Bird Deaths Continue at Ivanpah Solar

Horned larks were among the birds found dead at the Ivanpah solar facility in March | Photo: Kenneth Cole Schneider/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Bird deaths continued in March at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County, in the wake of worldwide press coverage of the effect of the project's concentrated solar "flux" on birds and other flying wildlife.

Of 55 birds found dead or injured on the project site in March, 22, or 40 percent, showed unambiguous signs of injury by the project's concentrated solar flux. Almost all the remainder were too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death. Five birds were found while still alive; one, a double-crested cormorant, was released after a few hours, while two ravens found with flux burns were sent to a rehab facility, A swallow and a hummingbird found alive died of apparent solar flux injuries within hours of being captured.

ORIGINAL
Of 55 birds found dead or injured on the project site during surveys and in the course of regular operations in March, 22, or 40 percent, showed unambiguous signs of injury by the project's concentrated solar flux. Almost all the remainder were too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death. Five birds were found while still alive; one, a double-crested cormorant, was released after a few hours, while two ravens found with flux burns were sent to a rehab facility, A swallow and a hummingbird found alive died of apparent solar flux injuries within hours of being captured.
ORIGINAL

The injuries and deaths were reported by project manager NRG Energy in a monthly compliance report submitted to the California Energy Commission. The report comes just weeks after a report by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the Ivanpah plant's solar flux may be a deadly "megatrap" for an entire food chain.

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Among the reported mortalities were twelve mourning doves, five each of horned larks and Costa's hummingbirds, four each of Anna's hummingbirds and yellow-rumped warblers, three tree swallows, pairs of violet-green swallows and white-crowned sparrows, and individual representatives of the species American kestrel, black-throated sparrow, Brewer's blackbird, eared grebe, house finch, and northern rough-winged swallow.

Nine of the recovered birds were too far gone to be identified to species.

The USFWS report by the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory suggested that Ivanpah may act as an ecological "megatrap" due to its bright flux attracting insects, which attract insect-eating birds, which attract larger birds in turn, exposing all of those animals to danger via exposure to solar flux. In that context, some of the species represented among March's death toll are disquieting: many of them, especially the swallows and warblers, are known to follow congregrations of insects. American kestrels, the continent's smallest bird of prey, are avid aerial hunters of insects, though they will dine on smaller birds as well.

Given the description of USFWS law enforcement staff of observed death events at the Ivanpah facility, in which birds and insects entering the zone of concentrated solar flux exploded in puffs of steam the Ivanpah crew calls "streamers," it's likely that mortality will be significantly higher than would be indicated by the number of carcasses recovered. Some victims, especially of smaller bird species, may not leave enough behind to be detected by biologists performing carcass surveys.

And given that according to the California Energy Commission's "curtailment reports" on California power plants Ivanpah was only running at 55 percent of capacity on average during March -- an apparent continuation of earlier problems getting the plant online -- it remains to be seen what effect the plant will have on local birds if its owners ever get it running at peak capacity for more than four days in a row.

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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