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Wind turbines and fickled winds affect magnificent birds

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The osprey swooped down to the surface of the water in the Florida Everglades to snatch a large fish, and then flapped its strong wings to regain altitude.

That was not what impressed my wife and me the most. In flight, the bird used its talons to twist and turn the fish until its head and body were aligned to be aerodynamic. Don't ever try to tell me ospreys are not intelligent.

The first time we saw a bald eagle catch a fish, it was at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River in Maryland, just south of the Pennsylvania line. The national symbol did not seem to care if the fish was aerodynamically positioned in flight, but there is nothing more beautiful than a baldy in action.

The bald eagle was nearly wiped out by the pesticide DDT, which made eggshells too soft for chicks to survive. By the early 1970s, there was only one nesting pair left in all of New Jersey, and America banned DDT in the late 1970s. Also, it became a serious crime to kill a bald eagle without a permit, with up to a year in prison.

According to a story in The Morning Call on Friday, New Jersey had 25 nesting bald eagle pairs by the early 1980s, and in 2013 there were record numbers of bald eagle (148) and osprey (542) nesting sites. Pennsylvania had 94 bald eagle nests in 2013, and other stories said we had up to 123 in 2007.

Pennsylvania's most fantastic sightings of bald eagles and ospreys, however, are at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary near the juncture of Lehigh, Berks and Schuylkill counties. That is where thousands of migrating raptors can be seen at close range, especially when they head south in the fall.

Seasonal winds hit the side of Kittatinny Ridge (Blue Mountain), allowing the birds to coast for hundreds of miles through Pennsylvania on the updrafts.

Let's digress to recall another story in the paper, on Dec. 14, about the "danger of green energy." It said fluctuations in wind and sunshine result in fluctuations in the amount of electricity generated by wind and solar panel projects, causing stress and overloads for the power grid. "The grid was not built for renewables," said one expert.

I have other concerns about renewables, especially when it comes to what I and others have called the wind turbine "scam."

In 2010, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said federal subsidies for wind farms were "a taxpayer rip-off," and noted the Obama administration pushed $30 billion in such subsidies, 10 times as much as it would cost if nuclear power was similarly subsidized.

More recently, Forbes magazine said taxpayers are forced to give billions to wind turbine hucksters to prop up an "ineffective" industry, at a cost that "exceeds the wholesale price of power." In other words, turbines produce less electricity than represented by the value of subsidies.

Those hucksters, however, are notorious for making lavish "campaign contributions" to politicians, and wind power also is attractive to hand-wringing environmentalists, even though nuclear power plants are far less environmentally damaging.

As I have argued before, for wind turbines to match the output of one nuke plant on a plot the size of a small farm, it would require that a mile-wide swath be clear-cut atop Kittatinny Ridge for its entire 250-mile length in Pennsylvania.

The hucksters and their politician pals seem devoted to destroying every beautiful mountain as a way of making electricity that cannot pay for itself. You need only visit parts of Schuylkill County to see how far they have progressed in that atrocity.

Meanwhile, other news stories and official reports about wind turbines have focused on what they do to birds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service online site notes that the tips of some turbine blades twirl at almost 200 mph and rise as high as 656 feet in the air. No matter how smart a raptor is, that could be a problem.

A 2013 USFWS study said wind turbines kill 1.4 million birds and bats a year. As reported in The Morning Call last month, the hucksters do not have to worry about going to prison for killing bald eagles; the Obama administration gave them permission to kill all they want for 30 years. Previous permits were good for five years.

There are ways to reduce the danger to birds, including the erection of shields similar to the shields on electric fans, but they would cut into the hucksters' profits.

That brings us back to Hawk Mountain, where Laurie Goodrich, a senior monitoring biologist, did not sound as upbeat as the people in New Jersey. "We had sort of an off year," she told me. "For the osprey, it [the count of migrating birds] is below average."

She said the 10-year average for Hawk Mountain is 575 osprey and 248 bald eagles, although three years ago there were a record 406 baldies passing by. This past fall, it was only 390 osprey and 377 bald eagles.

Wind fluctuations, it seems, played as big a part in bird migrations as they play in power grid problems. "We had a lot of off-winds this [past] year, east winds," Goodrich said. Birds migrating in the fall need northwest winds to bounce off the mountainside. So we cannot yet blame the lower numbers of birds in Pennsylvania on wind turbines mowing them down.

Nevertheless, I personally feel that the value of all the zillion-dollar wind turbines in America does not come close to the value of one bald eagle, one osprey or one bat.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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