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Source: New Zealand Transport Agency

To help protect the endangered Westland petrel/tāiko, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency is trialling turning off highway lighting at night on a short section of State Highway 6 through Punakaiki this summer.

“Streetlights from Waikori Road in the south to Bullock Creek Road on the north side of Punakaiki will be turned off on Sunday, 8 November 2020 and turned back on in the New Year,” says Colin Hey, Senior Network Manager for Waka Kotahi.

Motorists are advised to take extra care on the road at night during this time with cautionary signage being installed on either side of the 3.4 km section of highway affected.

Waka Kotahi has been advised by local people that many residents use torches when walking at night currently, which everyone should do this summer at night in Punakaiki. The footpath is getting a full upgrade next year as part of a new cycling shared path installation.

“This is a great initiative to support the breeding season for these endangered seabirds which are an iconic part of our coastline,” says Buller District Mayor Jamie Cleine.  “Many residents choose to live in and around Punakaiki because of its significant biodiversity and I am sure they will support any initiatives to help protect this. I also recommend following the advice of Waka Kotahi to carry a torch while out walking at night.”

Over the 3.4 km stretch of highway, 15 street lights will be turned off.

The Westland petrel/tāiko fledglings or chicks nest in burrows and can become disoriented from bright lights under their flight paths causing them to crash land,  a phenomena known as fallout.

“The breeding colony is just south of Punakaiki and the breeding season is now underway, with petrel fledglings beginning to fly from early November,” says Mr Hey.

He says not lighting this short stretch of state highway over the peak of summer will be the first trial of this type in New Zealand.

During the breeding season, from April to December, the adults regularly fly in and out but only during the night. Similarly, the fledglings are active on land only at night but take only one flight out to sea and return for the first time after five to seven years.

Bruce Stuart-Menteath who chairs the Westland Petrel Conservation Trust and has worked for many years helping relaunch disoriented birds and protect their habitat, says the lighting switch-off for the petrel flying months is fantastic news.

“There could not be a better outcome for the petrels.  Waka Kotahi should be commended for its efforts to protect the Westland petrel. By doing so it joins a trend around the world to protect wildlife from the effects of excessive artificial light.”

He says that streetlights have been the cause of petrel “fallout” around Punakaiki ever since they were installed along the coastline many years ago. Even though some fledglings are rescued and relaunched, many have died from their crash-landing injuries, or by vehicles hitting them. They can also die from starvation if they do not find a suitable launch site.

The chicks, left alone in their burrows from an early age, will not emerge until they are fully grown and their parents have departed on their summer migration. Photo: Bruce Stuart-Menteath.

Young Westland petrel/tāiko affected by fallout/ disorientation waiting to be relaunched by the Westland Petrel Conservation Trust. Photo: Bruce Stuart-Menteath.

Why now?

Last year Waka Kotahi replaced six streetlights in the Punakaiki village which had badly corroded steel poles and were at risk of blowing down. LED fittings were used on the replacement poles, as is standard practice for all streetlight replacements based on energy efficiency.

“Following the installation, concerns were raised by the Westland Petrel Conservation Trust,” says Mr Hey. “They pointed out that research shows that artificial lighting, and particularly LED lighting, may accentuate the difficulties for the petrels and the fledglings, and may cause more ‘fallout’ or disorientation than the original high-pressure sodium lights.

“We began investigating possible solutions to protect the young birds including changing the bulbs and fitting hoods to the new LED lights. To date no suitable, proven solution with existing street-lights has been found.”

Longer-term, Waka Kotahi will be investigating low-level lighting as part of the SH6 Punakaiki shared path, part of the Dolomite Point Redevelopment Project.

A Westland petrel/tāiko preparing for take-off from the bush towards the Tasman Sea. Photo: Bruce Stuart-Menteath.

“In our discussions with the Westland Petrel Conservation Trust, we have been made very aware that these young birds are easily dazed by bright lights and may crash land on the highway where they are easy prey for predators or can be hit by vehicles.  They are black so blend into the road at night. Typically the petrels – adults and fledglings – are unable take off from level ground so need a raised launch site to get airborne again. We want to increase these birds’ chances of survival this breeding season,” says Mr Hey.

The lights will be turned off on Sunday, 8 November and switched back on again 8 January, subject to checking with DOC and the Westland Petrel Conservation Trust that numbers of fledglings taking off has stopped by then.

The Department of Conservation/ Te Papa Atawhai says that today’s breeding population of about 6,200 pairs is a remnant of what would have originally been many hundreds of thousands. With only one breeding colony in the world, the survival of every fledgling to breeding age is needed for the survival of this species, says DOC.

The main threats the Westland petrel/ tāiko continues to face are incidental bycatch in commercial fishing, introduced mammal predators, illegal releases of feral pigs into the breeding colonies and climate change, which alters prey availability and increases the frequency of severe weather events, which has caused the loss of breeding burrows to landslides in recent years.

Apart from the benefits provided to the petrels by the light switch-off, local residents and visitors to the area will also have the opportunity to see the night sky more clearly during this period.

People are also being encouraged to take care as they walk around the village in the hours of darkness, using their torches to avoid any footpath unevenness.

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