Ornithologist downplays turbine danger to rare bird

By Cynthia Prairie
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

A Vermont ornithologist is downplaying concerns that the at-risk Bicknell’s thrush will be imperiled should the 24-turbine Stiles Brook wind project go through.

Map Courtesy Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Click to enlarge

Map Courtesy Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Click to enlarge

Some in the anti-wind community in Grafton and Windham are hoping to use the plight of this small songbird as the Nov. 8 vote on the project nears, contending that it could be further stressed with a destruction of habitat or killed from the blades of the 500-foot turbines.

But Chris Rimmer, the executive director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies based in Norwich, said in an interview on Tuesday that neither is likely. The center, Rimmer says, is “science-based … not an advocacy organization.”

Rimmer said that the Bicknell’s thrush, a songbird with a population of about 110,000, doesn’t “nest in the project area because it is too low.” He said these migratory birds nest above 3,000 feet. But the highest neighboring peak that The Telegraph could find to the Windham/Grafton area is the Windmill Hill Pinnacle at 1,683 feet, in Westminster. (CORRECTION: Glebe, in Londonderry, is 2,850.)

“They do nest on Okemo, Stratton, on Stiles Peak (north of Bromley) and Mt. Snow … all the bigger Green Mountain Peaks.”

The center, Rimmer added, has been studying the Bicknell’s thrushes for about 25 years.

Even so, “no one really knows” the exact path that the birds take following nesting and during their winter migration back to Hispanola and other southern points. It is possible that a “few would be moving along that area,” he added. “But there is no reason to believe that they are.

“Like other songbirds, they are nocturnal flyers and typically will be above” the turbines. Rimmer added,  “It is hard to generalize. It’s such a rare bird. But it is highly unlikely that they would ever be over that site in large numbers. … They will never be a commonly encountered migrating bird.”

A request for a letter of support

The Bicknell’s thrush became the center of controversy after Michael Hutchins, a bird and bat expert with the D.C.-based Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign for the American Bird Conservancy, wrote a letter to the chairs of the Select Boards of Grafton and Windham stating that “ABC is concerned that the proposed site for this project poses an unacceptably high risk to some species of conservation concern, notably Bicknell’s Thrush and various warbler species.”  You can read that letter here.

Click on map to enlarge

Nesting range of Bicknell’s thrush. Click on map to enlarge

The original letter, dated Oct. 20, was sent to Grafton Select Board chair Ron Pilette and Windham chair Frank Seawright.

But following an interview with The Chester Telegraph, Hutchins said he would be amending his letter to urge instead that “Detailed, independent studies need to be conducted by third party experts to see if the species (Bicknell’s thrush) is present during migration or if it breeds in the area” of the Stiles Brook tract. He emailed that letter out on Tuesday morning. You can read that here. A correction is in the center of the third paragraph and the addition is at the bottom of the third paragraph.

On Monday, Hutchins said that he was contacted by a concerned citizen about the “urgency” of the situation.  He said the contact sent “a lot of information” on the Stiles Brook project, which he said was already on his radar since he had done “a lot of research about developing a Top 10 list on projects that weren’t good for birds.”

While Stiles Brook “didn’t fall among the Top 10 — there are others more problematic like those proposed for the Great Lakes” —  the project is known and of concern, he said.

Hutchins later identified the citizen as David Acker. Acker, a Grafton resident, is also an anti-wind activist, a fact that Hutchins says he was unaware of. He added that his organization is not anti-wind: “But we believe it has to be done right.”

Reached at his home on Tuesday, Acker said that in his discussion with Hutchins, “I was expressing the information that I learned and it was pretty clear (to Hutchins) by the end of the conversation that I was concerned about the plight of these birds.”

Acker said he thought Hutchins’ original letter was “excellent,” and said of Hutchins’ amendment “regardless of whether they are breeding there, it is a migratory path.” Acker added that he had gone to several organizations, but no other would write a letter.

That sentiment was echoed by Skip Lisle, a Grafton Select Board member who is against the project and who sits on the Environmental Information Committee looking into the wind issue. “The only issue of concern is about the mortality rate. Don’t get caught up in the face that (Bicknell’s thrush) don’t nest here.”

In an email to The Telegraph, Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman wrote, “Our avian and wildlife experts, with guidance from various state agencies, have evaluated the site and disagree with the (original) letter.”

Copleman was then asked if Iberdrola/Avangrid would agree to allow independent monitors to go unannounced onto the Stiles Brook property to catalog data and collect dead animals to determine if the deaths are caused by the wind project or something else, then make that information available to the public?

Copleman responded: “The state’s permitting process requires stringent, independent monitoring, and makes the data public.”

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Jeremy Turner says:

    This article brings to surface the spirit of facts. It is of utmost importance to inform, educate and decide upon information that is objective-science based rather than fictitious ideas generated by issue based advocacy groups of any sort.

    Editor’s note: Turner is the Managing Forester for Meadowsend Timberlands

  2. David Acker says:

    “Downplayed” I think not. It is a rare bird and travels through here. I do not need to be an expert to read the research. 🐾