Scientists go high-tech to study how birds and offshore wind mix

WASHINGTON—Scientists are counting on light-as-a-feather digital technology to monitor birds and bats flying near the nation’s first offshore wind operation.

A wildlife-tracking station installed on the easternmost foundation platform of Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm is designed to collect data on migration patterns of birds and bats outfitted with nano-tags by researchers. The station is three miles off the coast.

In a nutshell, study results will help industry and government partners balance renewable energy development with bird and bat conservation.

The first-of-its-kind project is a joint effort of Deepwater Wind, U.S. Interior’s Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Researchers from the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst are also involved.

For the last four years, Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Migratory Birds has also partnered with BOEM and both universities to use the same telemetry technology to track bird species such as federally endangered roseate terns, federally threatened piping plovers and red knots, and high-priority common terns and American oystercatchers.

BOEM is funding the $300,000 three-year study near the wind farm, which extends through 2020.

“Tracking the movements of birds and bats at an existing wind energy facility is essential for understanding the potential interactions of these species with renewable energy development along the Atlantic Coast,” David Bigger, BOEM’s environmental protection specialist, tells Renewal News.

Deepwater Wind began operating the 30-megawatt (MW) Block Island Wind Farm last December. Its five turbines generate enough electricity to power 17,000 homes.

Bird and bat science collected at the Block Island turbines will guide Deepwater Wind as it pursues other offshore projects. The company, based in Providence, R.I, is in the early stages of developing two other offshore wind farms, 90-MW South Fork near Long Island and 120-MW Skipjack Wind farm off the coast of Maryland.

And the reach of the science will likely extend beyond the mid-Atlantic. Deepwater Wind’s projects are among roughly a dozen offshore wind projects in various stages of development on both coasts and the Great Lakes. Through mid-March, BOEM had completed seven competitive lease sales for wind energy in federal waters, a program initiated by the Obama administration.

The Block Island tracking station Deepwater Wind installed in August is equipped with four antennae and a receiver. It’s one of 40-plus such stations positioned along the East Coast. All stations are operated in collaboration with the Ontario-based Motus Wildlife Tracking System, an open-source network led by Bird Studies Canada.

The Block Island station can “read” data on any bird or bat tagged with a nano-transmitter that flies within a 20-mile radius of the wind farm. Each high-frequency transmitter weighs far less than an ounce.

Data compiled on the Motus website show that 14,000-plus birds and bats of various species in the Western Hemisphere have been tagged over the last several years.

This unique attempt to assess fine-scale movements of birds and bats near an active wind farm is exhilarating for Steve Pelletier, a wildlife biologist in Maine. His consulting company, Stantec, is not directly involved in this particular project, but has worked with Deepwater Wind on other studies.

Gathering offshore data on wildlife has always been more challenging than documenting activity on the shoreline, he explains in an interview.

“A date and time stamp might seem like a small piece of information for any one bat or bird,” he notes, citing details that nano-tags can reveal. “But collectively we can learn so much about how these animals are seasonally responding to the environment around them.”

Seeing patterns on such a large scale helps scientists to better assess risks to wildlife caused by offshore wind farms, he says.

Tiny digital transmitters are a great leap forward from the not-so-long-ago days of collecting hit-or-miss anecdotal evidence.

“Having this new technology is a great tool,” Pelletier says. “There’s only so much time you can spend in a boat with binoculars counting things you almost can’t see.”

(Photo courtesy AWEA)

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