Proposed Power Line Will Create Habitat for Bird Species Whose Populations Are Declining

Power lines like these in eastern Connecticut provide habitat for Chestnut-Sided Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Brown Thrashers and other declining species. Photo Copyright Twan Leenders for Connecticut Audubon Society

We are always on the lookout for ways to improve bird habitats in Connecticut, particularly for species such as Prairie Warbler, Blue-Winged Warbler and Brown Thrasher that are becoming uncommon precisely because of habitat loss.

That’s why we are supporting a proposal by Connecticut Light & Power to construct a new 345 kV power line along 37 miles of existing right-of-way in 11 towns in the northeastern corner of the state.

Power line rights-of-way provide excellent scrub and shrub habitat – areas of low, woody vegetation such as shrub thickets or regenerating young trees that are home to a number of specialized birds.

As we have shown in our annual Connecticut State of the Birds reports, scrub and shrub habitat is in serious decline throughout the state, and with it populations of Prairie Warbler, Blue-Winged Warbler, Yellow-Breasted Chat, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee and Chestnut-Sided Warbler have declined as well.

As we also have demonstrated, power lines are the most important source of that habitat type. In an essay he wrote for our Connecticut State of the Birds 2006 report, Robert Askins, professor of biology at Connecticut College, addressed the habitat value of power line rights-of-way directly. He wrote:

“The most important source of habitat for shrubland specialists are the open corridors (rights-of-way) maintained along powerlines. Trees must be removed from these corridors to protect the lines and facilitate maintenance of the line. Thus, there is an economic incentive to maintain low vegetation and in most parts of New England, this is accomplished by selectively removing trees and tall shrubs to favor low shrubs. The low shrubs form a relatively stable shrubland that have a greater diversity of plants and animals compared to corridors maintained by broadcast herbicide spraying or mowing.

“Recent studies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York show that the strips of shrubland along power lines support a rich diversity of shrubland birds, including species that have suffered substantial population declines in the region such as Brown Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-winged Warbler, and Eastern Towhee. A study in Massachusetts showed that birds nesting along power lines produce enough young to sustain their populations, indicating that these corridors provide good nesting habitat. Density of some shrubland species was greater on wider corridors, suggesting that consolidation of utility rights-of-way may produce better shrubland habitat (while minimizing fragmentation of forests).

That is precisely what CL&P is proposing – building its new line next to an existing 345 kV line that runs through the towns of Lebanon, Columbia, Coventry, Mansfield, Chaplin, Hampton, Pomfret, Brooklyn, Killingly, Putnam and Thompson.

CL&P already has an easement over the land. It will be widening the right-of-way through selective cutting, and will target invasive plants for removal while leaving native plants that are more beneficial for wildlife.

The new line is formally part of the New England East-West Solution/Interstate Reliability Project. CL&P is seeking approvals from the Connecticut Siting Council and hopes to begin construction next year and finish in 2015.

CL&P says it needs the new line to relieve constraints on its ability to provide power to Connecticut. Without it, Connecticut residents will have to continue to rely on power generated in the state, which is more costly and tends to be generated at older power plants that produce more air pollution.

This seems to us like a win-win situation. Our mission, in a phrase, is to protect Connecticut’s birds and their habitats. The new power line will help do exactly that. – Tom Andersen, Director of Communications and Community Outreach

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