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Bicknell's Thrush. Photo: Larry Master
Bicknell's Thrush. Photo: Larry Master

Emergency Adk tower plan worries bird experts

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A plan to build and upgrade emergency communications towers on four summits in the Adirondack Park is sparking new controversy because of the possible impact on a rare songbird called the Bicknell's thrush. The thrush is a "species of concern" in New York, because of its dwindling population and its small, alpine breeding area.

Last winter, the Adirondack Park Agency set strict rules for the construction project, designed to limit any impacts on the songbird. But facing pressure from local leaders, the APA decided earlier this month to scrap those restrictions.

The last-minute change is drawing criticism from scientists and conservation groups that study Bicknell's thrush.

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Old plan involved a study of construction impacts

Last December, the Adirondack Park Agency approved a sweeping plan to build a new system of emergency communication towers in Essex County – including new and modified towers on a series of mountaintops above 2800 feet.

Don Jaquish, director of Emergency Services in Essex County, said at the time that the upgrade was long overdue. "You're getting a constant static," he said, describing limitations of the current system. "Secondly it only covers 60 percent of the county."

But some of those alpine summits where the towers will be built or upgraded are the nesting ground for the Bicknell's thrush – a species so rare that birders come from all over the US to catch a glimpse of it – and to hear its warble (hear the Bicknell's Thrush's unique call here.)

Bicknell's thrush has a "naturally fragmented breeding distribution, it's a small population, so they are naturally susceptible to some of the disturbances," said Mike Burger, Conservation and Science Director with Audubon New York.

Bicknell's thrush breeding map, based on 2005 data. Image: NYS DEC
Bicknell's thrush breeding map, based on 2005 data. Image: NYS DEC
Back in December, APA project analyst Leigh Walrath acknowledged that one of the risks to the Bicknell's thrush is construction projects like the one developed by Essex County.

"The species is at risk from a variety of threats, including recreation development and telecommunications construction," he said.

So as part of the permit, officials in Essex County agreed to hire a contractor to study bird nesting patterns on four mountaintops – Little Whiteface, Gore, Blue Mountain and Mount Morris.

Without that study, state officials said, construction would still be allowed to go forward, but not during the thrush's core nesting season which runs from mid-May through the end of July.

At that time and in the months since, the requirement didn't appear to spark controversy.

A meeting of town supervisors, and a new controversy

Earlier this month, Essex County was in the process of issuing a contract to have the bird study done – at a price tag of roughly $7,000.

"That's the issue, that's the issue. They feel the noise will disrupt the mating," said Essex County manager Dan Palmer, talking about the project at a meeting of town supervisors in mid-April.

But at that meeting, the idea of studying possible impacts on the Bicknell's thrush – or modifying the construction schedule to avoid the nesting season – angered local leaders.

What bothers me is when they put birds...above public safety and human life. That bothers me a lot -- Supervisor Gerald Morrow, town of Chesterfield
"What bothers me is when they put birds or any other insects, or anything, they do it quite commonly, above public safety and human life. That bothers me a lot," said Gerald Morrow from the Essex County town of Chesterfield.

That concern was echoed by Randy Preston, town supervisor in Wilmington – which includes Little Whiteface Mountain.

He said that environmental concerns had added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the emergency towers project.

"It's one hurdle after another after another after another," Preston complained.

The Adirondack Park Agency shifts course

After that meeting – and following an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newspaper – the Park Agency moved quickly to modify the tower permit.

Under a new agreement, construction on those four alpine summits will be allowed to continue throughout the Bicknell thrush nesting season.

No study will be done prior to the work getting underway.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever says state biologists will still monitor construction to determine whether Bicknell's thrush and their nests are being disturbed.

"APA is very confident that the county can begin site preparations immediately," he said.

"We are working very closely with [the Department of Environmental Conservation] to assess any future potential impacts of construction that could occur during the Bicknell's breeding season. That assessment will include an on-site bird survey to determine if there are nesting pairs in proximity to the site."

McKeever says construction could be halted or modified if some kind of impact on the songbird is detected, but he couldn't say what guidelines would be used to make that kind of judgment.

Scientists worry that nesting and reproduction could be disrupted

This decision, to change the terms of the tower construction permit, alarmed scientists and activists who study Bicknell's thrush.

"The most prudent course of action is probably the way that it was outlined in the permit that was approved last winter," said Mike Burger with the Audubon Society.

"That was basically to avoid disturbance and loud noise from May 15 to August 1. I think the APA and DEC got it right in that document."

Michaele Glennon echoes that concern. He's Director of Science for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Adirondack Program.

"I very much support the condition that the APA put on it," she said. "Unless you can show that there will not be an impact to the species, it would be wonderful to regulate what kind of construction activities can occur from May through August."

Glennon says there is a legitimate concern that construction activity, including the use of heavy equipment, generators and power tools, could disrupt Bicknell's thrush reproduction.

The population of Bicknell's thrush has been dropping for years – due to climate change and habitat loss in the Caribbean where the birds spend the winter.

Mountain summit on Little Whiteface already a disturbed area

Despite the APA's early concern, spokesman Keith McKeever says the agency is confident that the impact of construction on the thrush will be minimal.

He points out that the area on Little Whiteface is already developed, with a ski gondola and other human activity already in operation during the nesting season.

Wilmington town supervisor Randy Preston shares that view.

"This is already a developed piece of property that has a gondola there, that has an emergency generator that they start up and run once a week," he pointed out.

All the scientists and environmental groups contacted for this story say they do support the idea of the emergency tower system being built or upgraded.

"We all know that's important," said Mike Berger with the Audubon Society. "It makes sense to talk and try to figure out a way to get that done and try to disturb these birds as little as possible."

Under this new plan, construction on the four summits will begin any day. Bicknell's thrush are expected to return to the Adirondacks in the final two weeks of May.

Brian Mann listening for Bicknell's thrush on Lyon Mountain. NCPR file photo
Brian Mann listening for Bicknell's thrush on Lyon Mountain. NCPR file photo
Weather permitting, state scientists will begin to monitor any impacts of that construction on the birds beginning the first week of June.

Listen back to Brian Mann's 2005 trip to Lyon Mountain in Clinton County to search for the Bicknell's thrush.

Special thanks to reporter Jessica Collier and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise for their help with this story.

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