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Why studying birds is vital in offshore wind development

With the recent award of six feasibility licenses off the coast of Gippsland in Victoria and another six not far away, Australia’s offshore wind industry is gaining momentum. Mitigating impacts to seabirds is going to be a key factor in environmental approval of the projects. We unpack the role of ornithology in offshore wind project approvals, and its unique application in the Australian context with Dr Christine Lamont.  

24 June 2024
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Inside Australia’s bird paradise: what we know about seabirds

There are around 170 species of resident, migratory or vagrant seabirds known from Australian waters (including surrounding island and territories) and of those, approximately 80 species breed locally. CSIRO research shows that every year, we attract one third of the world’s seabirds to Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), making Australia a global seabird hotspot.

While much is known about many seabird species, there are large data gaps, particularly when it comes to at-sea distributions, flying behaviours, and offshore habitat use. That’s because seabirds spend considerable time offshore which makes them challenging to study. 

Some seabirds breed outside of Australian territory and have vast oceanic distributions, within and beyond the offshore wind declared areas, posing challenges in gathering information about their breeding populations, foraging behaviours, and migration patterns. 

Our seasoned seabird and shorebird ecologist, RPS Technical Director, Dr Christine Lamont, says, “while targeted research has been completed to understand the movement patterns, habitat use, and flight heights of seabirds in the offshore environment in the UK and Europe, in Australia we’re having to start from a lower base of understanding.”   

RPS’ ornithology team has set out to bridge these crucial knowledge gaps within the Australian context. Baseline studies are an important step to inform an understanding of the potential impact of wind farms on seabirds. The team is helping answer questions like: where are the important foraging habitats for seabirds? Are there age or sex-related differences in how seabirds use the offshore environment? What’s the risk of seabirds colliding with wind turbines? Are some species more susceptible to impacts than others? To what degree will seabirds avoid individual wind turbines or whole wind farms offshore?  

Bird tagging
Tagging a storm petrel: All handling and capture of birds is undertaken in accordance with methods under strict animal ethics approvals and the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme

Why local ornithology expertise matters in offshore wind development

Offshore wind farms pose several risks and potential impacts for seabirds which include collision with wind turbines, attraction to lighting, exposure to underwater noise during the construction period, and displacement from important foraging grounds. The RPS ornithology team is designing scientific studies to fill key knowledge gaps, ensuring that new development proposals have a solid evidence base to consider environmental risk and potential impacts on seabird populations – and apply appropriate mitigations to prevent or reduce those risks and impacts.

Using techniques such as boat based visual surveys, tagging (tracking movements), bioacoustics studies (capturing bird vocalisations) and digital aerial surveying, our team investigate and document how seabirds live and interact with some of Australia’s least studied environments. Collecting data through multiple techniques is vital to forming a deep understanding of our seabirds. By adopting a multiple-lines-of-evidence approach, we ensure we’re painting a holistic picture, as relying on a single technique has inherent limitations.

For example, many Australian seabirds are active offshore at night so techniques employed exclusively during the day will miss any important nocturnal behaviours. Boat-based surveys and digital aerial surveys are also limited to favourable weather conditions, which means they struggle to account for seabird behaviour in extreme weather events such as storm-force winds. Digital aerial surveys use dorsal view static images, so accurate species identifications can be a challenge without the ability to validate against observations from below.

With wind energy expected to be an important contributor to Australia’s energy transformation, this intersection between ornithology and offshore wind farms becomes ever more critical. Australia's seabird populations are diverse and uniquely adapted to the marine environment, presenting distinct challenges for offshore wind development, and the survey techniques needed to produce robust impact assessments are not always directly transferrable from other regions. 

According to Dr Lamont, you can’t simply grab overseas data and use it in a local context, nor will techniques used commonly overseas necessarily be suitable in Australia. 

“There is much we have learned from studies being conducted in the UK, US, and throughout Europe, but there are some important differences in the seabird species that occur in Australia and the Australian regulatory requirements for reducing impacts. That means that data and standard survey techniques from the other locations and contexts, for instance, are not necessarily fit for purpose in Australia. So, we're actively looking at innovative ways to improve the collection of data to suit the local species and environment that we're working in.” 

“We have high species diversity offshore and it can be very difficult to tell them apart visually unless at close range, or defining features such as underwing patterns can be seen. Identification to species level can be particularly challenging when using remote sensing techniques. It’s important to tell those species apart and identify where those birds are coming from, to inform collision risk modelling and understand displacement risk and any consequences at a population level,” emphasises Dr Lamont.  

