“The birds of prey fly into the beams of the mirrors at the energy project and fall hundreds of feet to the ground,” Cindy Kamler, founder and director of Wildcare Eastern Sierra, a small nonprofit in the Eastern Sierras that takes care of hurt or abandoned wildlife in the area explains as she shows me the skin lesions on the red-tailed hawk in the rehab box. “The pain doesn’t stop there — they are overcome with skin lesions that slowly grow until they die a few weeks later,” she explains, as I help her feed the hawk his medication for the day.
Deep in the Nevadan desert lies a solar energy project built on public land — the first of its kind. Blanketing over 1,670 acres of desert with over 10,347 billboard-sized mirrors, the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Facility near the small town of Tonopah, about 190 miles northwest of Las Vegas, generates enough electricity to power over 75,000 homes. Since it started operations in September 2015, hundreds of birds have been reportedly incinerated or injured by the intense heat from the 37 by 24 foot mirrors that focus the sun’s thermal energy on a tower filled with molten salt, which in turn generates steam and spins a turbine to create electricity.
Workers at the facility call these birds “streamers.” When the birds are hit by the beams 1,200 feet in the air any moisture that is on them immediately evaporates creating a trail or “stream” of smoke and water as the burned birds plummet to the ground.
The only other similar solar power tower operating in North America is the Ivanpah Solar Electric System in the Mohave Desert in Southern California. Federal biologists estimate 6,000 bird fatalities a year at this facility which California Energy Commission considerers “low” collateral damage, as in the number of birds killed isn’t going to impact specific species’ populations.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service does not have any estimates for the number of birds killed by the Crescent Dunes facility, but the company’s onsite biologist only reported eight bird deaths in 2016. Kamler disagrees with that figure. As the only animal rehabilitator on this side of the Sierras and within a few hundred miles of Tonopah, she has treated considerably more birds of prey alone with the telltale sign of intensified solar radiation than the plant is reporting.
The Eastern Sierra lies in the path of the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Apart from the risk of being incinerated by the solar array, the birds face many other dangers during their long journey, including exhaustion, starvation, predators, natural disasters, collisions, and wildfires.
Many of these injured and weak birds, as well other small mammals and reptiles end up at Wildcare Eastern Sierra.
Kamler, a poet and a writer who has been a wildlife rehabilitator since 1985, founded the rescue center (formerly Eastern Sierra Wildlife Center) after her mother passed in the early 90’s. She originally ran it from a single-room space in her own home but it has since grown into a almost an acre’s worth of flight cages, pens, runs and a mobile home office. The mostly volunteer-driven nonprofit, which celebrated its twentieth year of caring for injured, ill, and orphaned wild birds and mammals in 2017, has helped more than 7,000 wild animals since its founding.
Community members, donors, volunteers, and local veterinarians all have helped throughout the years, providing support and funds to help shelter and feed the animals as well as provide medical care.
The wildlife care center covers over 2,000 square miles of territory, but it doesn’t just care for injured animals, the staff and employees also educate people on what to do if they see a stranded baby bird, or flightless raptor.
“I originally came out here to simplify my life, I came out here for a spiritual transformation in Lone Pine and fell in love with the Alabama Hills and the Eastern Sierras,” Kamler says. “I moved to Keough’s hot spring and I’ve been here ever since. I came here to simplify life but it’s been really hard.”
Kamler, who is her late 70s, still works at the center everyday for the broken animals of the Eastern Sierras. If you find yourself on the Eastern Sierras with an owl trapped in some barbed wire or a hawk hit by the Crescent Dunes Energy Project solar beams, you know who to call.