News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

April Was Bad Month for Birds at Ivanpah Solar

An American kestrel. This tiny raptor is falling prey to solar flux injuries at Ivanpah | Photo: Nathan Rupert/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The April stats are in for reported bird deaths at the Ivanpah solar power plant in the California desert, and it's bad news: 97 birds were found killed or mortally injured between April 1 and 29 at the nearly 4,000-acre plant in San Bernardino County south of Las Vegas.

That's a record number of reported deaths for the facility, though the increase may be at least partly a statistical artifact: sources tell ReWire that biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) were on site throughout April investigating wildlife mortality on the premises, likely leading to more stringent searches for injured wildlife.

But those searches still covered just 20 percent of the facility, meaning that one could reasonably extrapolate that total bird mortalities for April could be five times the official count. And that's not taking into account injured birds that land outside the fence, or are eaten by scavengers before survey crews can find them.

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The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System generates electrical power by focusing solar energy on boilers atop three power towers, using tens of thousands of billboard-sized independently targetable mirrors called "heliostats." As ReWire has reported extensively over the past couple years, that concentrated "solar flux" poses a significant risk of injury to wildlife that flies through it, and may possibly entice wildlife by attracting clouds of insects with its bright glow.

As a result of mounting concern over the new technology's effects on wildlife, federal and state agencies have been casting a watchful eye on Ivanpah's bright light, hence those USGS boots on the ground resulting in more aggressive monitoring of mortalities.

That stepped-up surveying seems to be reflected in the records of how each bird was found: of the 100 dead or injured birds reported in the facility's Monthly Compliance Report to the California Energy Commission for April, just 14 were "incidental" finds, or birds noticed as plant workers performed other duties. Incidental finds made up a far greater percentage of reported mortalities in previous months.

There's also the fact that after a slow start, with the plant at least partly offline for many weeks even after its formal opening, April saw a ramping up of energy production from the plant -- and thus more solar flux to pose a threat to wildlife.

Of the 100 birds reported, two -- an American Kestrel and a white-throated swift, both suffering burn injuries from the pllant's concentrated solar flux -- were sent still alive to a rehab facility, while a third, a Brewer's sparrow seen colliding with one of the plant's mirrored heliostats, apparently recovered and flew off into the desert. The remaining 97 birds were either found dead or died soon after discovery.

We've included a full list of the affected species at the end of this post. Seventeen of the birds killed in April were warblers, 12 of them yellow-rumped warblers. Mortalities also included 18 hummingbirds of at least five different species, one having been too badly decomposed for certain identification. Mourning doves were well represented in the death toll, with 10 mortalities. At least four species of swallow (again, some were unidentifiable) and four sparrow species are represented on the April mortality list, as were three American kestrels not counting the one sent still-alive to rehab.

Surveyors found partial remains of both an American coot and a bird in the heron and egret family on the site on April 15. Though the remains were too sparse to pinpoint the species of the heron, the presence of water birds on the site indicates that Ivanpah isn't immune from the fake lake effect that troubles other desert solar facilities.

Forty-nine of the birds were reported as showing signs of scorching, singeing, or melting of feathers consistent with exposure to the plant's concentrated solar flux. A dozen showed obvious signs that they'd collided with heliostats, some having left visible smudges on the mirrors. The remainder were listed with unknown causes of death.

April's bird mortality is unlikely to be considered welcome news for proponents of the Palen Solar Electric Generating System in eastern Riverside County, the design of which would resemble Ivanpah's but on a considerably larger scale. The California Energy Commission decided Thursday to reopen evidentiary hearings on the project's possible effect on wildlife, among other issues, and the mounting losses of wildlife at Palen's smaller sibling Ivanpah may not bode well for the proposed project.

That reopened evidentiary hearing is set to take place early in July, which means there will be at least one more Monthly Compliance Report on Ivanpah in the CEC's hands by then.

Bird species killed or injured at Ivanpah Solar in April 2014:

  • American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), 3 mortalities, 1 injury
  • Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna ), 2 mortalities
  • Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), 1 mortality
  • Black-Throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata), 1 mortality
  • Brewer's Blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus), 3 mortalities
  • Brewer's Sparrow (Spizella breweri), 2 mortalities, 1 injury
  • Broad-Tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), 1 mortality
  • Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), 2 mortalities
  • Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), 1 mortality
  • Costa's Hummingbird (Calypte costae), 7 mortalities
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove St(reptopelia decaocto), 1 mortality
  • Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis), 1 mortality
  • Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), 4 mortalities
  • House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), 2 mortalities
  • Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), 2 mortalities
  • Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), 2 mortalities
  • Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), 10 mortalities
  • Nashville Warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla), 1 mortality
  • Rock Dove (Columba livia), 1 mortality
  • Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), 4 mortalities
  • Townsend's Warbler (Dendroica townsendi), 1 mortality
  • Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor), 3 mortalities
  • Unknown Ardeidae species Unknown, 1 mortality
  • Unknown Hummingbird (Trochilidae) species, 2 mortalities
  • Unknown Swallow (Hirundinidae species), 2 mortalities
  • Unknown Swallow (Tachycineta species), 1 mortality
  • Unknown Warbler, 1 mortality
  • Unknown, 9 mortalities
  • Violet Green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina), 2 mortalities
  • Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), 4 mortalities
  • White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), 5 mortalities
  • White-Throated Swift (Aeronautes saxatalis), 1 mortality, 1 injury
  • Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla), 1 mortality
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata), 12 mortalities

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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