“Tar” Sands Duck Deaths Lead to Advances in Avian Protection

Syncrude 2008 ‘duck deaths’ resulted in a creative sentence and judgement that is financing innovative avian monitoring and protection research in the oil sands.
Can migratory birds survive a landing on a “tar” sands tailings pond? Yes. Do birds see magnetic fields? Apparently yes. Can advanced marine radar track and drive an on-demand bird deterrent system to scare wildbirds away from tailings ponds? Yes.

High-tech marine radar, advanced photographic technologies and wireless transmission may be changing the face of avian monitoring in the oil sands of northern Alberta, according to University of Alberta professor of biological sciences, Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair.

In a panel presentation at the U of A’s Calgary Centre Dr. St. Clair began by explaining the importance of the Peace-Athabasca river delta to migrating birds.

Millions of birds, originating from 4 migratory flyways across North America, converge on the Peace/Athabasca delta – first using it as a staging area to breed – then in the fall returning prior to flying out.

Yet it is all within about 200 kilometres of oil sands industrial activity.

Advances in the fields of avian deterrents and monitoring received an unexpected boost with the much publicized Syncrude tailings pond bird deaths in 2008. The court decreed a large fine and a creative sentence – to develop means to prevent bird deaths – and that became a source of funding for some of Dr. St. Clair’s work.

Dr. St. Clair noted that from the early days of oil sands development, pioneer scientists/biologists extrapolated that tailings ponds might pose a problem to migrating birds, offering them an apparently inviting, but potentially lethal place to land.

From the early days, various types of deterrents were considered or deployed. In 1978, the US invented the acoustic cannon; in 1980 Boag and Lewis developed semi-active human effigies; later in 1984 the Phoenix Wailer was developed.

All these deterrents have problems. Some sound cannons – LRADs – are so loud (156 decibels) that birds can die from the shock of the noise. Human effigies quickly become a boring part of the landscape; the birds habituate to them. Phoenix Wailers offer a combination of sound, light, and bird call playbacks and timed activation.

But in 2005 Darrell Martindale proposed a system that activates only when birds approach. A colleague of Dr. St. Clair’s, Rob Ronconi, originated a concept that uses marine radar to activate deterrents when flocks are detected. With the financial support of the duck deaths court order, Dr. St. Clair and colleagues were able to develop a highly workable prototype.

Another challenge in the oil sands is that of bird monitoring and the human element. With about 40 very remote ponds, some as large as 11 square kilometers, and the requirement for early morning or late evening bird counts, the dangers to human monitors is high and the level of precision is challenging.

Again, with Syncrude funding, Dr. St. Clair’s team (which included industry, government and academic specialists) successfully developed an automated, photographic bird monitoring system with extremely high levels of precision and species identification.

The systems uses photographic magnification of 70X Zeiss optical zoom lenses, a laser range finder, various sighting scopes, a gigapan, electronic data recording and wireless technology to transmit images and results from various locations. It’s all off-the-shelf equipment. It works. And may one day replace human monitors.

In Alberta, avian specialists are working on research related to migratory birds. Part of Dr. St. Clair’s work related to monitoring is challenged by the human difficulty in determining whether a bird is a Greater Scaup …or a Lesser Scaup. To the human eye, there is very little difference. In terms of the automated photographic monitoring system, there was some improvement over human monitoring.

But new research from Europe proved to be even more helpful. The European research assessed how birds see the world – apparently very differently from humans. They see mostly in the Ultra Violet light spectrum. Birds apparently have four different cones in their eyes, unlike humans. When migrating at night, they need to see the short end of the light spectrum.

On the upside, birds use their “light” vision in mate selection. Dr. St. Clair illustrated the “bird’s eye” difference between two similar species; using a polarized filter, birds that appear very similar to the human eye, are suddenly dramatically different. So that’s how birds do it!

Birds apparently “see” the earth’s magnetic field, seeing a visual representation of the strongest magnetic pulse. They use the UV spectrum at sunrise and sunset perpendicular to the light as a means of navigation.

However, the human use of red lights in installations, and blue colored lights at industrial operations, confuses the birds – either attracting them to human-made dangers, or confusing them – as in urban centers where thousands of small birds crash into skyscrapers every night.

Dr. St. Clair illustrated an offshore drill rig that was outfitted with experimental green lights, and this greatly reduced the attraction to birds. Similar light spectrum applications may help keep protect birds in the area of oil sands operations – likewise this leading edge avian/oil sands research can be applied to industrial operations around the world.

Dr. St. Clair was enthusiastic about the support and cooperation her work had received from oil sands industry. The next steps include finding standardized methods and optimal solutions to apply this research and to take the prototypes from the test site to wide-spread operation in the field.

Originally published on Yahoo Contributor.

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