The diversity and abundance of seabirds that fly, breed, and feed off our coasts, potentially in areas where offshore windfarms are planned,  is the key reason RPS has assembled a team of highly experienced local ornithologists, with specialists dotted across the country – in Western Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales.   

“Having people in different states allows us to have local expertise for that particular area. Our ornithologists are very familiar with the environment that they're working in – and are available to support and deliver fieldwork and technical expertise in collaboration with trusted partner organisations in each state.”

Meet RPS’ ‘bird nerds’: ornithology experts with passion

The RPS ornithology team is made up of colourful and curious ‘bird nerds’ that bring deep expertise in ornithology. Led by Dr Christine Lamont, who holds a PhD in conservation biology (specialising in seabird ecology), the team includes Dr Claire Greenwell, an expert in seabird and shorebird conservation; Dr Maggie Watson, who specialises in seabirds and parasitology; Dr Lisa Nicholson, an authority on seabird monitoring and ecology; and Jessica Gillespie and Brooke Johnston who have both completed honours projects on penguins in Victoria. 

With over 20 years’ post graduate experience, Dr Lamont has led large marine monitoring projects and environmental impact assessments throughout Australia, primarily for the offshore oil and gas and renewable energy industries. Her previous work also spans Indonesia and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Dr Lamont’s background is grounded in policy advice, strategy development, change management and compliance for the offshore petroleum industry, as well as regulatory framework development for offshore renewable energy. Previously Dr Lamont was the Chief Environmental Scientist at Australia’s national offshore energy regulator NOPSEMA. She’s also our resident silver gull expert. 

Dr Claire Greenwell has worked in conservation for a great chunk of her career and had has broad experience in terns, migratory shorebirds, and small burrow-nesting seabirds. Where there is an Australian fairy tern nesting on a sandy beach, you’re likely to find, Dr Greenwell. This listed Vulnerable species was the focus of her PhD and Dr Greenwell provides technical advice to coastal land and wildlife management agencies in Australia and New Zealand to improve outcomes for this threatened species. She has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and co-authored Research Methods for Birds in the CSIRO published Wildlife Research in Australia – a comprehensive guide to best practice research methods in Australia. She loves capturing the seabirds in flight on her camera too. In fact, in her spare time, Dr Greenwell runs photography workshops that take seabird enthusiasts to places like Christmas Island and Lord Howe, to get up close and personal with our bird life. Her love of birds has taken her to numerous wonderful destinations – from volunteering trips to the north of WA to research migrant shorebirds, through central Australia, to the northern most tip of Australia to hunt down some of Australia’s most unique species.

In NSW, Dr Maggie Watson holds fort. She comes to us with extensive experience in working on roseate terns and parental care in the USA and the effects of parasites (lice and ticks) on the greater crested terns in Australia. Aside from focussing on terns, Dr Watson has also co-authored multiple research papers on the ecology and conservation of birds, reptiles, and crayfish. She’s also led investigations into the impact of powerlines on birds, which was funded by Transgrid. Known as ‘terngirl’ on social media, Dr Watson has worked on several ornithology projects including researching tern lice and their use in co-phylogenies, that’s the reconstruction of past relationships with ecologically linked groups of organisms. Before joining RPS, Dr Watson was one of the leaders of the Ornithology Graduate Degree program at Charles Sturt University. 

Along the rainbow coast of WA, Dr Lisa Nicholson has just joined the team, bringing three decades of ecology knowledge, with experience in both fieldwork and as a science educator. In 2002, she was awarded her PhD for her ecological study into seabird communities of the Lowendal Islands, in WA. Her research looked at shearwaters, medium-sized long-winged seabirds in the petrel family, Procellariidae, and several tropical tern species.  Since then, Dr Nicholson’s work has taken her all around the state and country – from Houtman Abrolhos to Fitzgerald River National Park, and the Dampier Archipelago to Furneaux Group Bass Strait. In her various project roles she’s designed, managed, and implemented baseline, snapshot and longitudinal monitoring programs for industry, government, not-for-profit and university clients. In that time, she has specialised in seabird and shorebird monitoring and population dynamics, with an emphasis on providing mitigation for offshore energy clients, to conserve seabird and shorebird habitat.        

