Blowin' in the Wind: USFWS Biologists Coordinate a Study of Seabird Movements Along the mid-Atlantic to Help Find the Best Locations for Offshore Wind Farms
As energy costs continue to rise – including soaring gasoline prices – it's no wonder wind power is gaining momentum as an alternative energy source. Wind may be the cheapest and fastest-growing form of renewable energy now available in the U.S. More and more wind farms are being proposed, especially along the Eastern Seaboard, and the wind energy industry is pushing for offshore wind projects, including Cape Wind off the Cape Cod coast.
While wind power has many advantages as a renewable energy source, one of the concerns is the impact that offshore wind farms could have on birds. Currently, there is little scientific research or data on the issue. That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is leading a multi-year study on the potential impact of wind farms on marine birds. The level of risk can then be evaluated and put in context with other threats birds regularly face (e.g., collisions with communication towers).
"We have some real holes in our knowledge of how marine birds use the offshore environment, and this is a problem when we're thinking about putting commercial-scale wind turbines in the Atlantic," said Caleb Spiegel, wildlife biologist with the USFWS Division of Migratory Birds. "We need to know where these bird concentrations are and try and avoid them."
The project is a collaborative effort between the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Sea Duck Joint Venture, Biodiversity Research Institute, and Memorial University of Newfoundland, with funding from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
"BOEM's responsibility is to regulate energy development on the outer continental shelf in a safe and environmentally responsible way," said Dr. Jim Woehr, an avian biologist with BOEM. "That's our mission and that's exactly why we're doing this."
BOEM regulates the area from three nautical miles offshore out to 200 nautical miles offshore.
"The idea is to put wind farms in the best possible places from an environmental and wind energy point of view," said Woehr.
The study is using satellite telemetry to document annual migration and winter movement patterns of three species of seabirds – the Red-throated Loon, the Northern Gannet, and the Surf Scoter . The data collected will be used to assess risks to seabirds off the U.S. coast posed by proposed offshore wind projects, and minimize these risks by locating wind turbines away from areas critical to birds. The findings of this study will complement other BOEM-funded work currently underway by USFWS and partners that is utilizing aerial and boat surveys to identify locations, species compositions, and population densities of seabirds using offshore waters of the Atlantic U.S. during particular times of year.
In this study, biologists are focusing on seabirds along the mid-Atlantic from New Jersey to North Carolina, where large concentrations of loons, gannets, and scoters are found during winter and migratory periods. The idea is to better understand the birds' wintering and migratory movements.
Biologists catch the birds in nets and fit them with satellite transmitters. The transmitters send data on each bird's location to researchers' satellites. When the birds are wintering or migrating, the units send data on their location in four-hour blocks, and then power down for about 13 hours. The units send data only occasionally when the birds return to their breeding grounds, since offshore wind facilities are not currently planned in these areas.
Forty-five birds of each of the three species will be tracked over a three year period. Even though the study is in its early stages, biologists are already getting some interesting data. Satellite data shows that two gannets captured in Delaware Bay flew all the way down the coast to North Carolina and then turned around and flew back to New Jersey – all in the same week. A Red-throated loon spent a month in the Chesapeake Bay and then headed north out over the Atlantic and after just a few days was tracked well off the southern coast of Long Island NY and also Cape Cod Mass.
"This is exactly why we're doing this study, to get this kind of information. It's very exciting," Spiegel said.
The technology allows Spiegel and other biologists involved in the study to be virtual avian air traffic controllers; they can see where each bird is right from their computers.
A secondary goal of the study is to figure out ways to employ better technology to track birds. Researchers are continually working on building more advanced transmitters that are smaller and lighter. Tests of solar-powered tag attachments are in the works, which would allow for a much longer battery life for the transmitters.
The results of the study should play a key role in where offshore wind farms are – or are not – located in the future.
"We're lucky that we have some time to be proactive about avoiding wildlife impacts," said Spiegel. "Having to be reactive is never the ideal way to go about things in conservation."