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Water Birds Turning Up Dead at Solar Projects in the Desert

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A bufflehead, a duck generally found in open water, discovered between two rows of mirrors 25 miles from the nearest open water at the Genesis solar project | Photo: Genesis Solar

[This story has been updated.] Big desert solar installations have a problem: They seem to be imperiling water birds. A ReWire investigation has revealed that since mid-March, two large industrial solar power plants in California's remote, arid desert may have killed or injured more than 20 birds commonly associated with lakes or wetlands rather than the open desert surrounding the projects.

The two facilities in Riverside County are the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm being built near Eagle Mountain by First Solar for owners NextEra Energy Resources, GE Energy Financial Services, and Sumitomo Corporation of America, and the 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Project being built by NextEra about 25 miles west of Blythe. According to compliance documents builders of the two projects have filed with the California Energy Commission (CEC), as well as personal communication with solar developer press representatives, water birds accounted for about half of at least 37 reported incidents of bird injury or mortality at the two projects.

The water birds killed and injured range in species from yellow-headed blackbirds, which tend to congregate in the vegetation that surrounds ponds and streams, to the once-critically endangered brown pelican whose lifestyle involves fishing by diving into open water.

[UPDATE: after we went to press, ReWire learned that the toll also includes two individuals of the dramatic wading bird species great blue heron. Details here.]

Other water birds found dead or injured by biologists at the two projects include eared, western, and pied-billed grebes, the duck species surf scoter, red breasted merganser and bufflehead, the dramatic-looking black-crowned night heron, double-crested cormorants, American coots, and the federally Endangered Yuma clapper rail (as we reported last week).

Other birds reported dead or injured at the two facilities in that time period include warblers, goldfinches, a common raven, and a barn owl.

In addition, representatives from First Solar and NextEra have told ReWire of a few incidents not yet included in compliance reports, including deaths of three juvenile brown pelicans and a black-crowned night heron at Desert Sunlight, and another brown pelican found July 10 at the Genesis project.

Most of the mortalities were discovered by project biologists or other staff, and consisted of finding carcasses in varying stages of decay. At least one bird, the red-breasted merganser found in April at Desert Sunlight, was alive when discovered but died shortly after. In addition to the birds listed as injured or killed, the compliance records note a number of birds finding their way into fenced and netted areas or discovered in some distress on the sites, but released apparently no worse for wear.

Construction projects of any nature pose threats to birds, both during construction and after. That's evidenced by the fact that residential and commercial buildings, communications towers, and other human artifacts take an astounding toll of bird injuries and mortalities. According to the American Bird Conservancy, as many as a billion birds die each year due to collisions with glass windows, another 200 million or so from collisions with power lines and communications towers, and about 380 million from collisions with vehicles or other roadway hazards.

So facilities like Desert Sunlight and Genesis that incorporate power lines, thought to account for at least some of the small bird deaths recorded, and roadways that bring construction traffic into areas where there hadn't been much traffic before, are likely to see consequent bird mortality.

And both companies have assured ReWire that the incidents distress them, and that they're working with appropriate agencies to minimize the deaths. A statement sent along by Desert Sunlight spokesperson Ashley Hudgens confirming the deaths of the juvenile pelicans and night heron, for instance, stresses the company's efforts:

In recent weeks biologists at Desert Sunlight Solar Farm found three juvenile Brown Pelicans and a Black-crowned Night-heron. Biologists alerted the Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Desert Sunlight is cooperating with the agencies and will work with them on next steps.Unfortunately it is common for birds, especially juveniles, to become exhausted or die if they stray outside of their migratory path. Biologists are examining regional flyways and migratory patterns for more information.Project biologists also recover injured or exhausted birds so they can be safely released or transported to rehabilitation centers. Desert Sunlight takes the health of native and protected wildlife and plant species very seriously. Biologists are on site daily to ensure that wildlife and plants are protected during the construction process.

NextEra's Steve Stengel expressed similar concerns in an email.

No one wants to kill birds unnecessarily, and the companies' efforts to mitigate and reduce the toll are laudable. But what explains the astonishing percentage of water birds injured at these hyper-arid sites?

Scientists haven't weighed in on what might account for a disproportionate number of bird kills at solar facilities: the topic is very new. But as ReWire mentioned in covering the Yuma clapper rail mortality on July 10, it seems very likely that reflections from solar facilities' infrastructure, including photovoltaic panels and mirrors, may well be attracting birds in flight across the open desert, who mistake the broad reflective surfaces for water.

