In the News: 484 Blackpoll Warblers Die at Wind Farm


Immature Blackpoll Warbler (Photo by Jeffrey A. Gordon)

Over the past day or so, birding listservs have been abuzz over what is being described as a "kill" of at least 484 Blackpoll Warblers  at a newly-dedicated wind turbine facility on Laurel Mountain in West Virginia. Although this story didn't make the six o'clock news, the impact of wind turbines on birds is a front burner topic among birders, so any news about hundreds of birds dying at a wind farm is sure to cause a stir.

Those who didn't take the time to read the fine print in the various online posts might presume that the Blackpolls killed at Laurel Mountain roughly two weeks ago succumbed as a result of flying into the turbines during nocturnal migrations.  However, it appears that turbine collisions were not to blame for these bird deaths. Instead, most of the Blackpolls appear to have died from crashing into an adjoining substation structure where lights were left on overnight ( 


To appreciate the size of these wind turbines, compare them to the car on the dirt road in the foreground. (Photo source:

While the impacts of wind farms on birds are not fully quantified, it is well-established that bright lights attract and disorient birds migrating nocturnally, particular on foggy nights (Jones and Francis 2003). Birds--mostly passerines--often collide with the heavily-lit structures. During peak migrations hundreds  (sometimes thousands) of birds may perish at a single site in a single night. Lighthouses, high-rise buildings, and radio/TV towers have historically caused the bulk this avian mortality. In this case lights were inadvertently left on overnight at the Laurel Mountain facility. 


This NASA image shows the abundance of man-made light pollution that exists in heavily-populated and developed sections of the globe (Image source: 

The Laurel Mountain project is situated along a long north-south running ridge in the Alleghany Mountains. During Fall migration southbound passerines and raptors funnel south along this section of the Appalachian Mountain Range. We at BirdFellow are concerned about any large tower or structure constructed along this or any migration corridor and doubly concerned when such projects involve bright lighting. We applaud those engaged in the ongoing study of impacts of wind energy generation and light pollution on bird populations. Hopefully, continued research will allow  us to more responsibly tap into wind energy while simultaneously protecting birds and other wildlife from the apparent dangers that accompany wind farm development. 

The American Bird Conservancy offered this news release today: 

If you are interested in learning more about the bird-related impacts of light pollution and wind farms we recommend the following sources.

Light Pollution:

Wind Farms:

Literature Cited:

Jones, J. and Francis, C.M. 2003. The effects of light characteristics on avian mortality at lighthouses. Journal of Avian Biology. 34:328-333.  Online at:

Review: "The Big Year"


Sourced online at:

I'll start by acknowledging that this is my first, and perhaps last movie review. On the recommendation of American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon, I went to see "The Big Year" with several birding friends. We started the evening by hosting a BYOI (bring your own ingredients) homemade pizza dinner. Delicious pizzas and fabulous company made the evening a success before we ever left for the theater.

Our group included three birding couples and my daughter Lilly, who has endured 20 years of having a fanatical birding parent. All of us had seen trailers for this film and heard informal reviews from others who had already seen it, thus we knew to rein in our expectations.

If you go to this movie hoping for an introspective look at the culture of birding and those who engage in doing big years, you are likely to be disappointed. The stars occupying the leading roles--Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson--are all comedic actors, thus there were some expected episodes aimed at getting laughs. This movie was not made by birders and it is clear that consultations with birding experts were limited.

The plot fully abandoned reality with the rather random discovery of a Great Spotted Woodpecker somewhere in Oregon (no North American records away from Alaska) and a Pink-footed Goose supposedly wintering by itself in a montane puddle. Both of these twists brought groans from our group. The simultaneous convergence of flying birds and a man swarm of birders on a Gulf Coast woodland in the "fallout" scene (shown in trailers) was equally unrealistic. In that same scene Wilson's "Kenny Bostick" frenetically runs about as he ticks off species. Aside from sprinting to get a better view of a flying bird, or moving quickly to get to where a rare bird is known to be stationed, I've never seen birders behave in this manner.

If you go to this movie expecting to laugh and to be entertained, chances are you'll come away  satisfied. On some level, the triumvirate of primary characters were all representative of birding personalities that one might encounter. Jack Black's "Brad Harris" was the most engaging and easiest to root for. He traveled and ate on the cheap and maxed out multiple credit cards (including his mother's) in a quest to give meaning to an otherwise unsatisfied existence. He seems to find more joy from birding than his counterparts. In my favorite scene, Harris reveals a bit of himself as he shares his affinity for the American Golden Plover with his dad, who is played by Brian Dennehy. 

Meanwhile, his competitors demonstrated no apparent limits to the depth of their pockets. Bostick, who was doing his second consecutive big year, supposedly owns a roofing company, but was not shown doing a single day's work during the movie. I found it hard to believe that a contracting business might survive or produce an income when the owner doesn't work for two years straight. Martin's well-healed "Stu Preissler," is chauffeured about in limos and various aircraft with his name on the side. A retiring corporate executive/owner, Preissler has worked and waited a lifetime to chase his big year dreams. His stable home life and spousal support are juxtaposed against Harris who is divorced and Bostick, who seemingly never sleeps in his own bed.

Ultimately, Harris and Preissler develop the sort of camaraderie and friendship that prevails in birding. Their mutual interest and shared pursuit-- knocking Bostick off of the top the listing mountain--washes away their differences in age and tax brackets. Initially unacknowledged competitors, they end up working together and rooting for one another. At the end of their big year efforts, both find peace and birding returns to being something they do and not who they are. As one who has done a big year (on a much smaller geographic scale), I could relate to their outcomes. The importance of the ultimate number of ticks quickly fades, while the journey and friendships developed along the way provide the enduring memories.

