Lights will go on this week for Friday night football on Kauai, marking the season’s first football game within the endangered Newell’s shearwater fledgling season.
But the guys won’t be on the field every Friday night throughout the season; games throughout October and November will be held Saturday afternoons.
“Friday night football games are a tradition in Hawaii, and this is a similar schedule to mainland high school football games,” said Dan Dennison, spokesman with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
County officials and DLNR experts could not be reached for comment. But Dennison said DLNR staff have been working with the County of Kauai and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for several years to find a way to have some night football games played on Kauai, while minimizing the risk to endangered seabirds.
“Basically looking for a win-win situation,” Dennison said.
Saturday marked the beginning of that fledgling season, when seabird chicks that have been raised in burrows all around Kauai start making their way toward the ocean, and historically stadium lights have been an obstacle in their paths.
Lights in general have a tendency to attract fledglings leaving their mountain nesting sights for the ocean.
The birds usually use the moon as a guiding light on their journey, but they can fixate on things like stadium lights and circle them until they fall to the ground.
That’s when the fledgling birds can become prey for animals like cats, be hit by cars, or starve to death due to disorientation and an inability to get enough lift to get back in the sky.
For the past seven years, night football has been a thing of the past, but that changed after the county spent millions retrofitting ballpark lights in county parks.
It was one of the things done to comply with a 2010 Justice Department plea agreement in which the county and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative admitted to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
In addition to things like retrofitted park lighting, officials used knowledge of breeding cycle timing and the moon phase to decide which night football games could be played without causing harm to the endangered seabirds.
“We developed a ‘risk calculator’ for the county and USFWS that considered the proposed time of each potential game relative to the fledgling season, the phase of the moon and the time that the moon rises on that particular night,” Dennison said. “Considering all this data, night games on the last three weekends of September were considered low risk. Night games in October and November were considered high risk.”
In 2017, Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and opened the doors for some Friday night games starting Sept. 22, 2017.
Four night games were played under stadium lights that season.
The fledgling season runs through Dec. 15, and ballpark lights aren’t the only threats to the young birds. According to the Save our Shearwaters (SOS) organization, bright lights of any kind can confuse the birds. When they’re on the ground, they’re prey and are at risk for being hit by cars.
SOS, a program funded by KIUC and based out of the Kauai Humane Society, has been rehabbing downed seabirds since its creation in 1979.
It estimates more than 35,000 seabirds have been collected on Kauai since then.
Every year, downed seabirds are collected by residents and visitors.
SOS said people who find a bird should pick it up with a towel to keep it calm, then drop it off at one of the 11 aid stations around Kauai. Aid stations are only available from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15.
Kauai is the last main stronghold in the world for the endangered Newell’s shearwater, and the species is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, according to DLNR. That means it’s found nowhere else apart from the Hawaiian Islands.
An estimate created from surveys carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s speculated that there were 19,000 Newell’s shearwater pairs. Since then, experts say the population has crashed by 94 percent.
“They are also a vital contributor to the environment of our island, transporting marine nutrients from the sea where they feed to the top of our watersheds where they breed,” Dennison said. “By working with the county and our partners at USFWS on this issue, we hope that we can both protect our endangered seabirds and continue to enjoy some night football games.”
Following are tips for rescuing downed seabirds:
• Keep an old clean towel and a ventilated cardboard box, pet carrier or other non-airtight container in your car.
• Gently pick the bird up from behind with a towel, carefully wrapping the bird completely around its back, wings and head.
• Keep the bird covered and in a quiet, shaded or cool location.
• If possible, take the bird to Kauai Humane Society. If you can’t, drop the bird off at the nearest aid station. Stations are located at Kilauea Medical Group; Hanalei Liquor Store; and the following fire stations: Hanalei (near the Princeville shopping center), Lihue, Kapaa, Kaiakea, Waimea, Hanapepe, Kalaheo and Koloa.
• For assistance in identifying bird species or in bird assistance, call Save our Shearwaters at 635-5117 or the state DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 274-3343.
Jessica Else can be reached at 245-0452 or at jelse@ thegardenisland.com.