The smarts and heart that the RPS ornithology team brings, is a rich tapestry of skills that blends conservation and research experience, along with strong practical industry expertise. Dr Lamont says, “our team’s ornithology and Environmental Impact Assessment experience is crucial in ensuring that offshore wind projects’ impact assessments are grounded in evidence gained from well-designed baseline studies.” 

"Our ongoing baseline studies and development of innovative survey techniques will provide the evidence base to ensure that offshore wind farms can be developed sustainably, safeguarding seabird populations, while supporting renewable energy goals."

“We maintain a nationally consistent approach to collecting baseline data, and we can apply the learnings from one project across all of them, without compromising the confidentiality of each client’s and project's data. This helps us improve on our techniques.” 

  • In the field with Dr Claire Greenwell (L) and Dr Christine Lamont (R), seabird and shorebird specialists.
  • Dr Claire Greenwell observing seabirds at night
  • Noddy perched above ornithologists head.

Adapting global best practices to Australian conditions

The RPS ornithology team’s collaborative approach with our international colleagues provides a solid foundation for adapting best practices to local conditions. Dr Lamont says, “the regular exchange with our UK colleagues has given us a really good head start in Australia.” 

"Being a global company, we’ve had the opportunity to tap into the existing research and development (R&D) from the UK, Europe and the US, especially around baseline study techniques and how they monitor within the operational wind farms to determine how birds respond to them to avoid collisions.”  

One of the insights that our UK team has shared is that monitoring technology reveals seabirds avoid offshore wind farms. But how will Australian seabird species respond to operational wind farms? 

Dr, Lamont says, “While we learn a lot from our UK counterparts, we need to tailor the monitoring methods to suit Australian species and regulatory requirements. 

“For instance, European techniques for assessing actual rates of collision and monitoring seabird behaviours once wind farms are operational, may need to be refined to match the specific characteristics of Australian seabirds. And we can’t do that here yet because we don’t have any offshore wind farms in operation. For baseline studies we need to be able to accurately identify seabirds to the species level and for our species that can require us to be able to see fine scale detail,” she explains. 

“Understanding their at-sea behaviours in a variety of offshore conditions is also vital to designing effective mitigations.”

Leveraging global best practices ensures that techniques are tailored to local species and regulatory requirements. Already, RPS’ ornithology team has refined methods used in Europe to better suit Australia's unique seabird populations, which in many cases differ significantly in behaviour and appearance.      

Brown Noddy chick
Brown Noddy chick

Collaborative approaches and maximising data value

RPS’ ornithological studies lend themselves to a collaborative approach to maximise data value and reduce potential impacts on seabirds, particularly locally breeding populations. We have established partnerships with universities and other organisations to expand our baseline and monitoring capabilities. We regularly partner with Monash University, Deakin University, and Biosis to deliver comprehensive seabird baseline studies programs in Victoria and are currently building partnerships in NSW and WA. 

More recently the team developed the Regional Marine Environmental Baseline Studies (RMEBS) program, that aims to bring developers together to address key knowledge gaps and challenges for the offshore wind industry. This collaborative approach will aim to gather comprehensive data to support impact assessments with minimal environmental disruption to focal species.

According to Dr Lamont, collaboration is the cornerstone of the RPS ornithology team’s strategy. 

“By enabling industry collaboration, we can conduct the seabird studies that we need on more appropriate spatial and temporal scales while reducing pressure on seabirds and their island habitats. By collaborating with universities and other organisations, we can reliably access expertise from Australia’s best seabird biologists.” 

“From a public point of view, our collaborators are well respected. And the folks within universities bring a whole lab worth of experience with them.” 

Dr Claire Greenwell clutches seabird on stretch of coast.
Dr Claire Greenwell volunteering on the North West Wader and Tern Expedition

The future of offshore wind farms and ornithology

As Australia’s nascent offshore wind industry starts to move ahead, having a team of experienced seabird biologists will become even more critical. The ongoing baseline studies work, and innovative technologies adopted by RPS’ ornithology team will ensure that these developments are aligned with environmental conservation goals. Our expertise not only helps to protect seabird populations, but also paves the way for more sustainable and efficient renewable energy solutions.

“Exploring sustainable solutions to decarbonise our energy generation is rewarding work in itself. Being able to provide robust evidence and advice to protect our precious seabirds, is an added benefit to the work we all love to do.”