Here's a 2008 photo of the Nevada Solar One project to illustrate what we mean:

Nevada Solar One glare | Photo: e pants/Flickr/Creative Commons License

With millions of years of evolutionary experience telling birds that broad expanses of glare and reflectivity on the ground mean "water," it's not hard to figure out why water birds might veer miles out of their way to head for solar facilities. Both photovoltaic solar panels, as used at Desert Sunlight, and mirrors like Genesis uses pose that reflective glare attractant.

It may be that photovoltaic arrays resemble lakes more closely than do mirrors, at least to the eyes of birds. Light reflecting off non-metallic surfaces tends to become polarized. Both water and the semiconducting surfaces of photovoltaic panels are non-metallic, which means the glare from one might well resemble the glare from the other if birds are sensitive to light polarization, which many are.

The California desert is part of the Pacific Flyway, one of four major bird migration corridors in North America. Historically, lakes in arid and semi-arid parts of the west were important rest and refueling stops for long-distance migrants. In the last two centuries human activity has altered, displaced, or dried up many of the lakes and wetlands migrating birds once depended on as they traveled the Pacific Flyway, and remaining rest stops such as the Salton Sea, the Great Salt Lake, or even smaller sites like the artificial Lake Tamarisk in the western Chuckwalla Valley of Riverside County are crucial, widely separated oases in the desert section of the Flyway.

Add reflective areas that resemble water to the mix, and you have a recipe for avian deaths by the hundreds as unsuspecting, tired migrating birds try to come in for a water landing on fields of solar panels and mirrors.

And with thousands of acres of those solar panels and mirrors due to be added to the migration corridor between the Colorado River and the Coachella Valley as Palen, Blythe, and McCoy solar projects come online, the issue of water bird deaths promises to become far more pressing than it already is.

ReWire will be tracking this issue as it develops.

Appended below is a list of bird deaths and injuries at Desert Sunlight and Genesis of which ReWire is aware. Water birds are indicated by an asterisk (*). Other solar projects aren't included only because we haven't looked at them yet. Some birds injured since May and June will not have been formally reported. Some injuries and fatalities will not have been recorded by project biologists, as injured birds may leave the scene undetected to expire elsewhere from their wounds.

- Genesis, March 13, lesser goldfinch
- Genesis, March 19, lesser goldfinch
- Genesis, March 28, bufflehead* found between mirrors
- Desert Sunlight, April 3 eared grebe*
- Desert Sunlight, April 15 surf scoter*
- Genesis, April 17, black"throated grey warbler
- Genesis, April 17, house wren
- Genesis, April 17, orange"crowned warbler
- Desert Sunlight, April 18 great-tailed grackle
- Desert Sunlight, Week of April 21 red breasted merganser* found live on site, died in transport prior to release.
- Genesis, April 25, barn owl injured, taken to rehab
- Genesis, May 1, pied-billed grebe* (in evap pond netting)
- Genesis, May 1, eared grebe* injured, to rehab
- Desert Sunlight, May 6 double crested cormorant*
- Desert Sunlight, May 8 Yuma clapper rail*
- Genesis, May 8, Wilson's warbler (poss. line strike)
- Genesis, May 14, yellow"headed blackbird* injured, taken to rehab
- Genesis, May 15, hermit thrush (bulldozer)
- Genesis, May 16, Wilson's warbler
- Genesis, May 16, Townsends warbler
- Genesis, May 16, unidentified bird
- Genesis, May 22, western grebe* injured, taken to rehab
- Genesis, May 22, yellow warbler
- Genesis, May 23, warbler, species unknown
- Genesis, May 24, unidentified sparrow
- Genesis, May 30, American coot*
- Desert Sunlight, June 4 common loon*
- Desert Sunlight, June 5 eared grebe*
- Desert Sunlight, June 5 western grebe*
- Desert Sunlight, June 5 western grebe* live, released after consultation.
- Desert Sunlight, June 6 American coot*
- Desert Sunlight, June 6 double crested cormorant*
- Desert Sunlight, June 9 Common raven
- Genesis, June 10, brown pelican* injured, sent to rehab
- Desert Sunlight, June 19 hummingbird (species not mentioned)
- Genesis, July 10, brown pelican*
- Desert Sunlight, July 10 brown pelican*
- Desert Sunlight, July 11 brown pelican*
- Desert Sunlight, July 13 brown pelican*
- Desert Sunlight, July 15 black-crowned night heron*

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