A Long Night's Journey Into Death

The first time you see a Blackburnian Warbler, you might think that you have dreamed it.  This is a tiny bird, less than five inches long and weighing less than half an ounce, and it flits about the treetops with an incredible show of energy for its diminutive size.  It wears incredible colors, too, its throat and chest and face a brilliant flame orange, set off by velvety black with trim of cream and white.  It looks like a tropical bird, and for half the year, it is:  from October to March, at least, it lives in cloud forest and rain forest along the slopes of the Andes in South America.  But every spring, driven by ancient rhythms, the Blackburnian Warbler will leave its tropical paradise to fly many thousands of miles northward, heading for the spruce forests of Canada and the northeastern United States.

Adult male Blackburnian Warbler in spring. Photo by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman.

The journey undertaken by this small migrant may seem staggering to us.  To the bird, it’s both a matter-of-fact necessity and a matter of life and death.  The warbler migrates mostly at night, navigating by the stars.  It takes off just after dusk, flies through the hours of darkness, and comes down in the dim light of pre-dawn, traveling perhaps a couple of hundred miles in a night.  Between long flights it may rest and feed for several days, building up its strength and its fat reserves to fuel another long red-eye flight.  Moving north through Central America, it may fly straight across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula to the southern United States, in an overwater flight that begins at dusk but may last well into the following afternoon; but most of its flights are shorter.  Over a period of a few weeks, if it survives all the hazards of migration, the Blackburnian Warbler makes its way from the equator up to the northern United States.

Migrating songbirds such as the Blackburnian Warbler may stop over practically anyplace where they can find a few trees or other appropriate habitat.  But there are a few favored spots where these migrants stop over in tremendous concentrations.  One such place is the south shore of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio.

Geography is the cause for this concentration point.  In the flat reach of land between the Gulf Coast and the Great Lakes, there are innumerable places for a migrating Blackburnian Warbler to touch down.  But then as the bird moves north across Ohio, it approaches the broad expanse of Lake Erie.  Not the largest of the Great Lakes, Erie is still wide enough to loom as an obstacle for a half-ounce bird that already has been flying for hours.  Even on a moonless night, the reflections from the water will look different from the blackness of land.  If the warbler approaches the lake shore in the hours just before dawn, it is likely to come down rather than continuing across the water. 

Adult male Black-throated Green Warbler in spring. Photo by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman.

Much of the lake shore in northwest Ohio has been cleared for development, but some key tracts of woodland have been protected, and migrating songbirds crowd into these stopover habitats in unbelievable numbers.  Besides the Blackburnian Warblers coming from the Andes, there are Black-throated Green and Wilson’s Warblers coming from Mexico, Golden-winged and Chestnut-sided Warblers coming from Central America, Black-throated Blue and Cape May Warblers coming from the Caribbean, and more than thirty other kinds of warblers, in every color of the rainbow.  There are brilliant Scarlet Tanagers and shy Gray-cheeked Thrushes coming from the jungles of the Amazon Basin, flashy Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Baltimore Orioles coming from the forests of Central America, Blue-headed Vireos and Indigo Buntings coming from Mexico, and dozens more species, represented by hundreds of thousands of individuals.  Arriving from literally all over the American tropics, they will pause here for a time before moving on to points all over the northern states, Canada, and Alaska.  For a few weeks in April and May, these woods are alive with a revolving cavalcade of colorful, tuneful world travelers. 

Adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in spring. Photo by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman.

No doubt the birds have been relying on this crossroads refuge for millennia, but humans have noticed only in recent years.  Now every spring, thousands of bird watchers come to northwest Ohio from all over the United States, and even from other countries, to witness this spectacle.  Birders are notoriously independent, difficult to classify or count, but state agencies have estimated the numbers of visiting birders at about fifty thousand just during the first two weeks of May.  Not surprisingly, these human visitors have a major positive impact on the local economy, filling up the hotels and restaurants and stores during the weeks before the summer crowds come to the lake.

This might seem an ideal situation, with the stopover habitat providing a boon to birds, birders, and businesses.  Unfortunately, this silver lining has a cloud attached.  The Lake Erie shoreline is often a very windy place, and major forces are now working to capitalize on the potential for wind power there.  As I write this in November 2010, efforts are under way to put up wind turbines – tall towers with long, rapidly spinning blades – all along the lake shore, even in sites immediately adjacent to stopover habitat for vast numbers of birds. 

The most frightening thing about this invasion of the bird slicers is that it is being carried out quietly, almost in secret.  Amazingly, there are almost no regulations at all on the placement of wind turbines.  Even the large, commercial-grade turbines are affected mainly by voluntary guidelines.  Mid-sized turbines (which can still be over 300 feet tall) apparently can be put up anywhere, except in the rare cases where zoning ordinances prevent them.  Private energy companies have been moving into northwest Ohio, talking to schools, small businesses, and landowners, trying to cut deals to put up wind turbines on their properties, and trying to get the projects going as quickly as possible.

