The baseline data the scientists collect will be used when government officials and offshore wind farm developers make decisions about where to site wind turbines. It will also be used to assess how the birds’ movements are affected once the turbines are constructed.
“We’re trying to identify hot spots of bird use, the places you wouldn’t want to put the wind farms,” said Scott McWilliams, a URI professor of natural resources science. “Studies in Western Europe have shown that one of the major effects of wind farms is to displace birds from the location of the wind farm.”
“We want to minimize the potential impact of offshore wind turbines on our wintering ducks,” said RIDEM biologist Jay Osenkowski. “This telemetry project will help us track their movements around Rhode Island waters and identify the locations of their key foraging habitat.”
The biologists are focusing their efforts on common eider, a large sea duck that is abundant along the Rhode Island coast in winter and which nest along the coast of Maine and Canada. Last year the scientists conducted a similar study of black scoters, another sea duck for which Rhode Island provides important wintering habitat.
Well before dawn in November and December, McWilliams and Osenkowski, along with URI Professor Peter Paton, URI graduate student Josh Beuth, and research associates and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, set up a series of long nets on floats in locations the birds are known to visit.
“We set the nets up in the dark, put decoys around the nets, and hope that we picked the right spot based on previous scouting efforts,” explained McWilliams. “There’s usually a lot of action early in the morning before the birds can see the nets well.”
Any male eiders the scientists captured were released. Adult females were brought to shore where veterinarian Glenn Olsen from the U.S. Geological Survey implanted the small satellite transmitter in their abdominal cavity. After a short recovery period, the ducks were released back where they were captured.
“Female ducks have all the power,” said Paton. “They’re the ones who pick the nest site, and the males follow them there. That’s why we are only tracking females. Their survival is what is important when monitoring populations.”
The biologists implanted satellite transmitters in 26 female eiders. The birds’ daily movements will be monitored throughout the winter, and data about migratory movements, stopover sites, and breeding territories will also be collected.
“We’ll get information about key areas that eiders like in Rhode Island and wherever else they travel,” McWilliams said. “You can’t get this information without this kind of study. It’s really important when it comes to managing populations of these birds.”
The data the scientists collect from the ducks will then be analyzed and factored into offshore wind turbine siting decisions. The data will also be combined with similar information collected in other locations along the East Coast to gain a better understanding of sea duck ecology.
The research is conducted in partnership with the Sea Duck Joint Venture, a collaboration of wildlife conservation agencies in the U.S. and Canada that includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, the Pacific and Atlantic Flyway Councils, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Ducks Unlimited.