Peregrine Falcon Dead at Ivanpah Solar Power Plant

Peregrine falcon | Photo: Nick Chill Photography/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A member of California's fastest-flying bird species was found mortally injured at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert two weeks ago, ReWire has learned. Found on the site still alive, the bird was shipped to a rehabilitation facility by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) but subsequently died of its injuries.

Details on the incident are sketchy, but USFWS press spokesperson Jane Hendron has confirmed to ReWire that the falcon was found injured on the site of the concentrating solar facility near the Nevada state line in the first week of September, and that the falcon died shortly afterward either at the rehabilitation facility or in transit.

Formal determination of the cause of the falcon's death awaits a necropsy (the animal version of an autopsy) which will be performed at USFWS's forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon. Looming large in investigators minds as they determine what killed the falcon: the issue of the concentrated solar energy Ivanpah's mirrored heliostats focus on the facility's three 459-foot power towers, also known as "solar flux."

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is being built by Bechtel for BrightSource Energy, NRG, and Google on almost 4,000 acres of public land adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve.

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The peregrine may also have suffered injury from collision with reflective surfaces, which are notoriously confusing to many birds, and collisions with windows and mirrors cause many thousands of bird deaths each year in the United States.

A heliostat collision might have been especially damaging to a peregrine falcon if it collided during a "stoop," or a hunting dive. Peregrines subsist mainly on other birds such as doves, quail, and songbirds; the falcon's typical hunting behavior is to dive at its prey, reaching speeds of up to 200 miles an hour, punching its intended meal from behind with a clenched foot.

Listed as an Endangered Species in 1970, the peregrine falcon nearly succumbed to environmental poisoning from DDT and other now-restricted pesticides. By 1999, populations of the bird had recovered enough that USFWS removed the falcons from the Endangered list, but the agency still monitors the species.

Despite having been delisted from full protection under the Endangered Species Act for the last 13 years, peregrines are still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). MBTA makes it illegal to kill protected birds without a permit. USFWS law enforcement staff are thus investigating the peregrine mortality at Ivanpah.

ReWire calls to USFWS law enforcement staff and to BrightSource Energy were not returned by press time.

The possibility of solar flux contributing to the fatality is very likely troubling for BrightSource, as solar flux injuries to wildlife has emerged as a key concern of regulators in the company's bid to have its 500-megawatt Palen Solar Electric Generating System approved by state and federal agencies. BrightSource would build the Palen project with partner Abengoa in Riverside County, just east of Joshua Tree National Park.

Solar flux figures large as an unresolved threat in the California Energy Commission's Final Staff Assessment on Palen, and may well figure into public comment at hearings on the project being held this week by the Bureau of Land Management.

If the necropsy finds that the peregrine falcon died of injuries from Ivanpah's solar flux, that may well force agencies to consider the risk from the larger Palen plant's flux more cautiously. which could mean delays in the Palen project, which in turn could prove costly for its proponents.

We'll be paying close attention to this issue as it develops.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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