By John Kearney
Dr. Kearney is an environmental anthropologist. From 2008-2018, he worked for the Nova Scotia wind industry as an independent consultant assessing the impact of wind energy facilities on birds. For the last four years, he has been the lead partner in Listening Together, a government-funded project engaging naturalists, environmental organizations, and Mi’kmaw communities in biodiversity conservation through bioacoustics.
This essay concerns two of the most critical challenges for Nova Scotia in its response to climate change. One is the requirement to expand our clean energy production; the other is the urgent need for biodiversity protection to reverse the declining populations of numerous plants and animal species. Here I discuss a case where these objectives conflict and could lead to an ecological disaster that would tarnish the reputation of the wind industry.
One of the magnificent natural wonders of Nova Scotia is autumn bird migration in the southwest corner of Kespukwitk, the Mi’kmaw district now known as Southwest Nova Scotia. Like in the rest of the province, migrating birds fly in a broad front, mainly at night, toward their winter homes in the southern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America. But when they reach the “end of flow,” the literal translation of Kespukwitk, something special happens along the peninsulas, headlands, and islands of Digby, Yarmouth, and Shelburne counties. Here, thousands of birds from the boreal forest, from as far away as Alaska, along with others from eastern Canada and New England, drifted by wind over the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, join the birds coming through Nova Scotia.
Ornithologists first noticed this in radar studies during the 1970s. They called the birds coming across the ocean to Nova Scotia, flying in a “seasonally inappropriate direction,” reverse migrants. It wasn’t until the 21st Century that researchers at Acadia University conducting radar and radio tagging studies demonstrated the extraordinary complexity of songbird movements in Kespukwitk. Some birds, having drifted far offshore, instinctively know if they fly northwest, they will eventually reach land, that land being Nova Scotia. Following diverse migration strategies, other species move around the terrestrial habitats bordering the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine in search of food resources. Others engage in flights within the region for reasons that are still unknown. Thus, on any autumn day, birds depart the province at night, crossing the ocean to New England, the Caribbean, and South America, while others arrive in the morning from the sea to our islands, headlands, and peninsulas, greatly needing rest, food, and cover from predators.
Governments and land trusts have come to recognize these vital habitats for migrating birds by establishing various protection measures. Protected lands currently exist in places such as Brier Island, the Tusket estuary and islands, Bon Portage Island, Seal Island, and Port LaTour. In the corresponding areas across the Gulf of Maine, conservationists have established the northeastern coastal region of Maine as a Globally Important Bird Area, with areas designated as being of high or critical importance.
With the initial growth of the wind industry in Nova Scotia during the past 20 years, there were proposals to construct along the coast where wind resources are plentiful. Learning of the disastrous interactions between migrating birds and wind turbines, such as in the Altamont Pass in California, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, working with consultants such as myself, required developers to move wind development inland. Nonetheless, the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change did approve a few wind energy facilities in coastal bird migration areas. I conducted the mortality study for one of those sites; during its first autumn of operation, bird mortality was near twice the Canadian average and 11 times the Atlantic Canada average due to a mass mortality event. We learned much during those years, and I agree with the following statement from the American Bird Conservancy, which has done much research on the effects of wind turbines on birds.
Climate change is a critical threat to birds. Recognizing this fact, ABC [American Bird Conservancy] supports renewable energy, including wind energy, and the transition away from fossil fuels. However, not every wind project is proposed in a suitable location. Some projects — sited in major bird migration routes or stopover sites — threaten huge numbers of birds.
Based on industry experience and scientific research, I thought we had reached the point where birds would be safe during the current expansion of wind energy development in Nova Scotia,…until I saw the registration document for the Wedgeport Wind Farm.
The proposed Wedgeport Wind Farm is centred near the village of Little River, Yarmouth County, and extends southward to Comeau’s Hill. These two villages are on a peninsula that leads to a headland close to a cluster of islands. These are the exact conditions I have described as the migration corridors that birds use in the autumn migration to depart the province or to seek refuge. The proposal is to sandwich the wind farm between two different portions of the Tusket Islands Wilderness Area, a protected area established to conserve the high numbers of migratory and breeding birds on the peninsula and Tusket Islands.
