Lake Erie a test for birds and energy

TomHenry  Commentary

It’s March. It’s still cold outside, but the calendar tells us winter’s winding down.

There are other signs of spring: Major league baseball players are working out in Florida and Arizona. And businesses along the western Lake Erie shoreline are gearing up for another fantastic festival called The Biggest Week in American Birding, scheduled for May 3-12.

What fascinates me, in the big picture, isn’t just the birds. But it’s how quickly the issue of birding has gelled and what that could mean for the future of energy production and the environment by getting more people engaged with our natural resources.

Serious birders have known for decades that western Lake Erie is one of the most crucial regions for migratory birds, anything from tiny songbirds to mighty raptors.

For thousands of years, birds have been hard-wired to migrate across Lake Erie en route to Canada and other destinations. Scientists believe nature has programmed them to rest up along the northwest Ohio shoreline and use the Lake Erie islands as stopover points.

Some of this region’s earliest known maps suggest the lake’s western edge could have actually been out at what are now the islands (South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, Pelee, et al), not as far west as what became Toledo and Monroe. If that’s true, experts say, the birds may just be following the routes their ancestors took, which is often the case with migration.

But enough of the science lesson. What’s at stake now is public policy, politics, and – of course – money.

International Migratory Bird Day, which takes place in May each year close to Mother’s Day, has been described for years as the Super Bowl of birding. It may have been in other parts of North America, but its potential wasn’t fully realized along the western Lake Erie shoreline until this festival, organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, gave it more synergy.

Now, The Biggest Week in American Birding festival is a showcase for how educational and business programs can be more effective working in combination with each other, from ferry shuttles to guest lectures.GreatLakesWatchLogo

Oh, there have always been lots of birders converging along the western Lake Erie shoreline each May, to be sure. But hotels and restaurants packed for miles around and 100,000 or more visitors over a few weekends? Probably not.

In terms of eco-tourism, this effort – bad pun intended – has really taken flight.

Birding, America’s fastest-growing outdoor activity, has gone beyond the stereotypical nerdy bird watchers to become an economic powerhouse. If Great Lakes politicians are serious about diversifying this region’s economy with lighter industries – as they should be, especially given the declines in manufacturing – they cannot deny the impact that birding brings to recreation and tourism.

In northwest Ohio alone, birding contributes $26 million a year and supports 300 jobs, according to a report issued a year ago by Ohio Sea Grant.

The festival’s success and rising popularity comes at a crucial time for birding advocates, because they’re in the fight of their lives over wind turbines, transmission lines, and other energy-producing items they see as threats.

Wind is America’s fastest-growing form of energy production, although that oft-cited claim by the American Wind Energy Association may soon be toned down because of hydraulic fracturing of shale rock for oil and natural gas, or fracking.

There’s a need, even for birds, for society to become less reliant on coal-fired power.     Greenhouse gases, the largest source of which are coal-fired power plants, alter the Earth’s climate and that, in turn, threatens the very act of migration. One of the best books on this topic is David S. Wilcove’s No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.

Ohio is the No. 4 state for energy usage and No. 2 for greenhouse gases.

Western Lake Erie is where the avian vs. wind power issue collides. It is Ground Zero for the Great Lakes region, which has some of the best wind resources in the nation along the lake shorelines.

Bird and bat advocates argue the research is far too young to assume those avian creatures can co-exist with commercial-scale turbines anywhere near the shorelines.

In Ohio, birders want a moratorium on wind turbines within three miles of the Lake Erie shoreline. The western basin of the lake is the most crucial because it lies smack in the path of major bird flyways.

It also is the most coveted to potential offshore wind-farm developers because the shallowness of water and the access to the regional electric grid offer the best chance for return on investment.
       This energy debate is all about siting. A Government Accountability Office report that came out in 2005 reached no definitive conclusions about the impacts of wind turbines on birds and bats, but it gave examples of other parts of the country where thousands of deaths can be attributed to poor siting. 
  This isn’t the 1950s. We need more energy and cleaner forms of it.

We have the chance to do it right, though. Maybe history will show someday that concerns are unfounded, that birds and bats can indeed co-exist with wind turbines. Maybe it won’t. 
       

