Showing posts with label birds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label birds. Show all posts

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wind Power from the Thumb

On the same day the United Nation's issued another report detailing the dangers of climate change, I visited one of the many places in Michigan where people are trying to figure out how to generate electricity while avoiding damage to our environment. I found no panacea, but came away hopeful.  As with many challenges we face, the solution will likely come from smart people working through the complexities of science, policy, and nature.

The Thumb of Michigan, a broad peninsula of flat land that defines half of Saginaw Bay, is one of the windier places in the Great Lakes.  The difference in temperature between the sun-warmed land and the relatively cool waters of Lake Huron, as well as the weather systems that march across the continent, create frequent, strong, and relatively constant wind flows.  In 2006, DTE Energy began an effort to take advantage of this energy resource.  Now, DTE and several private entrepreneurs have changed the agricultural landscape of Huron County with almost 300 wind turbines.

Driving around the Thumb outside Bad Axe and Cass City on a spring day, almost every view includes tri-bladed towers as tall as cellphone towers.  They populate the horizon above the tan and white fields recovering from a long winter.  They peek out from behind a rural scene of farms and silos.  A few smaller ones stand next to a schoolyard demonstrating their potential. From a distance, the post and three arms on a calm day become part of the gray view of bare trees.   Do they belong here?  Are new windmills the modern tools that have always been part of a working, agricultural landscape? Are they a hazard to wildlife?  The view of things to come?

The Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act, passed in 2008 by the Michigan Legislature, spurred DTE to build windmills in the Thumb, and elsewhere in the State. Consumers Energy is also investing in wind energy. The state-wide policy requires utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2015, and in Michigan, where the sun is not so strong, wind energy is currently the easiest and most affordable way to generate electricity without using up natural resources, without polluting air or water, and without releasing more carbon dioxide into the warming atmosphere.  The legislation, Act 295, has created a boom in windmill installations, along with the appearance of a few solar energy panels, experiments in the use of biomass fuels, more burning of methane from landfills, and some new efforts to catch the energy in flowing water and waves (read more here).

At the end of 2013, almost seven percent of the energy production in Michigan came from renewable sources, and estimates are that the 10 percent goal will be met in the coming year. DTE Energy got a jump start by buying wind power from several private companies (the legislation requires that half of a utility's energy be purchased from a third party) and by building five windmill parks, one in Gratiot County and four in the Thumb.  DTE now gets 9.5 percent of its power from renewable sources and is on track to reach its 10 percent target in the very near future.

While wind is perhaps one of the oldest and most elemental power sources, there was nothing low-tech on display when I had the opportunity to tour DTE's facilities in the Thumb.  Standing in the Cass City command center, one looks at spatial information systems, big screen computer monitors, and digital read-outs that give real time data on the operations of 300 windmills.  Going out in the field, you learn about the innovation in materials that allow for lightweight blades and the aircraft technology that controls the pitch of the blades in response to the force and direction of the wind.  The construction of these high tech machines has added $750 million to the local property tax base.  Engineers are onsite or on-call and there is one technician employed to maintain every 10 windmills.

Birds and Bats don't necessarily appreciate wind energy as much as green policy makers, but engineers certainly have considered wildlife in the design and location of wind parks.  The high towers and the spinning blades, the tips of which travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, can kill creatures that come too close, and research shows that each mono-pole windmill will kill three to eight birds annually (the open lattice towers like on old farm windmills are much more dangerous).  Nationally, this adds up to several hundred thousand bird deaths, a number that is small in comparison to the millions of birds killed each year by vehicles, building, and domestic and feral cats. (The analysis, and debate, over the impact of windmills on wildlife is extensive; read this wikipedia entry for a thorough overview; also read this scientific paper from 2013).

More than the design of windmills, the biggest cause of concern is the location of tall towers and rotating blades in areas with high concentrations of birds.  Some of the earliest wind parks in California were unfortunately located in the path of migratory birds and in geographies favored by hawks and eagles.  In the Thumb, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was consulted before
development and careful attention has been paid to flyways and avian habitat.  No windmills are within three miles of the shore of Saginaw Bay where wetlands host migrating waterfowl.  Potential windmill sites have been passed over along river corridors and woods to minimize interference.  To assess the success of these siting efforts, DTE has just begun a year-long study by independent researchers to document what impact its windmills have on wildlife.  Nationally, additional research seeks to understand the relationship between windmill operation and the nocturnal flight behavior of bats.

