ABERDEEN - The dilemma 1,900 feet above the Pacific Ocean might resemble something from the tales of "Don Quixote": Can Merlin save the threatened murrelet from peril and halt the whirring blades of the giant wind machines?
At stake is one of the most quixotic conundrums in the balance between new green energy production and environmental regulation. And the outcome could well determine if Western Washington’s first major wind energy project to be funded with $122 million in federal clean energy bonds will ever be more than a tale of noble intentions.
On the one hand is a consortium of public utility districts trying to build a 32-turbine, 82-megawatt wind farm on a clear-cut ridge that once housed a Cold War-era radar installation. It would produce enough electricity for 18,000 homes.
On the other hand are several environmental groups, state and federal agencies trying to protect a threatened species of seabird, the marbled murrelet. They question whether Radar Ridge is too close to murrelet nesting areas.
Enter “Merlin,” a sophisticated radar and computer system that already is playing a major role in the proposed project, especially for the precious few remaining murrelets in the area. It’s seen as technology that can help with the problem of bird deaths at other wind farms already in operation.
“This might assist with wind development all over the country and all over the world for that matter,” said state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, a leading proponent of the Radar Ridge wind farm that would bring much needed jobs and clean energy to the district he represents. “The Merlin shows great promise from what I know about it.”
Merlin whirs like a helicopter above the Naselle River Valley and the Long Beach Peninsula off in the hazy distance to the west. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, this wizard performs magic for bird scientists and researchers. It can detect the slightest blip of an incoming seabird, bat, hawk, or virtually anything else that flies through the surrounding forest even insects.
Merlin is the latest and most-advanced way to measure what sort of bird population a particular area has. It also can be used by facilities such as airports or wind farms to ward off birds or possibly even shut an operation down if it detects the presence of certain incoming winged objects, such as the threatened marbled murrelets found along the Northwest coastline.
Adreas Smith, senior project manager for DeTect Inc., which developed the Merlin system, demonstrated the radar this month for a group that included state Department of Natural Resources officials, PUD members, project participants and others taking part in an ongoing environmental impact statement designed to determine how the wind farm might affect the fragile murrelet population in the area.
“Here you see a pair of murrelets following pretty much the same path they fly in virtually a straight line and they are really fast,” Smith said, pointing to two small dots moving across the computer screen. The time read 4:23 a.m.
Those murrelets, however, were not a pair from Radar Ridge. The radar previously was installed in the Lake Quinault area where the bird population is much larger so Smith could get a picture of what to look for and the Merlin’s software could be set up to hone in on the small and unique seabird, which feeds on the ocean all day but nests just inland in old-growth forest.
Working with an expert in the field, Thomas Hamer of Hamer Environmental in Mount Vernon, Smith developed a baseline data system of murrelet flying patterns from the 30 to 40 birds a day the radar picked up around Lake Quinault.
“We take all that knowledge and then customize our software to key in on murrelet targets,” Smith said. “Murrelets have a unique speed and they start flying an hour or more before daylight. We have to have a large enough set to take back to the lab so we can discriminate them from other targets.”
Hamer has studied the murrelets on Radar Ridge as part of an already completed environmental assessment for developer Energy Northwest, the Richland-based consortium of Public Utility Districts that includes the Grays Harbor PUD and City of Centralia among its partners.
Based on his initial findings and a peer review of his study, Energy Northwest concluded that “as a result of construction and operation of the Radar Ridge project, the number of marbled murrelets affected will not be significant.”
The findings estimated fewer than one murrelet per year would be killed by the operation, or that one murrelet would be hit by a rotor blade in every 18 months of operation.
But that assessment was not enough for what is now a more lengthy environmental impact statement process, and the Merlin was brought in to bolster Hamer’s original report and to see if it could be used to either shut down the 265-foot turbines as the birds approach or to send out a signal to ward them off in another direction.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently is in the midst of a 30-day scoping process to determine if it will issue an “incidental take” permit that would allow the wind farm to operate even if some murrelets might be killed in the process of operation. The Merlin could help reduce that impact.
“On the radar, we catch them both ways, coming and going to the nests,” Hamer noted of the system that will gather murrelet data on the ridge for the next two weeks. “Quite frankly, we don’t expect that many out here.”
“At most, we might get two per morning,” said Dave Kobus, project manager for Energy Northwest, who helped choose the site because he said it has little old-growth forest in the vicinity and sits high enough so that there are few other wildlife or environmental issues to contend with.
Hamer helps key in on the murrelets by their speed, small size, flight direction and by what is known as their reflectivity, or how they appear on radar. Using analog radar, they spot a blip on the screen that they try to verify through binoculars and then determine if it is a murrelet or another bird species.
The information then is logged into a computer with software developed by DeTect that can track the birds in real time and eventually can warn of birds that are approaching. The technology already is used by large airports with heavy bird populations to keep landing strips free of birds.
At Radar Ridge, the idea is to demonstrate that the Merlin can detect murrelets heading toward the wind turbines in time to throttle back the blades and minimize the danger.
“The slower the blades are turning by the time the birds reach here, the less the risk,” Hamer said.
“The Merlin can actually stop the turbines before a bird gets there,” Kobus adds.
The murrelets are one of the only seabirds to feed all day in the ocean and then fly inland to nest. They range from California to Alaska, and studies have estimated there are only 900 to 1,200 left on the southwest Washington coast during the height of breeding season.
“Marbled murrelets are robin-sized birds that spend their lives on the open ocean and only come to land to breed,” according to a position paper by the Willapa Hills Audubon Society. They fly inland to coastal forests to lay their eggs on mossy platforms on broad branches in the old growth, and fly fast (50-70 mph) at dusk or dawn to escape predators.
A pair produces one egg per mating season, which usually lasts from late April to late July. When they fly to and from their nests, the murrelets usually concentrate on the natural corridors formed by rivers or shoreline, and rarely fly as high as the ridgetop where the turbines would be located, according to Hamer.
“Most birds are flying lower than the 1,900-foot elevation of the ridge, and they are heading to the old-growth forest that is below it in the area to the north,” Hamer said. Most of that forest for nesting is at about the 70-foot elevation, he adds.
“I think that is why we get so few detected up here,” Hamer said.
Peter Harrison, a state DNR biologist, said the most critical time for the murrelet is after an egg hatches. During that time, an adult bird can make up to five visits a day to the nest to feed its chick. Then, when the chick is able to take flight, it must take a direct and unobstructed path to the ocean to feed in order to survive.
“It has been listed as threatened since 1992, primarily because of loss of nesting habitat due to logging,” Harrison said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife report on the area found there are 89 occupied murrelet nest sites within 30 miles of the project area and the northwest end of the property is within 1,800 feet of “the highest known marbled murrelet nesting use site in Washington.”
“While the project footprint does not appear to have any suitable nesting habitat for the species, marbled murrelets have been documented flying over the project location, likely commuting to and from nest sites,” according to Fish and Wildlife.