A coalition of biologists from universities, government, and conservation groups renewed its call for additional study of the flight patterns of migratory birds along the Lake Erie shoreline before wind energy development is pursued.
The Black Swamp Bird Observatory hosted a meeting last month to provide researchers a forum to update their peers on projects they’ve undertaken in the Great Lakes region.
Mark Shieldcastle, the observatory’s research director who organized the meeting, said participants also discussed the most cost-effective ways of incorporating additional radar units into a comprehensive migration monitoring program that includes other research techniques such as banding, counts, and acoustic monitoring.
“The concerted efforts will help scientists and policy makers to better understand how and where birds and bats are using the airspace along the shores of Lake Erie during their nocturnal migration,” Shieldcastle said, adding “the air columns used by birds need to be looked on as habitat.”
Organizations like the BSBO, governmental agencies, and other researchers are concerned about the impact of wind turbines on northwest Ohio’s large population of bald eagles, swans, and other waterfowl that live and feed in the marshes, and large populations of songbirds that rely on the lake’s marsh region as a rest stop during their migrations.
Shieldcastle said there is not enough data about the angles of descent and ascent of birds that stop to rest and feed along the shores during migration.
While there has been research on the effect of wind turbines on migratory birds, most of those studies have been conducted in areas where birds are in active migration – with some portion of the flocks flying well above the reach of the turbines.
Studying flight patterns of flocks approaching or leaving stopover habitat is more challenging, Shieldcastle said, because most songbirds are nocturnal migrants, landing and taking off during the night when visibility is poor for the birds and researchers studying them. Other factors such as storms contribute to the complexities of researching bird behavior during stopovers.
“We have an opportunity to do groundbreaking research,” he said.
The observatory and other research organizations have been calling for a three-year moratorium on the placement of wind turbines within three miles of Lake Erie in Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky, and Erie counties until adequate radar studies can be conducted on their impact on birds and bats.
Shieldcastle cites a recommendation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for a three-mile buffer zone from the lake shoreline inland to be free of commercial wind energy development and research by The Nature Conservancy in Ohio and Michigan, which led to recommendations for a five-mile zone until further studies can be conducted.
He said the rationale for the zones stems from designations by the National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy of the shorelines of the Great Lakes as some of the most critical stopover habitats in North America.
There are economic as well as environmental factors. An estimated 64,000 bird watchers from around the world visited northwest Ohio last spring during the Biggest Week in American Birding event.
Bird-related tourism is estimated to have contributed about $25 million to the region’s economy last year, according to a survey by Ohio Sea Grant.
Those attending the meeting included representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, and The Ohio State University, The Nature Conservancy, Pelee Island Observatory, Winous Point March Conservancy, and Old Bird Inc. a non-profit organization specializing in acoustic monitoring of avian flight calls.
According to Shieldcastle, the USGS and BGSU are considering locating radar units along the lakeshore this year.
Once the research is compiled, it will give the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for much of the regulatory programs that would cover placement of commercial turbines, a sound database to draw on, he said.
Representatives of the BSBO went before the school board and city council in Oregon to request wind turbine projects at Clay High School and Eisenhower Middle School not be permitted until more research has been conducted.
The projects were approved and the two turbines at Eisenhower began operating last month and the turbine at Clay is expected to be operating in the spring.