At night, bright lights on the grounds of Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort can confuse endangered Hawaiian petrel chicks embarking on their inaugural flights, causing them to lose track of the moonlight that guides them out to sea. Disoriented by the glare of the light, the birds fall from the sky.

maui locator badgeOnce grounded, these birds are vulnerable to starvation, dehydration and predation from invasive species. Some might die after slamming into utility poles or buildings. Others could become roadkill.

This week a pair of conservation groups announced their intent to sue the 776-room hotel if it fails to take immediate steps to prevent bright lights on its property from injuring and killing endangered seabirds.

Earthjustice, an environmental law group, filed the notice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and the Center for Biological Diversity claiming that the Grand Wailea Resort has been violating the Endangered Species Act for more than a decade.

Conservationists aren’t asking for the resort to go dark, necessarily, but to minimize the impact of its lights on native seabirds.

Conservation groups charged that the Grand Wailea Resort on Maui has been harming endangered Hawaiian petrels for more than a decade by shining bright lights that disorient the birds and can cause them to die. Courtesy: Andre Raine/2021

The burden is on the violator of the Endangered Species Act to propose mitigation measures. These might include dimming outdoor lights, angling the lights in a new direction that helps shield glare or encouraging hotel guests to close their window blinds when they have their room lights on at night. 

The hotel might also pay to fence in a Hawaiian petrel nesting colony to help protect the seabirds from falling prey to predators. Hawaii’s largest petrel breeding colony is located on Haleakala crater. 

A spokesperson from Grand Wailea said in a prepared statement that the resort is committed to protecting native and endangered species and will respond to the notice of intent to “correct any misunderstandings.”

A conservation worker removes a Hawaiian petrel from its nest burrow on a mountain slope. Courtesy: Lindsay Young/Pacific Rim Conservation/2015

Jay Penniman, director of the Maui Nui Seabird Project, said his group rescued 15 downed Hawaiian petrels from the Grand Wailea Resort’s 40-acre property between 1989 and 2020. 

In some cases, he said, disoriented Hawaiian petrels have been found on upper-story hotel room lanais.

At least 52 wedge-tailed shearwaters, a more common native seabird that is not protected by the Endangered Species Act, have also been downed by the hotel’s bright lights during the same period, according to Penniman.

Maxx Phillips, Hawaii director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said it would be an “easy fix” for the resort to make a few changes to ensure they aren’t harming seabirds.

The lighting in question, she said, includes rooftop lights that reflect onto the ocean at night. These lights can district the birds, cause them to repeatedly circle the light source to the point of exhaustion and then fall from the sky.

“The Grand Wailea has documented unauthorized take, which is harming, harassing or killing endangered species, nearly every year since 2008 — so it’s way past time that they address this,” Phillips said. “And we know this documented harm only represents a tip of the iceberg.”

Not every downed seabird is documented. It’s likely some birds fall from the sky and become a meal for feral cats or crawl into a crevice to die without anyone seeing them, Penniman said.

Other hotels across the state have made changes to protect endangered and threatened seabirds.

Mitigation measures implemented by Kauai’s 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (formerly the St. Regis Princeville Resort), for example, include shuttering windows and doors at night during fledgling season, keeping fountain lights off during fledgling season, shielding floodlights and implementing a search-and-rescue plan for downed seabirds, according to Earthjustice.

The problem of artificial light blindsiding seabirds has contributed to the steep decline in the population of endangered Hawaiian petrels.

But no one knows precisely how many of these jeopardized seabirds exist on Maui, nor precisely how fast their populations have declined or if conservation efforts are spiking their numbers, Penniman said.

This is in part due to the fact that the bird nests in lava tubes or narrow rock crevices that shield them from detection, Penniman said.

In June the Maui Nui Seabird Project started a multiyear effort to conduct radar surveys at 15 sites across the island. The goal of the surveys is to document the number of Hawaiian petrel flying landward from the ocean to their high-elevation breeding sites.  

It will take several years of surveys for the group to suss out whether the seabird’s population is trending up, down or stabilizing.

Hawaiian petrel chicks tucked in their nests at Kauai’s Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy: Ann Bell/USFWS/2015

Kauai has been conducting regular radar surveys for years, leading scientists to document a 78% decline in the Garden Isle’s population of Hawaiian petrels since 1990.

“They are a wonderful bird,” Penniman said. “They mate for life and they come back to the same burrow to raise a chick. We have pictures of two birds reestablishing their bond by rubbing their bills back and forth on each other and preening each other.” 

“You really get the sense of commitment that these birds have for each other,” he added. “And it takes both partners to raise a child so if you lose one parent, you also lose the chick.”

The clash between artificial lighting and native seabirds is not just a problem at resorts.

In July, the same conservation groups that announced their intent to sue the Grand Wailea Resort gave a similar warning to Hawaii Department of Transportation after it said the agency failed to address its problematic lighting at state-operated airports and harbors on Maui and Lanai.

Although the risk of bright light disorientation persists year-round, it’s heightened during the Hawaiian petrel’s fledgling season, which starts in early October and ends in late November.

During this critical period, chicks leave their nests for the first time after dark to fly to the ocean, while adult birds must navigate from nest to sea and back again to feed their young.

Once a chick leaves the nest, it won’t return to land for up to six years, when it will navigate back to the same hatching site to breed.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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