The terns' turn means windmills still not turning
Birds could have faced dicey situation
By KEVIN COX
Thursday, November 20, 2003 – Print Edition, Page A13
HALIFAX -- The vast exposed beaches and wild gales of Sable Island made the North Atlantic sandbar an ideal location for $800,000 worth of windmills -- until a group of birds shut down the federal pilot project.
The towers for the five windmills lie in the sand on the remote island, which is about 300 kilometres east of Halifax and is famous for its shipwrecks and wild horses.
Environment Canada officials are trying to figure out how to run the whirling blades of the wind machines without chopping up some of the terns -- a type of gull -- that nest in the migratory bird sanctuary.
When the idea first came up within Environment Canada, officials hoped to reduce the $80,000 fuel bill at a weather station it operates on the island and reduce the risk of diesel fuel spilling when it is airlifted to run the generators on the fragile ecosystem.
An environmental assessment done in the late 1990s showed that more than 2,000 Arctic and common terns were nesting in the central part of the 35-kilometre-long island. None of them were on the eastern end where the windmills would be set up.
But by the time the windmills were flown out to the island last year, a determined breakaway group of about 100 terns had located near the site where the windmills were to be erected. Environment Canada, responsible for protecting birds as well as promoting wind energy, didn't want to risk a feathery fatality in the blades of one of the large windmills.
"At first we thought it was just a couple of pairs [of terns] that might move on . . . but the group indicated that they were prepared to camp down there for a number of years," said George Finney, Atlantic director for the Canadian Wildlife Service.
The terns can become aggressive toward human intruders, so it would be unwise to try to scare them away, said Mr. Finney, who was attacked by a tern colony in the Arctic.
He said wildlife officials are concerned that the windmills could harm rare birds on the island, such as roseate terns.
"Environment Canada has multiple responsibilities. One of them is climate change and encouraging wind energy and another one is protection of migratory birds, and in this case we have a little conflict," Mr. Finney said.
Officials are looking at measures such as shutting down the windmills when the birds are nesting during the summer months or only operating the devices in the evening, when the birds are not as active.
Bill Appleby, regional director of the Meteorological Service of Canada, said the department is anxious to test the windmills in a remote location and wants to prove it can be done without harming wildlife.
He said the windmill project has been on hold for 1½ years and the towers are lying in the sand while the tern issue is studied.
"The birds moved around on us and we hadn't expected that," Mr. Appleby said.
He hopes that the windmills can be operated after the birds finish nesting.
"From one perspective, this is positive," he said. "There is a lot of potential for wind energy and the type of challenge we're addressing is one other people are going to encounter. . . . What we learn from this can be applied to other areas."