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Potential Impact of the Canso Spaceport on Birds
1:59pm - 12/12/2017

This note presents my concerns about the possible impact on migratory and breeding birds of the proposed Canso Spaceport (Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017) in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. The above photo is a view of some of the coastal habitat to be affected by the proposed project.

These concerns arise from three years of pre- and post-construction avian studies I conducted in that area as part of the environment assessment of Sable Wind. These studies included research on breeding, migration stop-over, diurnal passage, nocturnal passage, and morning flight. An especially extensive database was collected on nocturnal passage based on nightly acoustic recordings throughout the spring and fall migrations at 3 sites in 2013, 2015, and 2016 and on morning flight on an hourly basis in 2016. These studies are summarized in Kearney (2017).

In particular, I wish to discuss the possible negative impacts on birds related to the effects of 1) lighting from the project on migrating birds, 2) loss and disruption of stop-over habitat of Whimbrels, 3) loss and disruption of breeding habit of Willets, and 4) the effects of a rocket fuel component, hydrazine, on coastal bird populations.


1.      The Effects of Lighting on Migratory Birds

The effects of lighting on migratory birds falls into two separate but related categories, a) the effect of artificial light on migrants at coastal headlands and b) the effect of artificial light on migrants near the Sable Wind energy facility.

a.       The Effect of Artificial Light on Migrants at Coastal Headlands

Glasgow Head is the easternmost point on the mainland of Nova Scotia. My acoustic studies indicated that it is a point of departure in the spring and an arrival point in the autumn for birds migrating to and from Cape Breton Island and the island of Newfoundland. In the autumn it is also a concentration point for reorienting migrants that have been caught in crosswinds during the night. In morning flight one can see nocturnal migrants reorienting in a westward direction and birds in resumed migration heading to the southwest.

The acoustic studies produced between 6,000 to 10,000 night flight calls during each of the three autumn seasons of monitoring at Glasgow Head. This roughly represents a minimum of 3,000 to 6,000 birds per autumn detected in the airspace up to a maximum of 150 meters immediately above a pressure zone microphone. The microphone detects only a portion of the total birds flying over the headland at all altitudes and beyond the lateral boundaries of microphone detection cone. Radar studies conducted at Glasgow Head (Lightfoot and Taylor 2013) indicated a strong correlation between acoustic and radar detections, especially below 150 meters altitude.

It has long been known that artificial lights attract night-migrating birds and alter their behaviour. A recent study quantified these behavioural responses through radar and acoustic sensors (Van Doren, Horton et al. 2017). The study indicated that illumination resulted in aggregation in high densities, decreased flight speeds, circular flight paths, and frequent vocalization. Birds up to 4 kilometers above the ground were influenced by the light. The authors conclude that these behaviours may lead to significant energetic expenditures, increased predation, collision with human structures, and changes in stop-over ecology. If birds do not die from collision, predation, or exhaustion, their migratory flight may be delayed in order to rebuild their fat condition.

The launch pad of the proposed spaceport is located on the next peninsula, about 1.5 kilometers, south southwest of Glasgow Head. Like Glasgow Head, it is currently a dark environment at night. At Glasgow Head, the nearest lights are 1.5 kilometers away and consist of residential lighting. The launch pad would bring lights to a coastal headland and near a large coastal island, Andrew Island. The study by Van Doren, Horton et al. (2017) demonstrated that bird activity began to increase at distances 2 kilometers from a light and peaked within 500 meters. Their models indicated that migrant disorientation began 1.5 kilometers from an artificial light.

In 2017, I conducted nocturnal migration monitoring at another coastal headland in Nova Scotia, Cape Forchu, in Yarmouth County. The monitoring station was 500 meters from the nearest residential lighting and 900 meters from a lighthouse and unshielded lamp posts in a parking lot. Total night flight calls during the entire autumn at this location was over 28,000 calls. This number represents 2.8 to 4.7 times the number of calls recorded at Glasgow Head and is similar to the 3.4-fold increase in maximum bird numbers with illumination compared to darkness as reported by Van Doren, Horton et al. (2017).

