Breeding osprey pairs nest on transmission poles.

Bird Safety On the Line

March 25, 2016
Local regulators support Valard’s efforts to conduct trial helicopter stringing operations near active osprey nests.

The power line industry has seen significant changes in planning and construction approaches as a result of environmental requirements in recent years. Transmission line clearing, construction and maintenance work can be delayed or shut down because of environmental or regulatory restrictions, which can have a major impact on project schedules and cost.

To address the shifting regulatory landscape and to reduce environmental risk on major transmission projects, Valard Construction started an internal environment and permitting division in 2013. Valard’s environment department has since grown to include a group of 20 professional biologists, forestry and environmental technicians who work closely with Valard’s right-of-way clearing, construction and maintenance crews to deliver environmental compliance on projects across Canada. As such, Valard was able to successfully manage an environmental obstacle — the osprey nesting season — through scientific observation, regulatory collaboration, integrity and trust.

Mitigating Work Sites

Spring is always a busy time of year for Valard’s environment group. Spring break-up and warm temperatures bring flooded wetlands, water crossings, work sites and access roads, which require extensive mitigation to maintain site access, production and compliance. Spring also brings birds and associated restrictions on work activities around active nests.

The bird-nesting season typically ranges from mid-April to mid-August across Canada. Valard’s environment team works closely with construction management to proactively identify active nest sites and schedule or modify work activities to comply with applicable guidelines. However, it is not always possible to delay or modify work practices, and in these cases, Valard’s environment professionals develop site-specific mitigation plans, which must be approved by environmental regulators to allow work to continue.  

During the spring of 2015, Carolyn Johns, a biologist with Valard Environment, developed a Raptor Nesting Habitat Mitigation Plan for the Muskrat Falls to Churchill AC (MFAC) transmission line project. This plan was developed to address Valard’s requirements to complete stringing operations within a 300-m horizontal and vertical “no fly zone” imposed to protect active osprey nests during the project’s construction. 

A Valard helicopter supports stringing operations.

Devising a Plan

Osprey are beautiful, large raptors that are known for building their stick nests on power poles and transmission towers. This practice represents a hazard to both line security and to the birds themselves. In the past, mitigation for working near osprey nest sites typically has involved the installation of nesting deterrents to prevent nests being built on poles and towers in the first place, or through nest relocations, such as moving the nest to an alternate, nearby platform, built specifically for this purpose.

Relocation is only an option if it is approved by regulators and it can be done safely. These mitigation options were not possible for the MFAC project because the osprey nest sites had already been built and live-line nest relocations were considered too dangerous.

Valard’s mitigation plan involved a novel trial, whereby osprey were to be observed, then systematically desensitized or habituated to helicopter activity near their nest sites. Through this approach, Valard hoped to mitigate potential impacts during stringing operations within the 300-m exclusion zone. Valard developed the plan in consultation with the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation (DOEC) Wildlife Division and local wildlife biologists. Based on this consultation and the conditions of the plan, the DOEC issued Valard Wildlife Permit No. IW2015-14. 

The DOEC-sanctioned trials compared baseline (normal) osprey behavior at nest site(s) against their behavior during incremental approaches by helicopter into the 300-m zone. The expectation, based on professional observations and experience, was that the adult osprey would habituate (or behave normally) once they learned the helicopter did not pose a threat to the nest. Two such trials were conducted in July 2015 following four weeks of monitoring to establish and document baseline nesting behavior.

A Valard helicopter works near an active osprey nest on the Muskrat Falls to Churchill AC transmission line project.

Conducting Trials

During the first trial, Valard’s biologist directed the helicopter pilot and recorded video footage from the air while two of Valard’s environmental monitors recorded video footage and documented results from the ground. At the start of the trial, one adult osprey sat in the nest and its partner was not seen or heard in the area. On the first approach, the adult osprey flew from the nest when the helicopter was within 150 m. Three chicks were observed in the nest from this distance, and the adult returned immediately as the helicopter retreated.

On the second approach, the helicopter came within 80 m of the nest before the same flight response was triggered; and again, the bird returned to the nest once the helicopter moved away. On the third approach, the helicopter flew slowly toward the adjacent transmission tower, simulating normal work practices for stringing operations; the adult did not fly away but remained on the nest while the helicopter hovered about 10 m away for about one minute.

The desensitization was considered successful. About 10 minutes after the helicopter left the area, the second adult returned to the nest to deliver a fresh fish to the chicks and then flew away. The second trial, at a different nest site, yielded similar results; the adult osprey at the nest site became habituated to the helicopter’s approach and presence near the nest in less than 10 minutes.

Following these initial desensitization trials, the nest sites were monitored throughout helicopter stringing activities with no evidence of stress to the adults. Follow-up monitoring suggested all chicks survived to fledge and no impacts to osprey resulted from the work. 

Through a partnership with the Newfoundland and Labrador DOEC, Valard was able to conduct the trials and proceed with its subsequent stringing operation. The project is an excellent example of cooperation between biology professionals working within the transmission industry and environmental regulators who allowed for significant insight into this species behavior and protection requirements.

These trials show that although strict guidelines are necessary as a starting point for species protection, collaboration in conjunction with professionally developed and executed mitigation plans can yield win-win outcomes for industry and environment when such trials are supported. 

Sandra Blair is a biologist and senior manager of environment for Valard Construction LP. She has more than 18 years of experience as an environmental manager, providing environmental assessment, protection and mitigation plans and environmental monitoring services to industry, government and First Nations. She currently manages Valard Construction’s environment department, providing regulatory and environmental compliance management for major projects across Canada.

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