To further highlight the importance of this peninsula for birds, I will summarize the results of my migrations studies in 2021 and 2022. Supported by the Protected Areas and Ecosystems Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change, I deployed acoustic monitors at ten coastal locations in Kespukwitk. We did not choose these locations randomly but based on their reputation in scientific studies or by reference to the eBird database on bird hotspots. Comeau’s Hill was one of those locations. The study showed that nocturnal songbird migration traffic concentrates between Yarmouth and Cape St. Mary. The difference between these sites and those north and south of them, like Comeau’s Hill, was statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. However, when it came to morning flight, that is, those birds arriving from the sea at dawn, there was no statistically significant difference between all ten sites at the 95% confidence level. At Comeau’s Hill, the calling rate of migrating birds in the first hour after sunrise was 538 calls per hour. At Northern Point on Brier Island, the calling rate was 591 calls per hour. At both sites, calling rates can be as high as 1,500 to 2,000 calls per hour on mornings of intense migration.
Scientists, naturalists, and tourists recognize Brier Island as one of the premier bird migration habitats on the east coast of North America. Based on this data, proposing a wind energy facility on the Comeau’s Hill peninsula is the equivalent of proposing one for Brier Island.
Many factors can negatively impact birds in an inappropriately sited wind factory. When songbirds from the sea alight on an island or headland, they do not remain there for long. As my studies and the scientific literature indicates, the birds move north for two to three hours, gleaning insects from trees and snatching berries from shrubs as they travel. There can be considerable competition for food as their densities can be two to three times greater than during the breeding season. They continue up the peninsula, making short flights, until they reach inland areas with less competition for food resources. According to the environmental assessment for the Wedgeport Wind Farm, construction will remove seven percent of the forest and shrublands. However, my experience has shown that the landowners, taking advantage of the new roads constructed on their property, often bring in forestry contractors who take a much greater tree harvest.
As they travel up the peninsula, the songbirds will have to navigate through a line of 13 new 200-meter-tall wind turbines. We see higher mortality from collisions in coastal flyways not only because there are higher numbers of birds, but conditions like fog, high winds, stress, and difficulty hearing the calls of other birds lead to catastrophic mortality incidents. The consultants who wrote the environmental assessment applied the Scottish Natural Heritage Collision Risk Model to predict that bird mortality would be very low at the Wedgeport Wind Farm. In 2005, the British Trust for Ornithology recommended that this model not be used for wind facility assessments due to a lack of knowledge on the ability of birds to avoid the turbine blades. However, the real issue is why it is necessary to use a theoretical model when there are already three community turbines in Little River for which no one has ever conducted a mortality study. Such a mortality study would provide factual evidence.
Migratory birds spend much, if not most, of their lives in the air. Air is their habitat, and putting a turbine array in the middle of their aerial habitat can put them at significant risk. Even if they can avoid the turbines, it stands in defiance of current scientific thinking that habitat fragmentation and loss of habitat connectivity are major factors contributing to the decline of migratory bird populations. Two scientific publications published this year highlight this problem. The first paper describes how 93% of shorebird species are in decline; in 64% of them, this decline has accelerated during the last three bird generations. Many species now fall within international criteria for threatened status. Shorebird staging areas in Nova Scotia are among those cited as having the most severe declines. The other paper discusses how lesser-known shorebird staging areas in the Maritimes are more critical than previously thought and threatened by coastal development. The proposed Wedgeport Wind Farm blocks access between two such staging areas, the Tusket River and Chebogue River estuaries.
In the results of the environmental assessment of the Wedgeport Wind Farm, the consultants report observing 16,020 individual birds and 100 species. Their nocturnal acoustic study detected 28,853 night flight calls, and the radar study detected 165,862 bird tracks. Yet the report tells us little about these numbers’ meaning and how they relate to a scientific understanding of bird migration. They have no statistical analysis supporting their conclusions. They reference my migration studies but do not acknowledge the one finding that undermines the credibility of their assessment; the arrival at dawn of a myriad of exhausted songbirds seeking food and shelter on the Comeau’s Hill peninsula. Their final statement on bird impacts is:
After standard industry mitigation measures have been implemented, the predicted residual environmental effects are assessed to be not significant.
This statement epitomizes the hubris driving the industrial projects that contribute significantly to the precipitous decline of bird populations. The Nova Scotia Minister of Environment and Climate Change must reject this proposal.