studies he and his company have done on wind power and avian mortality are posted.

WEST has done studies in 11 states, but the one most interesting to me was for the Foote Creek Rim Wind Power Project built near Rock River.

In the first building phase, completed in 1998, 69 turbines were installed on 2000 acres of grass and shrub lands. Only 26 acres were disturbed by construction and five miles of road were built. Five meteorological towers were also installed.

Each 600 kilowatt wind turbine tower is 131 feet tall and the blades have a diameter of 138 feet. Study plots were established at the base of each turbine and meteorological tower. Carcass searches were done every four weeks for all plots and every two weeks for half the plots.

Results had to be adjusted for “removal bias”—how many carcasses were eaten or taken away by scavenging animals, and “searcher efficiency bias”—how proficient people were at finding dead birds or piles of feathers.

The study plots were salted with carcasses of non-protected birds such as pigeons, house sparrows and game farm birds, identified unobtrusively with duct tape, to see how many were found by searchers and scavengers. The searchers were 80 percent proficient. Scavenger success depended on the season.

Over the study’s three years, carcasses of 122 birds of 37 species were found. The 69 turbines were responsible for 83 and the five meteorological towers killed 36 (three were unknown). Passerine species accounted for 112 birds (92 percent) and 36 of those were horned larks. Half the birds were probably migrants. Few mortalities occurred in the winter.

Overestimating bias, the average number of avian mortalities calculated was 1.5 per turbine per year. On the other hand, the meteorological towers each averaged 8.09 birds per year.

Mortality rates will obviously vary from site to site because of differences in bird abundance, species composition, landscape features and wind plant features. Right away though, one can see that making meteorological towers free-standing like turbine towers, rather than supported by guy wires, probably would reduce mortality.

In another study at Foote Creek Rim, researchers examined the avian mortality differences between blades manufactured with paint of high ultra-violet reflectivity, 60 percent, and the usual 10 percent of normal paint, but though birds can see UV light, that didn’t seem to make a significant difference in this study. What did reduce mortality was larger, slower-moving blades.

One surprising finding of the first study was the number of bat deaths. One would think that bats, equipped with echolocation abilities, would be able to avoid towers and blades.

At Foote Creek Rim, 47 dead bats were found the first year, 18 the second and 14 the third year. Perhaps there is a learning curve. All were found during the summer, most in August. Considering bat hibernation and migration, that timing isn’t surprising. But it is surprising that the turbines were responsible for all of the deaths—none of the carcasses were found under the meteorological towers.

There’s high bat mortality at other wind plants also. One hypothesis is bats send out echolocation signals less frequently while migrating. So how did they avoid the meteorological towers at Foote Creek Rim? Perhaps the explanation will be related to how the rotation of wind turbines befuddles radar.

Another question needing research: as wind plants begin to be developed in sage grouse habitat, will the increase in traffic have the same negative effect on them as it does in oil and gas developments?

Personally, I’ve been in love with windmills, with their symmetry and kinetics, ever since I spotted my first Chicago Aermotor in a pasture. Wind power has to be better for us and wildlife than bulldozed habitat, tailings piles, evaporation ponds and plumes of particulates.

To look at it another way, one of the Foote Creek Rim turbines can power at least 150 of our houses, according to the American Wind Energy Association calculations (www.awea.org), and probably more, with Wyoming’s notorious wind. How many more birds are killed by thumping into the windows of those same houses? But that’s a topic for another day.

Why can’t we “glow locally”?

Wind turbines

Wind turbine “farms” on Wyoming’s plains and prairies harm flying birds as well as birds and other animals on the ground where access roads disrupt habitat. Why not insert wind turbines into areas already developed for industry?

Published May 31, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Why can’t we encourage the country to “glow locally”?”

2014 Update: So why can’t we?

By Barb Gorges

As the daughter of an engineer who installed turbines in power plants, I admire the sleek industrial-sized blades of a wind farm.

But, I am also your local “bird lady.” I have the usual concerns about birds flying into those blades. At least current designs are less lethal than when the Altamont Pass array was first installed in California.

I am also concerned about visual pollution. Cheyenne will soon be surrounded by wind farms, like giant picket fences, many producing energy for people outside Wyoming. Also, what about those industrial-sized solar arrays spreading over the “wastelands” of the West? I don’t think there are any natural landscapes we can afford to waste by covering them with solar panels.

Why do the power experts continue to use the point source model, useful for coal, nuclear and hydro plants, for sustainable power sources that occur, to some degree, everywhere? Shouldn’t the Department of Homeland Security be encouraging dispersed power production?

I think it is time to plan how we can “glow (as in turn on the lights) locally.” Locally grown energy has advantages similar to locally grown food.

Why put solar arrays over our deserts (which are actually full of life) when we already have asphalt deserts that are nearly barren? Instead, imagine parking in the shade of a solar array while shopping at WalMart. Imagine small windmills strung along existing utility corridors; their blades whipping so fast birds see and avoid the blurry disks.

solar panels

Solar panels don’t affect wildlife–unless acres and acres of land is cleared for industrial-sized installations. Why not fill the built environment with panels first?

Point source energy is sent long distances but the energy lost to transmission isn’t as much as I thought. Sadrul Ula, University of Wyoming professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializing in power, told me perhaps 10 percent would be lost over 800 miles, depending on the size of the lines.

He pointed out energy storage, guaranteeing 24-hour availability of electricity from intermittent power sources like wind and solar, is still problematic. But I don’t think that should keep us from using them wherever we can, tying them into the grid for now.

In nature prosperous animal and plant species use diversity and redundancy strategies.

The sage grouse in Wyoming is in trouble because it requires a certain type of sagebrush habitat that is disappearing. Conversely, crows are becoming more abundant here because they are smart enough to find new foods in new places, such as French fries in fast food parking lots. Developing diverse energy sources is our human equivalent.