The Greenest Energy Solution is a holy grail that underlies any discussion of energy, environment and climate change.  We all want a clean, affordable source of energy that imposes no risks to people or harm to the natural communities of which we are a part.  We have a legacy of burning coal in Michigan that has given us cheap electricity, but has also spread soot and acid rain. One of the Great Lakes environmental threats is the toxic mercury that falls from airborne coal emissions and accumulates in fish.  Natural gas is certainly cleaner to burn and has a smaller carbon footprint than coal, but its current abundance results from "fracking" which involves injecting chemical-laden water deep underground.  Nuclear power has very little impact on climate change, but we have yet to implement a solution to dispose of radioactive waste.  Solar power has become cheaper in recent years, but in Michigan, our grey weather limits its effectiveness.  No one energy source, wind power included, can offer the best or only answer to the question of how to get energy cheaply and cleanly.

Trustees of The Nature Conservancy
Complexity.  We have to embrace complexity to resolve the conundrum of producing electricity while addressing climate change. There are high-level complexities of international cooperation, government policy, and consumer behaviors. There are technological complexities that, if resolved, can offer more energy at less cost with the least impact.  There are site-specific complexities about where to locate any energy source. I saw all of these complexities at play in the Thumb, and I met engineers and technicians willing to tackle the questions and seek the best possible outcomes.

Complexity does not always seem welcome in the policy arena, or in popular media, or in cursory conversations.  Something about our mind wants a nice simple answer,  to divide the world into good versus bad, or to frame choices between black and white.  But we only have to look to nature to understand that complexity is normal. So too is diversity, and we should look for several answers to the energy and environment debate. To tackle climate change, we need to accept that we are dealing with perhaps the most complex system in nature, and perhaps the most difficult of policy decisions. From there, we need to proceed with our best thinking and our best efforts, and eschew narrow viewpoints and not over promise answers.

A windmill can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be deadly if in the wrong place. Like all human actions, efforts to provide new sources of energy can have both positive and negative outcomes.  Wind energy can, and should be, part of how we best balance our use of energy and our protection of the environment.  In Huron County, one can see the potential of wind energy to resolve some of the conflicts in climate change, but one can also see that complexity will be our companion as we move forward.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Smartphones and Nature

"Clearly, we have compiled a record of serious failures in recent technological encounters with the environment," wrote ecologist Barry Commoner in 1969.  His point of view reflects the suspicion, if not antagonism,  that some environmentalists have had about the engineering advances of modern society.  Recently, I took some new technology along with me on my encounter with the environment of Northern Michigan, and while I don't think this is what Commoner was warning us about, the interaction was positive, mostly. As we keep learning, technology should always be our servant and not our master.

Smartphones and the many "apps" that they can carry are a useful tool in our offices and our homes: they organize, entertain, and connect us.  Increasingly, the power to link us to information--scientific 
iBird Pro shot of the Kirtland's Warbler
and cultural, temporal and geographic--has made a smartphone a handy accompaniment to outdoor adventures as well.  As an avid ornithologist, early on I acquired a bird-watching app that enables me to have a comprehensive guide with descriptions, range maps, photos and even bird calls in my pocket, and without the need to tout a heavy field guide. I also like being able to quickly note when and where I sighted a particular species  (I use the iBird Pro, but there are other comparable, cheaper, and perhaps, for you, better apps out there).  

For exploring Michigan, I have made use of not only the ever-improving map functions on my iPhone, but have thankfully relied on the DNR's Camping and Recreation Locator (info here).  This tool can help you find nearby campgrounds, boat launches, and other state park facilities.  You can search a region or around a specific place, including a chosen number of miles within your current location.  I have found it particularly useful for locating one of the many small state forest campgrounds.  These rustic (i.e. no bathrooms with running water) campsites are among some of my favorite places to camp while exploring the Upper Peninsula ((check out the campground at the mouth of the Two Hearted River on Lake Superior).  The App easily connects to Google maps thus easing your navigation.  You can also be linked to the reservation system for state park campgrounds.

A Preserve in the Hand is now possible with smartphone apps that are linked to a specific land conservancy.  The largest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, has a new app called Nature Near You that locates many of their preserves and allows you to learn about where they are working throughout the world. In Michigan, 16 preserves are listed with descriptions and detailed directions. The app also contains stylish features that allow for taking, sharing, and viewing photos of the beautiful places encountered in the wild.  Additional development of this tool for exploring the work of The Nature Conservancy is underway.

