As we drive from the final ferry of the day at Edøy and across the bridges towards Smøla, ahead of us lies an expanse of wind turbines. As far as the eye can see these graceful towers silently sweep through the sky in a never ending cycle. Without realising it, the small island of Smøla that we have chosen for the night is home to (until recently) the largest land based wind farm in Norway.
The 70 metre towers have a blade diameter of 86 metres. They are huge and when 68 of them are seen working together it is an amazing sight. Whether they are viewed in silhouette at sunset or harsh against storm clouds the sheer size and scale of the turbines cannot be avoided.
The Sea Eagles on Smøla
As with any wind turbines there are casualties and in Smøla it is the sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) population. These huge sea birds thrive along the exposed coastline with the population recorded at a stable 50 breeding pairs.
As with many other sea birds they mate for life, so the loss of a partner can have a devastating impact on the numbers in an area. They raise one or two chicks every two years, a low number compared to many other species.
The shallow waters make fishing easy, something that these relatively lazy birds need for survival. Like the bonxies (Great Skuas) on Shetland they are not afraid to mug other birds, such as the gulls for their hard earned catch.
This small island has the densest population of the birds in the whole of Norway. The combination of the largest species concentration and largest turbine concentration does not bode well.
About 1/3 of all adult sea eagle deaths on Smøla are due to turbine collisions. This is one of the key threats to the survival of the species globally, however numbers are increasing year on year and the global populations are thriving. With their slow breeding rate and longer life expectancy, the loss of this many adult birds can have a significant impact on the local population.
Research has shown that birds living outside a 5km zone around the turbines on Smøla are at a stable level and appear to be making up for those who are breeding within the wind farm zone and loosing their lives. Research has shown that only those within 1km of the turbines have their breeding significantly disrupted by the presence of the turbines and outside of the 5km zone there are no effects to behaviour or life expectancy at all.
Most collisions occur in the spring, possibly when their attention is upon other matters and concentration is not as focussed. Increased flights tending to nests or feeding young can also be a cause of these spring increases. There is also a belief that birds do not see the rotating blades, an area of current research.
Seeing Sea Eagles on Smøla
The easiest way to see sea eagles on Smøla is to get out and explore. Walking along the coast, despite the weather meant we were able to experience these magnificent birds at a distance.
To get help finding these birds then there is no-one better than Smøla Naturopplevelser who run eagle safaris. Our bad planning meant that we were not able to get out with them, but a summer visit with planning will result in fantastic encounters if you are lucky.
Smøla is located about two hours drive to the south west of Trondheim. The roads are good all the way with the last part of the journey being on a regular ferry service from Tustna to Edøy.
Even if you can’t get to Norway then these beautiful birds can be seen nesting on webcam.
Whilst there is a drive for renewable energy, there are always risks. In this case the risk is to the population of this magnificent sea bird. Is this a sacrifice worth making, only time will tell.