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'War Eagle' Visits Colorado Wind Facility To Help Protect Other Raptors

By Chris Spears

DENVER (CBS4) - He could be considered one of the most famous raptors in the world. He's a golden eagle named Nova that has his own accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

But for football fans at Auburn University, Nova has a different name.

He's called 'War Eagle VII' and he represents the school's spirit at every home game.

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Nova and a bald eagle named Spirit recently came to Colorado to help test new technology aimed at keeping birds of prey safe from wind turbines.

The two raptors, who live in permanent captivity at Auburn's Southeast Raptor Center, were chosen for this project because of their ability to fly.

Most eagles in captivity have injuries or deformities that keep them grounded. Spirit has a beak deformity that makes eating in the wild difficult and Nova was rescued from a defunct zoo, but both are fully capable of flying.

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The testing took place at NREL's National Wind Technology Center near Boulder.

It involved a radar made by New York's Laufer Wind and a system called IdentiFlight made by Broomfield's RES Americas through a partnership with Boulder Imaging.

"The goal is to do everything we can to understand how birds interact with the windfarms," said Jason Roadman, NREL test engineer.

IdentiFlight is an automated system that uses high resolution cameras to detect eagles flying near wind turbines.

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"We can detect eagles at a thousand meters out and can instantly separate objects that are moving in the environment that are of interest, such as the eagle," said Tom Hiester with RES Americas.

If an eagle is detected, IdentiFlight can automatically shut down a wind turbine in as little as 30 seconds.

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RELATED: Click for an interactive map of U.S. Wind Turbines

As testing began, all wind turbines in the area were powered down and Nova was taken about 100 feet into the air, giving him a good view of his target below.

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But before the test could begin there was an unexpected delay.

IdentiFlight did exactly what it was designed to do: detect a bald eagle flying nearby.

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Once an "all-clear" was given, the cover over Nova's cage was lifted and he could be seen dancing with excitement inside.

Then the door to the cage was opened and this majestic bird took flight.

In Air
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Several precautions were taken to ensure the health and safety of the birds during each flight. Both Nova and Spirit wore GPS tracking devices and had a personal veterinarian on site.

The test flights covered a distance of roughly 250 yards and each one took less than a minute.

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At the finish line was Nova's handler, Marianne Hudson, waiting with a reward of food.

The landing could be described as hard as Nova pounced on his food target just as if he were in the wild.

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"Since he's a predator, Nova just received pieces of raw chicken and mouse," said Hudson.

Nova and Spirit made several test flights over the course of a few days, allowing engineers to collect valuable information and fine-tune their software.

IdentiFlight hopes to be operational by the end of 2016.

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"This a great collaboration with NREL as a government lab, Auburn University as a major research facility, and industries like Laufer Wind and RES-Americas coming together to solve a problem," said Eric Laufer of Laufer Wind.

Meteorologist Chris Spears writes about stories related to weather and climate in Colorado. Check out his bio, connect with him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @ChrisCBS4.

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