Several Griffon Vultures met a tragic end after colliding with wind turbines in Aragon, Spain. Renewable energy from wind farms is one of the solutions for the climate problem. Still, when such developments are poorly planned, they can be deadly to vultures and other biodiversity, especially if wind farms are constructed without proper environmental impact studies, and located either near breeding colonies, roosts or migratory pathways. Now that more wind farm developments are on the horizon in Aragon, and some of those situated near colonies of the globally endangered Egyptian Vulture, it is important that their impact on biodiversity is properly evaluated. The threat of collision to avian fauna can be critical, as shown by the latest vulture mortality, and it should be taken seriously!
Many vulture deaths in Aragon due to collision with wind turbines
In recent weeks, farmers and livestock breeders in Aragon noticed vulture carcasses scattered in wind farms and informed local organizations. Subsequently, Asociación Naturalista de Aragón (ANSAR) and colleagues carried out a search operation in the morning hours of Saturday, 26 December 2020, scouring the Monlora and La Sarda wind farms, and closely monitoring the surroundings of 13 wind turbines, which led to the discovery of many vulture carcasses. As it turns out, at least seven Griffon Vultures sadly lost their lives after colliding with wind turbines. One of the vultures was found alive, missing one of its wings. The majority of these carcasses were in good condition, suggesting that they died recently, except for one that was half-buried due to agricultural work. After these findings, the team immediately informed the competent authorities to collect the vultures, following the agreed national protocol.
Vultures are still dying with the New Year as ANSAR went on the field again on 3 January 2021 to inspect another wind farm in the same area called La Peña and found an additional nine dead vultures. One was a recent casualty yet, the other carcasses were abandoned in the field for months, without being registered and removed, as it is mandatory by law. Furthermore, in this wind farm, only two vulture deaths were officially recorded in the previous ten months, which is suspicious considering that conservationists found nine vulture carcasses from inspecting the site in one day. These findings suggest that the companies carrying environmental surveillance do not adequately monitor birds and bats' collision rate. It is important to note that the carcasses identified most likely represent only a fraction of the total casualties since the majority of these incidents are not detected.
Wind farms in Aragon pose a severe threat to vultures
The increasing development of wind farms in Aragon poses a severe threat to vultures, other birds of prey and bats that reside in the region or pass through during migration. Worryingly, the wind farms mentioned above were constructed even though important Griffon and Egyptian Vulture communal roosting sites have existed nearby for decades, with certain colonies housing more than 100 birds. The Egyptian Vulture is considered globally endangered, and today Spain hosts approximately 80% of the European population thanks to a lot of targeted conservation work. Now, another wind farm proposal "Monlora 3" in the Zaragoza region of Cinco Villas is underway, which poses a serious threat to birds of prey, with certain wind turbines less than 1 km away from the main Egyptian Vulture roost in the Ebro valley. An online petition launched to help prevent this development from taking place, with over 58,000 supporters already signing.
Such wind farm developments that pose a significant threat to biodiversity are unacceptable. Even when equipped with deterrent devices to prevent collisions, birds can still collide with these dangerous wind turbines just like in this case, where two vulture carcasses were found under a mill equipped with a DTBird device. Recently, a research study provided evidence that painting a single wind turbine blade black could reduce collision by 70%, however, more research is necessary to determine the effectiveness of this anti-collision measure. To safeguard biodiversity, proper environmental impact studies should be thoroughly implemented before new wind power, and other renewable energy plants are constructed, with conservationist working alongside the energy sector for such projects.
Mitigating the threat of collisions
Vultures are often unable to distinguish powerlines or blades of wind turbines against the background of the natural vegetation, causing collisions that are mostly fatal. The deaths from such threats are sadly underreported, for example, in Spain, only 10% of the mortality caused by collision with energy infrastructure is recorded.
The Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) is involved in different projects to mitigate the threat of collision. There are many projects, including our own LIFE-funded projects such as LIFE Rupis, Vultures Back to LIFE, LIFE GYPHELP and LIFE Re-Vultures, that are working to protect vultures from the risks posed by the electricity infrastructure by adding high visibility reflectors and spirals to cables to help improve the visibility of power lines which reduces the risk of collision with power cables. The MAVA Foundation is also funding projects across the eastern Mediterranean flyway to minimize the danger of electrocution and collision.
In 2017, the VCF started a new three-year venture with the MAVA Foundation in collaboration with BirdLife, IUCN, WWF and EuroNatur in order to "document vulture population's demography and trends – baseline data, causes of mortality and indicators towards the priority species outcome". This project aims to widen the knowledge on the 4 European vulture species through specific monitoring programmes, as well as to gather already existing information from several sources. In addition to other actions, the project includes the establishment of a European database on mortality data for the four vulture species in Europe and the Mediterranean basin. This will be used as a tool of easy access and usage, which will give us a better overview of local and temporal threats and the real situation of European populations, which will, in turn, help us carry out more accurate conservation actions. Any vulture mortalities caused by wind farms or any other causes should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.