“The problem is the birds tend to see the black roads as water and they tend to land there. But as pelagic seabirds, they can’t take off from land, they can only take off from the water,” said Mr Garvey who is a volunteer with the Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES). “When the birds land, they can’t take off and then they get predated on by animals, or they get hit by cars.”
Each year around this time a WIRES teams, working with NSW National Parks, scour the town looking for grounded birds. They also promote the issue and field locals’ drop offs of reduced shearwater.
Jenny Eather works also works on WIRES’ operation to release rescued birds, which are brought back to their island and released from the side facing away from the land and its lights.
“Out of the 500 we rescued last year we just had two or three come back, so we know that we’re doing the right thing,” Ms Eather said.
Fledgling shearwaters need all the help they can get. They emerge starving from their burrows, where they have remained since hatching, because their parents leave them to follow alone on the 7000 kilometre journey to islands off the Philippines.
Before electricity artificially lit the nighttime skies many migratory species evolved to orient their routes against the relative brightness of the ocean’s reflected light and darker horizons over land.
Light pollution is also a problem for the turtle species that inhabit northern coastlines from Western Australia to Queensland, said James Cook University Marine Biology professor Mark Hamman.
Freshly hatched turtles will wander towards the brightest lights on the horizon – which could be a town, tourism development, port, drilling rig or boat ramp. When fledgling turtles wander away from the sea they have a high chance of being picked off by birds and other predators, or wandering all night until they’re stranded in perishing sunshine.
“Even a just general sky glow from town lights can make them wander all over the place,” Prof Hamman said.
In February a United Nations conference on conservation of migratory species endorsed its guidelines that outline the effects of light pollution and ways to mitigate it – such as using yellow instead of white light or employing directional fixtures to limit spread.
“Artificial light is a part of our modern world but light pollution presents many challenges for wildlife including marine turtles, seabirds, migratory shorebirds and even the bogong moths, which in turn sustain mammals like the pygmy possum,” said Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
“The guidelines help identify ways to reduce unnecessary light pollution and include examples like those on Phillip Island where simple modifications to street lights helped short-tailed shearwater fledglings make their first flights.”
The Morrison government’s work to reduce light pollution is “heavily based on the science”, Mr Hamman said.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.