On June 26 I answered a query by Linda Sibley. She asked if I thought that the barn swallows she had in her barn did not return this year because she erected a small wind turbine. This was my answer: unless the bird hits the turbines, there does not seem to be any adverse effect. So check below your turbines to see if the birds have come to grief. Other creatures will eat fallen birds, so you have to check frequently to determine if there is a problem.

David Nash commented on my answer so I asked him to write up his views on the issue of the effects of wind turbines on birds. The following is his response:

Wind and Birds

A recent Bird News column remarked on the likelihood that a small private turbine was impacting a local barn swallow population. Most people probably support wind power as a realistic, renewable energy alternative to the use of fossil fuels but there are many other factors to consider to allow for informed decisions on the siting of wind turbines and, in general, their overall impact on this Island. It is unfortunate that much of what we know about this subject has come about through our exposure to the Cape Wind permit process. The wind energy companies are resilient in their efforts to inform us that bird strikes with buildings or vehicles, or outdoor domestic cats kill more birds than wind turbines, but the simple fact is that wind turbines kill birds. (Wind presently accounts for less than 1 per cent of avoidable bird mortality but as the number of wind turbines in this country increases, the percent they contribute to avian mortality will also increase unless efforts are undertaken to minimize those impacts). But at the same time, the wind power industry is beginning to recognize the need to support research to allow for a more intelligent look at the environmental impacts of this technology. Research into this issue is only just getting underway and funding for these studies is limited. We collectively accept bird mortality every time we approve a new wind turbine and so far there seems to be a high level of acceptance with little regard for alternatives or mitigation techniques that might reduce bird mortality or other impacts on the natural environment.

Massachusetts Audubon has supported Cape Wind but has also called for studies to better understand the impacts of wind technology and how to minimize those impacts. However, even Audubon doesn’t agree on the best approach. The New Jersey Audubon chapter has been more active in demanding a better understanding before turbines are built in sensitive areas. Deaths of osprey and peregrine falcons from turbine collisions have been recorded in New Jersey.

The birds which are most likely impacted include, among others, migrating songbirds, shorebirds and raptors (raptors can be especially vulnerable when they are in fast pursuit of prey — “target fixation”) but also impacted are birds who are breeding, nesting and feeding in close proximity to turbines. The huge flocks of ducks which feed on Nantucket Sound going back and forth all day are one example. Traditional migratory routes need to be avoided. Even more sensitive is our coastal habitat — our shorelines, estuaries, all the great ponds. Any area which supports large concentrations of waterfowl should be avoided. Fog is also a condition which can increase avian turbine mortality especially at night when birds are attracted to certain lighting patterns on turbine towers. National Audubon has acknowledged their concern over destruction and degradation of habitat and recognizes the need to better understand the ecosystem disruptions caused by turbines.

Proper sighting is essential and is figuring prominently in the development of regulatory decision-making guidance. When we are careless with the sighting of turbines, we cause disproportionate impacts. Turbines simply don’t belong in areas which represent prime habitat; even if birds aren’t killed they may actually relocate as they learn avoidance behavior.

In areas where direct impacts may not be as critical, turbine review criteria need to include design elements such as limited perching opportunities, lighting patterns that will discourage impacts and even audible warning techniques. Smaller turbines can potentially have greater impacts due to the use of guy wires and their inherent design of small, low-to-the-ground and fast spinning blades. (From an energy efficiency perspective, smaller turbines are less efficient than larger ones — we may be far better off with a smaller number of large wind farms than individual turbines which may only serve to make the property owner feel good about their contribution).

The recently proposed Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan seems to be a start to better planning in our coastal waters but we are still lacking standards to guide us in planning wind projects in our inshore waters and on land. Our planning and zoning boards, our conservation commissions, and our selectmen from all six Island towns (with assistance from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission) all need to come together to develop regional energy plans for the Island; plans that will protect habitats and vistas while promoting the most efficient generation of power from alternative energy sources including solar, water, geothermal and wind. For wind, this could mean that our investment and the impacts on our environment would be based on a few larger projects rather than dozens or hundreds of individual stand-alone projects.

This is the time to plan for our future. We can reduce the impacts of climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while still protecting critical habitat and at the same time preserving our landscape from what could easily become a visual nightmare. We can’t all afford our own turbines and quite possibly we will find that is not the most efficient approach to energy production.

Bird Sightings

The most exciting news was sent to me by Ginny Newton and Dick Jennings. Seems that on a Cape Pogue tour, the crew spotted an adult yellow-crowned night heron with a young on July 21 in the morning! Vineyard birders have suspected this species had nested on Chappaquiddick as a young and adult were seen in 1999; however, no young and very few adults have been spotted since. We hope this is the beginning of a yellow-crowned night heron rookery at Little Neck. Dick Jennings called to say that the yellow-crowned night heron and young were still at Little Neck during the afternoon tour and that the long-tailed duck that was spotted the end of June was still off East Beach as of July 18. Dick also spotted his first whimbrel of the season on July 15 at Little Neck.

Tom Rivers awoke early one morning (4 a.m.) and was trying to get back to sleep when the local whip-poor-will piped up. Instead of counting sheep he counted the “whips” and tallied up 921 before the whip-poor-will stopped — or Tom went to sleep . . . .

Patrick Best and Margaret Curtin were buying milk from Mermaid Farm on Middle Road and were delighted to see a bevy of bobwhites emerge from behind Caitlin Jones’s greenhouses. Margaret counted at least fifteen bobwhites.

Bob and Mary Lou Shriber were on Chappaquiddick on July 19 and spotted a good selection of shorebirds, including short-billed dowitchers, semipalmated and piping plovers, semipalmated, least, and spotted sandpipers, willets and greater yellowlegs. Bob also spotted a long-tailed duck and several common eiders off Pilot’s Landing in Aquinnah and a ruby-throated hummingbird flying by.

Allan Keith and I counted twenty-six piping plovers at Quansoo on July 26!


Please share your bird sightings by calling the MV Bird Hotline at 508-627-4922 or email us at birds@mvgazette.com.