The most prolific and widespread plants, such as dandelions, produce multiple, redundant seeds so some can be eaten by goldfinches and others can blow about and pioneer new land.

The energy equivalent is many small wind turbines and solar arrays. Siting small devices would be less problematic. If solar and wind collectors are spread everywhere, the sun will always be shining and the wind blowing on them somewhere.

I have complete confidence engineers will put their minds to improving sustainable energy production. They are already working on the “smart,” more efficient, power grid.

We don’t have to wait for a shortage of fossil fuels to drive innovation. We consumers can drive innovation ourselves. Witness the increased demand, production and improvement of fuel-efficient cars in the last five years.

I think we can look forward to solar technology that ekes out electricity from gloom (haven’t you gotten sunburned on a cloudy day?) and wind turbines that respond to the slightest breeze. Then all parts of the country can produce sustainable energy.

Bird lady that I am I would like to see sustainable energy production incorporated into the already built environment. I’d rather not see Wyoming continue its role as energy colony, giving up resources, again, to the detriment of its valuable, one-of-a-kind, wild landscapes.

Wind energy for the birds

Vertical axis wind turbine

A vertical axis wind turbine and solar panels grace the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 16, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Let’s rethink mega wind farm on behalf of birds, efficiency.”

Note: This column ran in the same edition as “Firm in California seeks to harness Wyoming’s wind,” by Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times, about the Anschutz Corporation’s plans for the 500-square-mile ranch they bought south of Rawlins, Wyo., on which they plan to spread 1,000 turbines (the Chokecherry project) and build a 750-mile transmission line to take it all back to California. California environmentalists are not happy. Read his story here: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-wyoming-wind-20140209,0,3366359.story#axzz2tbMTmglR.

By Barb Gorges

David Yarnold is not happy.

The president of the National Audubon Society writes in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine that our country’s wind farms kill 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act should be protecting most of those birds, he says.

It’s illegal to kill them without a permit, but the Interior Department has only enforced the law once, he says. Apparently, wind farms don’t have permits for all the birds killed.

A new federal rule allows wind companies to get 30-year permits. But to Yarnold, that represents too many birds, with no incentives to cut the number of deaths.

Wind energy is a great idea. It’s been used for centuries to propel boats, to grind grain, to pump water.

A structure for catching the wind can be erected wherever the power is needed, though a backup system is essential for windless days. People are working on more efficient battery systems.

But leave it to American ingenuity to take a simple idea and enlarge upon it, making it industrial sized, much like family farming morphed into industrial agriculture.

Wind energy is clean, producing no pollution except whatever manufacturing the components entails and maintenance requires. We need cleaner energy sources like wind since the traditional fuel-burning, power-producing businesses are reluctant to make their energy production cleaner. Never mind the climate change debate–we all have to breathe.

But wind energy has an Achilles heel. Developers want to site numerous turbines in the windiest places, which also attract birds. Collisions with the blades, the towers and the transmission lines kill birds and bats. Wind farms have mazes of roads running over habitat, forcing out wildlife.

Audubon suggests targeting development for areas that are already disturbed or developed, avoiding areas known to be dense with birds, such as the Prairie Pothole region, the Texas Gulf Coast, and the Northeast’s raptor migration bottlenecks.

If you don’t care about birds, I suppose you wouldn’t see any of this as a problem. But you should care. To sum up Basic Ecology 101, every living thing, including you, is connected to every other living thing. It’s hard to predict how a loss of birds may affect you. It could be as simple as insect populations getting out of control and decimating crops.

But there are other reasons to rethink the concept of the mega wind farm.

I am a fan of dispersed power production, placing it among the structures where we live and work. For instance, solar panels over every roof, providing extra roof insulation and hail protection. Solar panels over parking lots would keep cars and asphalt cool. Small windmills could be placed along every highway where power lines are already strung. What if we were to place constellations of pinwheels on the outer walls of a skyscraper to produce power for that building?

The advantage of disbursed power production is we don’t lose the power consumed by transporting it over long distances. Plus, any power outages would affect fewer people at a time.

OK, so every location in the country isn’t terribly windy, but as a descendent, and mother, of engineers, I think we can engineer our way to more efficient turbines. It’s happening already.

Last month, a story in this paper mentioned in passing that Ogin Inc. has invented a wind turbine with cowling, or shrouding as they are calling it. I went online to www.oginenergy.com to see what it was about.

Compare the old-style propeller-driven plane with the more efficient, more powerful jet engine enclosed by cowling. This new wind turbine design is the same thing. According to their information, “energy output is increased up to three times per unit of swept area.”

Ogin turbines are smaller, at 200 feet versus the current 500-foot tall turbines, so they can fit into already developed landscapes more easily. Because they are shorter and the tips of the blades are outlined by the shrouding, it is believed fewer birds would be killed.

Testing of this new design will be happening at the infamous Altamont Pass in California, where some years ago, biologists helped engineers change turbine tower designs from open lattice work into the smooth cylinders we know today—taking away perches for raptors which were otherwise unwittingly launching themselves into the blades.

There are vertical axis wind turbines, identical to the one in Cheyenne at the Children’s Village, which at only 30 feet tall, have far less impact visually and environmentally.

Vertical turbines would even be a good replacement in wind farms, says California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri. Placing them close together improves their efficiency by a factor of 10, using a much smaller footprint per kilowatt of production than current, giant horizontal axis turbines we see. [http://www.caltech.edu/content/caltechs-unique-wind-projects-move-forward]

Ever since we first felt the wind pushing at our backs, we have been refining ways for it to aid us. The challenge is to make our design choices work for other species as well.