Bird Observer - The New England Birding Journal

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2018

Vol. 46, No. 3

About Books: Zugunruhe And TANSTAAFL

Mark Lynch

North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring. Bruce M. Beehler. 2018. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Wildlife and Wind Farms, Conflicts and Solutions: Volume 1: Onshore: Potential Effects. Volume 2: Onshore Monitoring And Mitigation. Martin R. Perrow, ed. 2017. Exeter, U.K.: Pelagic Publishing.

"In February 1947, the naturalist Edwin Way Teale and his wife, Nellie, took an adventurous automobile trip in search of nature." (p. 1 North on the Wing)

Teale's goal was to follow spring north, from Florida to New England, looking not just at bird migration but all of nature en route. Teale wrote an account of his vernal voyage of discovery in North with the Spring, which was published in 1951. Ornithologist, naturalist, and conservationist Bruce Beehler first heard of Teale's written account of his northward migration in the late 1950s when, as a child, his mother read him passages before bedtime. He was entranced. Beehler is a research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who has conducted critical biodiversity surveys in New Guinea and Indonesia. As his professional career was winding down, in 2015 he decided to undertake his own version of Teale's journey. This time the focus of the voyage would not be all of nature, but the breeding wood warblers of the eastern half of North America. His goal would be to see each of the 37 species on their nesting habitats. Beehler would follow the migrants from the Gulf Coast of Texas up the Mississippi Flyway, deep into Canada, then around the northern edge of the Great Lakes, and end in the Adirondacks. Here he would climb a mountain he had climbed 40 years before and look for breeding Blackpolls. Whereas Teale and his wife just took their car, Beehler would drive from point to point, but then hike, bike, kayak, and camp out for however long it would take to get a sense of a place. North on the Wing is his account of that trip.

Beehler starts in coastal Texas visiting some of the migration hot spots well known to birders. This includes Mad Island, High Island, and Nunez Woods. Beehler, like every birder who visits the Texas coast in spring, is hoping for one of those legendary "fallouts" of migrants as they make their first landfall after crossing the Gulf. Looking for spring migrants here is not exactly the same as looking for migrants at South Quabbin or Mount Auburn:

For those used to Mid-Atlantic birding, the remarkable thing about the arrival of songbirds along the Gulf Coast is that it takes place in the afternoon, not in the predawn hours. A woodland silent at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. might start swarming with birds at 4 p.m., and birders can experience first-hand the phantomlike arrival of the migrants over the water in full daylight. (p. 39, North on the Wing)

For those who have trouble getting up in the pre-dawn hours, you may want to start booking your trip now. Even more unusual, as Beehler points out, migrant warblers here rarely if ever sing. That only starts as the birds move a number of miles inland.

Beehler is the perfect guide on this "trip of a lifetime." He is not only an enthusiastic birder but also a patient teaching ornithologist. Readers will get a sound introduction to migrant behavior, how birds find their way along their route at night, and what "our" warblers do in winter in Central and South America. Beehler also makes it his mission to introduce the readers to the researchers, state and national park guides, conservationists, and citizen scientists he meets along the way. North on the Wing is an inspiring overview of the hardworking individuals who study migration, educate visitors to the parks, and preserve critical habitat along the migratory routes.

The only organization that is soundly criticized by Beehler in North on the Wing is the Army Corps of Engineers.

To many Americans, the Corps is synonymous with environmentally questionable boondoggles. The levee system that failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, flooding the city of New Orleans, epitomizes the overexpenditure and underperformance of this massive federal bureaucracy. The next big failure is expected to be the Old River Control Structure in central Louisiana, which currently prevents the Mississippi from changing course and following the Atchafalaya to the Gulf. That failure, when it happens, will dwarf the economic impact of Katrina. (p. 75)

Each chapter focuses on one species of warbler. Though the wood warblers are the focus of his trip, Beehler takes time to marvel at the other wildlife and human history he comes across. Beehler takes particular interest in Native American and First Nation (Canada) history. The reader learns of the horrific history of the Trail of Tears and marvels at the sites of the Mississippian Mound Building Culture.

While at Caddo Lake State Park in northeast Texas, Beehler joins a herpetologist and his students from Texas A & M University as they do their annual herp surveys. Beehler is hoping for an alligator snapping turtle, a lifer, but has to settle for a three-toed Amphiuma and many more cottonmouths than most birders would be comfortable encountering. Beehler also writes about Caddo Lakes' other unusual residents. For example, the area hosts an important population of the endangered paddlefish: " a primitive ray-finned fish related to the sturgeons, it has a prominent, long, paddle-shaped snout and can boast relatives dating back 300 million years." (p. 93)

Caddo Lake seems to attract the unique and unusual, because Beehler also mentions that Caddo Lake is where there have been hundreds of sightings of Bigfoot, a.k.a. Sasquatch. Sadly, no effort is currently being made to preserve Sasquatch habitat here, unlike the paddlefish.