Why the rush?  Ironically, it isn’t even about the expectation of big profits from the electricity that will be generated.  The rush now is to cash in on government incentives for “green” energy.  Maybe the turbines will generate significant amounts of electricity, maybe they won’t, but that’s down the road.  Right now the focus is on getting the deals signed, taking advantage of the grants and tax breaks before they expire.

In these efforts to bring wind power to the shoreline in northwest Ohio, impacts on birdlife are being essentially ignored and legitimate concerns are being pushed aside.  The state’s Division of Wildlife had produced maps of “avian concern zones” for wind power many months ago, with a three-mile band along the lake shore being included among the areas of highest concern for potential bird kills, but these maps have received little attention.  High-ranking officials of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, in recent statements, have managed to imply that no such maps exist.  One local business owner was being courted by an energy company that wanted to put up a large turbine on his property.  When he asked about potential harm to migrating birds, the company representative looked him in the eye:  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “Our turbines have been proven not to kill birds."

That statement is nonsense, of course, but it’s shorthand for a common argument being made by the wind industry.  The usual claim is that the typical wind turbine kills only a few birds per year.  Consultants have pointed out that night-migrating birds usually fly more than 500 feet above the ground, high enough that they naturally avoid the blades of even the large turbines.  And that is true.  For the most part, nocturnal migrants will pass safely above wind farms.  But it becomes a spurious argument when we start talking about stopover habitats, where birds are actively taking off and landing.   Commercial jetliners may cruise at thirty thousand feet, but no one would use that as an excuse to put up a wind turbine at the end of an airport runway.

The stopover habitat in northwest Ohio is like a major airport for migrating birds, like the world’s busiest airports rolled into one – except that these vast numbers of birds are mostly landing or taking off in the dim light of dusk or pre-dawn, when visibility is at its poorest.  A badly placed turbine adjacent to such a zone could be smashing birds out of the air by the thousands.

Who am I to be writing about this?  Opinion pieces on this topic (especially those with pro-industry angles) often are written anonymously, but I believe the players should identify themselves:  My name is Kenn Kaufman.  I’m a lifelong birder and naturalist, author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, Lives of North American Birds, and ten other books.  I’m listed as a field editor or contributing editor for four magazines that deal with birds or conservation.  Currently I serve on the boards of directors of five organizations concerned with the same subjects.  But in this essay I am speaking only for myself as an individual.

Why am I not speaking for one of the organizations or publications with which I’m associated?  Because there are sure to be negative responses to this essay.  Big money is involved, and companies that stand to profit are not going to sit idle under criticism.  We’re past the days when big companies would hire thugs to beat up the opposition, but even in this more civilized age, a certain amount of verbal thuggery is almost inevitable.  Canadian novelist (and birder) Margaret Atwood spoke out against the placement of a wind farm adjacent to Point Pelee, the famous stopover habitat on the opposite shore of Lake Erie, and she was savaged in the press.  And there have been serious attempts to discredit other people who have spoken out against other wind power projects.

With the expectation that I’ll be targeted as well, I should make my position clear.  I’m aware of the problems associated with the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and with the urgent need to do something about it.  I fully support efforts to move, in a responsible way, away from the burning of coal and petroleum and toward energy sources that are renewable, sustainable, and non-polluting.  In principle I’m in favor of wind, solar, geothermal, and other forms of “green” energy, with the stipulation that each project should be reviewed to see if it is, in fact, environmentally sound.  It would be fair to say that I have a moderately favorable view of the potential for wind power.  There are legitimate questions about its efficiency and consistency, and about the actual amount of power generated, but if these can be answered, I am pro-wind.  The sticking point is the site selection for wind projects.

Opponents of specific wind power projects are often portrayed as hypocritical NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who won’t sacrifice their local scenery for the sake of the environment.  I can’t be tarred with that brush, because I can honestly say that I wouldn’t object so much to having turbines literally in my back yard.  I live more than seven miles south of the lake shore.  I know from direct observation that the numbers of migrant birds stopping over in the trees of my town are a mere fraction of the numbers using the woods along the lake.  Wind turbines in my town undoubtedly would kill a few birds, but they probably wouldn’t kill thousands.

Or would they?  We really don’t know.  We don’t have enough research results yet.  When migrating birds are arriving at a stopover habitat, what is their angle of descent?  Do they drop straight down from a great height, or do they start descending several miles away?  We don’t know.  When they take off to resume their journey, do they aim straight for the stars, or do they climb gradually?  We don’t know.  If we establish a protective buffer zone around a major stopover habitat, should it be a mile wide, or three miles, or five?  We don’t know.  The research has not been completed.  Careful radar studies could provide a lot of answers, and such studies are just beginning in northwest Ohio.  Within a few years, we may know a lot more about this subject.  But the pressure is on to start erecting wind turbines right now, as quickly as possible, without waiting for any such studies.

