Research on a Wind farm- The impact on birds.
Windfarm Research – Avifaunal Impact studies relating to Wind Farms.
It is interesting when a hobby leads one into an opportunity to get involved in research associated with your area of interest. Some years ago when I retired from teaching I joined the local bird club and started going out on occasional Saturday morning visits to good “birding venues” in and around East London. Also attended monthly meetings of the club were interesting topics were presented. With several of my siblings being avid “birders” the result was inevitable. I then started sending in bird lists as part of the SABAP 2 (South African Bird Atlas Program) as a so called “Citizen Scientist”. So I was hooked!
Then came a phone call to help out with research in the Komga area where a local company was doing an impact study in preparation for a new Wind Farm in the area. So I went and really enjoyed the experience. Now I am doing follow-up research on an existing Wind Farm in the Cookhouse area of the Eastern Cape near Bedford. Here the farm has about 70 turbines in full operation.
My part time job as a fieldworker (with Audrey my wife who has joined me in this endeavour), has been both rewarding and challenging. Long hours monitoring the birds (or lack of birds) in an area can be a challenge. At the same time I have visited some beautiful farms and areas of the Eastern Cape and met some interesting people.
As we begin at first light in the morning and end at last light in the evening the sunrises and sunsets have been amazing. Obviously the bird life has been interesting and I have managed to add a few species to my “life list”. The animals, tame and wild have entertained us. On a recent 10 kilometre “Vehicle Transect Drive” we saw groups of Kudu, Springbuck, Fallow Deer, Baboons, Warthog and Vervet Monkeys. These are working farms where the wind turbines are located and so the cattle, sheep, game and horses have also kept us entertained.
At times we have been rather close to some rather large Cattle and smaller but dangerous looking Warthog and Baboons. Research on Google has given us good advice as to what to do if we are in fact threatened by any of these. "Don't look them in the eye, show your teeth, or turn and run", is some of the advice. Not many viable options? At this stage this advice has fortunately not been needed. The animals have either ignored us or fled into the distance, probably thinking our walking sticks are guns. The Safety Officer on the Cookhouse project has also given advice as to dealing with the possibility of being confronted by snakes and that is basically avoid them. We did have a Green Boomslang fall out of a tree next to us as we sat on deck chairs in the shade. We hastily moved back into the safely of our car after moving the pesky snake away with my walking stick.
The research we are involved in consists basically of 4 activities: Vantage Point Observations lasting 3 hours, Walk Transects of one Kilometer, Drive Transects of various distances and View Point or Wetland Observations. We also draw up a Site Bird Species list and an Incidental Bird List of Important Birds that do not fit into any of the above. Once we have completed the main site then we do the same on a nearby control site so that comparisons can be made. It all keeps us busy and on our toes and the walking is certainly good exercise, something we need. There is no doubt that our knowledge of the local birds has also improved.
Another group of local researchers spend time walking around the huge wind turbines looking for and collecting any dead birds. These are then reported to the head office by means of a photograph and stored in a deep freeze for future inspection. As far as we can make out not many if any have been found in this project.
Being on the Wind Farm is quite an amazing almost surreal experience. The turbines and vanes are enormous! The wind vanes make a noise like a plane taking off when the wind is really blowing hard. The turbines are manipulated by satellite communication from the head office in India. Apparently every turbine has its own weather station at the top. As the wind changes both the whole head with its three vanes turn to face the prevailing wind and we can often see the individual vanes also being turned for maximum effectiveness.
Inside each turbine is a lift that transports engineers the 80-100 metres to the top to effect repairs and service them. Some people working in the area can suffer from “flicker effect” as the vanes turn and continuously cast shadows on the surrounding area. Counting the rotation time of a vane when a wind of about 15-20 kilometer an hour is blowing takes about 4-5 seconds. Although the vanes appear to be rotating slowly they apparently reach a speed of up to 600 kilometer per hour.
The sheep, cattle and wild game seem to be unperturbed by the huge turbines and on a warm day the sheep actually rest in the shade of a turbine tower, some lying right against it. While big Wind Farms are a relatively new phenomena in South Africa at the rate that new ones are being built they seem to be here to stay. With regular “load shedding” by Eskom, out local electricity provider, our country obviously needs more energy. Wind and Solar Farms are providing this and while their impact on the environment in general is said to be less harmful than traditional coal burning facilities, their impact on the bird life is still being researched. We are glad to be involved in this, even at the bottom of the food chain.
It is interesting to note that the headquarters of the firm running this farm is situated in Pune, India. The man who started the company began it because as a textile factory owner he was frustrated by shortages of electricity and so built his own wind turbine.Others began to show an interest and so one thing led to another and now his company has over 10 000 turbines in 17 countries all over the world. Just goes to show how a problem can be turned into an opportunity.