These studies point to the potential of significant negative impacts on the survival and health of migratory birds at the proposed launch site due to the concentrating of birds circling lighted structures, leading to collision, exhaustion, increased predation, and loss of migratory fitness.

b.       The Effect of Artificial Light near the Sable Wind Energy Facility

The Canso Spaceport proposal calls for a control house located within a few hundred meters of the Sable Wind energy facility. The same dynamics of the effect of artificial lights on migrating birds would be at play at this location. In this case, however, disoriented birds would be flying through an airspace populated by six wind turbines as they approach any artificial lights. This possibility increases the risk of collision with the turbine towers and blades.


2.      Loss and Disruption of Whimbrel Stop-over Habitat

The rich berry crop on the barrens surrounding the proposed spaceport are an important source of food for Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus hudsonicus) during their autumn migration. The barrens of eastern Cape Breton Island and eastern Nova Scotia are critical stopover habitat for Whimbrels building their body condition for a flight that many of them will take directly from Nova Scotia over the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America (Morrison 1984).

The Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (2017) lists the conservation status of the Whimbrel as S2S3M. This indicates that this migratory population in Nova Scotia has a status between “imperiled” and “vulnerable”. A recent paper (Pearce-Higgins, Brown et al. 2017) on the population status of the tribe Numeniini, of which the Whimbrel is a member, stresses how changes in stop-over habitat are the greatest threat to these species. The authors state: “Residential and commercial development, drilling, mining and quarrying, and the construction of transportation and service corridors were regarded as having widespread and severe impacts on populations, especially in coastal non-breeding areas where they can result in significant changes in land use.”

In 2013, in addition to the acoustic station at Glasgow Head, an acoustic station was positioned on the shore of Spinney Gull, a body of water between Glasgow Head and the proposed launch pad. Total Whimbrel calls from these two stations in the autumn totaled 528, a number representing at least one hundred Whimbrels. During the day, Whimbrels were not seen feeding on the coastal mudflats which indicated that these nocturnal migrants were taking off from or landing in the stopover foraging areas in the barrens.

In 2016, acoustic point counts were carried out for 10-minute intervals every hour for 3 hours after civil sunrise. At Glasgow Head at least one Whimbrel was detected on 12 mornings between 2 September and 3 October for an estimate of 42 total birds. These birds were likely flying to stop-over habitat in the adjacent barrens. At a more inland monitoring station, Whimbrels were detected on 10 mornings between 28 August and 8 October for a total estimated number of 22 birds. These were likely foraging Whimbrels in the barrens immediately adjacent to the monitoring station.

The Whimbrels detected in the study area during the 4 daily, 10-minute acoustic counts are equal to 17.6% of all the Whimbrels in Nova Scotia reported to eBird during the same time period in 2016 (eBird 2017). This statistic indicates the critical importance of the coastal barrens of this region as stop-over habitat for the Whimbrel.


3.      Loss and Disruption of Willet Breeding Habitat

Willets breed in the boggy areas of the barrens moving back and forth to the coast during the day to feed on mudflats and in tidal pools. Their behaviour indicates that nests are located on drier, higher ground around the edges of bogs. During the breeding studies in the Canso area in 2013 and 2015, Willets were observed on 34% of the 32 point counts surveyed in both years. A total of 17 birds were seen in 2013 and 14 in 2015. While there was no statistically significant difference in the number between the two years, there was an abandonment of a small Willet colony of 3 or 4 pairs that had been located close to where two turbines were built next to the only bog in the study area.

According the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (2017), the conservation status of the Willet in Nova Scotia is S2S3B; “imperiled” to “vulnerable” in the breeding season. The data from the breeding surveys in 2013 and 2015 provides evidence that Willets are sensitive to and are displaced by construction activities and industrial noise.

4.      The Effects of Hydrazine on Coastal Bird Populations

The missiles launched from the Canso Spaceport will be using unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) as a component of the rocket fuel for second stage propulsion (Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017). Studies have indicated that UDMH, “especially inside the fall region of burned-out rocket stages constitute a significant threat to both environmental and human health, the latter as a results of the carcinogenic, mutagenic, convulsant, teratogenic and embryotoxic characteristics of UDMH in addition to the general toxic characteristics of the compound”(Carlsen, Kenesova et al. 2007).

