T here are many bird-watchers on the Vineyard. They come from all walks of life from architects to zookeepers. Some are liberals, some conservatives and maybe some are even Tea Party members. They have different ideas on what the definitions of conservation, ecology and green living are. The issue of turbines for the generation of electricity has caused some discomfort among the ranks.
Most birders feel that we should be greener in our lifestyles which includes, among other things clean, nonpolluting generation of electricity. But here is the rub: Some among the birding community feel that not enough research has been done by the state of Massachusetts showing us the movement of birds during the spring and fall migration and also pinpointing the location of wintering sea ducks. Our concern is that if wind turbines are built in corridors used by hawks and passerines (dickie birds) for migration, there may be unnecessary deaths. Another worry is that the wind turbines will be placed in areas where sea ducks feed, putting them at risk during the winter months.
The coastal waters of the Vineyard, Noman’s Land and Cuttyhunk have all been suggested as prime locations of wind farms. Rhode Island is another area proposed for wind farms.
Enter the state of Rhode Island, which seems to have its head in the right place. The University of Rhode Island did some research and discovered that research in western Europe found that sea ducks “exhibit strong avoidance behavior toward wind farms and a surrounding two-to-four kilometer buffer.” The University of Rhode Island studies have shown that the area proposed for wind farms is used by large numbers of migrating and wintering sea ducks. The natural resources science department at the university has initiated a study to determine, among other things:
• The current distribution and movement patterns of surf scoters in Rhode Island during winter and spring staging periods.
• Migratory routes and destinations of surf scoters departing Rhode Island and migration to northern breeding areas.
• A method for integrating data with studies from other regions to help delineate populations and inform management decisions on offshore wind turbine placement.
The study uses a combination of satellite telemetry, aerial surveys and habitat sampling. Minimizing the impact of offshore wind energy development on sea ducks is a central concern. The information was sent to me by Pam Loring, a graduate research assistant at the university.
She contacted me, Matt Pelikan and Lanny McDowell on Jan. 6 to let us know that she was working on a sea duck telemetry study. To do this she had satellite transmitters fitted on black, surf and white-winged scoters. The data from one black scoter showed that it had perished and washed up on the southwestern shore of Katama Bay. Pam needed our help to recover the bird so the $2,500 transmitter could be recovered and refurbished and reused. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife veterinarians were also interested in doing a necropsy because there seems to be a disease affecting black scoters in the Northeast this year.
So on Jan. 10, we tried to coordinate a team to take Pam from the ferry to Katama and try to find the scoter. The weather turned on us with snow and wind. Pam decided not to come to the Vineyard, but Lanny, Richard Cohen, Flip Harrington and I braved the elements and tried to find the scoter, to no avail.
On Sunday, Jan. 16 Lanny, Flip and I met the 7:45 a.m. ferry where we greeted David Stanwood and Pam Loring. We were going to try again for the black scoter and the transmitter. Pam brought her hand-held telemetry equipment (an antennae with GPS) to assist us in locating the black scoter and transmitter. To save battery power the transmitter was programmed to broadcast four hours on and four off. We had a window between 7 and 11 a.m. in which to work. We drove directly to Katama and onto Norton Point. Lanny stopped the car and we all piled out. Pam set up her antenna and suggested that we walk along the wrack line. She had sent a map to us the week before and Flip and Richard Cohen had decided where the bird was from that map, but were unable to locate it.
We hadn’t walked more than 500 feet when Pam looked down, spotted some feathers, grabbed them and pulled up a very dead black scoter wearing a transmitter. Wow, fast work!
We were very happy to have been able to assist in the mission and will be very interested to see the data that she and her team collect. I believe Vineyard bird-watchers will appreciate the work that Pam and others at the University of Rhode Island are doing; hopefully this information will help the powers that be place the wind turbines in appropriate locations.
Susan B. Whiting is a natural history expert who writes the weekly bird news column for the Vineyard Gazette.