People who express concern about bird mortality at wind turbines are usually treated with condescension at best (with phrases like “Bird-lovers are all a-flutter at the thought that Tweetie Bird might get hurt”).   I’ve seen a dozen wind industry fact sheets pointing out, rather patronizingly, that wild birds are killed by many things, including window strikes, automobiles, and roaming cats.  This is true.  But the birds most often killed by cars and house cats are the birds that live around roads and houses – abundant, widespread species, with populations large enough to sustain the losses.  If ten million House Sparrows are hit by cars every year, it won’t make a dent in their total population.  But when you place hazards around stopover habitats for migratory birds, you are turning this equation upside down.  Such hazards have their worst impact on the long-distance migrants, the species that are already most at risk.

As the threats of planned wind turbines loom all along the lake shore, northwest Ohio may become a test case:  a test to see whether stopover habitat can ever be protected, to see whether we birders will ever stand up for the creatures that we watch.  This is one region where the birds and their habitats should have the beginnings of a broad-based constituency.  Here, the hotel owners, restaurant owners, store owners and others have realized that visiting birders are important to their business.  Here, the local chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus have embraced the annual influx of birders.  Here, the birders keep coming, more and more, from all over the midwest, all over the U.S. and farther afield.  Local place names like Magee Marsh, Crane Creek, Ottawa Refuge, and Maumee Bay are becoming household words among birders continentwide.  Here, for once, the ecological and economic benefits of protecting stopover habitat should work hand in hand.  But will it turn out that way?

Right now, in November 2010, several entities are pushing forward to try to get wind turbine projects approved before some government incentives run out at the end of the year.  As I write this, they face very little opposition.  A small local organization, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, is trying to raise local public awareness of stopover habitat, but they are working almost alone.  Can they turn the tide of public opinion and policy?  This could be the place where the birders and their business allies finally make a stand and insist on bare-minimum protections: no wind turbines within three miles of a major migratory stopover habitat.  This could be where we draw our line in the sand.  But the wind industry threatens to blow away the sand and obliterate the line.

The timing of this is bad from the birding viewpoint:  spring is the high season here, half a year ago or half a year in the future, and now the birders are elsewhere and thinking about other things.  The traveling birders who gathered here last May, celebrating the “Biggest Week in American Birding” and calling this “the Warbler Capital of the World,” are somewhere else now, looking at other birds.  Few are aware of the struggle unfolding in northwest Ohio.  Maybe they will come back next spring, maybe they won’t.  But the birds will come back every spring, as long as they survive.  And what they find when they arrive may depend on efforts that we make right now.

The long-distance migrants that stop over in northwest Ohio are arguably the most inspiring birds in the world: impressive for their numbers, for their sheer variety, for their colors and songs, for the remarkable scope of their travels.  They make up a major element of the ecosystems of northern forests in summer and of tropical forests in winter, and in between they undertake vast journeys, employing navigational powers and strength and stamina that we can hardly imagine.  But these impressive birds are increasingly at risk.  Their nesting habitats in the north and their wintering habitats in the tropics are becoming more fragmented, crucial stopover habitats are vanishing, obstacles and threats along the way are proliferating, as it becomes more and more of a challenge for these small wayfarers to retrace their ancestral routes.

A Blackburnian Warbler arriving in northwest Ohio in spring is already a veteran traveler.  Hatched in the northern forest during some previous summer, it has already flown to South America and back at least once.  Navigating by the stars at night, evading predators by day, it has paused at a score of stopover sites, found a winter home in mountain forests near the equator, then initiated the return flight to the north.  By the time it reaches Ohio, it has made it most of the way back.  Flying north across Ohio, buoyed up by a south wind in the hour before first light, the bird may see a hint of the open waters of Lake Erie stretching out ahead.  Rather than continue on across the water with daylight approaching, the bird drops lower and lower.  Ahead in the darkness of predawn, a darker shadow suggests a line of trees, and the warbler aims for this shelter . . .

But it is never going to make it.  The same south wind that carries the tiny migrant is also turning a gigantic steel blade, and in a moment the two will collide with such shattering force as to splinter the bird’s skull and crush its lungs, stop its heartbeat in an instant, and hurl its broken and lifeless body to the ground.

Then the blades strike another bird.  And another.  And another.  And another. 

This could be reality if we stand mute while turbines rise along the edges of the last, best stopover habitat.  Are we really going to let this happen? 

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If, after reading this, you're willing to take action, please consider signing a petition asking for a three-year moratorium on building wind turbines in the most critical areas of stopover habitat in northwest Ohio.  A link to the petition is here.