A national environmental group is worried that bright lights at a Kaua‘i military base are harming the island’s native seabirds. The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking legal action after more than 120 endangered shearwaters and petrels were harmed or killed by artificial light at Kōke‘e Air Force Base over a two-week period last year.
The Newell’s shearwater spends most of the day burrowed in the mountains of Kaua‘i. It’s not until the sun goes down that the endangered seabirds take flight. Shrouded in darkness, it’s hard to see them. But you can definitely hear them.
“It makes these unearthly calls, these very strange noises that you hear at night sometimes,” said Brett Hartl, the endangered species policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“You really can’t replicate it unless you’re a bird.”
According to Hartl, the seabirds navigate by moonlight reflected off the ocean, as they make their way out to sea. But along the way, many of them become confused, mistaking bright lights at hotels, sports fields and shopping malls for the moon. Disoriented, many lose their way, flying in circles until exhausted, and eventually crash to the ground.
“Then they’re very vulnerable to being killed once they’re on the ground, if they even survive the crash, by things like pigs or feral cats,” Hartl explained.
In September 2015, bright lights at Kōke‘e Air Force Base resulted in the death of more than a dozen Newell’s shearwaters, with an additional 100 injured nearby. Hartl says if the base doesn’t dim its lights, he expects more seabird fatalities this year.
“It does illustrate that this area is a real threat, in terms of its proximity to some of this really good habitat to seabirds in the forest,” said Hartl.
“This is an issue that has to get fixed.”
The shearwater’s population has declined by 75 percent over the past few decades, with artificial light considered to be the main cause.