Topography drives migratory flight altitude of golden eagles: implications for on-shore wind energy development


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  1. Wind power is a fast-growing industry with broad potential to impact volant wildlife. Flight altitude is a key determinant of the risk to wildlife from modern horizontal-axis wind turbines, which typically have a rotor-swept zone of 50–150 m above the ground.
  2. We used altitudinal GPS data collected from golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos tracked using satellite telemetry to evaluate the potential impacts of wind turbines on eagles and other raptors along migratory routes. Eagle movements during migration were classified as local (1–5 km h−1) or migratory (>10 km h−1) and were characterized based on the type of terrain over which each bird was flying, and the bird's distance from wind resources preferred for energy development.
  3. Birds engaged in local movements turned more frequently and flew at lower altitude than during active migration. This flight behaviour potentially exposes them to greater risk of collision with turbines than when engaged in longer-distance movements.
  4. Eagles flew at relatively lower altitude over steep slopes and cliffs (sites where orographic lift can develop) than over flats and gentle slopes (sites where thermal lift is more likely).
  5. Eagles predominantly flew near to wind resources preferred by energy developers, and locally moving eagles flew closer to those wind resources with greater frequency than eagles in active migration.
  6. Synthesis and applications. Our research outlines the general effects of topography on raptor flight altitude and demonstrates how topography can interact with raptor migration behaviour to drive a potential human–wildlife conflict resulting from wind energy development. Management of risk to migratory species from industrial-scale wind turbines should consider the behavioural differences between both locally moving and actively migrating individuals. Additionally, risk assessment for wind energy–wildlife interactions should incorporate the consequences of topography on the flight altitude of potentially impacted wildlife.