By Paul Schliesmann The Whig-Standard
The short-eared owl, listed as a species of special concern in Canada, has all but disappeared from the west end of Wolfe Island.
A noted Kingston-area birder says the decline has everything to do with the construction and startup of wind turbines on that part of the island two years ago.
“They’re definitely avoiding the area,” said Kurt Hennige, who has been watching and documenting the short-eared populations on Wolfe Island for more than 25 years.
The owls specifically congregated on the northwest corner of the island because of an abundance of their favourite food — meadow voles. As well as being a favourite hunting ground, short-eareds also winter there.
“Now we see that where the most windmills are, we hardly see any short-eareds,” said Hennige.
“We weren’t studying this specific to windmills … the area where they were common, the short-eared owls were displaced from the heavy area where the windmills are. They’ve moved to the east end.
“That’s a threatened species.”
Two years ago, an 86-turbine wind farm opened on the western half of Wolfe Island, built on leased properties.
The facility is owned and operated by Calgary-based TransAlta, which purchased it from Canadian Hydro Developers.
Hennige said that part of the island, along with Amherst Island, has consistently offered one of the most important hunting and nesting grounds available to short-eareds in all of North America.
“I have seen up to 30 birds feeding in a small area,” he said. “They’re very social birds. Up to 30 or 40 can roost in one area.”
Hennige is affiliated with the Kingston Field Naturalists, a volunteer organization that has been documenting bird sightings in the region for decades.
Two years ago, he began assisting Kristen Keyes, a student from McGill University, with her thesis on short-eared owls.
The absence of the birds on Wolfe Island became instantly apparent to Hennige.
He insists, however, that the disappearance of the owls should come as no surprise. For several years, birder friends in Mexico have documented similar findings where turbines have been installed in large numbers.
“They learned years ago it’s not the migrating birds that get killed, it’s the residential birds that can no longer use the feeding area,” said Hennige.
A report released by TransAlta in January showed about 22 raptors were killed by wind turbines on Wolfe Island from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010.
The company pledged to find ways to reduce the raptor death count.
In the same time period, an estimated 1,151 birds were killed along with 1,720 bats.
Hennige said that from his recent observations, it appears all 10 of the resident red-tailed hawks were victims.
Despite all of the information gathered over the years by the Kingston Field Naturalists, he said, none of it was used by the companies that sited the wind turbines.
Hennige suspects that the staggered alignment of the 80-metre towers, with their 93-metre diameter blades, has contributed to the large hawk kill numbers.
“If the whole population is gone, to me that’s pretty bad. Maybe with good placement of the windmills it could have been avoided,” he said.
Hennige believes it’s possible for industry and scientists to work together to avoid similar environmental degradation.
He holds up his own special project, reclaiming habitat in the Napanee area for the endangered loggerhead shrike, as a case in point.
When it was learned that solar electricity company SunEdison wanted to install a massive panel project in that area, Hennige and Wildlife Preservation Canada pushed the company to consider the shrikes’ needs.
By avoiding a certain area of the property critical to its survival, the shrike appears to be thriving — growing from four pairs last year to seven this year.
“You can have solar farms and you can have shrikes,” said Hennige. “It took a bit to get them convinced. We had to explain why they should not build on the front of the property.
“They often buy more land than they’re using anyway.”
Hennige said it will take further study to determine if the east end of Wolfe Island can sustain the short-eared owl population.
His concern is that Amherst Island, the other popular spot for the owls in this area, could also be threatened by a proposed wind farm there.
The eastern end of Lake Ontario, encompassing Kingston and the islands, is considered a globally significant migratory route.
“If you put a lot of windmills there, where can they go?” he asked.
“We have sensitive habitat that needs protecting. I have no issue with green technology, but it needs to be scientifically done.”