Bird migration studies and potential collision risk with offshore wind turbines


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Worldwide, Germany is the leading country in the use of wind energy. Since sites for the erection of wind turbines became scarce on land, ambitious plans for the offshore regions have arisen. There have been applications for 33 sites within the German Exclusive Economic Zone in the North and Baltic Seas, some of which entail several hundred individual turbines. Eleven pilot projects are approved, and two others rejected. As several hundred million birds cross the North and Baltic Seas at least twice every year, the Offshore Installations Ordinance says that licensing will not be given if the obstacles jeopardize bird migration. Birds are potentially endangered by offshore wind farms through collisions, barrier effects and habitat loss. To judge these potential risks, the occurrence of birds in space and time as well as details on their behaviour in general (migration, influence of weather) and their behaviour when facing wind farms (flight distances, evasive movements, influence of light, collision risk) need to be determined. Furthermore, the influences of construction and maintenance works must be considered. Since 2003, we have investigated year-round bird migration over the North Sea with regard to offshore wind farms. The main objectives were to assess data on the aforementioned aspects of bird migration over sea. These data can contribute to, for example, estimations of collision risks at offshore wind farms, the possible impacts on bird populations and possible mitigation measures. Results from measurements with different techniques, including radar, thermal imaging, and visual and acoustic observations, were compiled. The findings confirm that large numbers of diurnal and nocturnal migrants cross the German Bight. Migration was observed all year round but with considerable variation of intensity, time, altitude and species, depending on season and weather conditions. Almost half of the birds fly at ‘dangerous’ altitudes with regard to future wind farms. In addition, the number of individuals in reverse migration is considerable, which increases the risk of collision. We demonstrated that, especially under poor visibility, terrestrial birds are attracted by illuminated offshore obstacles and that some species collide in large numbers. Passerines are most frequently involved in collisions. Even if the findings regarding collisions at a research platform cannot be directly applied to offshore wind farms, they do show that on a few nights per year a large number of avian interactions at offshore plants can be expected, especially in view of the number and planned area of projected wind farms. We suggest abandonment of wind farms in zones with dense migration, turning off turbines on nights predicted to have adverse weather and high migration intensity, and actions to make wind turbines more recognizable to birds, including modification of the illumination to intermittent rather than continuous light, as the most appropriate mitigation measures. We further conclude that a combination of methods is necessary to describe the complex patterns of migration over the sea. The recordings are to be continued with the aim of refining the results presented here, and of developing a model for ‘forecasting’ bird migration over the German Bight. We expect more information on avoidance behaviour and collisions after the construction of a pilot wind park.