The recent launch of a rocket by the European Space Agency over the Canadian and Greenland exclusive economic zones led to protests by the governments of Greenland, Nunavut, and the Canadian federal government over concerns about the possible toxic effects of UDMH on birds and marine mammals (Murray 2017). Global Affairs Canada expressed concerns to the European Space Agency regarding “potential environmental effects of launches on the sensitive Arctic ecosystem” (Weber 2017).

Of particular concern at the Canso Spaceport would be the accidental release of UDMH into the environment due to a spill or failed launch. UDMH persists for long periods in soil and freshwater but its effects in the marine environment have not been studied (Byers and Byers 2017).



The environmental assessment of the Canso Spaceport needs to include a detailed analysis of the four concerns raised in this memo to demonstrate that the project will not have significant negative impacts on migratory and breeding birds in their aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic habitats. If the project proceeds, it is imperative that the proponents conduct “Controlled Before-After” studies which are designed to provide statistically significant results in measuring the impacts on birds from the project. All project approvals should be dependent on the development of mitigation strategies that would be effective in reversing or greatly reducing any significant negative impacts as determined by the controlled before-after studies.



Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. 2017, Last updated on 8 September 2017. "Conservation Ranks." from

Byers, M. and C. Byers. 2017. "Toxic splash: Russian rocket stages dropped in Arctic waters raise health, environmental and legal concerns." Polar Record 1-12. doi:10.1017/S0032247417000547.


Carlsen, L., O. A. Kenesova and S. E. Batyrbekova. 2007. "A preliminary assessment of the potential environmental and human health impact of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine as a result of space activities." Chemosphere 6(6): 1108-1116.


eBird. 2017. "An Online Database of Bird Distribution and Abundance." from


Kearney, J. F. 2017. "Sable Wind Breeding and Migrating Birds Post-construction Monitoring: 2015-2016". John F. Kearney and Associates for the Municipality of the District of Guysborough and Nova Scotia Power Inc. 53 p,

Lightfoot, H. L. and P. D. Taylor. 2013. "Sable Wind - Fall Radar Study Report". Acadia University 25 p.


Maritime Launch Services Ltd. 2017. "Project Description, Canso, Nova Scotia Prospective Launch Site" 42p.


Morrison, R. I. G.1984. Migration system of some New World shorebirds. Behavior of marine animals. Vol. 6. Shorebird: migration and foraging behavior. J. Burger and B. L. Olla. New York, Plenum Press: 125-202.


Murray, N. 2017, 8 October. "Inuit call for halt on satellite launch over rocket's toxic fuel fears." CBCNews North, from


Pearce-Higgins, J. W., D. J. Brown, D. J. T. Douglas, J. A. Alves, M. Bellio, P. Bocher, G. M. Buchanan, R. P. Clay, J. Conklin, N. Crockford, P. Dann, J. Elts, C. Friis, R. A. Fuller, J. A. Gill, K. E. N. Gosbell, J. A. Johnson, R. Marquez-Ferrando, J. A. Masero, D. S. Melville, S. Millington, C. Minton, T. Mundkur, E. Nol, H. Pehlak, T. Piersma, F. Robin, D. I. Rogers, D. R. Ruthrauff, N. R. Senner, J. N. Shah, R. D. Sheldon, S. A. Soloviev, P. S. Tomkovich and Y. I. Verkuil. 2017. "A global threats overview for Numeniini populations: synthesising expert knowledge for a group of declining migratory birds." Bird Conservation International 27(01): 6-34.


Van Doren, B. M., K. G. Horton, A. M. Dokter, H. Klinck, S. B. Elbin and A. Farnsworth. 2017. "High-intensity urban light installation dramatically alters nocturnal bird migration." Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114(42): 11175-11180.

Weber, B. 2017, 12 October. "Ottawa questions Europe’s plan to drop rocket likely to contain toxic fuel in Arctic waters." The, from


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