Richard and Mark atop the Monhegan Lighthouse in late September (Photo by Don Reimer)
Richard and Mark atop the Monhegan Lighthouse in late September (Photo by Don Reimer)

About a year ago, ornithologist Dr. Richard Podolsky and his assistant Mark DiGirolamo began monthly bird surveys on Monhegan Island to help determine what effects, if any, a proposed wind turbine would have on migratory and resident birds moving across the crest of the island. Faced with rising fuel costs and the logistics of transporting quantities of diesel fuel to the island's electrical generator, island residents are now considering the option of sustainable, renewable wind power sources.

Under terms of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act signed by Canada and the U.S., migratory birds are protected from intentional harm or harassment. With exceptions made for seasonal game species, the act protects all of the common songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and birds of prey. Environmental impact studies are required before significant bird habitat is altered in substantial or commercial ways. The intent of these site studies is to place tower structures in areas with the least impact on birdlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife review the completed data and share in the final decisions about specific tower sites.

Podolsky and DiGirolamo have done identical bird surveys for Vinalhaven's larger wind power project, worked out at sea on Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts and in other parts of the country. Their specific task is to gather scientific data on the pattern of bird movements on the island. At various seasons of the year surveys are conducted at different intervals. During the winter months (a time of low or limited bird activity) surveys are conducted only a couple of times per month; at the peak of spring and fall migration periods, surveys are conducted up to 12 days per month.

The survey uses several protocol techniques. Birds are counted by species type as they pass within the "footprint" of the proposed wind tower zone (a circle around the lighthouse extending out several hundred feet in all directions). The estimated height of each bird is noted by general categories (100 to 200 feet, etc.) and the direction of their flight is recorded. The survey also includes six listening points around the lighthouse area, where the observers record all bird activity. Prior to each survey session, the pair checks for any dead birds at the bases of the lighthouse and the nearby communication tower. To date, a single Northern Flicker is the only bird mortality discovered. A remote sensing device attached to the lighthouse's upper rim also detects the ultra-high-frequency squeaks emitted by foraging bats.

From the high vantage of our lighthouse observation post, we watched as three distant Peregrine Falcons kited in the strong updrafts above Black Head at the island's northeastern end. Hanging almost motionless in the wind, one falcon suddenly dropped and broke into swift powered flight, taking a brief potshot at a flustered, flapping crow. Although raptors sometimes fly near the lighthouse, their typical patterns of movement tend to be oriented along the length of the island. Gulls are more likely to fly across the island, traversing two lower valley areas. With a broad smile, Podolsky said, "I feel very fortunate to be paid to count birds."