Big Lake on the radar
U of A team uses local lake to keep ducks out of oilsands
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 04, 2012 06:00 am
You don’t often find radar listening posts on Big Lake.
But if you look just east of the Pioneer Gun Club on the northwest shore, you might spot Sarina Loots and her big white truck. Kitted out with cameras, binoculars, and two types of radar, she and Carissa Wasyliw are there for some serious bird-watching.
“There’s a pretty big raptor right south of us,” reports Wasyliw, spotting a massive black bird with her binoculars.
Loots checks her radar scopes in the trailer. “Yep. I’ve got it on the open array and the parabolic.”
Loots and Wasyliw are taking part in a study at Big Lake this month that aims to help protect birds in the Alberta oilsands.
Oilsands companies are using radar to detect birds before they land on the tailings ponds, says Loots, but aren’t sure how well they perform. “We need to know more about what the radars are doing.”
This project is part of the bigger Research on Avian Protection Project (RAPP), Loots says — a three-year study on bird protection headed by U of A biologist Colleen Cassady St. Clair.
In October 2010, Judge Ken Tjosvold fined Syncrude Canada Ltd. $3 million for the deaths of about 1,600 birds on its Aurora tailings pond in April 2008. The birds died after the company failed to get its deterrent system out on time.
“At the court case,” Loots says, “it became pretty clear that there were no outlines for how to monitor the [tailings] ponds.” As part of his sentence, Tjosvold directed $1.3 million of the fines towards the RAPP project as a result.
Alberta’s oilsands companies want to know the best way to detect, identify and deter birds from landing on their tailings ponds, says Darrell Martindale, a Shell Canada employee and the industry rep on the RAPP advisory committee. “There’s no one shoe that fits all scenarios,” he says, and they need to know what works under what conditions.
Loots is testing five detection systems at sites around Edmonton such as Big Lake: A still camera, a video camera, 2-D and 3-D radar, and binoculars. Each has its pros and cons (radar doesn’t detect birds on the water, for example, and people get tired), and she’s looking for which combination of them performs the best.
The two radars have an effective range of about 2.5 kilometres, Loots says, and consist of a spinning bar and a dish. “They can pick up passerines [tiny songbirds] in the right conditions,” she says, as well as dragonflies at close range.
Most companies are using the spinning bar or 2-D radar, Martindale says, which treats a bird coming in at 20 feet the same as one that’s at 2,000. “At 2,000 feet, a bird’s not going to land on your tailings pond,” he says, so firing your cannons is pointless (and noisy).
The dish-based or 3-D radar Loots is testing does track altitude, Martindale says, and could be used to reduce the number of pointless cannon shots — good news for folks in Fort McKay, who have to live with the noise.
The still and video cameras are part of a system Loots says could help monitor parts of the ponds unreachable by radar, such as coves. By running data from the cameras through a computer, the system can detect motion and potentially alert people about birds on a tailings pond.
Loots says her team will be around Big Lake until the end of August, after which they’ll head north to Fort McMurray for the fall migration.
“We’ve had an amazing relationship with all the different operators and with government,” she says. “Everybody’s truly interested in making it better and improving monitoring and improving the safety for birds in the oilsands.”
Visit rowan.biology.ualberta.ca/oilsands/ for more on RAPP.