How modern tracking technologies can protect birds and support wind farm permitting

December 10, 2018 Adam Gravel

Stantec’s Creativity & Innovation Program is backing industry research into a new approach to monitor peregrine falcon migration patterns

 

A group of intrepid trekkers rises and sets out for a day in the remote New Hampshire countryside. With the sky still dark and their headlamps shining, they trudge through rough terrain with packs that weigh more than 50 pounds each. But these folks aren’t just hobby hikers.

The project team members rappelled down cliff faces, and hung more than 100 feet in the air, to reach peregrine falcon nests.


Wildlife biologist Adam Gravel (Topsham, Maine), his Stantec teammates, and their research partners from New Hampshire Audubon (NHA) and the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) carry specialized climbing, trapping, and tagging gear in their bags. Their aim? To learn more about—and contribute to the protection and conservation of—New Hampshire’s breeding peregrine falcon population.

The group’s journey—initiated as part of our support to a renewable energy client that recently built a wind farm in the area—doesn’t end after their hike. Several of them then rappel down cliff faces and, while hanging more than 100 feet in the air, execute an elaborate symphony of movements to remove live eggs from nests, lure adult peregrines back with wooden decoy eggs, and tag the birds with solar-powered transmitters that will monitor their travels. Finally, the team gently returns the eggs back into the care of their parents.

 

A mother falcon with her fledglings, as captured by our project team’s cameras.

 

_q_“The more we learn about the world around us, and the animals we share it with, the better able we are to manage for coexistence.”_q_

Adam explains the process involves state and federal agency approval, precise monitoring—provided by NHA and its team of volunteers—to time activities around the seasonal incubation period, and specialized handling techniques and tracking technology, provided by BRI. It takes weeks of planning to tag just one peregrine.

The work was worth it when the team uncovered new information about peregrine falcons’ migratory patterns—information that helped advance the peregrine knowledge base in New Hampshire, and may help with future management concerns.

Reducing the impact of industry

This effort had all started several years earlier. Prior to construction and operation of the wind farm, our client—the project owner—hired Stantec to conduct a presence/absence survey for falcons on the site, which was located between two active peregrine nests. For that visual survey, Stantec partnered with NHA. Adam and his teammates traveled along old, rutted skidder trails to watch for peregrine falcons on a nearby ridgeline, while biologists from NHA hiked steep terrain to get to the peregrine falcons’ nest sites. Their goal was to document the falcons’ use of the proposed wind project area. Over the course of 20 days of surveys, the team members had their eyes on the sky, ready to communicate the birds’ movements via walkie talkies and cell phones.

The team learned the falcons’ use of the proposed project area was low, and regulators approved the project to be built. But there was a condition: the preconstruction surveys would have to be replicated or improved upon for three years. This opportunity—to improve upon the survey—was important because the team recognized the initial visual survey conclusions were inherently limited to the times of observation and didn’t provide information about the birds’ location when out of view of the stationary observers.

”We wondered where the birds spent their winters, what migration routes they took to get there, and more,” said Chris Martin, a conservation biologist for NHA.

Growing our understanding

As a result of this desire to improve upon the monitoring methodology, Stantec and NHA began to consider individual tracking technologies. It was then that our team grew to include BRI—an organization that has extensive experience tracking a range of wildlife. Together, the team members fitted the adult falcons with 10-gram satellite transmitters, while the fledglings were tagged with colored leg bands. That’s when things got really interesting.

“Modern tracking technologies enable researchers to learn about animal behavior and movements in a way that was previously unimaginable,” says BRI program director Chris DeSorbo.

The transmitters showed the falcons travelled up to 340 miles, with some flying to Pennsylvania, New York, and even Canada during the autumn months. 

“We knew the local peregrines weren’t frequently using the wind farm site from our earlier studies, but the transmitters gave us a broader understanding of seasonal changes in movements,” said Adam. “They showed us the peregrines left New Hampshire in the winter. And this made us wonder what other potential risks the falcons might encounter as they travel south.”

The data also made the project team wonder how the migratory patterns of rural peregrine falcons might differ from urban peregrine falcons, which nest on tall buildings or other man-made structures rather than cliffs.

Adding to the body of knowledge on birds

Following the three years of permit-required studies—and with funding from Stantec’s Greenlight Program, which financially supports employees’ good ideas—the project team was able increase its sample size and its geographic reach. They did this by tagging and tracking peregrine falcons near Bellows Falls, Vermont, as well as from an urban nest in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to gather an additional three years of data.

The findings confirmed a hypothesis the team had formed earlier: urban peregrines didn’t migrate as far as the rural ones, likely due to a steady, local food source that includes other city-dwelling species such as the common pigeon or European starlings. This difference helps to explain the longer migratory movements of rural peregrine falcons, and also suggests that companies and regulators need to take a range of additional considerations into account when they develop and review projects alongside falcon habitats.

“That was the advantage of this study,” says Adam. “We not only gained valuable information for the project, but learned so much that may help us to think differently about the conservation of this species.”

Coming full circle

For Adam, this project represented an important milestone in his career as a wildlife biologist. At the age of 10, he’d been asked to select an endangered species for a school assignment—and he had chosen the peregrine falcon. At the time, the North American peregrine was nearing extinction; its numbers had dwindled dangerously low due to wide-spread use of the now-banned pesticide, DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane).

Now, the peregrine has bounced back; in fact, it’s considered the world’s most widespread raptor, inhabiting regions from arctic tundras to the tropics. And the work carried out by Adam, his Stantec teammates, NHA, BRI, and industry partners has played its own small part in the continued success of the species Adam first took an interest in during his school days.

“The information we’ve gathered—from what started as a simple site survey—is astounding,” said Adam, who is now working with his research partners to share their findings in industry and research publications. “The more we learn about the world around us, and the animals we share it with, the better able we are to manage for coexistence.”

Adam would like to extend a resounding thank you to Chris Martin at NHA and his team of volunteers that tirelessly work to monitor and protect New Hampshire’s peregrine falcons, and for their long cold days in the field monitoring nesting status to help us accurately time capture attempts. Also, a resounding thank you to BRI, which has the expertise and permits to capture adult peregrine falcons on their nests in remote cliff sites in New Hampshire, and safely fit them with transmitters. Their dedication, professionalism, and knowledge helped make capture, transmitter deployment, and data analysis a huge success. This is a great example of a successful collaboration of researchers from the consulting and non-profit sectors coming together to add to the current knowledge base of a species. 

About this article

This article is part of an ongoing series focusing on the value Stantec’s Greenlight program brings to clients, communities, and employees. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests annually to fund employee ideas that benefit our clients, community, and Company. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which celebrates and encourages creativity and innovation at work and in our work. Check back soon for another story in our Greenlight series.

 

About the Author

Adam Gravel

As an avid outdoorsman and a wildlife biologist, Adam spends virtually all of his time focused on nature. In particular, he is currently committing his expertise to using cutting-edge science to predict and document the impacts of development projects on birds, bats and other wildlife.

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