Monitoring technology reveals seabirds avoid offshore wind farms

Offshore wind farms are a promising source of renewable energy, but one of their major downsides is the negative impact on wildlife, particularly seabirds. Or so we thought...

New insights into seabird behaviour

New studies using advanced monitoring technology have revealed that seabirds may be avoiding offshore wind farms altogether. This is a significant finding that could help inform future wind farm development and conservation efforts for seabird populations. Andie Nicholls, Marine Ornithologist, explores the importance of monitoring seabird behaviour in facilitating offshore wind development and two studies that we co-authored and project-managed to assess the efficiency of different monitoring technologies and the valuable data and insight they can provide.

Guillemots perched on a rock

Why are these studies important?

Monitoring seabird behaviour is crucial in gaining planning consent for offshore wind farm developments. Gaining planning approval includes depending on collision risk model outputs, an assessment that reviews the probability of seabirds colliding with the turbines. Though the severity of impact varies from project to project, seabirds are generally highly sensitive to changes in their environment, and offshore wind farms can impact their behaviour, migration patterns, and breeding success.

By monitoring seabird behaviour, developers can gain a better understanding of how their wind farm may impact local seabird populations and the steps they can take to mitigate any negative effects. This can include adjusting the location or design of the wind farm, implementing measures to reduce seabird collisions with turbines, and conducting ongoing monitoring to ensure that any impacts are minimised. Ultimately, monitoring seabird behaviour is essential in ensuring that offshore wind farms are developed in a sustainable and responsible manner that protects both wildlife and the environment.

These studies in particular review seabird avoidance behaviour – whether they are aware of the presence of the turbine and how they react to it. It may be that seabirds are not as at risk of colliding as originally believed.

The offshore environment is so new that it currently lacks a good number of studies, so any data gathered is very valuable and revealing. The more evidence we have to support that seabirds are not colliding and that wind farms are not as negative to seabird populations as previously thought, the more projects can be consented and delivered to contribute to our renewable energy drive.

We’re going to discuss two studies we managed, Carbon Trust and Aberdeen. While the Carbon Trust study assesses the pros and cons of different seabird monitoring technologies for offshore wind farms, Aberdeen reviews how one of these technologies (“MUSE”, developed by DHI) was used.

Carbon Trust’s review of seabird monitoring technologies for offshore wind farms

If used in an effective way, we can obtain insightful results from monitoring technologies for offshore wind farms. There’s a plethora of technology available, but previously the focus has been on meso (within the wind farm) and macro avoidance (outside the wind farm), not necessarily micro (in the vicinity of the turbine).

We co-authored and project-managed a study for Carbon Trust that assessed the efficiency of different technologies for monitoring seabird avoidance behaviour, with the objective to improve collision risk models and streamline the consenting process.

Delving into these technologies in detail will hugely benefit future monitoring studies. While APEM carried out the analysis, we assessed technology providers, reviewed the analysis, and developed the report. We wrote the scope of works, highlighting the information you can obtain from these technologies and how they can be used effectively to gain valuable data.

The report provides an in-depth analysis of the capabilities of radar, camera, and acoustic technologies in:

  • System design
  • System functioning
  • Hosting/logistical requirements
  • Data collection
  • Data processing and data analysis
  • Recommendations

After using these technologies in practice, each technology was assessed for its different applications, the level of adaptation required to obtain desired data, and identified any shortfalls.

Onshore monitoring technologies are abundant. But as conditions are very different, how can we adapt technology to deploy it offshore? How can we fix the flaws to achieve what we want? These are some of the questions we delve into in the report.

While developing the report, we spoke to industry experts and gained valuable input from the project expert panel to ensure it was accurate, robust and in line with their expertise. We consulted with:

BioSS • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) • Marine Scotland Science • Natural England • Natural Resources Wales (Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru) • NatureScot • Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) • UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

We interviewed eight developers, managed expectations, reviewed and collated comments from industry experts. It was challenging trying to capture as many technologies as possible when new ones were always emerging.

Equipped with a thorough understanding of the monitoring technologies available, we outlined a scope of works for a study. We were able to help Carbon Trust by suggesting areas where we could deploy the technology and how to get the desired results to achieve a smooth consenting process.

There is an evidence gap with looking at collisions and micro avoidance. We need more research to reveal the severity of risk to wildlife, which can be filled by pioneering projects like Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Bay European Offshore Wind Deployment

Resolving key uncertainties of seabird flight and avoidance behaviours at offshore wind farms

Over the course of two years, we project-managed a study of the collision and avoidance behaviour of seabirds at Vattenfall’s Aberdeen Bay wind farm, also known as the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre. The study assessed the flight patterns and meso avoidance (within the wind farm) of seabirds including kittiwakes, herring gulls, black-backed gulls and gannets.

Black headed gull seabird mid flight

Radar and artificial intelligence technology tracked birds flying towards the wind farm which then activated cameras and generated 3-dimensional flight tracks and video footage. This was used to identify the species of bird as they moved through the wind farm, as well as monitor whether they altered their flight path around the turbines.

The research revealed that seabirds are exposed to very low risks of collision in offshore wind farms during daylight hours, with no collisions or even narrow escapes recorded in over 10,000 videos – a good sample size. Of those birds that came within 10 metres of the turbine zone, over 96% adjusted their flight paths to avoid collision, often by flying parallel to the plane of the rotor. This invaluable data suggests that seabirds can detect the presence of wind turbine blades and adjust their flight paths, avoiding the turbines altogether.

Razorbill sitting on Isle of May

DHI carried out the data analysis, while our role involved overseeing the study and bringing the project team together, ensuring the programme was on track, and reviewing the quality of the data gathered. Keeping the project moving during the pandemic was our priority, despite camera recording complications and subsequent maintenance delays. We also presented the initial findings at the Conference on Wind Energy and Wildlife Impacts (CWW2022).

Offshore wind farm - white turbines in the mid-ground on calm blue waters, blue sky with clouds.

Part of the Aberdeen study involved reviewing DHI’s monitoring technology “MUSE” – a radar and camera dual system where you can follow a bird’s flight tracks in 3D and view its behaviour in real time. Developing an understanding of the different monitoring technologies available will massively help further studies in reviewing seabird behaviour as it allows us to see exactly what’s happening on wind farms, which could transform how we consent these projects in the future.

The findings have the potential to accelerate the consenting process for wind farms by providing more accurate information about the risk of bird collisions using realistic values for flight speed, orientation, and altitude.

Arctic Tern seabird mid flight

“Studies like Aberdeen and Carbon Trust are hugely welcomed within the offshore wind farm industry, and it’s only the beginning. These studies will hopefully influence more research projects to gain investment, get underway, and provide further valuable insight to seabird avoidance behaviour and beyond.”

Andie Nicholls

Marine Ornithologist

The future - more research needed

Honing our understanding of the different monitoring technologies available will benefit future studies as it allows us to see exactly what’s happening on wind farms and gather data that’s accurate and abundant. This research helps us better understand the impact of renewable energy infrastructure on local ecosystems and identifies opportunities to minimise their impact.

These types of collision and avoidance behaviour monitoring studies are the first of their kind in the offshore environment. We need to direct more investment to these studies to gain further insight to allow us to protect wildlife whilst also streamlining the consenting process for offshore wind farms and propel us further on our renewable energy journey. 

Puffins resting on Isle of May

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