As Beehler moves ever northwards, the reader is introduced to a number of bird-rich areas that are well known to locals but are poorly known to many in the Northeast. Readers will find themselves earmarking certain sections for potential future research for bird trips.

When Beehler begins his foray deep into northern Ontario along a long and lonely road past Pickle Lake, North on the Wing takes a dark turn. Beehler was expecting to find large tracts of virgin forests loaded with breeding warblers and with plenty of large mammals. What he found instead was sobering.

What I found was a fire-scarred pine barren inhabited by an impoverished and underserved indigenous population who were living by their wits and largely forgotten by the rest of the world. This underdeveloped land was built upon a glacier-scoured shield of granite, with sand and gravel for soil. Because of past and present impacts of current fire, an array of gold-mining operations, and the centuries-long fur trade, the land was scarred and bruised. (p. 185)

For those readers, like myself, who have dreamt of traveling deep into interior Canada and experiencing an Eden of wildlife, this section will come as a rude awakening. The area is mostly scrubby jack pines, though not a single Kirtland's Warbler nests here. What breeding birds that are here are few and far between. Beehler works hard to see just a handful of birds every day he is here. Mammals are also rare or skittish because the native people have to subsist on them. Beehler sums up his Canadian foray this way:

Was I disappointed by what I discovered? Like a person who has had a glass of cold water thrown in his face at an unexpected juncture, I was shocked and brought up short, but the experience was bracing and memorable. I got what I deserved. (p. 185)

When I interviewed Beehler recently, he also mentioned that perhaps he should have researched the area more thoroughly. Perhaps the imagined Great North Woods still does exist, just not in the area he traveled.

After the interior Canada misstep, North on the Wing gets back on track around the Great Lakes and ends successfully in New York.

North on the Wing is the kind of book that you wish lasted longer, and the reason is Beehler's wide range of interests and his writing. Beehler's prose perfectly captures the feeling of being in the piney woods, cypress swamps, oak glades, and other unique habitats he visits. The reader will also learn a lot about the warbler species we encounter in migration and during the breeding season here in New England. If you have ever sought the few remaining breeding Blackpolls high atop Mount Greylock here in Massachusetts, or even just marveled at the long voyage a Blackpoll makes every year, you will identify with Beehler's quest in North on the Wing.

I am the count compiler for the Sturbridge Christmas Bird Count. This year, for the first time, I fielded several complaints by sector leaders about the loss of habitat due to the erection of solar farms, large arrays of solar panels typically sited in neglected fields, former farms, or old sand lots. This has rapidly become an issue for birders in Massachusetts. Though a few solar farms are erected with care for the larger environment, I have seen solar farms placed where there used to be populations of Grasshopper Sparrows, Whip-poor-wills, and other open-space-loving species. Who green-lighted these projects and why is a question that needs to be asked. MassBird has recently hosted comments about parts of the Cumberland Farms fields now being turned over to solar fields, so this is a situation all Massachusetts birders will eventually come across.

Solar fields and wind farms are supposed to be a big part of a green solution to help us move away from petroleum-based fuels and prevent a further descent into global climate change. So it seems anti-environment to criticize these supposedly ecologically sound efforts. To further complicate matters, it has become a politically charged issue, and you will hear or read certain politicos who are beholden to the oil companies shedding crocodile tears over the birds killed by wind farms.

To date, more serious scientific literature has been written about the effects of wind farms on wildlife. We can hope that similar efforts will be done with solar fields and their environmental problems. It has been long known that wind farms kill some birds, but what wasn't well understood globally was which species were most prone to collision and what can be done about it. Fortunately, there are researchers addressing those issues. In 2007 I reviewed in Bird Observer one of the first books concerned with bird collisions and wind farms. Its title was Birds and Wind Farms: Risk Assessment and Mitigation by Manuela de Lucas et al. This was a first attempt to bring together a variety of researchers to assess the risks of wind farms and suggest some remedies. The two volumes of Wildlife and Windfarms, Conflicts and Solutions continue this process.

