Birds face threats in changing Maine landscape

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A common tern dives to defend its nesting area on Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay in 2003. Gabor Degre|BDN

What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander — especially when it comes to large-scale energy projects.

The ‘goose’ in this scenario is energy consumers, who show a growing interest in reducing the use of fossil fuels in meeting their electricity needs, while the ‘gander’ is birds in general, and bats. Aerial animals sometimes pay the ultimate price when it comes to new energy infrastructure of any kind cropping up in the landscape.

According to the CBC, earlier this month the liquefied natural gas import firm Canaport LNG pleaded guilty to Canadian federal charges stemming from the deaths of an estimated 7,500 birds at its New Brunswick terminal on Sept. 14 & 15, 2013. The oceanfront LNG terminal is located 80 miles from Calais, Maine in Saint John, east of the city’s urban center.

The birds — representing 26 species of migratory songbirds — died after they were attracted to a burning gas flare estimated to be a 33-to-50 feet high with a temperature approaching 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit during a period of fog and low cloud cover, according to the report. Shortly after the incident Canaport LNG, which is a partnership between New Brunswick firm Irving Oil and Spain-based energy giant Repsol, reportedly completed a $45 million upgrade that largely eliminated the use of flaring.

Energy projects that generally are considered more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel facilities are not without blame when it comes to birds deaths. Wind turbines kill somewhere between 140,000 and 328,000 birds die each year, according to this report at Smithsonian.com.

Even solar arrays can spell doom for birds, according to this 2014 Scientific American article. The report indicates that federal officials investigated the deaths of more than 200 birds at large-scale concentrated solar plants in California.

According to the article, birds perish when “their feathers ignite, mid-air, after flying through a concentrated beam of [reflected] sunlight. Such hapless birds can be burned to death, killed by brute force when they crash to the ground, or eaten by a predator [that] swoops in to claim their maimed body.”

We have no large-scale solar arrays in Maine, though some (the non-concentrated kind) have been proposed in Rockland and Gouldsboro, and no LNG terminals. A handful of proposals for LNG terminals cropped up in Maine a decade ago but market conditions, especially the North American fracking boom of recent years, resulted in all of them being scrapped — except for the Downeast LNG proposal in Robbinston, which developers still are pursuing.

There are several commercial-scale wind farms in Maine, however. In eastern Hancock County, bird deaths occurring at one wind farm have thrown a wrench into plans by SunEdison to expand the number of turbines it has in the area.

This past June, state officials said scientific mortality studies indicate that, over a period of several months, a dozen or more birds or bats are killed by each of the 19 turbines that SunEdison currently operates in Township 16.

The effect of those turbines on birds and bats — the latter of which have seen their numbers in Maine drop off steeply because of white nose syndrome — led the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to oppose approval of another 23 turbines that SunEdison was planning to erect nearby. In August, the company withdrew its permit application for the 23 additional turbines, saying it hoped to resubmit the application at some point.

It is important to note that there always have been threats to birds (and to all animals) in one form or another, and that it is not just energy infrastructure that has negatively affected some bird populations.

Bird experts readily acknowledge that the recovery of Maine’s bald eagle population has had an adverse impact on the numbers of other birds, including cormorants and sea gulls. The BDN has published several stories in recent years (click here, here, and here to read a few of them) about the effect climate change appears to be having on birds in the state.

But there are man-made and man-fed threats that pose an even greater risk to avian populations than turbines, gas flares and solar arrays. According to this USA Today article, a study released last year indicates that 6.8 million birds die annually from collisions with cell phone and radio towers and between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion are killed each year by cats.

There are plenty of cats and communications towers in Maine, of course. The number of cell phone towers here is on the rise, and there is no sign of a decrease in the state’s feline population, either among domestic house cats or in the wild.

The attention wind turbines have received for their impact on birds has led to initiatives in the West that are aimed at protecting certain bird species in areas where turbines have been erected or are being considered.

Here’s a video produced last year by the New York Times about the effect wind power development has had on sage grouse in Wyoming:

 

Here’s another video produced just last month by KQED about the impact wind turbines have had on birds in Altamont Pass in California:

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for 20 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.