LIHUE — The U.S. Air Force said it is still working to address a lighting issue at its Kokee station that has led to more than 120 fallen endangered seabirds.
Over the weekend and Monday, 13 birds were taken into care after dropping from the sky around the 10-acre Kokee Air Force Station, bringing the total number of downed birds to 126.
One death was reported, bringing that count to 10. The majority of the injured or killed are Newell’s shearwaters, although Hawaiian petrels have also been affected.
Anastasia Wasem, spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force stationed in Alaska, said Monday the Air Force is trying to pinpoint what led to the sudden rash of falls.
“In the short term, we turned off all the exterior lights we can at night,” she said. “It’s not an elimination, but there has been a pretty big reduction.”
The problem is believed to be misdirected lights combined with foggy weather. Shearwaters fly over land at night and can become distracted by lights, causing them to hit manmade objects or fly until exhaustion. If they fall to the ground in either case, they become vulnerable to predators have a difficult flying again because they need copious amount of space and wind to launch.
Wasem said nobody is aware how or why the lights were positioned incorrectly — if that is the case.
“We want to know the answer to that, too,” she said. “If we know that reason, we can help mitigate it more. But right now, we’re” unsure.
Lights should be pointed at the ground as not to reflect in the sky for the sensitive birds.
“It’s possible a storm came through and changed the lighting just a little bit,” Wasem added.
Last week, around 80 birds fell over the course of a few days. Officials called the situation unusual because they are adult birds, experienced fliers that rarely have such trouble. Around a dozen birds would usually fall in a year before fledgling season begins. Fledgling season starts today and runs until Dec. 15 and is when newborn birds take flight for the first time. The youngsters are more susceptible to disorientation and accidents.
The birds are being treated at the Kauai Humane Society through its Save Our Shearwater program.
“It’s slowed down, which is wonderful for many, many different reasons, not just us, but for the birds,” said Tracy Anderson, SOS program coordinator.
While a majority of the birds have been treated and released, Anderson said any time adult birds spend away from their babies can be detrimental for the young ones. So the ramification on the bird population is more than the 126 number.
“Two parents are needed to raise these chicks,” she said of the birds that can live to 30 years old and remain with the same mates for life. “When they’re not feeding their chicks, their chicks become compromised.”
The Air Force base was constructed in 1961 and is at an elevation of 4,200 feet above sea level. The radar station provides 24-hour radar air surveillance information to the Hawaii Regional Operations Control Center and is operated by the Hawaii Air National Guard and maintained by the PACAF Regional Support Center.
“We are greatly concerned about the Newell’s shearwaters at Mt. Kokee Air Force Station,” Col. Frank Flores, PACAF Regional Support Center commander, said in a statement. “We care about their safety and have partnered with U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services to better protect this threatened species.”