Audubon New York declared its opposition to Avangrid Renewables’s proposed Horse Creek Wind Farm earlier this month because of the potential threats it claims the project has to several bird species and their habitats within an important bird area in Northern Jefferson County.
Jillian M. Liner, director of bird conservation for the nonprofit’s New York chapter, said in a letter she sent Aug. 3 to the Public Service Commission that the 250-megawatt project could cause losses of habitats, habitat fragmentation and degradation and displacement of at-risk species residing in the Perch River Important Bird Area. The about 66,000-acre area lies north of Watertown, west of Fort Drum, southwest of Theresa and includes the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Perch River Wildlife Management Area.
Important Bird Areas designated by Audubon, which dedicates itself to protecting birds and bird habitats, support populations of at-risk species and large concentrations or assemblages of birds important for conservation, according to the letter. The Perch River Important Bird Area supports one of the largest concentrations of breeding grassland birds in the state. The area also supports several shrub nesting avian species. “This area around Perch River is clearly a concentration area for them,” said Michael F. Burger, director of conservation and science with Audubon New York.
Avangrid Renewables and its subsidiary, Atlantic Wind LLC, plan to build the wind farm in the towns of Clayton, Orleans, Brownville and Lyme.
Paul N. Copleman, a communications manager for the developer, said in an email that the development team will continue working toward locating the number and types of birds within the potential project area, adding that on-site surveys will be included in the state Article 10 law review process for the project. The developer, Mr. Copleman said, is consulting with DEC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop protocols for studies and “reference relevant state and federal survey guidelines.”
Mr. Burger said the project is proposed within the Audubon designated important bird area. Mr. Copleman, however, said the project is outside of DEC’s Perch River Wildlife Management Area, which is much smaller and part of the important bird area.
“We do take into consideration a number of environmental conditions when conducting wind farm siting, including sensitive species and avian use,” Mr. Copleman said. “We have helped establish best practices for protecting wildlife and habitat at our wind farms, and take proactive and collaborative steps from the beginning of the development process all the way through to our day-to-day operations.”
Both the construction and operation of the Horse Creek Wind Farm could reduce breeding among bird species in the important bird area, Audubon officials claim, which can lead to decreases in bird populations.
Mr. Burger said building roads and bases for turbines in the area would reduce the amount of available grassland for birds to live and breed. Mrs. Liner said in the letter that grassland birds typically require large fields that allow them to avoid predators in order to breed, adding that several species such as Henslow’s Sparrow and the Northern Harrier prefer having 100 acres available for habitation or more.
Tall objects such as turbines could also displace these birds, Mr. Burger said.
“Fewer birds would be able to breed,” Mr. Burger said. “That has a direct impact on the population.”
Audubon officials are also concerned about the project’s turbines potentially causing rises in bird mortalities.
Mr. Burger argues that grassland and shrub nesting birds would be at risk of colliding with the turbine rotor zones. Migrating birds that fly at higher elevations such as the Northern Harrier and Short-eared owl, which flies to the important bird area during the winter, would be at risk of colliding with turbine blades even at higher elevations. Peak numbers of bird-turbine collisions occur during spring and fall migrations, Mr. Burger said.
“All of the birds are at risk,” he said. “Lots of different species collide with turbines.”
While grassland and shrub nesting birds are among the most rapid declining suites of birds statewide, Mr. Burger said the Perch River Important Bird Area has large grasslands that are in good condition and that allow both types of bird species to thrive.
Mr. Burger also said Henslow’s Sparrow, which also resides in the Perch River Important Bird Area, is one of the most rapidly declining species in the state. The population for Henslow’s Sparrow dropped 99 percent in the last 50 years, Mr. Burger said.
“This Perch River area is one of the places they’re holding on,” he said.
Avangrid Renewables previously proposed to build 60 to 72 turbines, each up to 500 feet, for its Horse Creek Wind Farm, but those details may change during the state Article 10 law review process for the project. One change the developer is considering is reducing the number of turbines locations to 45.
Mr. Copleman also said the development team has not yet determined when it will submit its Preliminary Scoping Statement, the next key step in the Article 10 review process.
“As you know, climate change continues to be recognized as the greatest threat to wildlife, including birds, so well-sited wind energy is one of the best ways to mitigate climate change and reliably keep the lights on,” he said.
PERCH RIVER IMPORTANT BIRD AREA
Examples of birds potentially affected by proposed Horse Creek Wind Farm
■ Northern Harrier (listed threatened by DEC)
■ Upland Sandpiper (listed threatened by DEC)
■ Henslow’s Sparrow (listed threatened by DEC)
■ Grasshopper Sparrow (identified as high priority species of greatest conservation need by DEC)
■ Bobolink (identified as high priority of species of greatest conservation need by DEC)
■ Eastern Meadowlark (identified as high priority of species of greatest conservation need by DEC)
■ American Woodcock
■ Willow Flycather
■ Brown Thrasher
■ Blue-winged Warbler
■ Eastern Towhee
■ Field Sparrow
■ Short-eared Owl