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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Little Diversion—of an Avian Kind

Lord Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron and founder of the Scouting movement, observed thaTualco V. Marcht human beings rarely look up and therefore much that happens overhead escapes them. Of course it’s nearly impossible to look for roadside luck while at the same time keeping tabs on aerial incidents and phenomena.

On one of my strolls in the Valley I noticed white striping along the shoulder of the road on the stretch between the sharp turn east of Swiss Hall extending west to Sargent Road. Nearly pencil thin and about a foot long, the stripes were spray painted at right angles to the center line. The striping only appeared on the north side of Tualco under the power lines. After observing a half dozen or so, I realized the stripes were not random, the practice palette for some graffitist. The stripes appeared at regular spacings for a good quarter mile

Two or three days later, whether it was a flashback from my old Boy Scout days that lifted my gaze or a trumpeting swan commuting between cornfields, I couldn’t say, but I did look up. When I did, I noticed strange little tangles on the highline wires.installed diverters 

Ah, ha…how long have those been there?It was then I remembered those paint stripes along the shoulder of the road. I looked at the stripes, then up at the tangles. Sure enough, above each stripe was a doo-dad curled around the power line.

Sometime later I heard a news item about devices the Snohomish County PUD was installing to protect migrating birds from their highline wires. That was about the extent of the information, though.

Two weeks ago we made a trip to Snohomish on the old highway. A PUD work crew was stopping traffic along the soccer fields. While we waited for the flagger to motion us through, I noticed a lineman in a hi-lift bucket installing those same little curlicues. As we crept by, I rolled down the window and asked the flagger just what was going on. “Bird diverters,” he said. “We’re installing bird diverters.”

So what’s this “bird diverter” business, I wonder? How do the devices divert? What are they made of? How are they attached to the wires? Just how do they work, anyway? Plenty of questions to ask the ladies at our local PUD office when I go in to pay my monthly bill. But first I check the PUD’s website and find the “Bird Injury Incident Response” paragraph. According to the site twenty bird deaths associated with PUD power lines were reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009: “eight snow geese, four Trumpeter Swans, three Stellar’s Jays, two Bald Eagles, one Blue Heron, one hawk, and one starling” (??).

Anxious to find answers to my questions, I stop by and pay my bill early. “Is there someone here who can tell me about your bird diverter program?” I asked the gal who takes my money. She directs me to “J.D.,” a young fellow who has installed the diverters, and he tells me they are installed by use of a “hot stick,” which I take it is a device that lets linemen work on high voltage lines without frying themselves. I wonder if there are any diverters on site I can examine, maybe borrow to photograph. D.J. disappears into a back room and produces two diverters. The curlicues are made of plastic, heated and twisted, and come in two gauges, depending on the gauge of powerline they are affixed to. diverter coils One of the secretaries gives me the phone number of Rob Larson, the PUD’s spokesman for the diverter program.

Later that day I dial his number. Rob is happy to answer my questions and talk about PUD’s avian diversion program. The intent of the diverters is to give the power lines pigtailsdefinition, a higher profile, so low-flying birds can see the obstacles and not endup “clotheslined.”PUD installs the diverters in areas experiencing high bird traffic. The pigtails are staggered along the power lines at fifteen foot intervals (the distance between the stripes painted beneath the wires).

The past half dozen years an ever growing Trumpeter swan population uses Tualco Valley as a winter feeding ground. On some winter days hundreds of the large, white waterfowl gather in Werkhovens’ cornfields. The flight plan for their inter-cornfieldSwan flight commute is a north/south flight line which is bisected by the east/west power lines along the stretch of road mentioned earlier. The diverters have been installed on this stretch of Tualco.

Rob Larson told me the PUD is both pro-active and reactive with their bird diversion program. Established areas of high bird traffic in the proximity to highline wires receive diverters. Citizens call to report incidents of bird injury or electrocution and the PUD acts accordingly to protect the birds. Power poles and crossbars where eagles dare perch and risk electrocution are further insulated to protect the roosting birds. 

The avian diversion program is not foolproof, however. Birds fly in the fog—and our Valley is fogged in frequently on winter mornings—and like aircraft, low-flying fowl are apt to collide with obstacles in poor visibility situations. There have been incidents where flocks of feeding birds have been stampeded by hawks and eagles, and in their panic to escape, they fly headlong into highline wires. A birder I met in the Valley just happened to be on-site in the Skagit when an eagle on the hunt swooped down on a flock of snow geese. Although there were diverters in place, thirteen of the escaping birds flew headlong into the wires in follow-the-leader fashion, severing one of the wires and electrocuting themselves in the process.

Thanks to PUD’s D.J. and Rob Larson for their help with my questions. When I told Rob about a power pole in the Valley where I frequently see an adult Bald Eagle perched, he asked its location—even wondered if I could take him to the site. He was genuinely concerned about that eagle’s safety. (I emailed him a photo of the perched bird, and he said the pole did not look to be a safety hazard.) I could tell Rob takes personal pride in PUD’s avian diversion program, has done his research in that arena, and is a personal advocate for peaceful coexistence between birdlife and the delivery system set up to provide daily electricity to us all.

A flock of Trumpeter swans in flight is a spectacle of grace (less so when they “gaggle” on the ground), and if the diverter program saves one swan’s life or that of a hawk or eagle, being flagged to a stop for a few minutes while the diverters are being installed is worth the delay in my opinion.

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