What’s intriguing about the surge in birding’s popularity, though, is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult for politicians to dismiss enthusiasts as a bunch of nerdy bird watchers, especially as their impact on recreation and tourism continues to grow.

 

  • Joe

    I agree with leroy, not only are CO2 savings limited by ever changing wind velocities; but people do not consider the CO2 emmitted in the construction and maintenance of the turbines. If you look at solar panels, people always think they’re getting free energy from the sun. The truth is the sun releases energy already stored on the panels. It takes CO2 to make those panels. I am a proponent of the use of both solar and wind energy; but only as it relates to affordable electricity and, of course, safe flight passage. Cheap energy is clean energy.

  • Nate

    Here is the web address for Erie Shores Wind Farm, they began operations in 2006, I was wrong with my earlier number, they have 66 turbines, right on the shore and in the migratory path. Seems like Canada thought this was a good idea more than seven years ago. http://www.erieshores.ca/index.htm

  • Nate

    Might be interesting to as our neighbors in Canada about their bird kill numbers from their huge wind farms on the north shore of Lake Erie. More than 75 huge turbines that run from near the mouth of the Detroit River east for many miles. Their power generation operation has been running for a number of years in the path of this migration, right on the shore and going inland.

  • Anonymous

    My main comment is all sides need to work together! I say build the Wind Turbines but shut them down during the migration. They operate 11 months out of the year. Everybody wins.

  • Quixote

    The main reason some environmentalists and agencies are recommending a slow approach for any wind energy projects near the Lakeshores: many of the most critical “Important Bird Areas” in the United States are located along the shorelines of the Great Lakes. The three (3) mile moratorium is probably based on the State of Ohio’s analysis of wind and wildlife issues a few years ago. Last year The Nature Conservancy and others developed Great Lakes specific guidance recommending against commercial wind energy development within (five) 5 miles of shorelines until scientists have a better understanding of how large numbers of birds flying at night may be impacted by tall moving objects near their seasonal runways — the lakeshores. Wind energy: Great Lakes regional guidelines. .

  • Harold

    Yes, humans kill millions of migratory birds by constructing towers, lighting skyscrapers and destroying habitat. That’s no excuse to exacerbate the carnage by putting wind towers in migratory pathways.

    Becky’s point that the National Audubon Society supports wind energy has no bearing on this issue. The important part of Audubon’s position is that wind towers need to be “properly sited”. This is not a proper location. The Detroit Audubon Society–the southeast Michigan chapter of National Audubon–has already gone on record as opposing the construction of wind towers along this stretch of Lake Erie.

    If we ever wake up and become honest with the situation, we’ll admit that human overpopulation is the main driver of our destructive ways…something that, sadly, the Sierra Club has yet to take to heart.

  • leroy

    The American Bald Eagle. Chosen June 20, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of American.

    FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO ISSUE “TAKE” PERMITS FOR EAGLE KILLS BY WIND ENERGY COMPANIES
    http://eastcountymagazine.org/node/9211
    “Killing eagles is currently a federal crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. Individuals and companies have historically been found guilty and held accountable for eagle deaths—but no wind farm operator has ever been prosecuted, despite numerous documented eagle deaths from wind turbines.”

    What other energy companies are given permits to kill eagles?

    Time to wake up folks. And see things for what they really are. Not what we wish they were.

  • Becky

    This is an important and touchy subject, one we have covered on the Sierra Club Great Lakes Program blog. The National Audubon Society “strongly supports” properly-sited wind. An article from Carbon Lighthouse says why:

    “If we simply count up the birds based on the amount of electricity generated by each source, it means Wind Farms kill about 7,000 birds per year, Nuclear power plants kill about 327,000 birds per year, and coal and natural gas plants combined kill about 14,500,000 birds per year.”

    I believe a huge killer of birds is agricultural chemicals, but I see no movement to attempt to stop them. Skyscrapers are another big killer. I do think cities like Chicago are attempting to get offices to turn off lights at night, reducing impacts, but again, see no big movement.