Given the sparse crowd at the opening weekend showing we attended, it would appear that even the star power of this cast is not enough to drive the masses to a movie about birding. A quick poll among our group rated this movie as about a "six" on a scale of one to ten, which approximates the three-star reviews (on a 1-5 star scale) coming from professional reviewers. As is often the case with actual birding, our evening was more about the company we shared it with than it was about the movie. 

Keeping the Streak Alive


Bob Lockett

In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner's character ("Crash Davis") offered up several memorable lines," including "respect the streak." Bob Lockett has been been doing just that for 48 years. Now 60 years of age, Bob has added at least one new ABA Area bird every year since 1963, when he was 12 years old.  Early on, keeping this streak intact probably wasn't too tough, but as one's lifelist for a geographic region grows there comes a point of diminishing returns.

Complicating matters, Bob and his wife Adrienne started a 26-month Peace Corps assignment in Jamaica in March 2009 and didn't return home to Portland, Oregon until May of this year. Good fortune kept Bob's streak alive in 2009 when a Slaty-backed Gull--his only ABA lifer that year--wintered (2008-09) along the Willamette River waterfront less than 20 minutes from his house.  The following year (2010) was spent entirely out of country except for a single trip  to Florida to visit Adrienne's mother. Realizing that a boat ride to the Dry Tortugas offered his best bet for new birds, Bob signed up for a Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) trip that netted five lifers. These included: Masked Booby, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, Brown Noddy and ironically, Black-whiskered Vireo, which according to Bob, is one of "most conspicuous" summering birds in Jamaica. Note that Jamaica lies outside of the ABA Area.

At the start of 2011, Bob's ABA Area list stood at an impressive 673 species, with no easy ticks on the horizon. The Locketts finally headed home to Portland, Oregon in mid-May, where they would be joined by Adrienne's mother (Eve), who came to Oregon for the Summer. With their wanderlust unsatisfied, Bob and Adrienne's stay in Portland would last a little more than four months before they were scheduled to depart on a four-month trip to Australia in mid-October. Looking at this schedule in advance, Bob wasn't finding many open dates where he might shoehorn in a targeted trip for one of the few resident North American birds that he still needs. He needed a rarity and soon!  Hopefully, it would be one that showed up close to home.

In mid-September, a hoped-for rare bird alert came. An adult Black-tailed Gull was discovered on Commencement Bay at Tacoma, Washington. Shep Thorp found it roosting on log booms along Marine View Dr. near the Port of Tacoma on Wednesday 14 September. There are four prior Washington records of Asian stray, including one (almost certainly the same individual) that roosted at this same location two years earlier. Bob and Adrienne got word of the discovery while visiting friends in Arcata, California. The following day (Thursday), they made the eight-hour drive home to Portland.


This shot of the adult Black-tailed Gull, taken on the day that we saw the bird (16 September 2011), shows the  black sub-terminal tail band, for which this bird is named, and the distinctive black and bright red bill tip. (Photo by Gregg Thompson)

On their way home, Adrienne called Shawneen Finnegan and asked if she and I might want to make a chase trip with them on Friday. We monitered "Tweeters" (the statewide birding listserv for Washington) and learned that the bird was seen again on Thursday, so plans were made for Bob and Adrienne to pick us up around 9AM on Friday morning. Shawneen had forgotten about a previous commitment with her own mother, so she was unable to join us. She was bummed about not getting to spend the day with Bob and Adrienne, but, fortunately, she had already seen Black-tailed Gull in the U.S.

Normally, we would have been on the road at "o'dark thirty" in order to be on site by the crack of dawn, but this bird was proving to be most reliable later in the day, so we opted for a more sane hour of departure. We made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Tacoma and readily found the log booms where the bird had been seen. When we arrived about noon, there were about 60 or so gulls on the logs, including a juvenile Franklin's Gull that had been around for a few days. We hung out for an hour or so as several other birders came and went, but there was no real turnover in the modest gathering of gulls. We could see that hundreds of gulls were feeding and loafing in channel and on the sandbars (low tide) at the mouth of Puyallup River a mile or so to the southeast across Commencement Bay. We surmised that as the day wore on and the tide came in many of these birds would end up on the log booms.

In this screen grab of the "My Locations" map I created at BirdFellow, the red pin drop marks the location where the Black-tailed Gull was being seen. The mouth of the Puyallup River is the second large channel from the bottom at southeast east corner of Commencement Bay. Huge numbers of gulls gather here, but there is no public access to this area (Port of Tacoma).

On the recommendation of Ryan Shaw, we decided to bird some other local spots and then return to the gull spot later in the day. We spent some time at Browns Point Lighthouse Park, where we saw a migrant Yellow Warbler and got some nice photos of young Bushtits. At about 3:00PM we returned to the Dick Gilmur overlook near the log booms. I was still digging my scope out of the trunk of the car when Bob announced that he was on the gull. I was happy for Bob that he got the satisfaction of finding it himself, rather than driving up to a group of birders with scopes already trained on the bird.

Over the next hour we shared the bird with about a dozen others. Though too far away for decent photos, both Bob and I took some just to record the moment. Thankfully, Shep Thorp ferried some photographers out in his small Zodiac and they cruised close enough to the roosting gull to get spectacular images. The photo of the Black-tailed Gull seen above was taken from Shep's boat by Gregg Thompson.

With "the streak" intact, the road-weary Locketts and I then made the return drive to Portland, where Shawneen prepared a celebratory dinner. Bob is not one prone to overly emotional displays, but I can report that despite the fatigue induced by being on the road for more than one-third of the preceding 36 hours, a contented smile never left his face that evening. He can now relax until January 1, 2012, when finding his next new ABA bird will once again come into focus.