Autumn brings shorter days and seabirds

by Sharon Higa | Nov. 22, 2021

Hawaiian navigators and mariners look to seabirds as the harbingers of weather, schools of fish and land, which is why they remain a valued species in Hawaiian culture. But Hawaii’s seabirds face challenges living in the modern world and that’s why Hawaiian Electric’s Environmental Division leads a dedicated program to minimize the impact of our utility operations on seabirds and all protected species.

Growing up here, I admit the fall season only conjured images of pumpkins, horror movies and candy. Since joining Hawaiian Electric, I’ve learned that October to December is also the seabird fledgling season and it’s why our Environmental Division oversees a voluntary, proactive program to protect seabirds, like the ua u kani or wedge-tailed shearwater, so they can flourish in the wild.

One of the first things the company did was retrofit lighting at our power plants and substations to minimize their brightness in the night skies. That’s because juvenile seabirds can be disoriented by artificial lights on their nocturnal foraging flights to the ocean.

It might seem a simple thing to change a lightbulb but when you’re talking about thousands of lightbulbs across our five-island service territory, my arms feel tired just thinking about it. For some fixtures, light shields were added to direct the light downward.

On Maui, Hawaiian Electric joined with other conservation agencies and organizations to support the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project and has been actively raising awareness about seabird protection across Maui County since 2007.

In addition to funding the design, printing and distribution of the “Save our Seabirds” brochure, Hawaiian Electric also supports their radio ads, theater billboards and educational outreach touting the message.

In 2014, Hawaiian Electric became the first Hawaii member of the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee or APLIC, a national organization that works to protect avian species while ensuring reliable electric service. That same year, we partnered with APLIC, Hawaii Department of Land & Natural Resources and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative to host a workshop in Hawaii for planners, engineers, wildlife and agency personnel to learn about utility best practices to protect native bird species.

That was helpful as our construction projects now include design standards and guidelines for developing bird-friendly lighting and utility structures. Our utility crews also have installed bird diverters on power lines in some areas of Maui and Hawaii Island to help avian wildlife avoid the structures.

Hawaiian Electric’s on-staff wildlife biologist and a team of environmental compliance specialists lead annual training on seabird awareness for employees on the frontline who may encounter downed birds at company facilities or job sites. Employees learn to recognize the different types of seabirds and avian wildlife as well as what to do if they spot an injured or downed bird.

Through our corporate giving program and charitable foundation, Hawaiian Electric has contributed more than $800,000 in grants and donations over the past 14 years to numerous local conservation and environmental groups so they can continue their good work, from rescuing and caring for injured seabirds and wildlife to restoring critical habitats for native bird and wildlife species.

Even though I have a black thumb, I’ve been among the employee volunteers that have helped with planting native trees and shrubs and removing invasive mangrove so that estuaries can remain thriving habitats for seabirds and avian wildlife.

A wedge-tailed shearwater chick in its burrow. Photo by Sean Moura, Hawaiian Electric wildlife biologist.

Some of my lucky colleagues have helped with counting seabird chicks at wildlife refuges on Oahu, and even helped release rehabilitated seabirds at the shoreline. To see the awe on their faces when the bird takes flight, I can tell it’s an emotional experience.

Today, when autumn arrives with shorter days and breezy trade winds, I think of a graceful seabird soaring high in the sky illuminated by a harvest moon and feel grateful that the company I work for is doing its part to help protect Hawaii’s seabirds and wildlife.

Sharon Higa is a senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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