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California Wind Project Threatens Thousands of Birds

California Wind Project Threatens Thousands of Birds

Defenders of Wildlife

Conservation groups told the Kern County Board of Supervisors Oct. 21 that a large-scale wind-energy project proposed for the southern Sierra Nevada needs to go back to the drawing board and be redesigned to avoid risks to endangered California condors, golden eagles and other rare bird species. The groups filed a legal challenge in Kern County Superior Court seeking to reopen the environmental review for the 100-plus-turbine wind project approved by the county last month.

“This wind project highlights the urgent need for a smart-from-the-start renewable energy strategy that guides development away from sensitive wildlife habitat to places with the lowest chance for conflicts,” said Kim Delfino with Defenders of Wildlife. “The proposed site is in an important bird migration corridor and isn’t an ideal place for large-scale wind energy, as evidenced by the impacts nearby wind projects have already had on imperiled birds. Despite our inability to reach an agreement with NextEra Energy, we are open to working with the company to reconfigure the project to minimize harm to sensitive wildlife. With changes, we believe the project can move forward.”

The conservation groups remain hopeful that the project can be redesigned to avoid the most sensitive areas, greatly reduce the risk to California condors and golden eagles, and provide enhanced mitigation measures such as requiring the use of radar to monitor for incoming flocks of birds so that turbines can be shut down in time to avoid massive collisions. The groups have met several times with the developer prior to filing the lawsuit, but have yet to resolve these concerns.

“We need more clean energy from well-planned and carefully sited renewable energy projects that both utilize proven technology and avoid harm to sensitive wildlife and their habitat,” said Barbara Boyle with the Sierra Club. “Unfortunately, the North Sky River wind project does not meet these requirements. It unnecessarily presents a significant threat to endangered and sensitive species, including the California condor, golden eagle, southwestern willow flycatcher and sensitive bat species.”

The project consists of two components—North Sky River, by NextEra Energy, and the much smaller Jawbone project, by a private landowner. The project area is in the middle of a flyway regularly traversed by migratory birds. California condors were also documented flying near the project site this summer.

“There’s plenty of room in the state for both wind projects and the California condor to thrive,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But if condors and wind turbines are going to coexist, those turbines need to be sited carefully and measures have to be taken to minimize the risk that condors will be killed. Unfortunately, this project fails to do that.”

The proposed project is directly north of the Pine Tree Wind project, which is under federal investigation for killing at least six legally protected golden eagles. More than 50 sightings of golden eagles were made, and some 15 golden eagle nests found, within 10 miles of the North Sky site during an environmental review of the project. The alarming potential for impacts to rare and endangered species prompted warnings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game in letters to the county supervisors.

The Fish and Wildlife Service wrote: “The first full year of fatality monitoring [for the Pine Tree Wind project] resulted in an estimated 1,595 fatalities per year, which per megawatt (11.8 fatalities/megawatt) is among the highest fatality rates being recorded in the nation…it’s reasonable to estimate that the proposed project would have avian fatality rates equal to or greater than those observed at the adjacent Pine Tree Wind Facility.”

Kern County officials approved the project despite the warnings from wildlife agencies and conservation groups, allowing the project to move forward without having to undertake sufficient conservation measures to offset or minimize impacts on wildlife.

For more information, click here.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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