Although a wide range of monitoring and research studies have been undertaken, only a small body of that work appears to make it to the peer-reviewed literature. The latter is, however, burgeoning, concomitant with the interest in the interactions between wind energy and wildlife as expressed by the continuing CWW (Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts) series of international conferences on the topic. In 2015, 391 participants from 33 countries attended CWW 2015 in Berlin. (p. ix, Wildlife and Wind Farms, Conflicts and Solutions V. 1)

The two thick volumes of Wildlife and Wind Farms, Conflicts and Solutions present a number of papers offering the latest information on what we know about the impact of land based, or "onshore," wind farms on wildlife and habitat. This includes not just birds, but also reptiles and amphibians, invertebrates, aquatic organisms, terrestrial mammals, and bats. Volume 1 identifies some of the potential conflicts; Volume 2 describes some potential solutions.

It's not just about collisions. Not only are some birds directly killed by wind farms, wind farms also cause serious displacement of breeding species. Some bird populations move away from the vicinity of wind farms. They just don't want to be near them. These are often not the same species associated with the greatest number of impacts. There is also the possibility of habitat fragmentation caused by wind farms. Some of the problems seem unique to wind farms. Barotrauma occurs in bats as a result of atmospheric pressure changes they experience when they fly close to turbines. (V. 2, p. 186)

As is to be expected, large birds like raptors were among the first and easiest to identify as having collided with a wind turbine. This is changing. In "Birds: Collision" by Manuela de Lucas and Martin R. Perrow (V. 1, p. 155- 90):

New species continue to be found under turbine blades and in some cases passerines are being detected as one of the avian groups with the highest collision mortality rates. (V. 1, p. 182)

I cannot possibly summarize the wealth of information and ideas presented in these papers. But I will say that a lot of this seems to be a work in progress. There are promising ideas and plans, but no one solution fits all sites. We don't know a lot of what we need to know to make wind farms collision free. Each wind farm presents a complicated array of problems. We don't really even have a standard methodology for monitoring existing wind farms for collision kills. As Lucas and Perrow note:

There is, however, some general agreement in the scientific community that a range of factors is important in bird collision, but the relative weight of each one seems to be different in each case. However, the interaction between different factors also complicates any comparison of mortality estimates between and among species and studies. A further clear source of variation among studies results from the methods employed, with bias among the number of collisions introduced by variables such as removal of bodies by scavengers, search efficiency and search radius, which are not always integrated in the experimental design and monitoring protocols. To standardize results across studies, it will be necessary to adopt common and rigorous methodologies. (V. 1, p. 182)

Volume 2 presents a variety of monitoring schemes and plans. The reader will immediately want to ask who is monitoring our already erected wind farms using what protocols. There are papers on different designs of turbines and their effects on wildlife. Finally, an important paper is "A best practice approach to future planning" by Victoria Gartman et al. (V. 2, p. 185-208). This gives a sound outline of how to evaluate a proposed site and then how to monitor mortality caused by it after the wind farm is built.

As environmental activists will tell you, yes, wind farms cause some collisions, but compared to the long-term effects of climate change, these effects are minimal. So, we should sacrifice some raptors or grassland species now for the promise that somewhere in the distant future, everything will be better? Well, we are still learning how to evaluate the effects of wind turbines as the papers in these two volumes indicate. We are making progress, but a lot is not well understood. What is not clearly addressed is what the overall effect will be if we have to build all the wind farms and solar fields we will need to meet our burgeoning global population's energy needs. It will require many, many miles of wind farms, and the cumulative effect of those obstacles may be very different than that of a single wind farm. Furthermore, is eating up other species' habitats to serve our energy needs really the best solution? Could we perhaps place solar panels in cities or along highways? Let's come up with some alternatives to the alternatives.

There is an old acronym: TANSTAAFL. It means "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." It has been used by writers as diverse as biologist Barry Commoner and science fiction author Robert Heinlein as well as a number of economists. It was derived from an observation that bars that served free food often raised the price of their drinks. In other words, you never get something for nothing. In the case of the current technology we have for alternative energy sources, they are certainly not "a free lunch" as far as the environment goes. But all of us need to decide how much we are willing to pay. We all need to become active in the ongoing and upcoming conversations and debates about siting and monitoring these wind farms and solar fields. Critical to those conversations is to become informed, and these two volumes of Wildlife and Wind Farms, Conflicts and Solutions will help.

Literature Cited

  • Teale, E. W. 1951. North with the Spring. New York, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.
  • Lucas, M., Janss, G. F.E., and Ferrer, M. (editors). 2007. Birds and Wind Farms: Risk Assessment and Mitigation. Madrid, Spain: Quercus.
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