Another of Michigan's excellent land trusts, the Little Traverse Conservancy, has a useful app, LTC Explorerthat provides an in-hand user guide to northwest Michigan and parts of the Eastern UP. I recently put it and my iPhone to the test on a winter weekend in the Boyne City-Petoskey area.  The first day out, four of us loaded up our cross-country skis and headed first to Young State Park on Lake Charlevoix.  The DNR's app provided the location; the little nordic skier logo let us know we could expect to enjoy this activity, which we did by following the many tracks of previous skiers on several miles of trail.  The highlight was a detour to ski on the frozen lake and make snow angels. 

The LTC Explorer app got us to our second ski site, the Hill Nature Preserve, just north of Boyne City with a handy link to my iPhone's mapping app.  This function could, of course, be used without the LTC app, but the challenge in finding preserves is securing a street address for a non-urban location that lacks any structures (that's why we go, right?).  The conservancy-specific app has the location of the preserves already loaded so that navigation becomes the first step in going to a preserve.  Lots of additional features make the LTC Explorer app a particularly useful tool. In addition to descriptive information and photos, the app has a feature that allows visitors to make comments about their visit, which in this case provides for occasional grooming reports.  The "check-in" feature provides a linkage to Facebook and Twitter. Also, at the Hill Nature Preserve site there is a link to a site-specific trail map with topographic information that helps one either seek out, or avoid, the steepest sections of the preserve.  We used the map to help locate a lunch spot with a scenic view out over Lake Charlevoix.

Over-reliance on Technology has created problems for societies throughout history who have thought that the new tool or technique would solve the difficulties of their current time and place.  And it's true that for me the slick design of an iPhone, the authoritative ease with which that much-desired fact appears, and the certainty of the flashing dot on a map screen all have left me enamored with the latest piece of in-the-field technology.  So, it was easy to start out for a snow-shoe trip near Petoskey confidently calling up the map on the LTC Explorer app and have my smartphone plot a course to it.  Of course, the map does not take into account seasonal or daily weather, and we soon found ourselves on one, and then another, snow-blocked road. If we had only looked at the old-fashioned printed guide, we would followed the written directions to the Skyline Trail preserve that brought us in from the north, where the road is plowed.

No matter.  We were there to snow-shoe, and we could tell from the mapping program that we were close to the preserve and we headed off cross-country charting our position both electronically and visually.  The large cellphone towers in the area provided reference points that kept us moving in the right direction; and their signals located us on Google maps, though we were frustrated that the "satellite" version depicted leaf-on photos that obscured some route options. But it all added to the adventure, and soon we were following my old companion the North Country Trail to a sweeping overlook of the Bear River Valley and Little Traverse Bay beyond.

Create Your Own Relationship with Nature.  It was a cautionary trip that reminded me that a good smartphone app cannot completely substitute for first-hand knowledge and diverse sources of information.  Look at a map, talk to locals, bring a compass, and--most importantly--keep your eyes up from the screen in your hand to read the landscape, look at the weather coming in, and enjoy the people your with.  And of course, there are still parts of Michigan that, thankfully, are out of range of celphone service.  And in such remote places, your smartphone is reduced to a camera that can also play music.  

We live in the information age and technology provides us a constant link to collective knowledge. Our smartphones will continue to evolve and new options for exploring nature will be part of our outdoor adventures.  The Nature Conservancy in Michigan is now attaching QR (Quick Response) codes to the back sides of preserve signs; they provide a real time connection to historical and ecological data. Geocaching, an early hobby of those with satellite-driven GPS units, has now moved to smartphone apps (read review of iphone options). Undoubtedly, there are, and will be, other great uses of smartphones in the wild. As with all technology, we need to be smarter than our phones and choose how, when, and where to employ science to enhance, rather than detract, from our relationship with nature. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Birdwatching on Lake Erie

The mission of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) is to protect and promote biodiversity, which includes the wide variety of plants and animals that inhabit our planet.* And while TNC scientists implement comprehensive strategies to preserve habitats for many species, for some of us our blood quickens a little bit more for those certain species with feathers. Yes, wildflowers and rare plants, endangered reptiles and amphibians, and even fish have intrigued me at times, but birds have consistently charmed me and drawn me out of doors to distant places at difficult times of day.

Birds are a signature species for several places in the Great Lakes, and in the spring the Western end of Lake Erie is a particular hot spot for migratory birds on their way from the tropics to the wooded northern forests around Lake Superior and beyond. Thus, it was with some anticipation and excitement that I got to spend a Saturday morning in May at the Erie Marsh Preserve just north of the Michigan-Ohio border. Those of us on the outing were particularly fortunate to have with us a first-rate birder, TNC's James Cole, who is as enthusiastic about birding as he is knowledgeable.

