North America’s northern gannets breed in southern Canada, zipping down the coast at speeds of up to 100 km per hour to overwinter at sea from New England to the Gulf of Mexico.
And they’re set on a high-speed collision course for some 17 offshore wind sites in development from Cape Cod in the north to North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the south, according to an article in the spring edition of Audubon magazine.
Though the massive structures are an obstacle for all birds migrating along the coast, scientists are worried that gannets may be especially vulnerable. They tend to look at the ocean below as they migrate, rather than on obstacles in front of them, while also preferring to fly at the same height as a turbine’s rotor sweep zone.
At the same time, studies have shown that while some gannets will forage amid turbines, most tend to avoid them altogether. “It seems counterintuitive that gannets could be at both collision and displacement risks,” said wildlife biologist Shilo Felton, field manager for Audubon’s Clean Energy Initiative, “but research suggests it’s true.”
Still, scientists worry that climate change, and its impacts on the gannets’ food supply and habitat, is an even greater risk than the turbines. “We have such a hard time grasping how big a problem climate change is that it’s sometimes easier to focus on the immediate risk of a structure in the water,” Felton says. “These birds are going to lose all of their habitat if the planet keeps warming. They need clean energy, but they are going to be threatened by it. The best we can do is minimize that threat.”