    Usually when wind power as a bird-killer is mentioned, it’s as if there is not already a worse system in place. It’s as if wind power is being compared with a pristine environment and culture that kills no birds at all. This is not true, as the numbers show. Wind can replace power sources that kill huge numbers of birds, although we don’t acknowledge it much. Climate change will be a major killer of birds, and wind power won’t contribute to it to any degree when compared to coal or natural gas. Loss of wetland habitat is going to wreak havoc on birds, and if we continue moving from coal to natural gas instead of from coal to wind and/or solar power, we’re going to see more of that as lake levels continue to lower, the ongoing drought continues, and fracking keeps using 1-7 million gallons of water per frack per well, not to mention using 10 or so acres per well, and over a thousand truck trips just to set up a single well.

    I doubt we’re going to get what we seem to want: the invisible energy we thought we had, with its huge but also invisible impact, like mercury in every lake and river in Michigan. Since we are not much reducing our demand for energy, we are going to use something, and it’s going to impact wildlife. We’re not seeing any big movement to put solar panels on our houses, and reducing our own co2 impact is still regarded as a sort of hobby, each of us working little by little, smallest steps first, instead of this essential step being put front and center as the main part of the solution (as famous ornithologist Laura Erickson says in 101 Ways to Help Birds). It is sad, though, that with so many things killing so many birds, that wind power is actively fought in a way some practices that kill more birds are not. I’ve seen aerial photos of PA and fracking. I can’t imagine that major destruction not decimating bird populations.

    http://sierraclubgreatlakes.blogspot.com/2012/01/wind-power-birds-some-links-and-facts.html

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  • Kimberly

    Thank you for providing a well-balanced summary of the issue, Tom. AS always, we appreciate your thoughts. I also appreciate Sandy’s thoughts. But, as is the case with so many people, she underestimates and oversimplifies the problem. To offer further clarification on some of her points:

    Sandy wrote: What troubles me is that bird advocates in the area do not help with, other than wind, detrimental environmental impacts. When I reached out to them to help with the fish kills at Bayshore, not interested.

    Response: Only speaking for myself and my organization, here, but no one ever asked me directly to support any efforts to stop the fish kills. If they had, I would have added my organizations name to any sort of official position statement.

    Sandy wrote: Then as a member of Oregon council the birders opposed the wind turbines at two Oregon schools – about two miles off shore.

    Response: We are not along in our position. Ohio Department of Natural Resources published a map indicating that three miles along the Lake shore was their highest level of concern for wind energy development. However, that RED ZONE extends far deeper than three miles in some areas. The Nature Conservancy is set to publish their own map based all the latest scientific information: it calls for a five-mile buffer from wind development. How depressing that rather than having the Oregon City Council embrace and support the tremendous asset they have in their backyard – they chose to ignore the voices of those with the greatest knowledge of migratory birds in this region and who are also working hard to bring more birders–and birding business–to their city. And, anyone with a little time and investigative ability would have a FIELD DAY if they starting poking into the back stories behind the wind turbines at the Oregon City Schools!

    Sandy wrote: When I asked if they could pick a critical month or two to reduce migratory impacts – the answer was do not build.

    Response: This borders on being shameful. What’s left out here is the fact that the idea of shutting down the turbines during the peak times of migration was REJECTED BY THE SCHOOL AT A CITY COUNCIL MEETING because the loss of energy would not allow them to make their lease payments on this MASSIVE investment of tax-payer money. –That’s how close they’re cutting it each month!

    Sandy wrote: Then when another turbine was proposed for another Oregon school beyond the three mile limit, the birders still did not want it.

    Response: Again, look at the map of the avian concern zone. This is what our concerns were based on along with our knowledge of the volume of birds that rely on these areas for their survival.

    Sandy wrote: When asked why, it was wait for studies. There is a study going on at the Clay High School turbine on counting any bird kills. Will have to see the results.

    Response: There is NOT, I repeat, NOT a study taking place at Clay High School. They have yet to apply for the necessary state and federal permits to conduct such a study – though they have been informed of the need to do so time and time again. In order to conduct a study with any scientific credibility, it must follow a scientific protocol – and have the required permits. They are a long way from conducting such a study. (And, I would add that they are already finding dead bats under the Clay High School turbine!)

    Sandy wrote: Birding is a great ‘sport’ that people love and we need to support.Turbines are but one element that threaten birds. Harmful algal blooms, weather changes, chemicals of concern, Asian Carp, nuclear storage, are also threats to the bird migration. I wish more birders would weigh in on these issues that also threaten migration.