Connecticut Warblers, redstart, and other small songbirds can be difficult to spot because of their small size, their proclivity to ascend to the tops of trees or, depending on the species, hide low in dense shrubs. Plus, it seems just as you get a fix on one and lift up your binoculars, the bird chooses that moment to flit to another spot. Thus, a knowledge of bird songs is critical to identification. While we easily saw the common, and very bright, yellow warbler and baltimore oriole, we had to rely on James's song knowledge to find the rare and elusive Connecticut warbler, a bird only occasionally spotted at the Erie Marsh Preserve.

The shoreline of Lake Erie is an important, perhaps under appreciated, resource of the Great Lakes. As birds migrate north through middle America and Ohio, they run into 240 mile long Lake Erie. They either must stop and rest up for a fly over the Lake, or detour around its Western end. In either case, the shoreline becomes an important place for birds to seek shelter while they wait for the right weather conditions, and refuel on the many insects just hatching out in the first few warm days of the year. Studies by TNC and others, as well as the observations of birders for over a century, show that the first few miles of land along the coast are critical habitat areas for migrating birds. Unfortunately, the lakefront has historically been a site for industrial activities and more recently a desirable place for residential development. Now only about 25% of the one-mile area coastal zone is in natural cover; TNC scientists have set a goal of restoring landscapes to achieve a 40% natural cover area.

There are two pieces of good news. First, several significant marsh and other coastal habitats have been preserved in national wildlife refuges, state parks, duck hunting areas, and private land conservancies. Erie Marsh Preserve has been the home of a hunt club since 1870 and TNC and duck hunters still cooperate to protect its critical wetlands. Second, development and bird habitat are not incompatible land uses. Power plants, shipping facilities, and other commercial development typically are surrounded by large expanses of undeveloped land that can be managed to provide habitat areas, often in a cost-effective manner. For instance, 12 of DTE Energy's facilities in the area have certified wildlife habitats. Likewise, landscaping around homes can favor trees, shrubs, and other native species over lawns. Typically, this can enhance property values. The Nature Conservancy and its partners in Ohio have developed a guide Managing Habitats for Migrating Land Birds in the Western Lake Erie Basin that provides interesting background information as well as practical suggestions for landscaping.

Wetlands for birds, wetlands for fish are two of the benefits of coastal marshes. However, we sometimes struggle to meet both goals. In pre-setttlement times, most of Western Lake Erie consisted of shallow waters, extensive wetlands and poorly drained soils; it was hard to determine where lake ended and land began. Not only did this provide great habitat for ducks, shorebirds, and migratory songbirds, the warm quiet waters supported the spawning of fish species and provided shelter for their early growth.

Over time, the draining of onshore wetlands for farming and development, and the rise of lake levels led to the loss of this valuable and variable habitat. Early on, duck hunters saved some of the important coastal waters by building levees and controlling water levels. This has proven to be a boon for waterfowl, but barriers between lake and wetlands have diminished fish habitat. Managing the captive wetlands is also expensive, as pumps are required to control water levels within impoundments (see photo), levees need to be kept in repair, and habitats must be managed for invasive species like phragmites. All of these are issues at Erie Marsh

TNC recently received a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to reconnect some of Erie Marsh with Lake Erie so that fish and other aquatic species can move back and forth from open water to coastal wetland. This project will involve extensive monitoring by TNC to determine the benefits and impacts of this effort; lessons learned here might be applied throughout the Great Lakes. In addition to re-opening marshes, falling lake levels also create opportunities to re-establish coastal wetlands. This too may be a strategy employed in Western Lake Erie.

One last birding reward was had on our day when we stopped to look out over the shallow waters adjacent to Erie Marsh. Amidst a flock of cormorants and some late migrating waterfowl, we spotted a large white bird. Upon close examination, what we thought might be a swan turned out to be a White Pelican, a very rare species in this part of the Great Lakes. Perhaps more pleasant surprises will be created with careful management and attention to the entire Lake Erie ecosystem of land and water.

Directions: Erie Marsh is off Exit 2 on I-75. You will need to head north on Summit Road (this wiil require a U-turn if you get off I-75 southbound). Turn right on Bay Creek Rd, then in less than a mile turn right on Dean Rd. The address is 3149 Dean Rd, Erie, MI 48133. Proceed to the Preserve sign and Erie Shooting Club; park next to buildings. For safety reasons, the Preserve is closed from September 1 to December 31 of every year.

* The full statement: "The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Photo credits: all bird photos are from Cornell Bird Lab; other photos by Anna Owens