Island Dims the Lights to Help Migrating Seabirds

The increased use of artificial light in fall and winter make for a dangerous migration for Shearwater seabirds on the island of Kauai. The seabirds use moonlight to navigate, and their migratory patterns are disrupted by the lights of modern development. So the Hawaiian island's public utility has cut down on nighttime lights.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Newell's Shearwater sounds like an accounting firm, but it's actually a kind of bird, indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. For these birds on the island of Kauai, it's the time of year to fly out to sea. They'll be away for three or four years before returning back to the island to nest.

But as Kauai increasingly becomes a land of buildings and concrete, the Newell's Shearwater's first flight is becoming increasingly perilous. More from reporter Gloria Hillard.

GLORIA HILLARD: On the back of Sharon Riley's(ph) t-shirt is a picture of a black and white bird that looks as if it's wearing a tuxedo. It's a perfect silkscreen likeness of the one she holds gently in her hands. She walks over to a raised wooden box on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and places the bird inside.

(Soundbite of ocean)

Ms. SHARON REILLY (Coordinator, Save Our Shearwaters): See how it goes. Now I've got to just close the door. It looks pretty good.

HILLARD: For this bird, this is a second chance at a journey that began a few days earlier in the mountains of Kauai. The birds leave their nests, navigating by moonlight reflected off the ocean, out to sea. But today, the artificial lights of modern Kauai - shopping malls, hotels - are confusing the young birds. Many lose their way, become exhausted or injured, and fall from the sky.

Ms. REILLY: It does seem like it's a little bit - just happy to be in the box for now, which sometimes happens.

HILLARD: Riley has been rehabilitating this bird since it was found on the street in a weakened and dehydrated state. Revived by the ocean breeze, it begins to walk toward the release ramp. Because of its webbed feet far back on its body, it's more of a labored waddle.

Ms. REILLY: That's one reason why it's harder for them to get lift once they land on the ground. We try and take them over here to the ocean so that they're closer to the water and that they get the wind underneath their wings, and that'll get them lift.

HILLARD: Reilly runs the Save Our Shearwaters program for the island's public utility company. The birds' population has declined over the last decade by an estimated 30 to 60 percent, and artificial light is considered to be the main cause. So the utility company is working with Fish and Wildlife Service to help mitigate road deaths. Of the 350 birds that were picked up last year, 85 percent were successfully released back into the wild.

(Soundbite of football game)

HILLARD: Also this evening, is a high-school football game. While those in the stands have their eyes on the field, Reilly, who is accompanied by Andrea Erickson(ph) of the Fish and Wildlife Service, are watching the sky.

Ms. ANDREA ERICKSON (Hawaiian Fish and Wildlife Service): The stadium lights are particularly strong, very bright, also very tall and extremely attractive and hazardous. I've seen birds fly right into the light itself, and then fall dead underneath the pole.

HILLARD: Erickson, a 38-year-old strawberry blonde from New Jersey, spends her days negotiating with businesses to reduce light pollution. Many cooperate, but unfortunately, the fledgling season coincides with football season at this county stadium, one of the major problem sites on the island.

Ms. ERICKSON: This year, this stadium will probably be the brightest thing around because the car-rental places at the airport have all pointed their lights down. I noticed the last company finally did it today.

HILLARD: The following day, Sharon Reilly calls to tell me the Newell's Shearwater that needed to go back into rehabilitation has died, but that one of her staff has just picked up a bird that seems a good candidate for release.

Angela Ewai(ph) gently places the bird in a release box perched high above volcanic rock and brilliant turquoise water. The wind is strong today, a good sign, she says. A long hour passes, she reaches inside and places the bird on top of the box. It teeters a moment and then spreads its wings.

Ms. ANGELA EWAI: It's doing pretty good.

HILLARD: Hawaii has more endangered species than any other state in the country, and despite the efforts to save the shearwaters each year, the numbers continue to decline. That's something those who work on the frontlines know all too well, and perhaps why Angela Ewai stood there watching until the bird was out of her sight.

Ms. EWAI: I feel better now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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