    Response: Birding is more than simply a “sport’ in this region. Just ask the local businesses in the area during April and May. Birders in this region speak with their dollars, spending more than 30 million dollars in this region each spring. Bird conservation organizations, on the other hand, support habitat conservation at every possible opportunity to do so. We put our hearts and souls into that effort every single day. But one organization cannot battle every issue and be effective. What we need is more and better communication among these groups – not accusations, finger pointing, and worse, the “I won’t help you because I don’t think you helped me,” attitude. It’s disappointing to a depressing degree.

    As a bird observatory with staff members who have been studying bird migration in this region for nearly 4 decades, we have the knowledge and expertise to speak to the potential impact of poorly sited wind turbines. We understand the risk of endangering the millions upon millions of migratory birds that rely on this critical area in their migration. It is time for everyone to face the fact that wind turbines can and will kill birds. No one denies that. Not even the wind industry. And in an area where there are A LOT of birds – we know from documented cases that poorly sited wind turbines kill A LOT of birds.

    It’s simple: there are some places where wind turbines are not safe. The Lake Erie Marsh Region is one of them.

    I have tremendous respect for what Sandy has done to promote water quality issues in this region. But I respectfully submit that on the issue of responsible wind energy – she and the Oregon City Council and Oregon City Schools got it wrong.

  • leroy

    Thank you for writing on this topic. Some important information is available if ones chooses to look.

    “show that there are no fossil fuel or CO2 emissions savings, and in some cases increases are indicated. For all three, the Netherlands, Colorado and Texas the studies report savings close to zero percent of the emissions for the total electricity system. The individual results are summarized below:”

    “In other words, for electrical energy to be useful we must be able to switch it on and off as needed and rely on it being available during the period of use. To accomplish this, capacity (in this context capacity and power are interchangeable terms) must be reliably available on a continuous basis. This is as opposed to wind power, which is available only randomly and in varying degrees over time.”

    https://www.wind-watch.org/documents/integrating-wind-power-wind-fails-in-two-important-performance-measures/

    Type ‘mafia police’ into this search and find 5 pages long of headlines.
    https://www.wind-watch.org/searchnww.php
    “Hawaii wind developer tied to largest-ever asset seizure by anti-Mafia police”

  • Kim

    Tom, thank you for writing about this very important issue. I live in Michigan but travel to Ohio each May for the Biggest Week in American Birding, as do many of my friends. We love watching the beautiful warblers migrating through the Toledo area and are saddened to see so many wind turbines being planned for this important area.

    I’d like to add one thing that you didn’t mention, because often after an article like this we see comments from people who think “a few dead birds” don’t matter. One of the key points making these turbines a problem here is that birds aren’t just flying over, they’re landing and taking off, flying at every altitude. Very large numbers of them could be killed. I think the issue is partly one of putting the turbines at an appropriate height far enough offshore so the birds can clear them safely. If this isn’t handled properly we could see an ecological disaster, not to mention the loss of millions of dollars in tourism revenue for the local area. I especially hope Ohio’s citizens are paying attention to this issue and contacting their representatives about it.

  • Barb

    Thank you for addressing this issue. It’s important for people to understand that location is crucial when planning wind farms. Birds, bats, and other wildlife already face many threats, but as you said, in the case of wind power, we do have the chance to do this right. We can’t really call it “green” energy if it causes unacceptable wildlife mortality.

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  • Sandy

    Great commentary.
    What troubles me is that bird advocates in the area do not help with, other than wind, detrimental environmental impacts. When I reached out to them to help with the fish kills at Bayshore, not interested. I later learned that birders testified in support of the nuclear plant Besse. Then as a member of Oregon council the birders opposed the wind turbines at two Oregon schools – about two miles off shore. When I asked if they could pick a critical month or two to reduce migratory impacts – the answer was do not build. Then when another turbine was proposed for another Oregon school beyond the three mile limit, the birders still did not want it. When asked why, it was wait for studies. There is a study going on at the Clay High School turbine on counting any bird kills. Will have to see the results.
    Birding is a great ‘sport’ that people love and we need to support.
    Turbines are but one element that threaten birds. Harmful algal blooms, weather changes, chemicals of concern, Asian Carp, nuclear storage, are also threats to the bird migration. I wish more birders would weigh in on these issues that also threaten migration.