August 15, 2012

Migrating songbird elevated on 'watch' list

The Bicknell’s thrush, which can impede wind project plans, moves closer to possible U.S. protection.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A bird that ornithologists, birders and wind-power opponents say is at risk from developments ranging from mountaintop wind turbines to ski resorts could get federal protection.

click image to enlarge

Juan Klavins fills a glass capillary tube with blood to be tested for mercury from a Bicknell’s thrush captured in New York. A federal agency says the songbird, which breeds atop mountain peaks in Maine and the Northeast, has one of the most limited breeding and wintering ranges of any bird in North America.

2006 Associated Press file

click image to enlarge

Bicknell's thrush

U.S. Agriculture Department photo

TO LISTEN to the Bicknell's thrush's typical voice and view a map of its habitats, click here.

The Bicknell's thrush – a medium-sized migrating songbird – has cleared the first stage of a long route that could lead to it being declared a threatened or endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday.

At issue is the bird's habitat as much as its numbers, because the terrain that the Bicknell's thrush favors is almost exactly the same as that sought by wind-energy companies, foresters and tourism developers.

Even before Tuesday's announcement, Maine conservationists and wind-power critics had raised concerns about the possible negative impacts of wind-power projects on habitat used by the Bicknell's thrush. There currently are 195 turbines built or under contract in Maine, representing an investment of nearly a billion dollars, according to the website windforme.org.

"Bicknell's thrushes were a big issue" at the 44-turbine Kibby Mountain and Redington Farm/Black Nubble wind projects, said Chris O'Neil, a Portland lobbyist and volunteer president of Friends of Maine Mountains, which opposes the proliferation of wind power in the state.

He expects that the bird's fate will continue to play a role in the continuing controversy over wind projects in Maine, because such projects can pose "a real threat ... that you ruin their habitat to a detrimental degree."

"People pooh-pooh a silly little bird," O'Neil said. But Americans have a long tradition of showing that they "take seriously rendering a species extinct."

It is still a long way to go before the bird could be listed as threatened or endangered, officials said. The first stage – an internal evaluation of the information that the Fish and Wildlife Service already has on the Bicknell's thrush – has been completed.

Now the agency will conduct an external review, consulting with scientists, academics, birding experts and other interested parties to try to figure out how imperiled the bird is and what protective status it might require to ensure it isn't further depleted or driven extinct.

"The Bicknell's thrush has one of the most limited breeding ranges of any bird on the continent, nesting at the highest elevations in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont," the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in its announcement Tuesday. Across their range, they breed in very specific habitat – stunted spruce and balsam fir forests in the northernmost and higher elevations of New England – including Maine – and southern Canada, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The thrush's habitat "obviously collides with wind power," said state Rep. Bob Duchesne, D-Hudson, a member of the board of trustees of the Maine Audubon Society and creator of Maine Birding Trails, a birding guide.

But Fish and Wildlife Service officials said no one should draw any conclusions at this stage.

"It's very early" in the process, and it's not clear how long the external review will take, said Meagan Racey, spokeswoman for the Northeast Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The review is likely to take more than a year to complete, because there are numerous similar assessments on other species to be conducted, and this one is not at the top of the heap.

However, Racey said, the Bicknell's thrush "is a rare bird of huge interest (and) a priority in the international birding community."

"Let's let the science dictate the policy," said Jeremy Payne, executive director of Maine Renewable Energy, a nonprofit industry association in Augusta. "More analysis sounds OK."

Payne pointed out, however, that climate change is also listed as a threat to the Bicknell's thrush. It would be "very ironic," he said, if the bird ultimately were listed as threatened or endangered and that status had the effect of "interrupting, delaying or derailing" alternative-energy projects.

(Continued on page 2)

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