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Wind project prompts concern from Freeport birders

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Wind project prompts concern from Freeport birders

FREEPORT — Questions have been raised about the impact that a proposed wind farm off Monhegan Island could have on fishing and sightseeing, but Derek Lovitch has another concern.

He believes it could kill a lot of birds.

Lovitch and his wife, Jeannette, who own Freeport Wild Bird Supply on Route 1, fear that wind turbines – and the blinking lights mounted atop them – could spell disaster for the migrating birds and bats that pass through Monhegan every fall and spring.

The couple last week sent a letter to state elected officials, urging them to consider the impact the project spearheaded by the University of Maine could have on avian wildlife.

"Monhegan Island is one of the most significant stop-over spots for thousands upon thousands of migrating songbirds in fall and spring," Lovitch said in an email. "Most of these birds migrate at night. Lighted structures, including wind turbines, can confuse birds, especially under cloudy and foggy conditions. Birds are drawn in and then circle the light in an attempt to reorient or simply escape the halo of light. Unfortunately, in the process, many can collide with the structure, each other, or simply drop dead of exhaustion as their flight muscles are metabolized in a last-ditch effort to find safety."

Lovitch is concerned that the state, in a rush to secure federal subsidies, will ignore the environmental hazards that wind power can create. Others, desperate to find ways to combat global warming, may overlook those same risks, he said.

"Wind power has become the political flavor of the month," Lovitch said. "I'm not opposed to wind power. We believe in alternative energy. But it's not a benign panacea, so it has to be done in a really good way. This is a really bad place for it."

Lovitch also said he was disappointed, but not altogether surprised, by a recent Maine Audubon report by wildlife biologist Susan Gallo analyzing wind power and wildlife across the state. While the report notes that siting for wind projects should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, it paints a mostly positive picture for the potential of wind development in Maine.

The 34-page report does not address offshore wind farms or turbine lights. It makes brief mention of migration patterns:

"We have very little information about either bat migration or resident bat populations (locations and numbers) in Maine. Bird migration routes have been poorly studied, and we know very little about migratory pathways through the state."

Lovitch said the report "not only does nothing to reduce one of the biggest impacts of wind development, disorientation of nocturnal migrants, but adds to the 'out of sight, out of mind' ignorance about the issue.

"I don't have much faith that Maine Audubon will do a lot for or against these projects," he said. "I've lost faith in their ability to be progressive environmentalists and have an impact. ... They don't seem to have a spine when it comes to standing up for what Maine's environment needs."

Gallo said the report was intended not to address every individual concern, but to provide a broad overview of the issues, while highlighting onshore areas across the state that could support wind development with minimal impact on wildlife.

"I get where he's coming from, but I think he's missed the point," she said. "He's a birder, a bird-focused guy, so I could see him obsessing on those particular impacts. They are important."

Gallo stressed that there just isn't much data about bird migration, nocturnal or otherwise, along Maine's coast. Several coastal European countries have pioneered such research, and some mid-Atlantic states have followed suit, but Maine has not, she said.

As for the Monhegan project, which is set to include two 6-megawatt turbines placed 2.5 miles south of the island, Gallo said, "We haven't gotten enough information to support or oppose it, but we would not support it until we'd really done our homework and looked at all the preconstruction work."

Lovitch studied environmental policy at Rutgers, and his wife earned a master's degree in natural resources and environmental science at the University of Illinois, before the pair opened Wild Bird Supply in Yarmouth a decade ago; they moved to Freeport five years later.

The Lovitches lead guided bird tours on Monhegan every fall and spring. If the turbine project moves ahead, and the impact on birds is anything like they expect, those trips just won't be the same, Lovitch said.

"Guiding is a small part of our business, but it's one of the parts we really like to do," he said. "Peregrines are zooming overhead in the fall, and in the spring you have all the colorful warblers chirping out of trees. It's a unique and special place and one that we love to show people."

Lovitch admitted he's skeptical of the ability of concerned citizens to affect policy when there's so much money involved in politics. But he said he felt the need to speak up for Monhegan and its birds, even if his voice is drowned out by concerns about electricity rates, job creation, and the cost and look of turbines.

"I don't know if much will change, but I can't in good conscience care so much about a place and not let people know it's being threatened," he said. "That's the nature of environmentalists."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.