High number of Scopoli’s Shearwaters stranded on land; appeal for less light pollution

Scopoli’s Shearwaters
(photo by Ben Metzger)

(A joint press release by BirdLife Malta and the Astronomical Society of Malta’s Light Pollution Awareness Group)

BirdLife Malta has today reported it has been alerted to 11 cases of young Scopoli’s Shearwaters stranded inland by the effects of light pollution over just the past two weeks. The organisation is appealing for the authorities to tackle coastal light pollution and to members of the public to report any such cases.

The Scopoli’s Shearwater, Ċiefa in Maltese, is one of four nesting seabirds in the Maltese Islands. Spending their whole lives at sea and approaching land only at night time, these birds nest in Malta’s remote cliffs away from developed areas. Following their breeding season in summer, young Scopoli’s Shearwaters start venturing out from their cliff nests from late September onto October, relying on the safety of darkness to do so. Very much like marine turtles, young Scopoli’s rely on the natural brightest source of light at night, the horizon, in order to be guided offshore.

Insensitive lighting from coastal development misleads these birds inland, ending up grounded and unable to make it back to the sea. “Light pollution is one of the main threats for Malta’s shearwaters, not only causing these strandings but also the abandonment of entire colonies in the past” said Dr. Benjamin Metzger, Head of Research of the LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project (1). The project has been tracking these birds in order to understand the important areas for them at sea, as well as their migratory routes. Young Scopoli’s Shearwaters leaving their colony for the first time are expected to head to their winter quarters in the Atlantic off the West African coast. BirdLife Malta has been collecting data on stranding cases since the late 70’s, in order to monitor high risk areas for shearwaters, and raise awareness about this issue. A first report published in 2007 with the assistance of the Light Pollution Awareness Group (LPAG) had looked into ways and means of mitigating the problem.

Despite coastal development sites being subjected to permits demanding lighting schemes, the stranding phenomenon appears to be on the increase as a result of yet increasing coastal light pollution, to the detriment of shearwater populations. Commenting on these events, Alexei Pace for the LPAG said, “In the light of these events it is clear that there is a need for development-planning policies to tackle coastal light pollution – especially near shearwater colony sites as it continues to cause strandings year after year. Coastal resorts in all sensitive areas should be encouraged to take a pro-active approach in addressing the issue. Nowadays there is a vast selection of light fittings available which assists in mitigating such problems at no additional costs – if light pollution is tackled during the early stages of a building development.”

BirdLife Malta has appealed to government authorities and local councils to address the problem, while it also asked to members of the public to report any cases of grounded shearwaters they might come across. When found stranded, the majority of these birds can be quickly released back to the wild unscathed. Testimony to this is a ringed Yelkouan Shearwater (Garnija in Maltese) which was found nesting at Il-Majjistral in 2014. The bird was originally reported stranded at Qawra in 2011. “Although these efforts certainly help to save these cases, we need to properly address the cause behind these strandings,” added Dr Metzger.

Scopoli’s Shearwaters are recognised by their grey-brown back, contrasting with a white under side and a large yellow bill. They are normally encountered offshore shearing the surface of waves, or often heard at night with their typical screaming calls at colony sites. Reports of strandings can be addressed to BirdLife Malta on 2134 7644.

The EU Life+ Malta Seabird Project aims to identify Marine Important Bird Areas for the three species of tubenose seabirds breeding in the Maltese Islands. The project is 50% funded by the EU’s LIFE unit, and is a partnership between BirdLife Malta, the RSPB (BirdLife UK), SPEA (BirdLife Portugal) and the Ministry for Sustainable Development, Environment and Climate Change.