Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bat-killing disease found in Smokies

White-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed millions of bats in the East, has now been confirmed in two bats in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Biologists found WNS in both a tricolored and a little brown bat found in a park cave, officials said today. Only the fungus that causes the disease had been previously confirmed in the sprawling park of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

The disease is named for a white fungus that forms on the faces of many victims. The fungus makes bats restless during hibernation in caves, moving about and burning up fat reserves or losing body moisture needed to survive winter. There is no cure.

Of the 11 bat species found in the Smokies park, at least six hibernate in caves and old mines, making them susceptible to WNS. The park closed all 16 of its caves and two mining complexes to the public in 2009 in an effort to prevent spread of the disease.

The disease does not appear to be a risk to humans, but dead bats or animals that are acting strangely should not be handled because bats carry rabies.

"While the confirmation of WNS in the park is not a surprise," said park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, "it is still a sad day for the resource." Go here for a podcast on WNS in the Smokies.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mecklenburg birders' help is needed

Have you spotted a loggerhead shrike in Mecklenburg County lately? How about a barn owl? Or an American kestrel?

The Mecklenburg Breeding Bird Atlas, a three-year work in progress by the Mecklenburg Audubon Society and the county natural-resources staff, needs your eyeballs. Shrikes, barn owls and kestrels are all ranked as "critically imperiled" species in the county, and the first year of fieldwork for the atlas found none breeding here.

About 110 volunteers took part in 2011. More, of any skill level, are needed. Information on observations of bird nests or other breeding clues, such as birds seen carrying food or nest materials, can be reported on the center-left side of the Mecklenburg Audubon site.

Preliminary results of the first year of fieldwork:

-- Of the 117 species expected to breed in the county, 87 percent were documented.
-- One new species, the Eurasian collared-dove, was found nesting in the county.
-- One pair of American redstarts was confirmed breeding, the first such record in Mecklenburg since 1941.

Of particular interest are loggerhead shrikes (left), which were once common in Mecklenburg County. Sightings have declined in the past two decades as they lost habitat, says county biologist Don Seriff, who is coordinating the atlas project. The birds look like a mockingbird with a black mask and are easy to see in open or brushy fields.

"We'd love to know if (volunteers) can find any within the county," Seriff says.

Birders, consider that a challenge.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Feds: Stop delays on Carolinas hydro licenses

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has chastised a fellow agency for delays in biological reviews needed to renew licenses of hydroelectric projects in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Duke Energy has long chafed at delays by the National Marine Fisheries Service in assessing the impacts of its Catawba River project on the endangered shortnose sturgeon. Duke had hoped to get a new license in 2008.

In a letter Monday to the fisheries service, Jeff Wright, the director of FERC's Office of Energy Projects said a 135-day consultation period had passed for a half-dozen projects. Among them: Duke on the Catawba, Progress Energy on the Yadkin River, the S.C. Public Service Authority's Santee-Cooper project and S.C. Electric and Gas' Saluda project.

"We recognize the importance of protecting endangered species and the benefit of having biological opinions from NMFS to inform our licensing decisions," Wright wrote the fisheries service. "However, neither the public interest nor the listed species under consultation are served by the delays in our ability to act on license applications that will advance the protection of listed species."

The issue is whether hydro dams impede the migrations of sturgeon, an ancient species that swims up coastal rivers to spawn. In Duke's case, the utility says its first dam, built in 1904, came well after the last sturgeon was seen downstream in the Wateree River.

But last year the fish showed they're still capable of swimming far inland. Two sturgeon were tracked last spring to just below Duke's Wateree Dam, the first that blocks the Catawba.
Duke has offered to help wandering sturgeon by increasing the amount of water it releases downstream during each spring's spawning season, expanding their range.

Friday, March 2, 2012

N.C. solar prices dropping

The installed cost per watt of solar photovoltaic systems in North Carolina dropped 36 percent between 2006 and 2011, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association reports.

The NCSEA credits falling prices for a spike in solar installations. By last September, it says, North Carolina ranked eighth-highest in the nation for installed solar PV capacity. More than 1,100 systems with a total capacity of 128 megawatts registered with the N.C. Utilities Commission between 2006 and 2011.

Conventional electricity costs in the state, meanwhile, rose at an annual 3 percent average over the past decade, the study says.

The study projects that the largest solar PV systems, those larger than 500 kilowatts that take state and federal tax credits, will become cost-competitive with commercial retail electricity prices for all N.C. utilities in 2015. The smallest systems, 10 kilowatts or less, would reach parity by 2020.