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Three‐dimensional tracking of a wide‐ranging marine predator: flight heights and vulnerability to offshore wind farms

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A large increase in offshore wind turbine capacity is anticipated within the next decade, raising concerns about possible adverse impacts on birds as a result of collision risk. Birds’ flight heights greatly influence this risk, yet height estimates are currently available only using methods such as radar‐ or ship‐based observations over limited areas. Bird‐borne data‐loggers have the potential to provide improved estimates of collision risk and here, we used data from Global Position System (GPS)‐loggers and barometric pressure loggers to track the three‐dimensional movements of northern gannets rearing chicks at a large colony in south‐east Scotland (Bass Rock), located <50 km from several major wind farm developments with recent planning consent. We estimated the foraging ranges and densities of birds at sea, their flight heights during different activities and the spatial variation in height during trips. We then used these data in collision‐risk models to explore how the use of different methods to determine flight height affects the predicted risk of birds colliding with turbines. Gannets foraged in and around planned wind farm sites. The probability of flying at collision‐risk height was low during commuting between colonies and foraging areas (median height 12 m) but was greater during periods of active foraging (median height 27 m), and we estimated that ˜1500 breeding adults from Bass Rock could be killed by collision with wind turbines at two planned sites in the Firth of Forth region each year. This is up to 12 times greater than the potential mortality predicted using other available flight‐height estimates. Synthesis and applications. The use of conventional flight‐height estimation techniques resulted in large underestimates of the numbers of birds at risk of colliding with wind turbines. Hence, we recommend using GPS and barometric tracking to derive activity‐specific and spatially explicit flight heights and collision risks. Our predictions of potential mortality approached levels at which long‐term population viability could be threatened, highlighting a need for further data to refine estimates of collision risks and sustainable mortality thresholds. We also advocate raising the minimum permitted clearance of turbine blades at sites with high potential collision risk from 22 to 30 m above sea level.
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Keywords: Morus bassanus; climate change; collision risk; environmental impact; foraging; offshore renewables; population model; wildlife telemetry

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2015

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